Arkansas Act 1220 of 2003 to Reduce Childhood Obesity

Three years after enactment, assessments of one of the earliest comprehensive pieces of state legislation to fight childhood obesity show the weight status of Arkansas children may be stabilized and there have been positive changes in environments and policies that should support ongoing improvement. But implementing the act's intent faces ongoing political and practical challenges, according to this study which appears in a supplement to the Journal of Public Health Policy reporting on the 2008 Active Living Research Conference.

When this act was passed, including the unfunded mandate that public schools measure and report to parents the body mass index (BMI) of their children, objections ranged from philosophical, regarding parent and children's rights, to fears of unintended negative consequences. Since then, the act and its implementation have been modified to meet concerns. This study assesses progress in reducing BMIs, and examines whether negative byproducts feared by opponents have occurred.

Key Findings:

  • The baseline BMI measurement revealed 38.1 percent of Arkansas students were either overweight (20.9%) or obese (17.2%). Three years later, the rate had decreased to 37.8 percent, but 20.6 percent were now obese and 17.2 percent were overweight, suggesting Arkansas' efforts had "at least contributed to halting the progression" of childhood obesity.
  • In reaction to BMI reporting, parents have not forced unsafe dietary practices upon their children; the number of parents who put their children on a nonmedically supervised diet has decreased each year; and very few parents have reported ever giving their children diet pills.
  • BMI reporting also has not triggered an increase in weight-based teasing or teen eating disorders.
  • Parents seeking help after receiving their child's BMI information have not overwhelmed the health care system, although 57 percent of doctors do report at least one parent consultation.
  • Parent attitudes, pro and con, toward BMI reporting have remained stable.
  • Although difficult to tie improvements in the school environment to Act 1220, the evaluation does show healthy changes, such as less "junk" food and better physical education.

Act 1220 is a landmark piece of legislation. Other states, as well as the research and policy communities, are looking to "go to school" on Arkansas' experience. The act's impact and implementation needs to continue to be monitored closely.