The public is very supportive of government action aimed at changing lifestyle choices that can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other noncommunicable diseases — but they’re less likely to support such interventions if they’re viewed as intrusive or coercive, according to a new Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) study. The study also found that support was higher for interventions that help people make more healthful choices, such as menu labeling requirements, than for interventions that penalize certain choices or health conditions, such as charging higher insurance premiums for obese individuals.

“Policymakers everywhere are looking for ways to use legal and policy levers to stem the rising tide of health care costs related to obesity and chronic disease,” said Stephanie Morain, a doctoral candidate in health policy at Harvard University, who led the study. “They should be heartened by these findings — the public does see this as an appropriate role for government.” That public support is important, the study authors wrote, because it may affect people’s willingness to comply with the law.

The study appears in the March 2013 issue of Health Affairs.

In recent years, lifestyle choices such as overeating, physical inactivity, and alcohol and tobacco use have led to troubling increases in chronic ailments in the U.S. In response, health departments and legislative bodies have adopted policies aimed at combating the behavioral risk factors that lead to ill health, such as banning trans fats in restaurants, raising taxes on cigarettes, and screening schoolchildren for high body mass index.

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