Obesity crisis? Despite misgivings, Canadians support government intervention on junk food
Most see obesity as a “personal” issue, but back Senate’s front-of-package labeling recommendations
April 26, 2016 – In the eyes of many, Canada is a country in the midst of an “obesity crisis.”
That’s the phrase used in a recent report by the Canadian Senate’s committee on social affairs that issued 21 recommendations on how government can address this issue.
But is it government’s place to fight this fight? A new public opinion poll from the Angus Reid Institute suggests Canadians have at least some reservations about Ottawa’s role in compelling people to eat better.
And though they support most of the committee’s recommendations, many Canadians are skeptical that these measures will help reduce rates of obesity in their country.
- Most Canadians (58%) have someone in their household who is overweight or obese, either themselves or another person
- The vast majority (81%) of those who are themselves overweight or obese say it’s something that worries them
- Canadians are divided on the overall nature of this issue – a narrow majority (54%) say government shouldn’t tell people what to eat, but majorities support key Senate recommendations on access to and information about junk food
Statistics Canada reports the number of Canadians aged 18 or older who are either overweight or obese at 14.2 million people, which works out to about half of the total adult population.
The percentage of Canadians who perceive themselves as carrying extra weight – as reported in this survey – is slightly lower. Asked whether they consider themselves to be either overweight or obese, most (54%) say they are neither, while 37 per cent say they are overweight. Fewer than one-in-ten (8%) self-identify as “.”
Roughly the same number of Canadians say someone else in their household is either overweight (31%) or obese (9%).
Taken together, these two questions yield a total of 58 per cent of Canadians who acknowledge some extra pounds in their household, either their own (44%) or a household member’s (14%), as seen in the following graph:
For those who assess themselves or someone else at home as overweight, this is a source of concern. More than eight-in-ten (81%) say they’re either “very” or “moderately” concerned about their own weight, and roughly the same number say this about the weight of someone else in their household (79%):
But is it a “Crisis”?
If obesity is, in fact, a crisis, Canadians are relatively underwhelmed by it.
Asked to rank the importance of rising levels of obesity on a five-point scale, with a 1 meaning that it’s among “the least important issues facing Canada today” and a 5 meaning it’s among the most important, Canadians largely settle in the middle, and fewer than one-in-ten choose either extreme, as seen in the following graph:
Compare this to two recent ARI studies that asked the same question: On rising food prices, fully half (53%) of all Canadians chose a 4 or a 5 on the scale, while on marijuana legalization, roughly the same number chose a 1 or a 2.
This comparatively lukewarm concern about rising rates of obesity may reflect a belief that this is an issue ripe for government overreach.
Asked to choose between two broad characterizations of the obesity issue – as “a public health issue” requiring government intervention and as “a personal freedom issue” that government should stay out of – Canadians lean narrowly toward the latter (54% choose it).
The overall results on this question suggest pushback against any perceived “social engineering” around the issue on the part of government. Examples of such could include British Columbia’s 2008 decision to ban junk food in hospital vending machines, or the ill-fated New York City proposal to limit the size of sugary drinks restaurants could legally sell.
A 2012 Angus Reid poll on food restrictions in the United States that mentioned the New York soda fight found that roughly 60 per cent of Americans said government prohibiting certain foods would be “unacceptable.”
As previously mentioned, there are no significant differences in opinion on this question between those who are overweight or live with someone who is, and those who have no personal exposure to weight issues. There are significant differences by age and gender, however. As seen in the following graph, younger women are far more likely to see discussion and action on reducing obesity rates as the domain of government:
Senate recommendations on labelling, access to junk food
Regardless of how Canadians see this issue, it is one the Senate has decided to bite down on. And though Canadians are wary of government telling them what to eat, this survey finds high levels of support for many of the recommendations the Senate committee put forward.
The proposal that government implement a tax on artificially sweetened beverages is by far the most controversial of the Senate committee’s recommendations, a finding possibly reflective of the more “invasive” nature of such a policy.
“Front-of-Package” labeling – requiring nutritional information to be on the front of all food packing – is the most palatable option for Canadians: 87 per cent support such an endeavor. As a trip down the aisles at any grocery store will show, many companies already employ F-P-L, but without a standardized and regulated format, critics say that labels can be confusing or misleading as to their nutritional value.
The Red Chamber’s recently published report repeatedly mentions concerns over the sedentary nature of modern living, though it stops short of recommending the type of Adult Fitness Tax Credit promoted, but never realized, by the previous federal government.
When asked about this, Canadians are evenly split:
And while no consensus is apparent, those who identify themselves as overweight or obese are more likely to support it (54% who say they’re overweight, 64% who say they’re obese), and more likely to believe such a strategy would be effective at lowering the rate of obesity in Canada.
This Angus Reid Institute survey also asked Canadians to weigh in on other policy options not included in the Senate report. Support for these ideas – with one notable exception – was generally lower:
Women tend to be more likely than men to support each of these proposals, although unlike on the overall question about government intervention, there is little difference in opinion between young women and older women (see comprehensive tables for greater detail).
Which options would be the most effective?
Though it receives more support from Canadians than any other Senate recommendation, Front-of-Package labelling does not score quite as high with respondents on the issue of efficacy.
While almost nine-in-ten Canadians agree with the concept, just seven-in-ten (68%) believe it would be effective in reducing the obesity rate in this country. Nearly all of the options presented replicate this view; effectiveness consistently lags behind support for proposed solutions to the obesity problem:
There are a number possible explanations for why Canadians are less positive about the ultimate outcomes of these policies. As seen in a recent ARI survey, roughly 40 per cent of Canadians say they’ve been eating less healthily because of rising food prices. This segment may support front-of-package labeling, for instance, but not see it as effective because it doesn’t make healthy foods more affordable. Others may simply doubt that such labeling would deter Canadians from buying “unhealthy” foods that they find tasty.
Notably, those who identify as obese are more likely on every measure to say that these policies would be effective.
Ultimately, there is no shortage of options for policy makers regarding what can be done to tackle what is seen as a growing problem in Canada. If this Angus Reid Institute study is any indication, Canadians are – at this stage – on board with government taking steps to shift Canadians toward healthier consumption patterns, even if they are more equivocal about the efficacy of such measures.
The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) was founded in October 2014 by pollster and sociologist, Dr. Angus Reid. ARI is a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research organization established to advance education by commissioning, conducting and disseminating to the public accessible and impartial statistical data, research and policy analysis on economics, political science, philanthropy, public administration, domestic and international affairs and other socio-economic issues of importance to Canada and its world.
Shachi Kurl, Executive Director: 604.908.1693 firstname.lastname@example.org