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Will More Rules Make You Thin?

Surveying the fat of the land, researchers look for any connection between obesity and rules intended to fight it.
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When Michael Bloomberg proposed banning the sale of large sugary drinks in New York City’s restaurant, food carts, and stadiums, he presented it as a necessary step to battle obesity and thus save lives. “More people will die from the effects of obesity than from starvation,” he said on Face the Nation. “And we've got to do something about this. This is going to bankrupt the country. Our medical system cannot handle it." (State courts shot down the ban as regulatory overreach several times; New York’s highest court said it will bite into at the city’s appeal next year.)

The location of this salvo in the obesity wars could be taken as a little surprising; New York is no stranger to regulation, but it’s also got one of the lower obesity rates in the nation. Nonetheless, a low rate in the land of the overweight still adds up to a lot of pounds: 17.7 percent of adult New Yorkers were obese in the year 2000, a figure that had risen to 24.6 percent nine years later. Big whup: Every place in the U.S.—except Washington, D.C.—was more obese in 2009 compared to 2000.

Is there any connection between regulations and waistlines? A new study headed by University of North Carolina health researcher Sabrina Jones Niggel in The Social Science Journal asked that question while looking at a three-year period in the midst of the great recession.

The Northeast was the most vigilant in fighting fat by fiat; the Mountain West least. Guess what? The lowest prevalence of adult obesity in the U.S. was located in the Mountain West—followed by New England.

It’s not that more rules make us fat—which conjures intriguing images of a different kind of lunch-counter civil disobedience—but that places with more obesity would look toward more policies to combat it.

While there’s lots of little policies meant to shame or reform the overweight, for purposes of this study the authors looked specifically at nutrition, physical activity, and purely obesity-related legislation or regulation, whether enacted or just proposed, at the state level. Interestingly, given that so much of the bloviating on obesity revolves around children, this study excluded policies that exclusively targeted kids.

Niggel and her five colleagues gathered obesity rates in U.S. states and the District of Columbia between 2000 and 2009, then compared them to policies enacted or proposed between 2009 and 2011. You might think that plenty of red states would be regulation adverse, especially in the very personal relationship between a man and his fork. But the researchers found that all 50 states and D.C. did something fat-related in those three years, a total of 1,643 laws and 240 regulations, ranging from two policies in South Dakota to 252 in, umm, New York. “In general,” the researchers wrote, “policies that increase access to healthy foods and facilitate physical activity were among the most popular. The most frequently introduced topics addressing obesity include bicycling, medical care, and farm-direct foods. The most commonly enacted policy topics were medical care, pedestrians/walking, and agriculture and farming.”

The Northeast was the most vigilant in fighting fat by fiat; the Mountain West least. Guess what? The lowest prevalence of adult obesity in the U.S. was located in the Mountain West—followed by New England.

As that factoid suggests, the researchers found no national trend linking the severity of a state’s obesity level (assuming we’re getting it right, which may not be true) with its rule-making, which came as a surprise to the researchers who expected a more-rules-equals-more-fat scenario. But equally intuitively, you could assume fewer rules equals more fat, a correlation between a laissez faire state and personal indulgence. Whether it's connection or coincidence, the authors did find such an association in the Midwest and South.

Then again, the researchers probably weren’t too surprised. A study sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation looking at the years 2005 to 2007 (and which focused on laws aimed at kids) found no statistical association between introduced legislation and state obesity rates.

Convention wisdom is you need to be active to slim down, but does that include legislative activity? "The mayor's 'Nanny State' approach will do little to curb the problem and will do plenty to alienate the very people we need to work with - not against - the people who consume too many calories from a variety of sources," Jeff Stier of the National Center for Public Policy Research argued during the Tempest in a Big Gulp.

Whether regulations, ranging, say, from encouraging breastfeeding to improving signs pointing to recreation areas, really affect obesity rates was not addressed in this study. The authors acknowledge this is worthy of study, and even float—but don’t endorse—a heretical idea that “increased policymaking may not result in reduced obesity prevalence.” Studies on individual policy interventions, such as requiring menu labeling, suggest answers of definitely maybe (and a policy of merely providing useful information seems about as benign as you can get).

Meanwhile, the latest look at state-level obesity rates by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found every state, except Arkansas, had managed to level its obesity rates after three decades of increases. Once again, the Rockies and New England states looked good, or less bad, than the rest of the nation. A CDC report released in August found childhood obesity actually declined in 18 states in the last few years. Might the weight of 1,643 laws and 240 regulations be tipping the scales?