Survey finds public support for legal interventions to fight obesity, noncommunicable diseases

March 4, 2013, Harvard School of Public Health

The public is very supportive of government action aimed at changing lifestyle choices that can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other noncommunicable diseases—but they're less likely to support such interventions if they're viewed as intrusive or coercive, according to a new Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) study. The study also found that support was higher for interventions that help people make more healthful choices, such as menu labeling requirements, than for interventions that penalize certain choices or health conditions, such as charging higher insurance premiums for obese individuals.

"Policymakers everywhere are looking for ways to use legal and policy levers to stem the of health care costs related to obesity and chronic disease," said Stephanie Morain, a doctoral candidate in health policy at Harvard University, who led the study. "They should be heartened by these findings—the public does see this as an appropriate role for government." That public support is important, the study authors wrote, because it may affect people's willingness to comply with the law.

The study appears in the March 2013 issue of Health Affairs.

In recent years, such as overeating, , and alcohol and have led to troubling increases in chronic ailments in the U.S. In response, health departments and legislative bodies have adopted policies aimed at combating the that lead to ill health, such as banning in restaurants, raising taxes on cigarettes, and screening schoolchildren for high .

But some have criticized such interventions, saying that they impinge on personal choice and exceed the scope of governmental authority. So the HSPH researchers decided to examine which factors play into public support for so-called "new-frontier" initiatives.

For the study, co-authors Morain and Michelle Mello, professor of law and public health in the HSPH Department of Health Policy and Management, analyzed the results of an online survey of 1,817 American adults conducted in October 2011 by Knowledge Networks (now part of GfK), a professional survey organization. In the survey, respondents were asked about their support for various types of public health policies, as well as the factors that influenced their support. There were questions about seven noncommunicable health conditions and 14 specific strategies to address them.

The researchers found a high level of support—between 70% and 90%—for government action on each of seven areas: preventing cancer, heart disease, childhood and adult obesity, and tobacco use; helping people control their diabetes; and reducing alcohol consumption.

Support was quite high for interventions that facilitate healthy choices, such as increasing the affordability of fruits and vegetables or requiring more instruction in public schools about the health risks of obesity. However, support waned when government actions were viewed as focusing on penalties or on limiting choices—such as adding insurance surcharges for or making it illegal to smoke in private spaces.

The researchers also found that African-Americans and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics, are significantly more likely than whites to support government action to address .

In addition, the survey indicated that people are much more supportive of government public health initiatives if they believe that "people like me" can influence public health priorities and if they think that public health officials understand the public's values.

"The message for public health officials and legislators is, if you want the public to buy into these legal interventions, you've got to engage them early on," said Mello. "You've also got to communicate about policies in a way that resonates with the public's values. For example, how does the intervention support healthy choices? Why is it fair?"

Explore further: Experts weigh the heavy impact words have when creating policies for better health

More information: "Survey Finds Public Support for Legal Interventions Directed at Health Behavior to Fight Noncommunicable Disease," Stephanie Morain and Michelle M. Mello, Health Affairs, March 2013.

Related Stories

Experts weigh the heavy impact words have when creating policies for better health

October 20, 2011
Are words weighing down America's ability to improve its health? According to a group of weight and health experts assembled by the Strategies to Overcome and Prevent (STOP) Obesity Alliance, the answer is yes. There is a ...

Friends and family as responsible as health-care professionals for personal health, global survey

October 6, 2011
Globally, people believe that friends and family have as much responsibility for their personal health as do health care providers, according to the Edelman Health Barometer 2011. After "themselves," nearly half (43%) of ...

Many proposals in government's public health white paper lack evidence

November 17, 2011
Many of the proposed actions in the government's white paper Healthy Lives, Healthy People lack evidence of effectiveness and some have even been shown not to work, according to an analysis published in the British Medical ...

Government should consider public health implications of all major legislation

June 21, 2011
Because strong evidence indicates that policies beyond the health sector have substantial effects on people's health, all levels of U.S. government should adopt a structured approach to considering the health effects of any ...

Recommended for you

Women run faster after taking newly developed supplement, study finds

January 19, 2018
A new study found that women who took a specially prepared blend of minerals and nutrients for a month saw their 3-mile run times drop by almost a minute.

Americans are getting more sleep

January 19, 2018
Although more than one in three Americans still don't get enough sleep, a new analysis shows first signs of success in the fight for more shut eye. According to data from 181,335 respondents aged 15 and older who participated ...

Wine is good for you—to a point

January 18, 2018
The Mediterranean diet has become synonymous with healthy eating, but there's one thing in it that stands out: It's cool to drink wine.

Sleep better, lose weight?

January 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Sleeplessness could cost you when it's time to stand on your bathroom scale, a new British study suggests.

Who uses phone apps to track sleep habits? Mostly the healthy and wealthy in US

January 16, 2018
The profile of most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps that track sleep habits is that they are relatively affluent, claim to eat well, and say they are in good health, even if some of them tend to smoke.

Improvements in mortality rates are slowed by rise in obesity in the United States

January 15, 2018
With countless medical advances and efforts to curb smoking, one might expect that life expectancy in the United States would improve. Yet according to recent studies, there's been a reduction in the rate of improvement in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.