Casinos, Sites Of Excess, Might Actually Help Families Slim Down

A recent study finds that a casino's expansion was associated with an increase in family income in its community. In turn, that increase in household income helped lead to a decrease in childhood obesity.

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When you think about casinos, you probably think about excess: smoke-filled rooms, too much alcohol, and endless buffets filled with piles of high-fat and high sugar foods.

But as NPR's Patti Neighmond reports, a new study suggests casinos may actually have a health benefit for children who live in nearby communities.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Children who grow up on Native American tribal lands are at high risk of being overweight or obese. Nationwide, obesity rates among children are high - one in every three kids is overweight or obese. But on tribal lands in California, researcher Jessica Jones-Smith says it's even higher.

JESSICA JONES-SMITH: Nearly half of the Native American children in our sample were overweight or obese.

NEIGHMOND: Jones-Smith is a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She says low-income communities have been linked to higher rates of obesity. In the study, she looked at over 100 tribal lands across the state of California over about a decade, between 2001 and 2012. She looked at yearly income, both before and after casinos were built or expanded.

JONES-SMITH: For every slot machine added, we found that per capita income increased by $541.

NEIGHMOND: And on average, adding 13 new slot machines translated into a total jackpot of 7,000 extra dollars per person over the decade studied. Now, this was sort of expected. Casinos are known to boost the resources of local economies. But Jones-Smith wanted to know about more than income. She wanted to see whether the infusion of cash made a difference in the health of the children. She analyzed height and weight measurements collected by the schools of children between the ages of 7 and 18 during the same time period.

JONES-SMITH: We found that opening or expanding a casino was associated with a decreased risk in childhood overweight and obesity.

NEIGHMOND: Obesity rates dropped by 2 1/2 percent. Now, that may not sound like a lot, but when you consider that nationwide, during the same time period, the obesity rate among children was skyrocketing, Jones-Smith says this decrease is a very positive step. The study was not able to pinpoint whether the boost in income actually changed how the communities and the families spent their money, but Jones-Smith says it's reasonable to suggest that the money had something to do with the decrease in obesity.

JONES-SMITH: We think that that money - the family income money - might have made it easier for families to purchase healthy food, which tends to be more expensive. And it might have made it easier for families to have their kids engaged in leisure time physical activity, which is also sometimes associated with the cost.

NEIGHMOND: Dr. Neal Halfon is a pediatrician and public health specialist at UCLA. He says the findings are promising because, after all, healthy kids are likely to become healthy adults, while overweight or obese children are likely to face a lifetime battling with their weight, putting them at risk of obesity-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

DR. NEAL HALFON: It's important for us to be investing early in our children, launching them into a healthy trajectory rather than waiting until they're adults and are burdened with lots of chronic health problems and having to pay for rescue care.

NEIGHMOND: Which is not only a burden to the patient, says Halfon, but also a greater cost to society. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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