By Jennifer Chaussee
(Reuters) - Fighting obesity by taxing sugary drinks and restricting junk food advertisements aimed at children has support from a wide majority of residents surveyed in a Southern California public health study released on Thursday.
The findings from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health come as friction mounts between the beverage industry and health advocates over the best way to fight obesity and diabetes, tied by studies to over-consumption of soda, sweets and junk food.
“There have been a lot of arguments against this sort of policy," including claims it will cost the poor more to buy food, said Paul Simon, head of chronic disease prevention for the county and lead author of the study.
But Simon said nearly two-thirds of those surveyed by the county in a broad 2011 assessment of public attitudes toward health issues, said they supported a soda tax, and three-quarters favored limiting junk food advertising.
Public health advocates across the country have clamored for ways to reduce consumption of sugary drinks and junk food, but lawmakers and voters have generally opposed enacting taxes or other regulations.
Lawmakers in Illinois rejected a measure in late May that would have taxed soda purchases at one cent per ounce, and a tax proposed for California failed in the state Legislature last year.
On Wednesday, an attorney for New York City asked the state's top court to revive the city's ban on large sugary drinks, which was overturned by a lower court last year.
In California, a measure to require warning labels on sodas passed the state Senate last week.
The industry association CalBev downplayed the Los Angeles survey and other polls showing support for such restrictions.
"A polling question asked in a vacuum without any context often gives the impression that voters support these types of taxes, but the reality is when you put it directly to the voters they always go down in defeat," the association said Thursday.
Simon and his colleagues analyzed data from a survey of about 1,000 Los Angeles County adults called randomly by telephone. They found support for such restrictions to be highest among low-income residents, whose obesity and diabetes rates are highest.
"It's described as regressive, that it would discriminate against poorer people because they have less money," Simon said. "Nonetheless we found in our study that there is more support among those groups."
(Reporting by Jennifer Chaussee in Berkeley, Calif; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Peter Cooney)