Why policy? The implementation of good public health policies, which are supported by local, state, and federal legislation, is an efficient way to help the greatest number of people make positive changes in their lives. Rather than focusing on changing people’s behavior one person at a time, effective public policy makes positive changes in the environments in which we live. Practicing more healthful behavior becomes the “optimal default”— that is, choosing a more healthful behavior becomes easier, if not automatic. For example, an optimal default could be created if all national coffee chains changed their sales policy so their coffee drinks were, by default, made with low- or non-fat milk. If customers wanted whole milk drinks, they would have to ask for them (rather than the other way around). As a result, more people would probably switch to drinking non- or low-fat coffee drinks.
Imagine the optimal environment to combat obesity: affordable and healthful food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, would be easily accessible to people in low-income neighborhoods; television commercials for children would encourage them to eat fresh fruits and vegetables rather pushing processed snacks that are associated with TV and movie characters; fast food restaurants would not only lower the fat, salt, and sugar content and sizes of their meals, but also label their menus with nutrition information to help their customers make more healthful choices; schools and daycare centers would offer only healthful foods to children and every child would receive nutrition information and daily physical education; and every community would have safe sidewalks and walking trails to encourage physical activity. All of these changes, and more, can be addressed through good public policy.
At the Rudd Center, we conduct our own research, track others’, and alert policy makers when the findings can be used to write policy that would help create positive environments and optimal defaults around the country and the world.