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Study: When New Walmarts Open, People Get Fatter
Two economists tracked extensive health and population data between 1996 and 2005, a period in which 1,569 supercentres — which sell groceries along with household products — opened across the U.S.
Of Walmart's 323 stores in Canada, 119 are supercentres.
The researchers found that one new Walmart supercentre per 100,000 residents meant an average weight gain of 1.5 pounds per person sometime over a 10-year period dating from the store's opening. It also boosted the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points, meaning that for every 100 people, two who weren't obese ended up in that category after a superstore opened.
"I think the most obvious story is that Walmart lowers the price of foods and a lot of the foods it has big price advantages on are the processed, inner-aisle types of food that aren't that good for you," said Charles Courtemanche, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
"It's not just about Walmart underselling the competitor. It's about the competitors cutting their prices in response to competition from Walmart. Someone might never step foot in a Walmart, but they still might pay less for their food."
Women, low-income families and people living in less densely populated areas are those most likely to put on weight after the arrival of a supercentre, according to Courtemanche and his co-author, Art Carden at Rhodes College.
The researchers incorporated a variety of controls and tests in their study to ensure that other characteristics of the communities studied could have explained the weight gain.
While the most obvious explanation is that cheaper food leads to more eating, Courtemanche said further research is needed to determine the exact connection between Walmart supercentres and obesity. It could be a combination of diet and exercise, he said, noting that their previous research has shown Walmart's product offerings influence leisure activities — with people buying and watching more DVDs, for instance, after a Walmart moves into town and offers them cheaply.
It's also possible that prices drop more steeply on processed foods than they do on fresh fruit and vegetables after Walmart's arrival, he suggested. Previous research has estimated that Walmart causes prices to drop by between eight and 27 per cent across the board, he said.
"We don't want people to look at this and immediately say Walmart is evil. We want people to realize this is one of many things that are going on, and maybe some are good and some are bad," he said. "Certainly our results should not be taken as, 'Ban all Walmarts.' It's part of a very broad debate."
Courtemanche said he believes Walmart supercentres in Canada would follow similar trends, and it's possible the effects would be heightened because Canada has a lower population density: the study found that people in more sparsely populated places are more likely to gain weight when a supercentre arrives.
"These weight gains seem to be concentrated among people at the highest risk of being obese, so you're kind of maximizing the impact on obesity you could get from such modest increases in weight," he said. "It might be only one out of five people who is gaining any weight, but that one person is gaining 10 pounds."
The research will be published in the March issue of the Journal of Urban Economics. Walmart did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/health/Packing+pounds+blamed+weight+Walmart/41290...
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