Obesity is one of the top causes of preventable death in the US, and obesity-related diseases are putting enormous pressure on the cost of healthcare.
Even more alarming for the insurance industry is that the epidemic shows no sign of slowing down; nearly 30% of elementary school children (ages 6 to 11) are at risk for becoming or are already overweight.
Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of New Jersey, the state's largest health insurer, hoped to turn around this dismal statistic and promote healthy eating habits among children. It also needed to raise awareness among adults, particularly school administrators, to broaden the reach of the educational program across the state.
Horizon BCBS designed "Shape It Up!" as an interactive program that would be conducted by post-graduate students at the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy at Rutgers.
The pharmacists led students from participating schools in a number of exercises, such as filling an eight-ounce cup of water with sugar (roughly the amount of sugar in a can of soda) and asking whether they wanted to drink it (they didn't).
The young students also witnessed what happened when they tried to pour Kool-Aid (representing blood) into plastic tubes (arteries) filled with fat.
Balls were used to demonstrate portion sizes, and fruit was given out as rewards.
"We wanted to get the message out that it was important to intervene early," says Tom Rubino, director of public affairs at Horizon BCBS. "Childhood obesity is a national epidemic. We wanted to do something proactive [by] going into schools."
For the 2005-06 school year, Horizon BCBS wanted to double the number of participants. It kicked off "Shape It Up!" with a wellness day, inviting students to minor league baseball stadiums for a day of activities that reinforced nutrition messages.
On the PR side, Horizon BCBS worked with agency of record Winning Strategies on a media relations campaign that would both launch the program and maintain momentum.
The PR team initiated the program with a press conference and obesity intervention workshops in the West Dover Elementary School's cafeteria and gym. Speakers included representatives from the New Jersey Department of Education, Rutgers, Horizon BCBS, and corporate sponsor Sanofi-Aventis.
Following the launch, reporters near host schools received targeted media advisories.
"Each week there were three or four PR opportunities," recalls Laura Febbi, SAE at Winning Strategies. "Our part was also to educate reporters. They kept saying, 'This is great, but why is Horizon doing this?'" That skepticism, however, was a chance to provide statistics on how obesity contributes to rising health costs.
As of September, Febbi notes, almost every daily paper and a number of local broadcast channels in New Jersey covered the story. In September, Horizon BCBS also surveyed some of the more than 50,000 students who participated in the program, says Rubino. Initial results showed that, after the program, 85% of participants understood that chips and candy are not nutritious, 93% knew that fatty foods clog arteries, and 80% remembered the sugar content of soda.
"A lot of schools have taken out the unhealthy machines - the soda and snack machines," he says. "We've made a dent in childhood obesity in the state."
The publicity also has created demand outside the school system; Rubino has gotten e-mails from churches and other groups asking to host the program.
Horizon BCBS and Winning Strategies are continuing to bring the program across New Jersey this school year.
PR team: Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey and Winning Strategies (both Newark, NJ)
Campaign: Shape It Up!
Time frame: 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years
Budget: $15,000 per school year