New research led by a health policy expert from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health has found that despite public agreement around the seriousness of childhood obesity, support for government intervention varies based on political ideology and perceptions of which types of obesity consequences warrant taking action.
The latest analysis points to challenges facing public health officials striving to promote obesity prevention policies that appeal to broad audiences as the United States searches for ways to curb the obesity epidemic.
“Scientists have produced compelling evidence that childhood obesity affects children and society in many ways, including raising kids’ risk for diseases like diabetes, increasing health care costs, and even challenging our military since a large number of new recruits are turned away because of their weight,” said Sarah Gollust, Ph.D., a University of Minnesota health policy researcher and the study’s lead author. “Our goal was to examine how the public perceives obesity consequences to uncover opportunities that might help foster public support for government intervention, given well-known divisions among the public over what type of role the government should have in obesity prevention.”
The study, which appears today in the American Journal of Public Health, was led by Gollust, who partnered with Cornell University researcher Jeff Niederdeppe, Ph.D., and Johns Hopkins University researcher Colleen L. Barry, Ph.D., M.P.P.
Exploring the Data & Study Takeaways
The research is based on an analysis of two national studies conducted in 2011 and 2012 representing all adults aged 18 to 64 in the United States.
In the first study, researchers assessed public responses to 11 messages commonly cited in the media and by public health researchers as consequences of obesity in children. As part of the survey, respondents were asked to self-identify their political ideology from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. The study revealed:
- 60 percent of study participants said the long-term health consequences of obesity were strong reasons for the government to do something about the issue, although significantly more liberals (71%) than conservatives (42%) agreed.
- The most popular message among conservatives (chosen as a strong reason by 42%) was that obesity threatens military readiness.
- Among liberals, 76% agreed that the impact of obesity on health care costs was a strong reason for government action.
- Political moderates rated a message about obese kids being targets of bullying as particularly strong, with 61% agreeing this was a strong rationale for action.
The data showed that messaging around military readiness and weight-based bullying could be the least polarizing messages politically, while long-term health consequences resonated with a large number of respondents.
In the second study, Gollust and colleagues showed 2,494 participants messages that emphasized different consequences of obesity to determine whether the highest rated messages in the first study could influence public opinion about obesity prevention.
“We found that all of the messages about obesity consequences increased public perceptions of the seriousness of obesity,” said Gollust. “However, while Americans in general disagree about whether the government should act to prevent these consequences, connecting the issue of obesity to its consequences on the U.S. military appears to elevate the importance of government intervention among those who identify as politically conservative.”
Gollust added that among those identifying as politically conservative, messaging about the consequences of obesity on military readiness helped reinforce the concept that responsibility to address obesity falls on a variety of groups including schools, the food and beverage industry, and the government, and not only on children and their parents.
“This study underscores the importance of developing and testing a variety of messages that resonate with core values of different political groups,” said Niederdeppe. “It also highlights the value of identifying the consequences of health issues for other domains – in this case, for national security.”
The researchers believe future research should continue to explore the effects – both intended and unintended – of public health messaging. Such information can support evidence-based communication campaigns, ultimately improving public health.