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Research-based evidence often lacking when Minnesota lawmakers decide childhood obesity policies, U study finds

Less than half of all formal written materials, oral testimony and discussions used by the Minnesota State Legislature to pass (or not pass) laws related to childhood obesity during a recent five-year period cited research-based evidence, according to a University of Minnesota study published last week.

By contrast, almost all of the materials contained non-research-based information. This included constituent opinions, anecdotes, political principles (such as “obesity is a personal responsibility” and “we should not have unfunded mandates”) and the opinions of experts who did not cite specific evidence.

The study offers an intriguing look at how policymakers use — or don’t use — scientifically obtained evidence in shaping legislation.

Stemming a public health crisis

Childhood obesity is a recognized public health crisis in the United States. In 2012, 18 percent of children aged 6 to 11 and 21 percent of teens aged 12 to 19 were obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Public health officials are in general agreement that more policies need to be put in place to help slow down — and reverse — the problem. But, as the experts also stress, the policies need to be evidence-based to make a meaningful impact.

“There is a ton of research being conducted on childhood obesity, including here at the University of Minnesota,” said Sarah Gollust, the lead author of the new study and an assistant professor at the U’s School of Public Health in a phone interview with MinnPost. “The question we wanted to ask was how much of that volume of research is actually reaching policymakers.”

Five years, 13 bills

To try to answer that question, Gollust and her co-authors looked at all written and oral materials pertaining to 13 obesity-related bills introduced in the Minnesota State Legislature between 2007 and 2011. Six of those bills targeted nutrition or general obesity (such as through school meal reimbursements, farm-to-school nutrition programs and community grants for obesity prevention). The other seven targeted physical activity or “active living environments” (such as through new school-based physical education standards or “school siting” policies aimed at enabling more children to walk or bike to school).

It was a time-consuming undertaking, given the sheer volume of material that had be analyzed and coded. To make the process manageable, Gollust and her colleagues decided on a 50 percent random sampling of the audio- and videotape testimony. All written documents were included in the analysis, however.

Here are the study’s key findings:

  • 41 percent of the materials pertaining to the 13 bills cited some form of research-based evidence.
  • Most of this evidence involved statistics about the prevalence of obesity, its health consequences and the impact of various policies on the problem.
  • 92 percent of the materials included non-evidence-based information, such as constituents’ opinions, expert beliefs, political principles and anecdotes
  • None of the materials offered any information, whether evidence-based or not, that described racial, ethnic or socioeconomic disparities.

That last finding surprised Gollust. Obesity is known to affect racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups differently, both nationally and within Minnesota, so the absence of such information from the discussion around the 13 bills was striking.

“We’ve talked to a lot of people since then who said that racial disparities were very much part of the conversation, but we didn’t document it,” she said.

‘Better than expected’

As for 41 percent figure, Gollust described it as “a robust amount.”

Sarah Gollust
Sarah Gollust

“There’s clearly room for improvement,” she added, “but the fact that a little less than half of the documents cited research evidence over the five years of the study was better than we might have expected. It shows us that policymakers do value research evidence and that advocates and others who are working on behalf of childhood obesity policies are using evidence as part of those discussions.”

Gollust and her colleagues have recently expanded their research to include the less formal “back room” discussions that occur among policymakers, their staff, advocates and lobbyists on issues like childhood obesity.

From those interviews, “we’ve found that folks from these communities say that they value and want to use evidence-based research, but they have a hard time finding the research they want,” she said.

Legislators don’t want research that just describes the problem, she said. They want research that gives them information about the return on investment for a particular policy or about the specific impact that the policy will have on the problem.

Better relationships

What’s needed, Gollust and her co-authors conclude in their paper, are “locally tailored evidence communication vehicles” that would get relevant research to policymakers in a timely and accessible format.

In other words, legislators and researchers need to talk more with each other.

“Legislators in Minnesota often don’t have personal relationships with folks at the University of Minnesota or other universities,” Gollust said. “It’s just not something that has been established between university communities and legislative communities for a variety of reasons.”

“And researchers often don’t see the incentives for fostering these relationships,” she added.

The study, which was conducted in collaboration with the American Heart Association and the Public Health Law Center at the William Mitchell College of Law, was published online in the American Journal of Public Health.

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