Study Finds Widespread Support for Anti-Obesity Laws

A Harvard study finds 'striking' support for government involvement in public health matters.

Only 44 percent of primary-care doctors say they've helped obese patients lose weight, and many believe that nutritionists and dietitians are the most qualified care providers for these patients, researchers have found.

Respondents were much more likely to support less-intrusive measures to curb obesity.

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Americans overwhelmingly support at least some government intervention to help prevent obesity and other noncommunicable diseases, according to new research out of Harvard University.

Over the past few years, there has been seemingly widespread opposition to regulations passed in New York City that banned Trans fats and large sodas—but the new survey, published in the journal Health Affairs, finds that many Americans are open to new laws designed to change dietary habits.

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"The controversy [surrounding new laws] calls into question the public's willingness to view [them] as legitimate," the study's author, Michelle Mello, a public health professor at Harvard, writes. "We found that support for [new] public health interventions is high overall."

Of the nearly 2,000 people surveyed, more than 80 percent said they support government intervention to prevent cancer, heart disease, help people control diabetes, and prevent childhood obesity. Three-fourths of respondents said they support laws that would reduce tobacco use or laws that would prevent obesity in adults; 70 percent of respondents said they'd support laws to curb alcohol consumption.

Respondents were much more likely to support less-intrusive measures to curb obesity: 80 percent of those surveyed said the government should require calorie counts to be posted, 75 percent said they'd like the government to prevent the use of food stamps for soda and other sugary beverages, and 88 percent said they'd support requiring public school students to get at least 45 minutes of exercise daily.

By contrast, more drastic measures were less widely supported: Nearly two-thirds said they'd oppose a $50 annual surcharge on health insurance premiums for obese people, 80 percent opposed making soda or junk food possession a punishable offense in schools, 20 percent opposed allowing employers to fire an employee for tobacco use.

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Those who opposed health regulations most commonly stated that "government should stay out of matters like what people eat."

Political conservatives were more likely to oppose laws relating to public health. According to the researchers, "the greater the restraint a legal intervention imposes on individual liberty, the greater public opposition to the intervention is likely to be."

The researchers suggest that government intervention in matters of public health is less controversial than many have previously suggested.

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"Public health officials are currently working within a challenging political climate that includes a strong movement toward smaller government," they write. "In this context, the high level of public support that we found for government action to address … health problems is striking."

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