Arkansas' Experience

Parents, clinicians, public health officials and policy-makers need readily available information on the extent of the childhood obesity epidemic. As in any epidemic, the strategies and tools used to combat the imminent threat are frequently based on scientific rationale and experience, but applied in areas in which complete understanding is lacking. The urgent need for information requires execution of decisions that are not risk-free—such is the case of body mass index (BMI) screening obesity. Use of BMI percentiles to classify weight status among youth, and quantify the epidemic can inform and engage parents and other key stakeholders.

Arkansas has completed its sixth year of BMI screenings for public school students. Through a groundbreaking legislative mandate that requires BMI assessments in public schools, the state has achieved both enhanced awareness among parents and their children, and increased engagement by school, clinical, public health and community leaders in response to the epidemic. External evaluations conducted since institution of BMI assessments have revealed none of the initially feared negative consequences of BMI measurements such as teasing, use of diet pills or excessive concerns about weight.

In the face of this epidemic, the risks of using BMI assessments in clinical or school-based settings must be recognized but can be managed. Arkansas' Act 1220 and BMI-reporting efforts have not only afforded parents detailed information about their children's health, but also provided longitudinal data needed to fully understand the scope of childhood and adolescent obesity in the state and to track progress made in combating this epidemic.