Half-a-Billion Dollars to Beat Obesity

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Adding to the problem, Jeffrey says, is the challenge of getting the food industry onboard. Because of the effects that food marketing and advertising have on children, he says, the sector's participation may make or break efforts.

"If we are going to do this right, we need to get into some very murky and heavily political issues," he says.

Still, there are large-scale success stories to be seen. In the four years since launching a statewide obesity initiative, Arkansas has put the brakes on skyrocketing childhood obesity rates.

Initiatives like these, says Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Joe Thompson, are critical in saving a generation from a host of obesity-related health effects.

"When we look at the adult diseases that are starting to occur in children, we cannot afford not to take action," he says.

Consequences of Inaction

Other states may be wise to follow Arkansas' lead -- and quickly. Jeffrey says that if the trend is not reversed, dire health impacts on society await.

"There are some people who believe that we might actually see a decrease in life expectancy," he says.

But in addition to a widespread increased risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer, the nation may also face a huge economic toll. Already, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that the obesity epidemic costs the country $117 billion a year in direct health care costs and lost productivity.

Childhood obesity alone accounts for $14 billion of this toll, primarily in the form of direct health care costs to treat kids.

"I am not sure our health care system can bear the cost of this," Ayoob says. "We are going to be spending more and more time with chronic diseases decades before we expected to see them."

Marks agrees. "We cannot afford the health consequences right now, much less down the line," he says.

"This is the most serious health problem facing our children. It is nothing more or less than that."

ABC News correspondent Kate Snow contributed to this report.

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