Health PR must adapt to shifting target

Now that obesity rates have stalled, healthcare comms pros need to use new outreach tactics

Here in America, obesity-related communications work is big business. That's because obesity itself is a big problem. Since 1980, obesity rates among US men and women have more than doubled, to roughly a third of the entire population.

But now, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) indicates that the tide may be turning. The latest national obesity study (which is released every two years) shows that the increase in obesity - an ongoing trend for decades - seems to have stalled among women, and possibly among men as well.

The overall obesity rate stands at 34%; however, the rate among women has not increased since 1999, leading CDC epidemiologist Cynthia Ogden to express optimism that the trend may have finally leveled off. Among men in the US, the obesity rate has not increased since 2003.

Untold millions of dollars have been spent in the last three decades on public communications programs targeting the obesity issue in the US, funded by NGOs, the government, and private companies.

Chuck Alexander, a VP with Burness Communications who worked on childhood obesity issues for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, points to the current fitness-promoting "Small Step" campaign from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Ad Council as an example of the myriad ongoing public/ private partnerships on the issue.

That campaign, which is geared to spreading healthy lifestyles through a list of easy-to-use tips, features a strong online communications element and a Web site that includes consumer-friendly information on portion control, healthy eating, and exercise, as well as links to local programs across the US.

Another recently launched campaign targeting childhood obesity, dubbed "We Can!" is a partnership between HHS, the National Institutes of Health, and other government agencies. It pushes its message of "Activity and Nutrition" through an extensive network of NGO, corporate, and community sponsorship outreach, a Web site laden with tips for families and health professionals. The campaign's emphasis on media relations scored significant newspaper and wire coverage with a strong online press room, ANRs, and sponsored research.

Further, the pharmaceutical industry has sunk significant resources into communicating about new obesity-related drugs; but companies in this field face the paradox that the better their offerings work, the fewer customers they will have.

Professional communicators point out that, even if the growth of obesity is stalling, communications around weight and obesity issues is still a big business. "Obesity, and weight loss, and [being] overweight are probably the most widely reported conditions ever," says Helene Ellison, president and CEO of HealthStar PR.

PR pros seeking a clue as to how the future of obesity communications might play out can look to the lessons from another public health issue, Ellison notes.

"The thing that you could potentially benchmark against is smoking control, and how communications helped support fewer and fewer smokers," she says.

HealthStar helped guide the release of alli, GlaxoSmithKline's widely touted over-the-counter weight loss drug, earlier this year. For consumer products like that, even a steady decline in true obesity rates would not have a huge impact, because its target market includes not just the obese, but everyone trying to avoid falling into that category.

"If you think about the numbers of people who are affected by any kind of discussion about obesity or weight loss, it's everyone. The numbers are staggering," Ellison says. "You want to get to [people] when they can still lose weight and not suffer from all the related disease conditions."

Because women's obesity seems to be slowing first, future communications work may need to be directed more towards the lagging men, which would represent a fundamental reversal in the way the issue is currently approached by the PR industry and the media.

"[To] the media, when it comes to weight loss, it's mainly a women's story," Ellison says. "There would be a big difference in targeting men."

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