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The skinny on obesity polling

Topics: GQR , Michelle Obama , Obesity

Obesity is of course frequently in the news, particularly with the First Lady's work.  And with anywhere between 60% to 80% of Americans overweight or obese, one doesn't have to follow the news to know it's a big issue.  But only recently are public polls--and Congress--exploring some of the potential policy remedies.  Below is a summary of recent public findings.

Americans view obesity, particularly among children, as a huge problem worthy of government investment.  A recent GQR survey for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found nearly three-fourths (73%) cite childhood obesity as an important government priority.  It's not just a problem, but something that deserves real attention and "investment" (i.e., spending).   Half said we should invest more in the problem right now, with only 37% arguing "we should wait until the economy improves."

And voters welcome tighter restrictions on companies & school nutrition.  The GQR survey showed clear support for a wide range of tighter restrictions on companies to help combat childhood obesity.  Posting calorie counts in fast food stores is unsurprisingly popular (73% favor).  And clear majorities favor higher nutrition standards for school lunches and vending machines (69% strong favor).  But even limits on advertising unhealthy food to children (66% favor) receive strong support from half of voters.   

But "taxes" on one's own food fall flat.  A CBS survey from earlier this year found a "special tax on junk food" to be quite unpopular (60% oppose).   NPR conducted a survey even more recently and found similar results.  This mirrors what we see a lot in policy polling--restrictions on others are more tolerable on than restrictions on oneself.

Perhaps because people tend to feel obesity is within someone's individual control.  Despite rising obesity rates, and increases in the percentage of people who say they are trying to lose weight, Americans overwhelmingly (89%) believe obesity "is something people can control."  And this poll for the University of Georgia shows few fault marketers for these trends. 

And when it comes to personal assessment, there are inconsistencies.  Far fewer parents describe their children as overweight or obese than we see in the actual population.  Specifically, the GQR poll showed even parents who volunteer their children's height and weight underreported whether they also view them as overweight or obese.  Similarly, this McClatchy-Ipsos poll shows far fewer reporting a personal obesity issue or one in their own family than is actually true among the population. 

With a child nutrition bill passing in the House and under debate in the Senate, Congress is taking some needed steps forward.  But we look forward to seeing more polling on other proposed ideas, such as  changing farm subsidies to reward growing healthy food, restricting what food stamps can purchase, minimizing food deserts, limiting ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, or giving health insurance breaks to people who lose weight and develop healthy habits.   The public seems ready for action.

 

Comments
Ptolemy:

I'm sure that to Michele Obama, "investment" really does mean "spending." But the survey did not ask for opinions about spending, rather about "investing in preventing childhood obesity."

Well, that may be some kind of focus-group tested phraseology, but it only muddles the issue. Investment can clearly mean other things, such as this dictionary definition: "an act of devoting time, effort, or energy to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result."

More direct questions in this survey would produce a more meaningful result.

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Margie Omero:

Thanks for your comment, Ptolemy. I hear you, and you're right we shouldn't generally assume voters ascribe words with the same meanings we (researchers & political types) do. However, i do think the GQR poll shows majority support for investment of actual dollars.

First, I think costs are implied for many voters when the other answer category says "we should wait until the economy improves before we invest more in preventing childhood obesity."

Second, and although I did not include this question above, the poll asked specifically about a "comprehensive program to combat childhood obesity...[which] would increase government spending by billions of dollars a year." An even larger percent (56%) thought this would be an "investment" worth making.

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How accurate do pollsters expect height and weight measurements solicited to be? I was once asked for that information on a call (from the health service followup, not a pollster), and I made up numbers, simply because I didn't have the information on hand and the lady was insistent that I give her my child's weight. I think I ended up overestimating by about 50%. I would be surprised if most people could rattle off correct height and weight numbers for their kids on demand.

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Margie Omero:

Hi Chuck. For sure people underestimate their own weight. But even those who report a height/weight suggesting obesity don't consider themselves (or their children) obese.

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