Puerto Rico has an obesity crisis. It has higher incidence of childhood obesity compared with mainland United States. In a bid to address this problem, Puerto Rican lawmakers mull on a controversial bill that seeks to punish the parents of obese children.
The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Gilberto Rodríguez and introduced to the territory's senate on Monday, Feb. 9, will fine parents of obese children and may even accuse them of abuse if the physical condition of their children does not improve.
It will have schools identify obese children and refer them to health department advisers to find out the cause of their condition as well as come up and recommend a diet and exercise plan. The child will be followed up every four weeks.
If the child's condition does not improve after six months, the parents can be fined $500. The fine can also go up to as much as $800 if the third progress report taken after another six months indicates that the child still has not shown significant weight loss.
The aggressive yet controversial proposal is in response to the relatively high obesity rate in Puerto Rico. Almost 30 percent of the children on the island are considered obese. The rate in mainland U.S, on the other hand, is 18 percent.
Many health experts, however, are opposed to the bill, which will be debated in a public hearing on Feb. 13. Nikhil Dhurandhar, from Texas Tech University's department of nutritional sciences said that the bill assumes that obese people have the option not to be obese but this isn't always the case.
Dhurandhar's research shows that the condition can be attributed to a number of factors such as the environment in the mother's womb, chemicals found in the environment and having either too much or too little sleep. He also said that there is more to eating less and engaging in more movement when it comes to losing weight.
Other health experts are also concerned that the bill will bring complication because obesity in some children can be blamed on genetic factors and medical issues.
"This is not abuse. It's a disease," said nutritionist Milly García. "It would mean entering into a private area where the government does not belong. Obesity is the result of many factors and what we need to do is find solutions."
Rebecca Puhl, from the University of Connecticut said that policies that would support parents with obese children are more helpful compared with policies that penalize them.