Most Americans Think Government Should Do More to Fight Obesity – or Do They?

Except for kids themselves, just about everyone wants children to eat more fruits and vegetables. Even so, there’s plenty of disagreement about what government can or should do to make that happen. For First Lady Michelle Obama, federal standards for more nutritious school lunches help “parents who are working hard to serve their kids balanced meals at home and don’t want their efforts undermined during the day at school.” But for critics, these standards are a costly and counterproductive example of government interference. They ask why “the federal government should make these decisions rather than parents, students and local school officials.” The school lunch dispute is one of several that have emerged when governments -- federal, state, and local -- move beyond their traditional role of providing nutrition education and try to take stronger steps to combat the country’s rising obesity rates. What’s Government’s Role? Is there an appropriate and effective role for government in improving what we eat and helping us maintain healthier weights? What are Americans’ views here? Some survey results suggest that Americans are ready to back broad government action to reduce obesity. Three-quarters of Americans say obesity and being overweight are very or extremely serious health care problems -- only cancer ranked higher in the public’s list. Spending proposals aimed at improving school nutrition, funding farmer’s markets and bike paths, and listing calorie counts on menus attract broad public support. But a closer look at the surveys, along with research from Kettering and Public Agenda, shows support for government action on obesity may be much softer than it initially appears. Many people just don’t seem to be sure that government would be effective in addressing obesity or whether it should be delving into areas of personal choice and behavior. For example:


For most Americans, obesity is a top concern...

… but reducing obesity ranks close to last when it comes to federal spending priorities.

Are We Too Far Gone for Prevention? The cynical take on these results is that this is just the predictable response from a sugar- and junk-food addicted nation. But focus groups by Kettering and Public Agenda suggest that there’s more involved than simple human frailty. Given the chance to deliberate on “prevention” as an option for curbing costs, many participants doubted that it would be effective. People raised a variety of concerns. One man talked about the conflicting messages people have gotten about what’s good for their health and which foods should be limited and which are fine. “[Prevention is] commonsense,” he said, “but we're sort of too far gone right now for it.” Another man liked the idea of prevention because it “relies on our responsibility individually to take care of ourselves.” But he also believed that solving the health care cost challenge means going after “drug companies and the legislation that’s really driving up the cost drastically.” Other participants were skeptical that people would or could change their habits even with more education and social messaging. A participant from Alabama talked about efforts to reduce diabetes: “The education is there. But we are still having plenty of diabetes. People are just not getting it. People are not taking care.” In New Jersey, another participant was just as doubtful: "I just [don’t] think [prevention is] feasible, because people are not going to take care of themselves like this, as a whole.”

Few could envision how public policy could alter what is essentially personal behavior.

In these discussions, many participants questioned whether government and community involvement could actually help people lead healthier lives. Few could envision how public policy could alter what is essentially personal behavior. After all, prohibition didn’t stop people from drinking. Some participants just seemed daunted by the scope of the challenge — and perhaps by their own repeated failures to adopt healthier lifestyles. Yet, as opinion research has shown over and over again, Americans’ views often evolve over time as advocates make a robust and sustained case for change. Our views on smoking certainly have. Americans’ growing support of strong government action to deter smoking has coincided with anti-tobacco campaigns using “a variety of educational, clinical, regulatory, economic, and counter-advertising strategies,” forthright acknowledgement by the medical community about the dangers of smoking, and numerous lawsuits against the tobacco industry. Still, as recently as 2001, just 4 in 10 people wanted to ban smoking in public places. Now, nearly 6 in 10 Americans support this approach.

Our views toward smoking in public places have changed drastically, in a short time period.

Smoking used to be glamorous. Now, smokers have to huddle outside in the cold and rain just to have a cigarette. Will sugary soft drinks and empty calorie snacks suffer a similar fall from grace? Only time will tell.