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Surgeon general to cops: Put down the donuts

Public health leader warns police, firefighters about obesity

Surgeon general Richard Carmona called obesity
Surgeon general Richard Carmona called obesity "the terror within, a threat that is every bit as real to America as the weapons of mass destruction."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Memo from U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona to the nation's cops: lay off the donuts. That goes for firefighters, as well, Carmona said Friday.

In remarks to the National Sheriff's Association, Carmona said that "being overweight or obese directly impacts job performance when you're trying to defend the public safety. Remember, when you are called upon, you [must] be ready to back up your partner or a citizen. To me, failing at this calling when challenged would be a fate worse than death."

Carmona was both a full-time police officer and a trauma surgeon before being tapped by President Bush to become surgeon general. He lamented the decision a few years ago by many public safety departments to abandon minimum physical fitness standards because of liability issues.

"After we got rid of the physical standards," Carmona said, "It was problematic for most of us because I saw many of my peers who didn't do the exercise that they needed to. They didn't stay in physical condition to be out on the streets. And the risk that you entertain is not only for yourself and being not prepared to respond to that worst-case scenario call, but also the potential harm that you put your fellow officers [in] because you're not physically able to respond appropriately."

Physical conditioning is crucial in public safety jobs because physical and emotional stress is unavoidable, Carmona said.

"Medical research shows that stress actually changes the nervous system and hormones in ways that encourage fat accumulation around the waist," Carmona said. "This type of fat has been linked to increased rates of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. National Fire Protection data shows that heart attacks caused by overexertion or stress caused 40 percent of all firefighters deaths in 2001. This is the number one cause of line of duty deaths for firefighters."

The 2001 figures are particularly striking in light of the hundreds of firefighters lost at the World Trade Center on September 11 of that year.

Another reason for overweight cops to get in better shape is their position as role models in the community, Carmona said -- "The uniform says you're a leader."

"When you look at obesity, what I call the terror within, a threat that is every bit as real to America as the weapons of mass destruction, obesity as an epidemic is ... growing. If we don't do anything about it, we will have a morbidly obese, dysfunctional population that we cannot afford to care for because obesity leads to diabetes, cancer, hypertension, [and] other cardiovascular diseases," Carmona said.

CNN Producer Brad Wright contributed to this report

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