by Marion Nestle
Mar 18 2011

Obesity: the great political divide

I was interested to read Charles Blow’s comment in the New York Times (March 12) on the results of a recent Pew Research Center poll.  The question: Should the government should have a role in obesity prevention?

Nearly 60 percent said yes. Only about 40 percent said no.  Blow comments:

This is a remarkable change in public sentiment from 2005 when the Harvard School of Public Health asked a similar question and got almost the exact opposite result.

So what happened in the intervening years? One major occurrence has been the push by the president and first lady to combat the problem. Their initiatives promote commonsense approaches like increased breast-feeding, better diets and more exercise. Who could argue with that? The right, that’s who.

Blow presents the obesity statistics for states won by John McCain in 2008 (see below).  His conclusion:

This really shouldn’t be a partisan issue. This should be an all-hands-on-deck issue, including the hands of the government.

And red states, many of which are now the biggest losers in the fight against childhood obesity, have the most to gain.

To me, the interesting thing about this table is what we public health people call “tracking.”  Obesity tracks (correlates) with other measures of poor health—diet, activity, prenatal care, health care—all of which also correlate closely with poverty.

The curiosity here is why people who lack access to education, health care, and, for that matter, healthful diets would vote for candidates who don’t want them to have those things, but that’s American politics for you.

  • Dr. Nestle,

    I truly resent your statement that Republicans don’t want to have an education, access to health care or access to nutritious food. Such statements not only undermine your credibility but contribute nothing to the discussion.
    For the record, Republicans as just as committed to these things as the Democrats. The difference is that the Republicans don’t believe that it is the taxpayers responsibility to provide them.

  • Frankie Frantoio

    Interested in who Nancy thinks is “reponsible” enough to provide good health care and good nutrition. God? Coca-cola? Of course it is the role of the Government health agencies relying on robust research and with hopefully reduced conflicts of interests with food companies,big pharm or the tocacco companies. Public health agencies impartiality and non partisan approach to health provision is essential in any society.
    The nihilism of the so called “right” astounds those of us at the chalkface of health education when that old “Nanny state” cliche gets trotted out on anything to do with Public health or public safety.This created polarisation by political marketing pros is unhelpful and contributing to global obesity and the diabetes epidemic.
    Using health as an indicator of differences between so called right and left wing political parties is a crazy,shoot yourself in the foot way to run a country. The so called “free market” American way where responsibility for one healths is in parents hands or up to the so called “individuals” is failing at so many levels as American obesity statistics are showing. Pouring scorn on “leftie” health promotion is an ugly self serving tactic adopted by the ‘right’ around the globe for vote catching purposes. This bi-polar, left right route will lead to the continued compromising of the physical and mental health of American children.

  • Doc Mudd

    I guess most sensible voters would much rather go without than elect self-absorbed nannies who will subject them to an official finger wagging scolding 24-7…and make them pay through the nose for the generous remonstrations of punishing food police, to boot.

  • Anthro

    To Nancy and Doc: Public Health policy is often aimed at children, especially in the case of obesity. Because weight loss is so difficult, and even more difficult to maintain, it is important to prevent it in the first place.

    Why is it “finger-wagging” to try to make sure that children are protected from food manufacturers whose only responsibility is to make profits for their shareholders?

    Since when is PUBLIC education a dirty word. I was taught that public education is a major pillar of a democratic society.

    Public health should not be a left/right issue and it is the right, as Mr. Blow demonstrates, that is making it so.

  • Kris

    I wonder how many of the truly poor are doing the voting for the representatives (senate or congress) who vote down such measures – i.e., we constantly hear how low voter turnout is among such groups. Perhaps politicians know they are representative only of part of their constituency – the part that actually voted – and thus know they are not at all obliged to do much for the ones who they assume won’t vote again next time.

    Also, @ anthro – beautifully put.

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