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Impact of obesity project is assessed

$15.7M effort raised awareness; longer effect unclear, officials say

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Pima County has one big fat problem.

Since 2010, the county has spent $15.7 million in federal stimulus money trying to correct that problem. But whether the money made a lasting impact on obesity will be an open question for some time, experts and those associated with the two-year Communities Putting Prevention to Work project say.

As Don Gates, the project manager, sees it, obesity is the greatest public-health concern the U.S. will face in the decades to come. In Pima County alone, half a billion dollars is spent annually on obesity-related health care, he said.

The 2010 federal grant was intended to help prevent and reduce obesity and related diseases, with about $2.3 million spent on a public-awareness campaign.

A recently completed evaluation of the program found it raised community awareness of the issue. But the evaluation cited no specific measures of success. That will have to be measured over time, those associated with the program said.

In some ways, the obesity project had more of a challenge than anti-smoking or underage-drinking campaigns because rather than telling people to drop a bad habit, the county encouraged them to incorporate healthier choices into their lifestyles, said Melanie Hingle, assistant research professor at the University of Arizona's nutritional sciences department.

"It's very hard to assess the marketing contribution to the overall impact," she said. "But what a public-education campaign can do is raise awareness and point people toward resources that will help them live healthier."

One specific drawback, she noted, was that the campaign's theme line, "This Is My Healthy," wasn't very specific.

County Supervisor Ann Day, who opposed the program, remains critical of it. She said she recognizes obesity as a serious problem, but it can't be solved by the federal government simply "throwing money at it."

"Ultimately, it will prove to be a waste of taxpayer money," she said.

"At the end of the day, your personal health is the result of your personal decisions," Gates said. "But I think we have a responsibility to provide opportunities for people to make healthy choices. And that's what (the program) was about."

Most of the $15.7 million went to community organizations that used it to increase local production of fruits and vegetables, expand farmers markets in underserved areas and support nearly 200 schools with nutritional education.

Getting the word out, Gates said, was absolutely key. Through more than 50 vendors, Pima County budgeted $2.3 million for public education. The money bought ads in every medium and covered printing costs for posters and other promotional materials.

The company receiving the most advertising money was Journal Broadcast Group, with roughly $245,000, followed by Raycom America Inc. and Dark Horse Media. Raycom received $203,000 and Dark Horse Media $175,000. The biggest one-time expenditure was $63,750, paid to IMG Communications Inc. to promote the health program through Arizona Athletics.

"When we take on public-health issues, generally, the approach has been education. That's a very slow and time-consuming process," said County Supervisor Richard Elías. "There is no magic bullet."

Quantifying the obesity program's long-term impact isn't possible yet because it just ended, Gates said.

But he said signs of short-term success can already be measured.

Gates said Pima County was successful in reaching its target audience, made up of caregivers of children between the ages of 3 and 5, although only 46 percent of those with children in their household felt the TV ads increased the likelihood they would choose healthier options. By comparison, 70 percent of younger adults, from ages 18 to 24, felt encouraged to live healthier.

Other highlights from the county's evaluation of the media campaign:

• Two-thirds of residents polled recalled at least one campaign advertisement.

• Half the people who considered themselves in "fair/poor" health said the campaign made them more interested in living healthy. Everyone else was below 45 percent.

• Precampaign, 64.7 percent of residents said they partook in a physical activity over the previous month. Post-campaign, that number shot up 20 points to 84.7 percent.

• From the ads, most people recalled general "health" and "activity" themes, while almost nobody answered with "," "National health initiatives" or "Being healthy can be fun."

Gates said the "value-added" component of the campaign is that many program ads - about $1.9 million worth of airtime - ran for free because TV and radio stations had to fill up commercial slots.

If the program is successful, and Pima County becomes healthier as a result of reducing obesity rates, the results will be seen in decreased insurance costs, boosted productivity at work, more usable income and longer life expectancies, Elías said.

Elías, a member of the county's health board, recommended residents take small steps to achieve their health goals.

"I can eat menudo. I just don't have to eat the whole pot at once," he said. "Use your head and remember that it takes time. You think you can cut people off of Big Macs overnight? Not happening."

Though the public-education campaign is over, Gates said he hopes people continue to discuss and understand the detrimental effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.

"We have to recognize the impacts of obesity on us as individuals, a community and as a nation," he said. "Obesity prevention is something that everybody can support. They may not quite understand its importance yet, but with time, I hope that they will."

Amer Taleb is a University of Arizona student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact him at or 573-4117.

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