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Originally published Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 5:37 AM

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Poll: Fight obesity crisis but lay off my junk food

It’s a new year, and lots of people worry about the obesity crisis. A poll shows many people are open to change, but they do not want government to go after junk food.

The Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — Everyone could use a little help keeping those New Year’s resolutions to slim down. But if it means the government limiting junk food, the response is an overwhelming, “No.”

Americans call obesity a national health crisis and blame too much screen time and cheap fast food for fueling it. But a new poll finds people are split on how much the government should do to help — and most draw the line at attempts to force healthier eating.

A third of people say the government should be deeply involved in finding solutions to the epidemic. A similar proportion want it to play little or no role, and the rest are somewhere in the middle, according to the poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Require more physical activity in school, or provide nutritional guidelines to help people make better choices? Sure, 8 in 10 support those steps. Make restaurants post calorie counts on their menus, as the Food and Drug Administration is poised to do? Some 70 percent think it’s a good idea.

“That’s a start,” said Khadijah Al-Amin, 52, of Coatesville, Pa. “The fat content should be put up there in red letters, not just put up there. The same way they mark something that’s poisonous, so when you see it, you absolutely know.”

But nearly 6 in 10 people surveyed oppose taxes targeting unhealthful foods, known as soda taxes or fat taxes.

And when it comes to restricting what people can buy — like New York City’s recent ban of supersized sodas in restaurants — three-quarters say, “No way.”

“The outlawing of sugary drinks, that’s just silly,” said Keith Donner, 52, of Miami, who prefers teaching schoolchildren to eat better and get moving.

Despite the severity of the problem, most of those surveyed say dealing with obesity is up to individuals. Just a third consider obesity a community problem that governments, schools, health care providers and the food industry should be involved in. Twelve percent said it will take work from both individuals and the community.

Societal changes in recent decades have helped spur growing waistlines, and now a third of U.S. children and teens and two-thirds of adults are either overweight or obese. Today, restaurants dot more street corners and malls, regular-sized portions are larger, and a fast-food meal can be cheaper than healthier fare. Not to mention electronic distractions that slightly more people surveyed blamed for obesity than fast food.

In the current environment, it’s difficult to exercise that personal responsibility, said Jeff Levi of the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, which has closely tracked the rise in obesity.

“We need to create environments where the healthy choice becomes the easy choice, where it’s possible for people to bear that responsibility,” he said.

The new poll suggests women, who have major input on what a family eats, recognize those societal and community difficulties more than men do.

More than half of women say the high cost of healthful food is a major driver of obesity, compared with just 37 percent of men.

Patricia Wilson, 53, of rural Speedwell, Tenn., says she must drive 45 minutes to reach a grocery store — passing numerous burger and pizza joints, with more arriving every year.

“They shouldn’t be letting all these fast-food places go up,” said Wilson, who nags her children and grandchildren to eat at home and watch their calories. She recalls how her own overweight grandmother lost both her legs and then her life to diabetes.

More than 80 percent of people in the poll said they had easy access to supermarkets, but just as many could easily get fast food. An additional 68 percent said it was easy for kids to purchase junk food on their way to school, potentially foiling diet-conscious caregivers like Wilson, who doesn’t allow her grandchildren to eat unhealthful snacks at home.

Food is only part of the obesity equation; physical activity is key, too. About 7 in 10 people said it was easy to find sidewalks or paths for jogging, walking or bike-riding. But 63 percent found it difficult to run errands or get around without a car, reinforcing a sedentary lifestyle.

Associated Press writer Stacy A. Anderson and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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