Local governments can do more to help prevent childhood obesity, according to a report from the Washington-based National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine (NAS IM). The report, "Local Government Actions to Prevent Childhood Obesity," includes specific examples of how local officials across the nation have taken steps to reduce childhood obesity rates.

Zoning restrictions on fast-food restaurants near schools and playgrounds, community policing to improve safety around public recreational sites, limiting video game and TV time at publicly run after-school programs, and taxing high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and drinks are some of the strategies local governments can use to combat the problem, according to the report. Those actions could help create environments that make it easier for children to eat healthier diets and move more, said the committee of health experts that wrote the report.

"The healthy choice must be the easy choice," said committee Chairman Eduardo Sanchez, vice president and chief medical officer for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. "Although leisure activities and food consumption are personal matters, local environments influence the choices people make. It's hard to eat fruit instead of chips or cookies when neighborhood stores carry little fresh produce, or to bike to school on busy roads with no bike lanes. Local officials can make a dent in the obesity epidemic, as demonstrated by the examples we highlighted in this report."

The increase in childhood obesity and the costs associated with obesity underscore the urgency for prevention efforts at the community level, according to the report. Over the past 35 years, the percentage of American adolescents who are obese has tripled, rising from 5 percent to almost 18 percent. A report published in Health Affairs in July estimated that obesity tallied $147 billion in medical costs in 2008.

Purchase the entire NAS IM report.