Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Survey: Support for government health policies varies based on whether public feels intruded upon, coerced

smoking, cigarette, smoker

Stephen Burch/Flickr Creative Commons

Although more than three in four survey respondents supported government-backed efforts to prevent tobacco use, only 38 percent said making smoking in private spaces illegal was a good idea.

People don't mind when the government tries to fight health problems like diabetes and obesity through policy and other legal means.

What they do mind is when that maneuvering seems intrusive or coercive.

So says a study appearing in Health Affairs, which surveyed more than 1,800 U.S. adults regarding their opinions about various types of public health policies.

Public support for government intervention in the following areas was high:

  • Cancer prevention (nearly 89 percent were in favor)
  • Heart disease prevention (about 86 percent)
  • Obesity prevention (more than 81 percent for child obesity and about 76 percent for adult obesity)
  • Preventing tobacco use (about 76 percent)
  • Helping diabetics control their condition (about 84 percent)
  • Reducing alcohol consumption (more than 70 percent)

Measures that were seen as supportive of citizens attempting to live healthy lives also garnered widespread support: More than eight in 10 respondents supported menu labeling requirements and making produce more affordable. Almost three in four supported complementary nicotine patches (courtesy of the government) and there was even more support for requiring food manufacturers and restaurants to "significantly reduce" the sodium content of their food. Almost nine in 10 were supportive of requiring at least 45 minutes of physical activity from schoolchildren every day.

But that support for government intervention wasn't present across the board. As the "burdensomeness and punitiveness of the policies increased," the authors wrote, so decreased the percentage of people who backed those policies:

  • Only about 38 percent supported 1) an annual surcharge of $50 on the insurance premiums of obese people and 2) making it illegal to smoke in private spaces.
  • Barely one in three liked the idea of making the "possession of soda and other junk foods a disciplinary offense" among schoolchildren.
  • Just one in five supported giving employers the right to "test [employees] and fire for tobacco use."

Going into the study, researchers believed that the targets of such interventions would be less likely to support them, since they'd probably "perceive the policies to be especially burdensome." That was true for smokers, but diabetics and people who were overweight, for the most part, were found to be strong supporters of government action.

People who opposed certain policies were most likely to cite intrusions on "liberty and privacy" as the primary reason – which to the study's authors, suggests that health policies should aim to "shape health environments," rather than putting pressure on individual people.

South L.A. is no stranger to these public health problems, with some of the highest obesity, diabetes and smoking rates in Los Angeles County.

Photo by Stephen Burch via Flickr Creative Commons.

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