(March 15) Prompted by a sharp increase in the number of deaths caused by poor diets and lack of exercise, the Department of Health of Human Services has launched an education campaign in the battle against obesity.

The advertising campaign, which was announced March 9 by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and started the same day, focuses on instructing the citizenry to eat more healthfully — which includes snacking on fruits and vegetables — and to crawl off the couch and be active.

It’s about time. For years, the health community and the government have known that obesity’s toll in the U.S. numbers in the hundreds of thousands annually. In 2000, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the cost at 400,000 lives. Deaths of overweight and obese Americans soon may overtake those of smokers, thus becoming the leading category of preventable deaths.

The campaign features a series of television public service announcements developed in cooperation with the Ad Council and the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association. Advertisements also have been developed for newspapers, magazines and radio stations. The ads, of course, are run at the whim of the stations or publications, which receive no money for the announcements.

That has some produce industry leaders worried. Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation, for one, insists that the government will have to spend more money on nutrition education to improve the nation’s health.

She’s right.

But in the political and economic environment of 2004, that’s not going to happen. Eventually, however, the U.S. has no choice. The government will have to fight obesity with the same vigor it has used in the war on smoking. And, like the antismoking battle, it will take time.

Others have criticized the campaign for failing to take a tougher stance against sugar-laden snacks and soft drinks. That criticism also seems justified.

But, as Thompson said in unveiling the education program, “Each small step does make a difference, whether it’s taking the stairs instead of an elevator or snacking on fruits and vegetables.”

This program is definitely a step in the right direction.