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Junk food laws aimed at schools may help curb childhood obesity

Junk food laws: A new study of childhood obesity shows that kids gained less weight between fifth and eighth grade in the states with the strongest curbs against junk food in schools.

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Junk food laws, according to the first large study of states’ laws governing the sale of junk food and drinks in US public schools, may help curb childhood obesity. In this 2006 file photo, a student purchases a brown sugar Pop-Tart from a vending machine in the hallway outside the school cafeteria, in Wichita, Kan.

Mike Hutmacher/The Wichita Eagle/AP

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Laws strictly curbing school sales of junk food and sweetened drinks may play a role in slowing childhood obesity, according to a study that seems to offer the first evidence such efforts could pay off.

The results come from the first large national look at the effectiveness of the state laws over time. They are not a slam-dunk, and even obesity experts who praised the study acknowledge the measures are a political hot potato, smacking of a "nanny state" and opposed by industry and cash-strapped schools relying on food processors' money.

But if the laws have even a tiny effect, "what are the downsides of improving the food environment for children today?" asked David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital. "You can't get much worse than it already is."

Children in the study gained less weight from fifth through eighth grades if they lived in states with strong, consistent laws versus no laws governing snacks available in schools. For example, kids who were 5 feet tall and 100 pounds gained on average 2.2 fewer pounds if they lived in states with strong laws in the three years studied.

Also, children who were overweight or obese in fifth grade were more likely to reach a healthy weight by eighth grade if they lived in states with the strongest laws.

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