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

The school lunch dispute is one of several that have emerged when governments try to take stronger steps to combat the country’s rising obesity rates. Is there an appropriate and effective role for government in improving what we eat and helping us maintain healthier weights? What are Americans’ views?

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 the public ranks priorities for federal spending on health care.

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.

Beyond the Polls is a joint endeavor of Public Agenda, the National Issues Forums, and the Kettering Foundation. Sign up to receive an email update when we have a new Beyond the Polls post.


obesity and federal government

Submitted by: Malvina Nathanson on Thursday, June 12th, 2014

I am always skeptical about polls that ask for priorities - especially without knowing whether those polled had to choose just one or were required to rank them. How can you decide if obesity is more serious than cancer? And why should it be assumed that the government has to make a choice about what to fund? A straight up and down on each problem - should the government support program re this, yes or no - would give a much better picture.

School Lunch

Submitted by: Anonymous Submission on Friday, June 13th, 2014

What is currently happening in school lunch are decisions are being made without the actual input from the "experts". The experts would be the "lunch ladies" who provide nutritious meals to other children as if they were there own (the vast majority of lunch ladies are mothers).

Too many times a movie (Fedup) or an article on a school portrays school lunch in bad light and everyone believes it is universal. School lunch is the benchmark for nutritional standards in society. Please, name another organization which has stricter nutritional standards then the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Are the lunches prepared by parents more nutritional then the lunches prepared at home? Because, these lunches would not come close to meeting the nutritional guidelines of the NSLP. If parents are providing nutritional dinners for their children, then those meals are cooked from scratch without any additional ingredients (for example, butter).

Congress wants to reduce the sodium content in product served to the students. I am all for change and fighting obesity. The problem is this will reduce the flavor of a product which already has been doctored resulting in less students eating school lunch; thus, eating the alternative (which is not healthy). The bottom line is, it's not nutritional if it is not eaten, whether it goes in the trash or not purchased.

Fight Obesity

Submitted by: Frank Wilson on Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

I think it is an individual responsibility to take good care of his health and live a smarter and happier lifestyle.

Fight Obesity

Submitted by: CGS on Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

I think that the government should educate children at the earliest age possible about eating healthy. This will aid the parents in there attempts to have there children eat healthier. I also feel that the government should make healthier foods cheaper to people than the junk food and fast foods are. It is easier to feed a family of five McDonald's and you can pay about the same cost or less as you can purchasing and preparing a meal that takes an hour to prep. With todays lifestyle there are a lot of dual parents working and single parent homes. There is no time for parents to cook and prepare healthier foods for their families. Also, activities have families sread to thin. There is no time for the old fashioned sit down dinner. The government should get wages and employment back to where families can have time together again and prepare meals and be healhty

You Have Helped!

Submitted by: Randi Zanca on Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

I just want to thank you for making the information on your website free (as long as I cite the website). As a professor and HiSET instructor, I really appreciate being able to take your materials and create argument topics for my students without having to worry, as I always do, about copyright infringement.

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