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Americans Unworried By Obesity, Study Says

Weight does not weigh heavily on the minds of many Americans, according to a new study by the Kennedy School of Government.

Although Americans are concerned by the health problems that result from obesity—such as heart disease and diabetes—the report found they are not concerned by obesity itself.

The study, released last month, found that although more than half of survey respondents were overweight, less than one-quarter viewed their weight as a serious concern.

“The public views heart disease and diabetes as important problems,” said Assistant Professor of Public Policy Taeku Lee, one of the report’s authors. “But it doesn’t view obesity that way.”

“We didn’t have a good sense of public opinion about obesity” before the report, Lee said. “I think obesity is a really important health problem relative to other problems.”

The report’s authors argued that the public’s perception of obesity and its causes translates into less government action to combat the problem. But they found that Americans hold contradictory attitudes that have competing influences on government policy.

Almost two-thirds of respondents said that Americans’ lack of willpower was a cause of their obesity.

“People are less inclined to support government involvement when it’s a matter of will,” he said.

But the report also found that a majority of respondents thought environmental factors, such as access to junk food, helps determine whether people become obese. This belief, according to Lee, spurs Americans to support government involvement in stemming obesity.

“There have already been debates about whether vending machines have a place in public schools, and whether there should be taxes on unhealthy food,” he said. “I think that is something that states will have more and more debate about.”

The researchers also found that traditional factors that indicate people’s support of government policies, such as political ideology, had negligible bearing on whether respondents supported government involvement in reducing obesity.

Lee said he and his colleague launched the study because they believed smoking and obesity are equally grave risks to public health, but obesity has received far less attention.

“Smoking and obesity are very comparable,” Lee said. “The political responses to the two problems have been almost completely opposite, though.”

Chris S. Crandall, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas who has researched perceptions of obesity and overweight people, said the study may have intriguing implications.

“There’s virtually no public policy research on obesity anywhere,” he said. “Large public policy interventions are tough for people to think about in general.”

“It’s a big issue,” Crandall added. “This research is new to me. It sounds really interesting.”

In addition to Lee, the report, entitled “Public Opinion and the Politics of America’s Obesity Epidemic,” was authored by J. Eric Oliver, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy.

—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at blenkins@fas.harvard.edu.

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