The impact of public policy on behavior

The Researcher of the Year award recognizes 10 UIC scientists who are advancing knowledge in their fields. The Distinguished Researcher Award honors five researchers with a record of outstanding achievement. The Rising Star Award honors early career researchers who show promise as future leaders.

Lisa Powell

Lisa Powell: her work bridges economics, policy, public health, disparities and community-based research. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

Health economist Lisa Powell has spent her career examining the impact of public policy on behavior outcomes.

Her work bridges economics, policy, public health, disparities and community-based research.

Powell is professor of health policy and administration in the School of Public Health and associate director of the Health Policy Center at the Institute of Health Research and Policy.

She joined UIC in 2001, working with Frank Chaloupka, professor of economics, to look at youth and health behaviors around smoking and alcohol use.

As obesity began to emerge as a serious public health challenge, she turned her focus to policy instruments for changing behaviors related to food consumption, physical activity and obesity.

Her recent research has informed public health policy on the potential impact that taxes on low-nutrient, energy-dense foods (like sugar-sweetened beverages or fast food) and subsidies for healthful products (like fruit and vegetables) could have on consumption and body weight.

Her work has gained the attention of both public health advocates and the food and beverage industry.

Any type of policy that might change behavior and reduce consumption takes business away from industry, said Powell.

My job is “strictly to provide the evidence, not to have a formative opinion one way or the other,” she said, admitting that her research can be controversial.

For example, she recently completed a study addressing industry claims that sugar-sweetened beverage taxes lead to job losses. Her independent, comprehensive analysis using a macro-econometric simulation model was the first to show there was no net job loss.

Her work is important to understanding the sources of disparities in obesity and vital in the policy debate on child-directed food marketing, said Jack Zwanziger, professor and director of health policy and administration, who nominated her for the award.

Over the last three years, Powell has produced 48 publications, including peer-reviewed articles in top journals. Her work has been funded by multiple grants from the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Her research findings are cited by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, CNN, NPR and international media.

First lady Michelle Obama referenced evidence from Powell’s research in her September 2013 White House speech on the need to improve the nutritional quality of foods marketed to children.

“I am very grateful to be working with such a talented group of colleagues, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students here at UIC,” Powell said.

“It is such a privilege to be able to undertake research that provides much needed evidence on the potential effectiveness of various policy instruments aimed at improving public health outcomes.”