MAY 5, 2006 | Arkansas’ childhood obesity law has put the state on a national stage and James M. Raczynski, Ph.D., dean of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health, has been front and center along with other members of the UAMS evaluation team.
“Everyone is looking to Arkansas to learn from our experience,” Raczynski said, noting that numerous states have approved or at least considered childhood obesity laws using Arkansas’ Act 1220 as a model.
The college’s evaluation of the implementation and impact of Act 1220 of 2003 as summarized most recently in a “Year Two Evaluation” report played a prominent role at the annual conference of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in San Francisco in March. Raczynski was one of three presenters at a news conference that highlighted the more significant movements in behavioral medicine.
“They picked the presentations they thought were the most interesting and they picked ours not so much because of what we’re doing in the college but because of Act 1220 itself,” Raczynski said.
When the Maryland state legislature was considering childhood obesity measures using Arkansas’ law as a model recently, Raczynski was interviewed by the National Public Radio affiliate in Baltimore, and he later received a call from the legislator sponsoring the bill.
“We in Arkansas are really leading the nation in our efforts to address childhood obesity through legislative action,” he said. “So we are setting the standard for everyone else to try to reach.”
Despite an epidemic of Type II diabetes among children, Arkansas lawmakers raised eyebrows around the country when they agreed in 2003 to require body mass index measurements in public schools and the development of other policies to improve diet and physical activity.
In 2004 a group of economists and health policy researchers at the University of Baltimore gave Arkansas the top score among all states for setting school nutritional standards, limiting vending machine usage, measuring students’ body mass index, mandating physical activity and establishing statewide and local obesity committees.
Arkansas’ law also continues to get attention as it is evaluated annually by the College of Public Health. With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the college is charged with providing a thoroughly researched assessment of the law’s implementation and its impact.
There’s been no drop in obesity rates so far, but local districts are already making voluntary changes to reduce childhood obesity even before mandatory policy changes have been required.
The Arkansas Department of Education Rules and Regulations now prohibit student purchases from vending machines until 30 minutes after the last lunch period and limit the beverage size to 12 ounces. The rules also require that at point of purchase, at least 50 percent of beverage selections in vending machines, school stores and other sales venues be 100 percent fruit juice, low-fat or fat-free milk, or unflavored unsweetened water.
The required creation of Local Nutrition and Physical Activity Advisory Committees has and will continue to play a key role in the voluntary changes seen at many schools, Raczynski said.
“Local school environments are beginning to change, and many are providing healthier choices for their students,” Raczynski said. “These changes, along with increases in physical activity, should begin to reduce childhood obesity.”