Obesity rates have risen recently
in the United States, as the United States Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention reported in 2015 that 71% of adults were overweight and more
than 17% of youth were obese.
People's political leanings and their own weight shape opinions on
obesity-related public policies, suggested a new study by two
University of Kansas researchers.
Actually, Republicans - no matter how much they weigh - believe
eating and lifestyle habits cause obesity, the research found.
‘Republicans - no matter how much they weigh - believe eating and lifestyle habits cause obesity. But, overweight Democrats are more likely to believe genetic factors cause obesity.’
But among Democrats there is more of a dividing line, said Mark
Joslyn, a KU professor of political science. Those who identify
themselves as overweight are more likely to believe genetic factors
"Self-reported overweight people were significantly more likely to
believe obesity is caused by genetics than normal weight people," Joslyn
said. "The belief that obesity is due to genetics tends to remove
blame. Obesity is not a choice, some would argue, but rather people are
simply genetically wired to be obese. In this way, overweight people are
motivated to believe in the genetics-obesity link. We found normal
weight people were not so motivated."
Joslyn and Don Haider-Markel, chair and professor of the Department
of Political Science, published their findings recently in the journal American Politics Research
The research could have important implications for policymakers,
especially at the local and state levels that tend to focus on public
health interventions, either through appealing to healthy lifestyles by
constructing biking and walking paths to encourage exercise or by
passing stricter regulations on food and drinks, such as demanding
publication of calorie counts and levying taxes on soft drinks.
Former New York City Mayor - and billionaire - Michael Bloomberg
has donated millions of dollars to fund pro-soda tax initiatives in
major cities. Berkeley, California, and Philadelphia are among those
that have passed them in recent years.
Most Americans oppose bans on large-size drinks and higher
soda taxes, Joslyn said, which is likely a disparity between the
perception of the problem and support for government intervention. Those
who have argued against soda taxes, for example, often refer to a
"nanny state," blaming government intervention when they perceive
personal choice is causing the problem.
For policymakers, as obesity rates continue to climb and the
debate surrounding how to make people healthier continues, the genetic
attribution as a cause may continue to rise as well, which could
influence people's opposition to certain practices.
"To the extent that genetic attributions increase in popularity,
stronger opposition to discriminatory hiring practices by weight can be
expected," Joslyn said.
Also, it's likely the issue remains politicized because most
Republicans are inclined to support individual blame for obesity and not
supportive of government regulations.
Lastly, while the soda taxes have gained much attention, most
government action recently does seem to be directed toward changing
people's individual behavior, such as developing public spaces to
encourage fitness and ways to discourage unhealthy eating habits, like
publication of calorie counts.
"If obesity persists in the face of such initiatives, blame and
discrimination of obese people is likely to continue," Joslyn said. "On
the other hand, if governments treat obesity similar to diseases that
afflict the population, as circumstances beyond the control of
individuals, then individual blame and discrimination may diminish."