AUBURN – Health advocates, lawmakers, educators, business representatives and outdoor leaders gathered for a one-day conference in Auburn aimed at reducing youth obesity in Maine.

The 8th annual event was sponsored by the Daniel Hanley Center for Health Leadership, a Maine-based health care leadership group established in 2002.

Conference organizers sought to highlight both the monetary and societal cost of obesity, which has risen exponentially in Americans over the past couple of decades. One in three children in America are overweight or obese, according to a recent study sponsored by Growing Up Healthy, from the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation.

“These issues of overweight and obesity and the diseases that will result will kill far more of (our children) than the wars of the last decade and are really the greatest threat to them,” said Dr. Erik Steele, chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and co-chair of the Maine Governor’s Council on Physical Activity.

“The fear that we ought to have ultimately shouldn’t be al Qaeda and the Taliban, it needs to be overeating and under activity; they are much more subtle and much more deadly to our children,” he said.

Youth obesity leads to costs for their future employers, conference organizers said. According to a survey of 17 Maine employers, 31 percent of workers were obese and 31 percent were overweight, compared with 38 percent being healthy, using the body mass index as a measure. The total costs associated with overweight and obese employees in 2010 was $6.1 million — $3.8 million in health related costs and $2.3 million in lost-work time costs — according to the research. By 2018, the total related costs are expected to be more than $10 million.

During a series of roundtable discussions, conferees came up with ideas trying to address hurdles such as establishing effective obesity-curbing programs and finding funding for them.

Common themes that emerged were developing a central database for studies and information relating to the issue, increasing community engagement and raising the overall profile of childhood obesity as a legitimate health risk and cost.

Lawmakers who participated in a panel discussion said grassroots support for specific initiatives would aid advocates’ efforts to enact legislation aimed at curbing youth obesity.

“It’s clear that there’s a problem here,” said state Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick. “Obviously there are a number of solutions, but I don’t think they are easy solutions. The one thing I think is most important, frankly, is to get public support for these changes, whatever these changes are going to be.”

State Rep. Pat Flood, R-Winthrop, said Maine lawmakers generally listen very carefully to farmers and doctors.

“If you’re very focused and very specific on the activities that you’re encouraging us to do, that’s very helpful to us,” he said.

Healthy Policy Partners of Maine, a coalition of organizations and individuals that advocates for improved health in Mainers, presented conference attendees with their top three policy initiatives for the next Maine Legislature. Their goals are to increase the amount of physical education available to children in school, improve the nutrition standards for all foods available in schools and adding physical activity and nutrition standards to licensing and certification standards for child care facilities.

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