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Understanding Unhealthy Options

dining kidNew study analyzes the local availability and marketing of food, alcohol and tobacco

Adults may pay little mind to the barrage of advertisements plastered on the exteriors of corner markets and liquor stores, but children take them in—unhealthy messaging and all, says Dr. Lisa Hernandez, health officer for Santa Cruz County.

“Adults don’t necessarily see the advertisements or tactics for advertising at stores as being unacceptable or unhealthy, but if you look at a storefront you will see the advertisements for beer or alcohol or a specific sign for a tobacco product,” she says.

The amount of outside store advertising for things like beer, cigarettes and junk food was just one element analyzed in a recently released, statewide study by the freshly launched Healthy Stores for a Healthy Community campaign. The first-of-its-kind study looked at the availability and marketing of alcohol, food and tobacco products at more than 7,300 stores across California’s 58 counties, including 134 stores in Santa Cruz County. Local youth were trained and deployed to carry out the county’s portion of the research, which focused on a variety of stores—supermarkets, liquor stores, discount stores, big box stores and more—that have tobacco licenses.

The study’s three-pronged focus on food, alcohol and tobacco gives it unique—and useful—insight.

“Those are big factors that impact the health of the community,” says Hernandez. “We know that 80 percent of all deaths in California are due to preventable things [for which] the root causes are unhealthy foods, smoking and alcohol consumption. The things we’re looking at—obesity, diabetes, heart disease, [some] cancer—those are due to those three big habits. We’re finally looking at those pieces together and looking at ways we can impact behavior change by partnering with our stores.”

Given that nearly 60 percent of local adults and 40 percent of youth are overweight or obese, Hernandez says she wasn’t surprised by the results. “We have a lot of work to do,” she says.           

The study found that 70 percent of stores surveyed in Santa Cruz County had “unhealthy” exterior advertising while just 10 percent boasted “healthy” storefront messaging. In the same way that children pick up on this in a more impressionable way, Hernandez points to other areas of the research that especially affect children. Placement of unhealthy foods like chips and soda near the check-out, for instance, is ubiquitous and also potentially harmful. Forty-six percent of local stores looked at had sugary beverages near the check-out.

“There are certain areas of the store that are prime locations, where if you place products there you are more likely that that product will be sold,” she says.

Moving forward, a coalition of local agencies, including the county’s Health Services Agency, will utilize the data by educating consumers on how to make healthier choices and retailers on how to improve the messaging and placement of items in their stores.

“Part of it is education to both the retailers and to the community and its parents,” she says. “Maybe there is a happy compromise in terms of where we can move products so that they aren’t enticing kids.”

For the chips and candy at kid-eye-level in the check-out aisle, or the placement of sodas, she says that answer could perhaps be “replacing that with fruit or moving [the less healthy items] to another location or higher up on the shelf.” One of the HSA’s partner organizations, United Way of Santa Cruz County, has a youth program called Jóvenes SANOS that has been working with stores, mostly in South County, to do just that. Hernandez also points to Sen. Bill Monning’s (D-Carmel) sweetened beverage warning label legislation as an example of education that could empower people to make healthier choices.

These sorts of changes will be particularly impactful in certain areas of the county, known as food deserts, where the healthy shopping and eating options are slim.

“Even in a place where they may not have another option to buy food they still have the right to understand the impacts these products are having on their own health or their family’s health and perhaps make a better decision,” Hernandez says.

The March 5 release of the study marked the launch of a 10-year effort planned for the Healthy Stores for a Healthy Community campaign. In the early stages locally, Hernandez says to expect continued efforts to address the issues in the coming years.

“This is the first step—knowing where we are,” she says. “We know this won’t be an easy task but we have to start having the conversation.” 

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