Who's to blame for obese kids?

Most Americans endorse public efforts to reduce childhood obesity but don't want to do so through taxes or regulation, a new survey reveals.

Almost 91 percent of those surveyed thought parents "have a lot of responsibility" for childhood obesity, with only 16 percent saying the government holds a significant amount of responsibility, according to the report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. People could list multiple sources of responsibility.

"The public clearly wants to reduce unhealthy, and increase healthy, food consumption among children and adolescents. However, they are wary about accomplishing these goals through intensive regulation or taxation" say W. Douglas Evans, Ph.D., and colleagues at RTI International, a North Carolina not-for-profit research institute.

For instance, the survey participants generally supported ideas like restricting the availability of unhealthy foods in school vending machines and cafeterias but they opposed raising the costs of these foods or implementing a "junk food tax," the researchers found.

Those surveyed were also overwhelmingly in favor of nutrition and exercise education in schools but not at the expense of other subjects like reading, math and science.

The national survey of 1,047 households, conducted between January and March 2004, revealed that 41 percent believe that childhood overweight and obesity is a serious problem. Most of the people surveyed said junk food and fast food, followed by too much time spent in front of the television, are the biggest culprits.

Although the survey participants did not want to see specific taxes on foods, more than 70 percent said they would support a $25 income tax increase to support government or school-sponsored childhood obesity intervention programs.

Evans and colleagues also found that households with children at home and individuals with at least some college education were less likely to support school-based programs like regular weigh-ins and weight "report cards" sent home to parents, similar to those used by Arkansas public schools in 2004.

"This is the first survey to compare and contrast support for specific types of childhood interventions that have recently been implemented or proposed. Such data are likely to be of great interest to policymakers and others who might consider endorsing specific interventions," Evans says.

"However," he adds, "relatively little scientific information exists on which of these interventions are effective in actual school, community and media settings."

Overweight and obesity rates among children and teens have tripled since the 1980s, now reaching 15 percent of the child population.

The study was supported by RTI International.

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