Experts 'Appalled' by Puerto Rican Bill to Fine Parents of Obese Children

PHOTO: Obesity researchers say a Puerto Rican bill that would fine parents of obese children up to $800 is "unbelievable" and "unfair."Getty Images
Obesity researchers say a Puerto Rican bill that would fine parents of obese children up to $800 is "unbelievable" and "unfair."

Obesity researchers say a Puerto Rican bill that would fine parents of obese children up to $800 is "unbelievable" and "unfair."

Puerto Rican Sen. Gilberto Rodriguez filed a bill in an attempt to curb obesity in Puerto Rico by having schools find children who are obese and then refer them to health department advisers to determine the cause of obesity, formulate a diet and exercise plan and follow up every four weeks.

If the "situation" persists six months, parents can be fined up to $500, according to the bill, and if a third progress report six months later still shows no significant weight loss, the parents can be fined up to $800.

"What's next? Will they be fining parents of children suffering from other diseases? Maybe diabetes? Maybe cancer? Maybe something else?" said Nikhil Dhurandhar, who chairs the department of nutritional sciences at Texas Tech University.

Rodriguez's bill assumes that people who are obese can chose not to be, but it's not that simple, Dhurandhar said.

Dhurandhar's own research has shown obesity can be caused by a multitude of factors, including the environment in a mother's womb, too much or too little sleep and chemicals in the environment. There's more to losing weight than eating less and moving more, he said.

"This proposal is very unfair and inappropriately penalizes and stigmatizes parents," said Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. "Childhood obesity is a highly complex issue, and while the home environment is important to address, much broader societal changes are required to effectively address obesity."

Policies that support parents are much more helpful than policies that penalize them, she said. Improving access to opportunities for physical activity and providing incentives toward buying healthier food, for example, have already proven effective in cities like Philadelphia, Puhl said.

The fines this senator has proposed "drastically oversimplify obesity and are more likely to be harmful than incur any benefit," she said.