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Hospital’s obesity billboards stir debate

Updated: December 5, 2011 5:14PM

HOBART — A Northwest Indiana hospital that erected billboards with the message “Obesity is a disease. Not a decision” is facing a backlash from people offended by the signs’ suggestion that obesity isn’t a lifestyle choice.

The staff for St. Mary Medical Center’s Healthy 4 Life weight-loss program expected that some people would disagree with the signs that started going up in July in Lake and Porter counties.

But director of bariatric services Lorri Field said no one expected the angry phone calls or emails from people saying they were offended by the signs’ message about obesity’s root cause.

“I didn’t expect such an ugly debate. It’s almost like an ugly tone,” she said.

The billboards are part of Healthy 4 Life’s marketing campaign for the Hobart hospital’s weight-loss programs. They feature the image of a scale in addition to the “Obesity is a disease” message.

Winfield resident September Vawter lashed out at the weight-loss program’s message in an e-mail she sent to the hospital. She feels strongly that obesity is the result of lifestyle choices.

“There is no disease that causes your body to drive to McDonald’s to go get some fries. There is no disease that makes your hands unwrap a candy bar. It’s all habits,” her e-mail said.

St. Mary Medical Center spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said the hospital has three- and six-month contracts for the billboards.

Despite the backlash, she said the hospital has no plans to take them down early.

The backlash wasn’t a surprise to Dr. Paul Stanish, a bariatric surgeon and medical director of Healthy 4 Life, but he said it was disappointing and that discrimination against the overweight or obese appears to be one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination.

He said the reasons why a person gains and carries weight involve more than just eating. Sleep, stress, access to healthful food, a decrease in movement due to technology, people’s genes and even what a mother eats when she’s pregnant all impact weight of adults, Stanish said.

Many Americans make poor food choices and are physically inactive, and those choices don’t apply only to obese people, said Kathleen Kleefisch, director of the Family Nurse Practitioner at the Purdue University Calumet School of Nursing.

Kleefisch, who’s an assistant professor, said personal choice is a factor in obesity — but isn’t the only factor.

“Thin people make the same unhealthy choices, but they wear their unhealthy decisions on the inside,” she said. “Obese people wear their unhealthy choices on the outside — on their hips, thighs and abdomen — where it is so easily judged.”

The World Health Organization considers obesity a disease, as does the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 34 percent of U.S. adults are currently considered obese.

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