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A new study released Monday appears to offer the first evidence that laws strictly cracking down on the sale of junk food and sugary drinks in schools may help slow childhood obesity.
The Associated Press cautions, however, that the results from the first comprehensive look at the effectiveness of such state laws are "not a slam-dunk," and that regardless of the study's findings, the laws themselves are likely to remain politically controversial.
Researchers followed 6,300 students in 40 states for a three-year period ending in 2007, during which they tracked their weight changes as they moved from fifth to eighth grade. On average, those students in states with strong laws regulating their access to junk food gained less weight than those in states with no such laws. Moreover, the study found that overweight students were more likely to reach a healthy weight in more heavily regulated states.
To be clear, the study does not specifically claim that the stronger laws caused the difference in the students' weights, though the findings do suggest what the New York Times calls a "strong association between healthier weight and tough state laws."
The laws that the researchers focused on pertain to snacks bought from vending machines or snack bars that compete with the school's more formal lunch and breakfast programs. To be considered a strong law, the measures had to be nutritionally specific—and go beyond simply recommending "healthy" snacks.
The findings were published in Pediatrics, a medical journal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 1 in 5 American children are obese.