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U study finds linking obesity to military readiness broadens support for child-health policies

Focusing on consequences of childhood obesity on military readiness changes conservatives’ views on how to fix the problem.

vending machine snacksCreative Commons/Ashish JoyThe idea of childhood obesity as a national security issue isn’t some kind of liberal conspiratorial ploy to get conservatives to agree to, say, limiting junk foods in schools.

Childhood obesity is a serious public health problem. But Americans have widely differing opinions about the source of the problem and how to address it — opinions that tend to be determined by political ideology.

As I’ve reported here before, when asked who bears the most responsibility for childhood obesity, conservatives are more likely than moderates or liberals to point the finger at parents and children than at the food and beverage industry or government policies.

Indeed, a 2012 Gallup poll found that 82 percent of Democrats believed it was extremely or very important for the federal government to have programs that address obesity, while only 27 percent of Republicans felt the same.

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But there may be a way to bring more conservatives on board with the idea of government taking an active role in reducing childhood obesity. A new study, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health and led by University of Minnesota health-policy researcher Sarah Gollust, suggests that conservatives can be persuaded that government policies are needed to tackle the problem of childhood obesity if the issue is framed in a way that resonates with their core values, particularly their belief in the need for a strong military.

“Most Americans believe childhood obesity is a serious health problem, but there are really strong differences about what to do about it” — differences that are hindering efforts to tackle the problem, said Gollust in a phone interview.

Ensuring that messages about the consequences of childhood obesity include highly ranked conservative concerns, such as national defense, might help health officials create a broader coalition of supporters for government intervention, she added.

And, no, the idea of childhood obesity as a national security issue isn’t some kind of liberal conspiratorial ploy to get conservatives to agree to, say, limiting junk foods in schools. In 2012, a group of retired military leaders came out in favor of just such a policy. Their motivation: One in four 17- to 24-year-old Americans is now too overweight to join the military.

The most persuasive messages

Gollust’s study had two components. First, she and her colleagues used a Web-based public opinion survey to identify and evaluate 11 common messages about the consequences of childhood obesity. The idea was to figure out which of the messages might be most effective in persuading people with different political views that childhood obesity was 1) a serious problem, and 2) a responsibility of the government.

The survey revealed the following key findings:

  • 60 percent of the survey’s respondents said the long-term health risks of obesity (such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease) were strong reasons for government action on the issue. Only 42 percent of conservatives agree with this point, however, compared with 71 percent of liberals and 64 percent of political moderates.
  • Among conservatives, the next most popular reason for government action (selected by just under 42 percent) was that childhood obesity threatens military readiness.
  • Political moderates had a somewhat surprising second choice for why government should get involved in the childhood obesity issue: to reduce the number of obese kids who are targets of bullying (62 percent).
  • Among liberals, the most popular reason for government action (76 percent) was the impact that childhood obesity has on health-care costs.
  • Across the political spectrum, people gave the least credence for government action to messages that claimed such efforts would help reduce racial, ethnic or socioeconomic disparities and discrimination.

Changing opinions

In the second part of the study, Gollust and her colleagues randomly presented 2,500 online participants with news articles that contained the four highest-rated reasons identified in the first study for why the government should act to reduce childhood obesity (long-term health, health-care costs, bullying and military readiness). After reading the articles, the participants were asked about their support for various government policies aimed at addressing the problem, such as requiring a minimum level of physical activity in schools, banning junk-food ads on TV shows aimed at kids and taxing sugar-sweetened beverages.

Sarah Gollust Ph.D.
Sarah Gollust Ph.D.

The study found that all four messages increased the participants’ perceptions of  the seriousness of the problem. But the effect was greatest among conservatives. After reading the articles, their perceptions of the seriousness of the problem tended to be nearly indistinguishable from those of the moderates and the liberals.

Conservatives, however, tended not to change their attitudes about how the problem should be fixed — except when they read the message about the consequences of childhood obesity on military readiness. Only then did they significantly revise their views on whether government agencies, schools, and food and beverage companies should play a role in addressing childhood obesity.

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“Our data [suggest] that a message linking a problem traditionally considered under the domain of public health to national defense has the potential to shift public opinion among conservatives,” write Gollust and her co-authors. “This message was likely effective because of its novelty, and also because it tapped into values beyond those — such as equality and social responsibility — that are typically associated with public health.”

The study found that none of the messages about the consequences of childhood obesity significantly shifted the opinions of liberals or moderates about what should be done, probably because those groups already believe the issue to be the responsibility of many segments of society.

Concerns about backlash

One finding from the study raised some concern for Gollust and her colleagues: After reading articles about the consequences of childhood obesity, conservatives believed even more strongly than before that children themselves were responsible for solving the problem. 

“As someone who studies public health communication, I’m very interested in making sure that our public health messages don’t have unintended consequences,” Gollust said.

Health officials will need to be careful, she added, that the messages they create to raise awareness around the issue of childhood obesity don’t lead to a backlash against overweight children, a group that’s already stigmatized.

Still, she said, her study’s findings “do offer a promising look at the possibility that there could be less partisan gridlock and broader support” for policies that offer structural solutions to reducing the burden of obesity in this country.

Gollust’s co-authors on this study are Colleen Barry of Johns Hopkins University and Jeff Niederdeppe of Cornell University.