Obesity has been officially classified as a disease, which was no surprise to Catherine Templeton, director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The American Medical Association’s decision puts it in line with other medical societies.

Templeton will appear on ETV’s “The Big Picture” at noon today to talk about the issue.

It’s well-documented that Templeton has made fighting obesity her main priority.

Folks might have thought this was an odd goal for a department that’s more familiar for, say, TB testing or permitting and licensing. But as Templeton has said, it’s the one thing that affects nearly all other health initiatives.

South Carolina ranks eighth in the nation for obesity. Two-thirds of the state’s population is either overweight or obese. And we’re not alone among our Southern neighbors: Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi all have obesity rates of 30 percent or more. If left unchecked, we’re on pace to move up to fifth in the nation by 2030. Obesity is a direct path to diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

As Templeton pointed out, fixing the obesity problem is something folks on both sides of the aisle should be able to support.

Saving money, saving lives

Fiscal conservatives should be pleased that Templeton hasn’t asked for new funds for the cause, but has worked to redirect funding and programming to where it’s most effective.

If we reduce obesity by 5 percent by 2030, DHEC estimates we can save $9 billion in state taxpayer money that would have been spent to treat it and the corresponding diseases.

And with the reduced disease risk comes increased quality of life. If we can reduce obesity, we can improve the lives of people at all socioeconomic levels. That’s Templeton’s take, anyway.

As Templeton tells host Christy Cox in the ETV interview, the best way to establish good habits is to start young. She compared it to the relatively more militant instructions her own kids have been given about recycling — if they see her throw anything in the trash that could possibly recycled, Templeton gets an earful.

Good-for-you food

If the same determination and focus were to be applied to teaching nutritional guidelines, think about what could be accomplished.

And that’s what the USDA is doing with its goal of removing sugary drinks and salty, sugary and fatty snacks from school vending machines and other points of sale by August 2014. Some districts are already moving toward that goal in the Lowcountry and throughout the state and nation. It will be an adjustment, but one that will have long-term benefits.

Challenges remain for children and adults. As Templeton notes, it’s great to have a recreational area, for example, but if people don’t feel it’s safe to go there, it won’t get used, so creating a healthy community requires input from police. If you don’t get buy-in from community leaders, the kind who usually don’t have a title in front of their names, you won’t get very far either, she said.

It’s a community problem and it requires a community effort.

Reach Melanie Balog at mbalog@postandcourier.com or 937-5565.