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Editorial: Choice, Not Mandates, Can Curb Obesity

Public-health experts have sounded the alarm on obesity for decades and with good reason. In 1962, 13 percent of American adults were considered obese. By 2010, that number had risen to 35.7 percent.

The causes of the so-called obesity epidemic are easy to identify: changes in diets and more sedentary lifestyles have been cited nearly universally. The solutions to America's weight problem, however, are less agreed upon.

From Michelle Obama's healthy-school-food initiative to ad campaigns promoting active living to redesigned FDA nutrition labels, the methods for suggesting change to unhealthy habits have been varied. But new research cowritten by a University of Iowa researcher suggests that higher taxes for soda should not be among them.

Older studies finding a correlation between taxes on soda and a reduction in obesity were looking at the wrong data, according to the authors of the study: David Frisvold, a UI assistant professor of economics, and colleagues Jason Fletcher and Nathan Tefft.

When they looked at individual consumption patterns instead of household data, the researchers found that high soda taxes did not make a statistically significant difference in obesity rates. While Americans drank less soda in areas of higher taxes, they replaced the calories with other foods.

The findings turn the tables on conventional wisdom of using taxes as a disincentive for unhealthy behavior, and the study suggests a change to policies that use this rationale: “We need fundamental changes to policies that make large soda taxes a key element in the fight to reduce overall obesity rates,” it reads.

Of course, putting a stop to higher taxes on unhealthy food and drinks won't solve the obesity epidemic. In addition to halting ineffective measures, policymakers should take proactive steps when the habits that cause obesity are developed: during childhood.

Again, we see that attempting to mandate certain food choices leads to lackluster results. Michelle Obama's Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act required schools across the nation to adhere to nutritional standards when serving lunches, which have proven unpopular among kids.

According to the Government Accountability Office, more than 1 million children have stopped buying school lunches after the health standards were implemented in the 2012-13 school year. The drop is particularly alarming considering that participation among students in lunch programs had been steadily increasing for more than a decade prior. Students, especially those in middle school and high school, were found using vending machines and buying off-campus food more often in response to the eliminated foods.

But when given the choice, not the mandate, of healthy foods, a new study conducted in Iowa has found benefits.

The study, published in the Journal of Public Health, had Muscatine High School offer healthy options such as apples, granola bars, string cheese, and carrots in concessions stands for school sports events. After a full season, the researchers found revenues stayed the same or even increased after the additions.

These studies show that Americans of all ages respond disagreeably to health choices forced on them. For many, higher taxation of soda and food prohibition in schools is antithetical to individual responsibility, and moreover, these policies don't seem to work. In light of all this, action against obesity should focus on the freedom to make healthy choices, not taking away the freedom to make unhealthy ones.


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