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Childhood obesity epidemic alarms voters, poll finds

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California voters are increasingly concerned about childhood obesity and are supportive of policies that encourage healthier eating and more physical activity, according to Field Poll results released today.

The findings, unveiled on the first anniversary of Michelle Obama's obesity prevention campaign, show that 59 percent of voters said childhood obesity is a very serious problem in the state, up from 46 percent eight years ago. Another 33 percent said the problem is somewhat serious; 7 percent – unchanged from 2003 – said it is not a serious problem.

The Field Poll interviewed 1,005 California registered voters, sampled randomly, in October. The survey was funded by the California Endowment, which also contributes funding for California Watch.

Asked to identify the single greatest health risk to California children, 31 percent cited unhealthy eating habits, compared to 25 percent who said this in 2007 and 23 percent in 2003. Other health risks cited include illegal drug use (17 percent), lack of physical activity (15 percent) and violence (13 percent). 

Three out of four voters said it is important for businesses and government to make it easier for people to be healthier, such as creating more parks or bike lanes, labeling menus or limiting the number of fast food restaurants.

Some policy proposals garnered wide support among all voters and demographic groups.

For example, 89 percent of voters supported requiring physical education classes for all four years of high school. The state requires just two years, and tests show only 35.6 percent of 9th-graders meet all fitness standards.

The proposal was favored by Democrats (89 percent), Republicans (89 percent) and non-partisan or other party voters (88 percent) alike, and across all income groups. Latinos showed the strongest support (93 percent), and Asian Americans approved the least (81 percent).

But voters were sharply divided on other policy proposals. 

A ban on the sale of all drinks with added sugars at schools, for example, received 61 percent of voter support overall. But Democrats (69 percent) were far more likely than Republicans (47 percent), or non-partisan or other party voters (62 percent) to say goodbye to sodas, sports or energy drinks, or sweetened fruit drinks. Women (67 percent) were also more likely to support a sugary-drink ban than were men (53 percent).

While 70 percent of Democrats supported a special tax on sodas that would fund efforts to fight childhood obesity, only 34 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of non-partisan or other party voters agreed. Among ethnic groups, the tax was favored by 72 percent of Latinos, 70 percent of African Americans, 53 percent of Asian Americans and 50 percent of whites.

Ethnic groups that favor a soda tax also consume the most soda at schools, according to the California Healthy Interview Survey. In 2007, 61.3 percent of African American and 49.9 percent of Latino children ages 12 to 17 bought a soda at school at least once a week. By comparison, 35.6 percent of white and 31.8 percent of Asian American children bought soda that often.

The Field Poll found similar disparities in voters' access to fresh produce and safe neighborhoods for kids.

Sixty-one percent of voters overall said it was very easy to find places nearby selling fresh fruit or vegetables. But the rate was much lower for African Americans (55 percent), Latinos (45 percent), and those with less than $20,000 household income (47 percent).

These groups were also the least likely to rate their neighborhoods as places that help kids be healthy.

Fewer than half of African Americans (48 percent), Latinos (41 percent), and those with less than $20,000 in household income (40 percent) rated their neighborhoods as excellent or good in this regard. By comparison, 62 percent of white and 59 percent of Asian American voters gave their neighborhoods such ratings.



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