Friday, March 06, 2015

Obesity and Public Policy

In the U.S., "a few extra pounds" might mean . . .
You may recall that a couple weeks ago, on February 18, I wrote about the fact that Americans consume over 100 pounds of sugar per year per person and I commented on the various adverse health consequences (cancer, diabetes, etc.) of our sugar addiction. I went so far as to suggest that in addition to rolling back corn subsidies at the rate of 2% a year, we perhaps ought to tax sugary beverages outright, and use the tax revenue to defray some of the costs of obesity now borne by Medicare.

As luck would have it, the very next day after my post ran, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued its Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, and the Advisory Committee made one of the same recommendations I did. In Part B, Chapter 2, of the report, the Committee recommends:
Implementing economic and pricing approaches to promote the purchase of healthy foods and beverages. For example, taxation on higher sugar-and sodium-containing foods may encourage consumers to reduce consumption, and revenues generated could support health promotion efforts.
It seems obvious that good public policy is to tax things that are harmful to the public and subsidize things that are beneficial, not the other way around. As it is now, we subsidize corn, for example, which ends up as one of the main ingredient (corn syrup) of cola beverages. (We also provide separate subsidies for diverting corn ethanol to auto gasoline, which is ludicrous, given the current oil glut. Until the glut is over, there should be no ethanol in auto fuel.)

But I was remiss in not pointing out, in my original rant  article, the many hidden costs of doing nothing about America's obesity problem. For example:
  • Obese women (BMI > 40) in occupations that involve interacting with other people earn about 5 percent less than their normal-weight counterparts, according to a study by Jennifer Shinall of Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, Tennessee. Studies have consistently found that overweight adults earn less than their normal-weight peers. Overweight workers are more apt to miss days of work due to health issues; they get fewer promotions; etc.
  • Minority and less-educated workers are more likely to be overweight, compounding the wage difference that already hampers those groups in the workforce. (Black workers are almost 1.5 times as likely to be obese as white employees.)
  • A billion additional gallons of gasoline are consumed each year transporting overweight and obese Americans, according to research from Sheldon Jacobson and Douglas King at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Ever wonder why airlines charge extra for luggage now? Americans are heavier than they were just 20 years ago.)
“This really is a situation that’s beyond business as usual,” Walter Willett, a professor and chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, told Bloomberg Business recently. “We have to think about serious interventions that go beyond the norm.” 

Wouldn't you agree?

You can help. Please join me in submitting your comments on the Committee's report at The comment deadline in April 8. I've submitted my comments, and if you live in the U.S., I strongly urge you to do likewise. Please tweet the link.

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  1. Anonymous10:25 AM

    As an obese person THANK YOU for writing this. As kind as society is in trying to make fat cool - it's not like being gay. Fat is a choice. Fat is a lifestyle. Being fat doesn't make me a bad person or less of a human being but it does put me in danger. You rock!

    1. I'm glad you took it in the right spirit. I took a bit of heat on Twitter for the choice of photo, which to me is a neutral photo -- people bring their own prejudices to the photo. I was in a live-in relationship for over a year with a woman who weighed 250 lbs., so I know a tiny bit about what heavy people go through. Fat is and is not a choice. Sure, you choose what you put in your body, but also society chooses for you. It's a multidimensional problem. It's not simple.

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