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Legal Approaches to Addressing Obesity: A New Focus and an Upcoming Event

posted on Tue, Feb 12 2013 10:08 am by Daniel G. Orenstein

Obesity is one of the most pressing public health concerns of the modern era. America faces an intractable epidemic with over two-thirds of adults and nearly a third of children now overweight or obese. The problem has been long in coming. Future projections based on current trends are even more alarming. This is not revelatory news – numerous public health officials and scholars have been sounding the alarms on obesity and its associated health problems for years but have seen little progress. Two recent trends, however, present unique opportunities for public health law to engage in reversing the epidemic.

First, there is increasing public recognition that obesity is a serious societal problem. In a 2012 poll, 75 percent of respondents nationally said obesity was an extremely or very serious issue (95 percent said it was at least moderately serious). In comparison, 62 percent said alcohol and drug abuse was an extremely or very serious problem, and only 48 percent said the same for smoking and tobacco use. This represents a substantial increase in awareness and concern regarding obesity compared to several years ago, when only 57 percent of respondents in a similar poll cited obesity as an extremely or very serious problem.

Second, there is a new focus on potential legal avenues, at all levels of government, to reduce and prevent obesity. Among many recent examples are new federal menu labeling requirements under the Affordable Care Act (which will take effect in early 2014), and local ordinances restricting promotional giveaway items for unhealthy food products intended for children. The Network offers a variety of resources, including technical assistance through partners at ChangeLab Solutions and the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), on these and many other legal approaches to combating obesity.

Despite broad agreement that obesity is a serious problem and increasing recognition of the value of legal interventions to address it, disagreement persists over the appropriate steps government should pursue regarding obesity. Continued dialogue and innovative thinking are essential. On February 22, the Duke Forum for Law & Social Change will host a symposium entitled America’s Obesity Problem: Legal Mechanisms for Prevention at the Duke University School of Law. The symposium will explore a variety of legal strategies to address obesity. Among the speakers are three Network Leaders: Southeastern Region Director Gene Matthews, J.D.; Western Region Director James G. Hodge Jr., J.D., LL.M.; myself — Western Region Deputy Director Dan Orenstein, J.D.; as well as ChangeLab Solutions senior planner Heather Wooten, M.C.P.

At the symposium, James G. Hodge and I will present our forthcoming article, New Frontiers in Obesity Control: Innovative Legal Approaches to Obesity Prevention (co-authored with Western Region Deputy Director Leila Barraza, J.D., M.P.H.; Arizona attorney Alicia Corbett, J.D.; and J.D./Ph.D. student Lexi White). The article sets out five innovative legal proposals for addressing obesity: 1) obesity-laden pricing for obesogenic foods; 2) healthy food savings accounts to make healthy food more affordable; 3) restaurant tax incentives to encourage sales of healthier food; 4) healthy weight tax credits to encourage healthy behaviors and healthy weight; and 5) bans on sale and possession of sugar-sweetened beverages among minors.

This information was developed by Daniel G. Orenstein, J.D., deputy director, Network for Public Health Law – Western Region at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. The views expressed in this post do not represent those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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