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Beliefs about the Causes of Obesity Predict Support for Policies to Combat the Problem


New Haven, Conn. — With obesity reaching epidemic proportions in the United States, new research has found that an individual’s personal beliefs about the causes of weight problems are a reliable indicator of whether he or she will support public policies designed to combat the problem.

The research, led by the Yale School of Public Health, found that people who view growing rates of obesity as due to bad individual choices are less likely to back a range of potential public health responses such as changing school lunch programs, food labeling or imposing taxes on junk food. Conversely, those who see obesity as the consequence of external factors — such as public manipulation by the food and beverage industry or the lack of healthy, affordable food in certain neighborhoods — are more likely to back government intervention in the form of new health policies and programs.

“Our results suggest that viewing obesity as a matter of personal responsibility lowers public tolerance for government regulation, while emphasizing the social and environmental causes of obesity has the potential to drive up public support,” said Colleen L. Barry, Ph.D., assistant professor in the division of Health Policy and Administration, and the study’s lead author.

The study surveyed 1,009 people on their views about the causes of obesity and their level of support for 16 policy responses, taking demographics, health characteristics and political attitudes into account.

The research also determined that political ideology was not the dominant predictor of whether people would support government intervention to combat obesity (with the exception of tax-based policies). Also, their own weight and exercise levels were not major factors in explaining their support for obesity-related policies.

Other researchers included Mark Schlesinger of the School of Public Health; Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity; and Victoria L. Brescoll of the Yale School of Management. The project was funded through a grant from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Details of the research will be published in the March issue of The Millbank Quarterly.


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