Foundation expands focus to include childhood obesity

The organization that helped cut Virginia’s youth smoking rate almost in half hopes to duplicate that success by getting kids to kidschoose apples and playing outdoors over potato chips and watching television.

The Virginia Tobacco Settlement Foundation last year took on an added mission and a new name — the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth.

“The General Assembly gave us the responsibility for childhood obesity because of our success in reaching young people with prevention messages and education,” said Marty Kilgore, the foundation’s executive director.

“We can easily add on a component of eating healthy, making sure you are physically fit,” Kilgore said.

The Virginia Tobacco Settlement Foundation was created in 1999 by the General Assembly and is funded with money from Virginia’s share of a multistate master settlement with large tobacco companies.

Virginia’s smoking rate among high school students dropped from 28.6 percent in 2001 to 15.5 percent in 2007, according to the foundation’s Virginia Youth Tobacco Survey. Nationally in 2007, about 20 percent of high school students smoked.

The foundation is planning a May 17-18 summit in the Richmond area on preventing childhood obesity to bring together partners and others.

At the meeting, the organizers will release results of a telephone survey of 2,400 school-age children statewide that provides baseline data on child obesity prevalence, physical activity levels, dietary habits, and TV and gaming screen time.

Existing estimates suggest about 31 percent of Virginians age 10 to 17 are overweight or obese.

Strategies that the foundation has used to reduce youth smoking include multimedia marketing campaigns and funding research to find the best prevention methods. In addition, the foundation funds community-based prevention programs and enforcement of laws against youth tobacco purchases.

Some of those strategies could be used in dealing with childhood obesity.

The foundation also is soliciting proposals for one-year grants worth up to $75,000 for youth smoking prevention projects that may include an obesity prevention component. Any community organization can apply, Kilgore said.

A total of $1.2 million is available.

One foundation-supported study offers a glimpse in how dual health promotion messages — smoking prevention and eating healthier — could be integrated into a single initiative.

Steven J. Danish, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of psychology, and his team’s research looked at the effect of an intervention program on smoking prevention and getting middle school children to eat five fruits and vegetables a day.

In the project, trained high school students taught eight workshops. Six rural schools received the intervention while six other rural schools didn’t.

“With kids who are in the sixth and seventh grade, the smoking numbers are so small, it’s hard to make a difference,” Danish said. “We did see changes in the five-a-day. They knew what to do. There were changes. They did not last as long as we would have liked.”

Danish said it may be difficult to change children’s eating behaviors because they don’t always decide what’s available to eat at home or school. Parents and other adults do.

Preliminary data from the research suggest that having friends and family who ate five fruits and vegetables a day increased students’ confidence in their ability to do the same.

The data are being further analyzed to look for relationships between fruit and vegetable intake and television watching, Internet usage and dinner with family, Danish said.

“I think the way to success at this is really in small incremental steps. .. What is the smallest behavior you can change? I don’t know that we do that enough with kids.”

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