Two new studies find food policy interventions have support and impact

Five million dollars. That’s how much the fast food industry spends every day to peddle largely unhealthy foods to children. And because studies have found that exposure to food marketing does indeed make kids want to eat more, advertising is often tapped as an obvious way to address child obesity. Fortunately, a new study finds that the public agrees.

As part of the Los Angeles County Health Survey, researchers with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health asked nearly 1,000 adults four food policy questions: would they support a tax increase on sodas to discourage kids from drinking too many; should sugary cereal, candy, soda and fast food advertising aimed at kids be restricted; should there be a law prohibiting fast food restaurants within a quarter-mile of schools; and should convenience stores be legally prohibited from setting up shop within a quarter-mile of schools.

The results, which were published in the June 5 issue of Preventing Chronic Disease, found that marketing restrictions garnered the most support, followed by a soda tax and zoning restrictions. Specifically, 74 percent of respondents supported advertising restrictions, 60 percent supported the soda tax, and 44 percent and 37, respectively, supported zoning restrictions for fast food restaurants and convenience stores. While support for the tax and zoning policies varied among different demographic groups, the marketing restriction scored high levels of support across all groups.

As policy interventions go, the researchers noted that support for a soda tax, which lost at the ballot box in California in 2012, might not hold up in the face of industry opposition. Also, low support for zoning restrictions might make that policy intervention a difficult sell and would do little for communities in which fast food restaurants and schools are already situated near each other. Study authors Paul Simon, Choiyuk Chiang, Amy Lightstone and Margaret Shih write:

Although there are legal considerations in pursuing public policy that would regulate food and beverage marketing to children, our results suggest that such efforts would receive support. This support may help persuade private companies to self-regulate. There may also be opportunities to expand advertising restrictions in public schools and publicly regulated child care settings. For example, the White House and U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced proposed federal restrictions on unhealthy food and beverage advertising in public schools.

In related study news, researchers at Stanford University and the University of California-San Francisco found that prohibiting the use of food assistance dollars to buy sugar-sweetened beverages could significantly reduce obesity and type 2 diabetes among adults. To conduct the study, which was published this week in Health Affairs, researchers examined data on more than 19,000 people participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The study noted that low-income populations, including people in the SNAP program, experience higher rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity. Also, SNAP participants consume almost twice as many calories from sugary beverages as they do from fruits and veggies.

The study found that instituting a SNAP policy banning the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages would result in a 15.4 percent decline in calorie consumption linked to such beverages. (Note: This finding takes into account the possibility that SNAP participants might use non-SNAP dollars to buy sugary beverages instead.) Over 10 years, the lower calorie consumption would translate into a 2.4 percent decline in current obesity prevalence rates among SNAP participants, with the biggest effect among adults ages 18 to 65. In addition, researchers estimated that incidence of type 2 diabetes among SNAP enrollees would decline by 1.7 percent or about 240,000 people, with the biggest effect among adults. Authors Sanjay Basu, Hilary Kessler Seligman, Christopher Gardner and Jay Bhattacharya write:

Our study is also the first analysis, to our knowledge, to examine specifically how population-level health outcomes may be altered by fiscal policies directed through SNAP. This subject is of major national interest given that the program is taxpayer funded. The logic behind SNAP policy changes is that taxpayers are potentially subsidizing unhealthy food consumption and paying for its downstream health consequences.

In addition to examining a ban on sugary beverage purchases, the Health Affairs study also looked at whether incentivizing fruit and veggie consumption would impact obesity and diabetes prevalence. Specifically, would giving SNAP participants 30 cents back for every dollar they spend on fruits and vegetables make a difference? They estimated that while the subsidy policy wouldn’t have a significant impact on the two diseases, it could more than double the proportion of SNAP enrollees who meet federal fruit and vegetable consumption recommendations.

For copies of the two food policy studies, visit Preventing Chronic Disease and Health Affairs.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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