Gibbs Discusses President Obama’s Higher ‘Bad’ Cholesterol Level, Continued Struggles With Smoking

Mar 1, 2010 4:03pm

Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report:

With the president’s first official physical as president indicating that he’s in excellent health, but has a slightly elevated cholesterol level and continues to battle his smoking addiction, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs today talked at length about the president’s struggles with pie and nicotine.

“The president understands that his health is… more than just something that should be of concern to him and those that know and love him,” Gibbs said, “but that his health is important based on the responsibility that the American people gave them in the election.”

The routine exam at the National Naval Medical Center concluded that the 48-year-old president is "fit for duty” and in "excellent health,” though Chief White House physician and director of the White House Medical Unit Capt. Jeffrey Kuhlman recommended that the president continue his "smoking cessation efforts” through "nicotine replacement therapy,” and change his diet so as to lower his LDL (so-called “bad cholesterol”) which registered at 138 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dl).

The American Heart Association rates an LDL level of 130 to 159 mg/dl as “Borderline High.”
That level marks an increase from two years ago. In 2008, a letter from the then-Senator’s personal physician, Dr. David L. Schneider, reported that in 2007 the president’s LDL level was 96 mg/dl.

Many current guidelines suggest that any patient whose LDL is above 100 mg/dl be prescribed a cholesterol-lowering statin, but two recent studies indicate that number be too high.

“The bad cholesterol measure was slightly elevated from where it had been previously,” Gibbs acknowledged. “Obviously, he's a few years older from when it was last measured.”

Gibbs acknowledged that the 2008 campaign diet had had an impact. “Candidly, if you asked him, the diet of, first and foremost, a campaign is not as conducive” to a clean bill of health, Gibbs said.

Then there is the matter of having the White House kitchen at his beck and call.

“I think he would be also the first to tell you that he has probably had a few more cheeseburgers, and I think he would admittedly tell you he's had more desserts in the last — in the last year than I've — I've seen him eat prior to this,” Gibbs said. “Most people will tell you that, if it's available… you're more likely to eat it.  And I think he's had more access to sweets and desserts in the past year than he — look, those guys make good desserts over there.  And I think he's on more than one occasion sampled more than he needed to.”

“The good news is the — the number is only slightly above where the doctor would like to see it,” Gibbs said.

On Marine One, on the way back from the National Naval Medical Center, the president said, "Look, I just have to say no to dessert more often,” Gibbs recalled.

Gibbs said he joked with Capt. Kuhlman about this, “that all you guys think he eats carrots and celery, and there's more cheeseburgers, fries, and pie than you previously knew.”

But the press secretary also suggested the media was making too much of the president’s increased LDL levels.

“You guys thought he, like, carried arugula in his pocket to snack on and now  all of a sudden he's breaking into my office looking for quarters for the vending machine,” Gibbs joked.

“He’s just got to use a little bit more presidential restraint,” Gibbs said.

Last July, the president told the Associated Press that the White House pastry chef makes "the best pie I have ever tasted, and that has caused big problems with Michelle and I… Whatever pie you like, he will make it and it will be the best pie you have ever eaten. And so, we are having to figure out how to resist ordering pie every night."

The president’s obsession with pie – or at least with saying “pie” in speeches – was well chronicled during his presidential campaign.

As for the president’s cigarette habit, Gibbs said, “the president continues to chew nicotine gum.”

Gibbs referred reporters to comments the president made in June 2009, when he said “as a former smoker, I constantly struggle with it.  Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes?  Yes.  Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker?   No.  I don't do it in front of my kids, I don't do it in front of my family, and I would say that I am 95 percent cured, but there are times… where I mess up.”

The president said “like folks who go to AA, once you've gone down this path, then it's something you continually struggle with.”

That same month, at the signing of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the president talked about cigarette advertising aimed at kids.

“I was one of these teenagers, and so I know how difficult it can be to break this habit when it's been with you for a long time,” the president said. “And I also know that kids today don't just start smoking for no reason. They're aggressively targeted as customers by the tobacco industry. They're exposed to a constant and insidious barrage of advertising where they live, where they learn, and where they play. Most insidiously, they are offered products with flavorings that mask the taste of tobacco and make it even more tempting.”

Today Gibbs was asked if it’s tougher for the president to refrain from smoking “because this is probably the most stressful year he's ever had?”

“Yes,” Gibbs said, “I mean, I can't imagine that that helps.”

The press secretary said he “understands that…what he struggles with is not a good thing for his children to see or for anybody to see… I don't doubt that he would tell you that he wishes once and for all he could wipe away that struggle.”

Gibbs said he estimated the president is still “95 percent cured,” as he said last June. He claimed he didn’t know where the president smoked or from whence the cigarettes came.

Before he entered the presidential race in 2007, Michelle Obama made then-Sen. Obama promise to quit smoking if he wanted her permission to run for president.

On 60 Minutes in February 2007, the now-First Lady said of her husband’s smoking habit, “I hate it. That's why he doesn't do it anymore. I'm proud to say. I outed him — I'm the one who outed him on the smoking. That was one of my prerequisites for, you know, entering this race, is that, you know, he couldn't be a smoking president."

– Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller

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