Preventing Childhood Obesity through State Policy

Qualitative Assessment of Enablers and Barriers

State legislators and their staffers identify key supportive factors, as well as barriers, in the political process to passing legislation related to childhood obesity, in this interview-based study included in a supplement to the Journal of Public Health Policy regarding the 2008 Active Living Research Conference.

Between 2003 and 2005, more than 400 pieces of state legislation were introduced on key topics related to childhood obesity. State legislators and their staffers have gained significant experience in ushering these laws through the political process. This study is based on interviews with 10 legislators and six staffers from 11 states which vary by political party in power, extent of the obesity problem, and geographic region.

Key Findings:

  • All 16 participants said it is key to involve stakeholders such as parents, doctors, schools, health departments and community members, in formulating and adopting legislation.
  • Other supportive factors include national media exposure of childhood obesity, timing, introduction of the legislation by a senior legislator, and the political climate (although the last cannot be altered).
  • Over half of the participants said powerful lobbyists from "junk" food and beverage companies pose difficulties.
  • The second most-cited problem was misinformed constituents who had misconceptions about legislating school food. Cost of obesity-related regulation was also frequently mentioned as a barrier.
  • Participants strongly advised incremental bills were more likely to pass than sweeping, comprehensive acts.

This study has two major limitations. The majority of those interviewed were Democrats because participants were selected on the basis of their prior work in childhood obesity, and it is hard to select states that represent the entire range of political climates; it may be hard to generalize these findings to dissimilar states. Still, this study suggests constituent education, an effective media campaign, garnering the leadership of a heavyweight legislator, and crafting an incremental legislative plan may help pass more state laws related to childhood obesity.