Americans Put Obesity on par With Smoking in Terms of Harmful Effects

by Frank Newport

Most Americans sympathetic to plight of the obese

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans are as likely to say that being significantly overweight is very harmful to one's health as say this about smoking. More than one-quarter of Americans report that obesity has been a cause of serious health problems in their family. Americans are more than three times as likely to say they are sympathetic to those who are significantly overweight as to say they are unsympathetic.

Harmfulness

Gallup's Annual July "Consumption" Poll asks Americans a variety of questions about their behaviors relating to what they ingest in one form or another: cigarette smoke, alcohol, and food. This year, the series of questions relating to excessive food consumption reveal the fact that Americans are apparently well aware of the negative effects of being significantly overweight. In fact, almost all Americans recognize that being significantly overweight is harmful, and most of those say that it is "very" harmful.

In general, how harmful do you feel obesity is to adults who are significantly overweight -- very harmful, somewhat harmful, not too harmful, or not at all harmful?

           


Very harmful

Some-what harmful


Not too harmful


Not at all harmful


DEPENDS
(vol.)


No opinion

2007 Jul 12-15

83%

15

*

*

*

1

* Less than 0.5%

There is little difference in this perception between Americans who describe themselves as overweight and those who say they weigh about the right amount. The vast majority of both groups say being overweight could be very harmful.

In general, how harmful do you feel obesity is to adults who are significantly overweight -- very harmful, somewhat harmful, not too harmful, or not at all harmful?

           


Very harmful

Some-what harmful


Not too harmful


Not at all harmful


DEPENDS
(vol.)


No opinion

%

%

%

%

%

%

Describe self as overweight

79

20

*

*

-

*

Describe self as "about right" as far as weight is concerned

86

11

1

1

1

1

* Less than 0.5%

Note: Too few Americans classify themselves as "underweight" to provide meaningful results

The poll included the same "harmful to your health" question about smoking. Given the enormous amount of attention focused on the detrimental impact of smoking on one's health, it is noteworthy to find that Americans are no less likely to say that being obese is very harmful to their health than to say the same about smoking.

How Harmful Are the Following to One's Health

           


Very harmful

Some-what harmful


Not too harmful


Not at all harmful


DEPENDS
(vol.)


No opinion

%

%

%

%

%

%

Being obese

83

15

*

*

*

1

Smoking

79

14

3

2

1

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Less than 0.5%

The patterns of responses to these two questions are very similar, and not statistically distinguishable. The data indicate that the public today is essentially equally aware of the harmful effects of both of these conditions -- being a smoker and being significantly overweight.

Has Obesity Been a Cause of Serious Health Problems?

Twenty-eight percent of Americans say that obesity has been a cause of serious health problems in their family.

Has obesity ever been a cause of serious health problems in your family?

Yes

No

No opinion

2007 Jul 12-15

28%

71

1

Those most likely to say that obesity has been a cause of serious health problems are women, particularly women between the ages of 18 and 49, those living in lower income households, and those who describe their own physical health as only fair or poor.

Forty-three percent of Americans say that smoking has been a cause of serious health problems in their family, significantly higher than is the case for obesity. This is despite the fact that Americans are just as likely to believe in theory that being obese is a very seriously harmful health problem as they are to believe that about smoking.

Sympathetic Toward Obese People?

Three-quarters of Americans say they are sympathetic toward those who are obese because, as described in the question wording: "…it is difficult for them to lose weight even if they want to." Just 21% of Americans are unsympathetic to obese people because "…they do not lose weight even though they know being overweight is harmful to their health".

Which of the following statements better describes your view toward people who are obese -- [ROTATED: you are unsympathetic toward people who are obese because they do not lose weight even though they know being overweight is harmful to their health, (or) you are sympathetic toward people who are obese because you understand that it is difficult for them to lose weight even if they want to]?

           

Unsympathetic toward obese

Sympathetic toward obese

BOTH/
MIXED
(vol.)

No
opinion

2007 Jul 12-15

21%

74

4

1

There is very little difference in sympathy toward obese people between those who themselves are overweight and those who report that their weight is about right.

Which of the following statements better describes your view toward people who are obese -- [ROTATED: you are unsympathetic toward people who are obese because they do not lose weight even though they know being overweight is harmful to their health, (or) you are sympathetic toward people who are obese because you understand that it is difficult for them to lose weight even if they want to]?                       

           

Unsympathetic toward obese

Sympathetic toward obese

BOTH/
MIXED
(vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

Describe self as overweight

17

79

4

1

Describe self as "about right" as far as weight is concerned

22

73

4

1

Men are slightly more judgmental than are women toward those who are significantly overweight; 25% of men say they are unsympathetic, compared to 17% of women.

Which of the following statements better describes your view toward people who are obese -- [ROTATED: you are unsympathetic toward people who are obese because they do not lose weight even though they know being overweight is harmful to their health, (or) you are sympathetic toward people who are obese because you understand that it is difficult for them to lose weight even if they want to]?

                       

Unsympathetic toward obese

Sympathetic toward obese

BOTH/
MIXED
(vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

Men

25

70

3

1

Women

17

78

4

1

Comparatively, Americans are more sympathetic toward those who are obese than toward those who smoke, although it is not clear from the poll why this is the case.

Sympathy for Those who Are Obese Versus Those who Smoke

           

Unsympathetic

Sympathetic

BOTH/
MIXED
(vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

Being obese

21

74

4

1

Smoking*

37

58

4

2

 

 

 

 

*Exact wording of question as asked about smoking: Which of the following statements better describes your view toward people who smoke -- [ROTATED: you are unsympathetic toward smokers because they continue to smoke even when they know it's harmful to their health and the health of those around them, or you are sympathetic toward smokers because they are addicted, and you understand that it is difficult to stop even if they want to]?

Summary

It is clear that medical knowledge about the negative impact of being overweight has percolated into the minds of the average American, almost all of whom agree that being obese is harmful to one's health. In fact, the message has come through so clearly that at this point Americans are just as likely to say that being obese is very harmful as to say the same about smoking -- long the target of both governmental and private industry public education campaigns.

Still, Americans are for the most part sympathetic toward those who are significantly overweight, more so than they are for those who smoke. Apparently, the public is more willing to believe that obesity is a condition more under one's voluntary control than is the case for smoking.

A little more than one-fourth of Americans say that obesity has been a cause of problems for their family, less than is the case for smoking.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,001 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 12-15, 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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