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Mar 05, 2014 06:15 PM EST

Casinos In Native American Communities Linked To Lower Rates Of Obesity


Casinos have long been linked to Native American lands, which reduce the legal gambling age to 18 years old, but never have they been associated with childhood obesity.

As a new study that analyzed the influence of casinos on childhood obesity points out, casinos are the equation's confounding variable; the economic prosperity they bring is actually what helps combat the issue, Reuters reported.  

"The casino is serving as a proxy," Dr. Neal Halfon, who was not part of the study but wrote a related editorial on its subject matter, told Reuters Health. "If we had some kind of big syringe, and we inject money into a community, it does change the odds. Here it lowered obesity."

American Indian children are some of the most overweight in the country. Nearly half are considered obese (corresponding to the 85th percentile or higher on the pediatric growth chart).

The study tracked the heights and weights of children with casinos in their district. Researchers also noted when casinos expanded or contracted their operations. As expected, districts that had one, added one, or expanded on one decreased obesity rates. A ratio of 13 slot machines per resident was associated with a 2.5 percent decrease in obesity and a $7,000 raise in annual income.

"We weren't trying to weigh in on whether casinos should be held up as an example of economic development," Jones-Smith said. "Instead, we were trying to isolate the impact of economic resources on kids' health."

If researchers were more concerned about proving the impact of economics on obesity rates than the impacts of casinos, it would seem more prudent to analyze other economic factors of town.

Yet, casinos are the biggest economic drivers of such towns. The researchers believe that by better understanding their economic model -- but not necessarily copying it -- they may uncover important strategies towards improving communities.

"An enormous loss of human potential results from unsafe, uncertain, stressful childhood environments," Halfon wrote in his editorial. "A casino in every neighborhood is not the answer, but increasing family income and removing other pressures that reduce the capacity of families to invest in their children should be part of the solution."

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