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Puerto Rico considers bill to punish parents of obese kids

While the U.S. may be leading the pack in childhood obesity, we’re hardly alone. Case in point, Puerto Rico: While 18% of children in the U.S. are estimated to be obese, Puerto Rico clocks in at 30%. That’s why lawmakers are considering a controversial bill that would fine parents if their children fail to meet certain BMI standards.

Senate Bill 865 intends to create the “Healthy Child Program,” which would be administered by the department of education. School personnel would first identify obese children and refer them to Puerto Rico’s health department, where analysis would be conducted to determine the severity, cause and treatment for the child’s condition. Some children may require fewer calories, a change in dietary composition, more physical activity or a combination.

The controversial part of the bill comes six months later, when followup examinations are administered. Should the child’s condition not show sufficient signs of improvement, the government could levy fines on the parents of up to $500 USD. Failure to improve six months after that could see additional fines of up to $800.

While certainly a novel approach to the considerable public health costs of childhood obesity, the bill has received plenty of criticism.

For starters, the roots of obesity aren’t always apparent. While the basic understanding is that weight is gained via creating a caloric surplus, genetic factors beyond anyone’s control can also contribute. The concern, then, is whether it’s ethical to fine parents for obesity factors they cannot hope to abate.

While it’s accepted that the state may intervene in cases of child abuse or negligence, others call into question the idea of ruling a parent negligent for merely allowing their child to be obese. While obesity is associated with myriad health problems, it’s rarely a hazard in and of itself to young children.

Other countries have taken less punitive approaches to curbing obesity, including taxes on sugary and fatty foods and beverages. In some cases (Mexico) it works, in some cases it doesn’t. Still, even with Puerto Rico’s critical childhood obesity problem, experts recommend a gentler approach.

“Invest in physical activity, workshops outside school hours, safe parks where parents feel comfortable taking their children. Punish parents solves nothing. It is nonsense, “said Dr. Ricardo Fontanet, president of a local chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.