The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services says it wants more firms to join a national cooperative effort to increase awareness of the problem of obesity and help individuals access healthy foods and opportunities for healthy physical activity. This comes after a study revealed that poor diet and physical inactivity may soon become the number one preventable cause of death.

"Americans need to understand that overweight and obesity are literally killing us," says HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. "To know that poor eating habits and inactivity are on the verge of surpassing tobacco use as the leading cause of preventable death in America should motivate all Americans to take action to protect their health. We need to tackle America's weight issues as aggressively as we are addressing smoking and tobacco."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 400,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2000 (17 percent of all deaths) were related to poor diet and physical inactivity. Only tobacco use caused more deaths (435,000). And while most of the major preventable causes of death showed declines or little change since 1990, deaths due to poor diet and physical inactivity increased 33 percent.

For obesity and overweight problems, the total direct and indirect costs, including medical costs and lost productivity, were estimated at $117 billion nationally for 2000, according to the 2001 Surgeon General's Call to Action on Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity.

To coincide with the release of the study, HHS announced a new national education campaign and a new research strategy at the Institutes of Health (NIH). Thompson says the new HHS and Ad Council advertising campaign educates Americans that they can take small, achievable steps to improve their health and reverse the obesity epidemic.