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Americans Rate Obesity as Biggest Health Threat

The obesity crisis handily beats smoking and drinking as the most serious US health concern in a new poll.

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Obesity is worrying more Americans than
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By Hunter R. Slaton

07/20/12

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According to a new Gallup poll, 81% of Americans feel that obesity is an “extremely” or “very” serious problem in society—significantly more than those who worry to the same degree about smoking (67%) or alcohol (47%). Gallup has conducted the same poll three times since 2003, with concern over obesity shooting up markedly over the other two. In 2003, 56% of respondents described obesity as extremely or very serious; the cigarette score was 57%. But by 2005, alarm over obesity hit 69%, surpassing smoking's 66%. Anxiety about alcohol’s ill effects has meanwhile held fairly steady: at 46% in 2003, 53% in 2005, and 47% this year.

These numbers track with government data on obesity rates, binge drinking and smoking. While the percentage of US adults who engage in binge or heavy drinking has hovered at 14–16% since the early '90s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity rates have nearly doubled—from 19.4% of the adult population in 1997 to 35.7% in 2010. (Meanwhile, smoking rates have declined from 25.5% in 1990 to 19.3% in 2010.) Another reason for the growing concern over obesity could be the increasing media and government attention, from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s war on jumbo sodas to First Lady Michelle Obama’s crusade against childhood obesity.

One issue not addressed by the Gallup poll, however, is the surge in prescription-drug abuse and attendant OD deaths: the toll reached 15,000 in 2008, more than three times the number of OD deaths (4,000) reported in 1999. At what point will this Rx pill epidemic be worrying enough to warrant inclusion in future health-threat surveys?

This table from the Gallup poll shows the increase in concern over obesity, compared with relatively steady anxiety over cigarettes and alcohol:

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