Q&A with Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode on obesity and public policy

Nov. 5, 2015, 3:37 p.m.

Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode’s paper, titled “Obesity and Public Policy: A Roadmap for Reform,” was recently published in the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law. The article outlines the causes and consequences of the obesity epidemic, justifications for government intervention and policies that have been most effective thus far. As obesity rates rise, constituting 17 percent of children and one-third of adults, Rhode urges us to act now on what we know as far as the success and limitations of past reforms.

The Daily spoke with Rhode about her article and the next steps towards obesity reform.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What made you interested in obesity prevention policies?

Deborah Rhode (DR): I had done a little bit of work for a book I wrote, “The Beauty Bias,” on weight discrimination, and that raised my interest. Then an opportunity came to develop a policy laboratory course at Stanford Law School on what Santa Clara County could do with respect to obesity prevention. In order to equip myself to teach the course, I felt I had to do a review of the field. And once I had done that, one thing led to another, and I decided to write it up as an article.

TSD: What have you observed to be the most effective measures for preventing obesity?

DR: The conventional wisdom is people need to exercise more and eat less, which is true. They also need to eat the right kind of food, and in order to nudge people in that direction, I think there are a variety of public policy initiatives that we can take advantage of. Taxing sugar-free soda would be an example of that. We also need to encourage fitness; there’s quite a bit of evidence that suggests that fitness is a better predictor of health than weight alone, except at the highest levels of morbid obesity.

We need to do more in terms of public policy to encourage kids from a very early age to be active and to engage in athletic activities and more to encourage adults to do the same. So everything from investing more money in physical education in the schools to better bike paths so that people can bike to work and encouraging employers to provide support for both healthy eating and fitness-related activities would be examples.

TSD: As far as education, is there a difference between how adults and children should be educated about obesity?

DR: As in every area of education, the instruction needs to be age-appropriate. And adults are likely to resent what [opponents call] the “nanny state” – people telling them what to do. But there are a variety of ways that we can inform individuals to help them make more healthy choices. Calorie counts in fast food restaurants are a good example of that because we know that even nutrition experts don’t make accurate assessments of what’s in fast food.

TSD: You mentioned the “nanny state,” but what other factors are holding back obesity reform?

DR: I think you have a very well-financed lobby on the other side – soft drink manufacturers, fast food manufacturers – who are really resistant to anything that might curtail consumption, which is part of the solution to the obesity problem.

TSD: What progress in obesity reform do you think we’ll see in the next 10 years?

DR: I think that the issue is now on the agenda in a way that it hasn’t been in the last quarter century. Part of this is due to the concerted efforts of health professionals, but certainly Michelle Obama’s initiative in focussing White House attention on this issue helped. And both state and federal government, as both employers and insurers, are extremely concerned with the prevention of obesity-related diseases. So I think you’ll see more public policy efforts in the next decade.


Contact Aulden Foltz at afoltz ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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