NEW YORK -- Cable television station HBO has once again partnered with federal officials to raise awareness of a major public health crisis through a documentary series -- this time, obesity.
The aim of the series, titled "Weight of the Nation", is to make it "the largest public health campaign on obesity that we've ever had," John Hoffman, executive producer, told MedPage Today.
Given that two-thirds of adults and a third of children are obese or overweight and racking up about $150 billion a year in related health costs, it is "time to sound the alarm" on the issue in a big way, he added.
For its first two public health series -- one on addiction, the other on Alzheimer's -- HBO worked closely with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but for "Weight of the Nation" it's also collaborating with the Institute of Medicine, the CDC, Kaiser Permanente, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
"These institutions have never come together to work on one project," Hoffman said.
The four-part series has been 3 years in the making, and HBO premiered the fourth and final hour-long episode, titled "Challenges," at its inhouse theatre in Manhattan Tuesday night.
Several of the film's all-star cast members (rock stars in the fields of public health and obesity, at least) attended, including New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, MD, MPH; Kelly Brownell, PhD, leader of Yale University's Rudd Center on Food Policy & Obesity; and Columbia University obesity researcher Rudolph Leibel, MD.
Other obesity and public health heavy hitters featured in the film include NIH director Francis Collins, MD; CDC chief Thomas Frieden, MD; Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse; David Nathan, MD, of Harvard; and Barry Popkin, PhD, of the University of North Carolina.
HBO is uniquely positioned to tell the story because its revenue is subscriber-driven and so the station, unlike broadcast media, isn't beholden to advertisers, Hoffman said.
Indeed, "Challenges" -- which focuses on the driving forces of the epidemic, including evolutionary biology, physical inactivity, and socioeconomic disparities -- presented a scathing indictment of the aggressive marketing of junk food, replete with montages of flashy logos and endless supermarket aisle mosaics of chips and sodas.
It also lays King-Corn-style blame on antiquated federal subsidies that promote the growth of corn and soybeans, two crops that serve as the basis for processed foods like high-fructose corn syrup. Those subsidies make it less profitable to grow other nutritious fruit and vegetable crops, leading to high prices that are especially cost-prohibitive in disadvantaged communities.
The New York City Health Department promoted its latest initiative to bring healthy foods to poorer neighborhoods, sending guests home with a canvas shopping bag full of produce from a "Green Cart" parked in the HBO foyer. Vendors who operate these carts can only sell fresh fruits and vegetables from them.
The films, which also will be available free online, are just one component of a far-reaching public health campaign that also includes 12 short films, a book co-written by Hoffman and the Institute of Medicine's Judith Salerno, MD, and screening kits that will be sent to 40,000 schools, libraries, unions, and other community-based organizations.
The short films drill down into related subjects such as the link between obesity and diabetes, workplace wellness programs, and the biology of weight loss.
The all-encompassing multimedia approach is similar to that used in the station's Alzheimer's project, which was co-produced by Maria Shriver.
"Weight of the Nation" debuts on HBO May 14 at 8 p.m. with the episodes "Consequences" and "Choices," followed by the final two parts, "Children in Crisis" and "Challenges," on May 15 at 8 p.m.