Most Americans Want Public Policies to Prevent Obesity

But incentives like employer tax breaks may not be enough, experts say

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HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Dec. 28, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- A large majority of Americans say they support changes in public policy to stem the rising tide of obesity among adults, a new survey shows.

"There is a lot of support for employer and health policies aimed at preventing obesity," said lead researcher Bernard Fuemmeler, an assistant professor in the department of community and family medicine at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, N.C.

"This study provides tangible evidence that people support wide-scale policy changes that can affect obesity in the U.S.," Fuemmeler added.

The findings appear in the January issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Approximately 60 million American adults are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1998, Americans spent about 9 percent of all medical expenses on problems linked to being overweight or obese, the CDC reports.

The new telephone survey of 1,139 adults found that 85 percent supported tax breaks for employers who made exercise space available to employees.

In addition, 73 percent said they'd support government incentives for companies that reduced the cost of health insurance for employees who had healthy lifestyles and shed extra pounds. Seventy-two percent said they would support government policies requiring insurance companies to cover obesity treatment and prevention programs.

"There is growing public advocacy for these kinds of policy changes," Fuemmeler said. "There is also advocacy in the research community for large-scale policy changes. With some push, we might be able to get some changes that would help us better address the obesity epidemic in the country."

But one expert said it will take more than policy changes to get Americans to eat better and exercise more.

"The problem is not necessarily that employers need tax incentives," said Kathryn M. Kolasa, a professor in the department of nutrition services and patient education at East Carolina University. "The employer can expect to realize health-care cost savings and can be motivated by that."

However, "It's not clear what will motivate the employees," Kolasa said.

One problem is misinformation about weight loss. "Most individuals that present for nutrition counseling have significant amounts of misinformation about food and beverages that prevent them from being successful in weight loss or weight management," Kolasa said.

"Also, people continue to say that it costs more money to eat healthy, when it has been demonstrated time and again you can eat healthy at no greater cost," Kolasa added.

She does believe that changes in policy might make it easier for people to take advantage of health-promotion programs.

"Just because an insurance company provides a wellness benefit doesn't mean people will use it," Kolasa said. "I have one patient who was excited to receive the wellness benefit -- six visits with a certified dietitian during the year. Her employer let her take time from work for the first visit, but said subsequent visits would have to be on her time. This same employer allows employees to take time for doctor visits without penalty," she said.

More information

For more on obesity and weight loss, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Bernard Fuemmeler, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of community and family medicine, Duke University, Durham, N.C.; Kathryn M. Kolasa, Ph.D., RD., professor, nutrition services and patient education, East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C.; January 2007 American Journal of Preventive Medicine

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