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Childhood Obesity and Poverty in Puerto Rico

While recent news from Puerto Rico has focused primarily on the territory’s desperate financial situation, one bill has cut through the stories on bankruptcy, taxes, and residents leaving the islands: the proposal to fine parents of obese children as much as $800.

The proposed law would have had schools identify obese children and work with parents to develop plans to help the kids get in shape. If there was not progress in six months, parents would be fined $500. In twelve months, the fine would rise to $800.

Childhood obesity is a public health problem in Puerto Rico as it is throughout the United States. In fact, Puerto Rico’s rates of childhood obesity are at 28% to 30% (depending on source), which is higher than the U.S. average of 18% and higher than that of any State.

However, if we look at those States with higher than average obesity rates, we see that the rates are higher in poorer states. Mississippi, currently the poorest State in the nation, has a childhood obesity rate of 21.7, the highest among the States. In the States overall, children in low income households are more than twice as likely to be obese as those from higher income households.

Is there a causal connection between poverty and obesity? Scholars disagree, but the most likely reasons for the correlation include the relative availability of healthy versus unhealthy foods in low-income neighborhoods, greater opportunity to participate in sports and other athletic activities among more privileged children, and reliance on fast foods in low-income households.

The anti-obesity legislation is not likely to become law. Instead, Puerto Rico’s first lady announced last October that she would endorse a plan from the Pan American Health Organization designed to help reduce childhood obesity, and several educational initiatives have been undertaken in recent years.


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