updated 3/24/2004 6:02:32 PM ET 2004-03-24T23:02:32

An obesity epidemic threatens to wipe out other improvements in children’s health and safety over the past three decades, a new report says.

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“Childhood obesity has risen to a point that it can be considered a modern day epidemic,” said the report by Duke University researchers released Wednesday.

About 15.6 percent of American children between 12 and 19 were obese in 2002, up from 6.1 percent in 1974, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report also looked at children’s well-being in several other categories, including violent crime and illegal drug use. It was commissioned by the Foundation for Child Development, which backs increased support for children.

The report noted that 44.4 of every 1,000 people between the ages of 12 and 15 were likely to be victims of violent crime in 2002, down from 77.5 per 1,000 in 1974, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And 39.3 percent of 12th graders in 2003 told University of Michigan researchers that they used illegal drugs in the past year, down from 53.8 percent in 1978.

“Overall, children and youths are faring better today than ever before,” the report said.

One of the report authors, Duke University sociologist Kenneth Land, said children should be faring even better.

“Kids are doing better, but they are not going nearly as well as they should given this country’s advances in education, health and social programs,” Land said. “As parents, and as a country, we ought to be doing better by our children.”

Of concern is that the advances in children’s well-being could be reversed if the economy keeps hemorrhaging jobs. More than 2.2 million jobs have been lost during the Bush administration.

“It may now be time for policy-makers to consider the impact of macroeconomic policies not just on jobs or interest rates but on children as well,” said Ruby Takanishi, president of the Foundation for Child Development, based in New York City.

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