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Field Poll: Kids eating, exercise heavier concern


California voters are more concerned that their kids are eating poorly or not exercising than that they’re abusing drugs or alcohol or having unsafe sex, according to Field Poll results released Wednesday.

The survey, which followed up on a similar poll done in 2003, showed a marked increase over the past decade in worry about habits that can lead to obesity and associated health problems.

Ten years ago, 53 percent of those polled said unhealthy eating or lack of physical activity was a top health concern, compared with 49 percent who picked illegal drug use. In 2013, when the new survey was done, 59 percent listed eating and physical activity as a top health concern, compared with 43 percent who named drug use. 

The results demonstrate that recent aggressive campaigns – such as first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program – that encourage healthy eating and exercise are starting to influence the public, at least in California, said experts in childhood health and obesity.

“Looking at these results, wow, the public is really starting to absorb a lot of the things we’ve been telling them for a long time,” said Dr. Carolyn Jasik, a pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. “Not only are they hearing that obesity is a problem, but they’re hearing how to make it better. They’re getting it from the media, the government, their doctors, their schools. It’s on everybody’s mind now.”

The Field Poll surveyed 1,002 registered voters in California in November and December. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Poll respondents were asked to choose the top two health risks for kids in California. After eating and exercise and illegal drug use, the next greatest concern was violence, which 31 percent of those surveyed chose. Sixteen percent said alcohol abuse, 11 percent said smoking, and 10 percent said unsafe sex was their greatest concern.

The rising worry about healthy eating and exercise habits actually coincides with slowly declining rates of obesity in California children. One study, released in 2011, found that the percent of overweight or obese children in California fell 1.1 percent a year from 2005 to 2010. About 38 percent of school-age children were overweight or obese in 2010.

In addition to the results about health concerns, the Field Poll revealed heavy voter support for policy changes that would make fresh fruit and vegetables more widely available and physical activity programs more affordable.

Also, 85 percent of those surveyed said it was “somewhat” or “very” important to increase marketing of healthy foods and beverages to kids. Seventy-five percent said it was somewhat or very important to stop marketing unhealthy food products to children.

Despite the well-publicized backlash against recent attempts to control sales of unhealthy foods – including a failed soda tax initiative in Richmond in 2012 – many voters in California seem to support programs that would encourage healthy habits, said Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo.

Childhood health experts said those results should draw the attention of politicians and other public health officials.

“There’s substantial public support for the types of initiatives that a lot of us in public health have been promoting,” said Dr. Thomas Robinson, director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Stanford University and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. “It’s good for elected officials and local and state government to take note of that.”

Erin Allday is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: