Earlier this month, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his intentions to support a bill outlawing the sale of junk food in schools. Science shows the governor is right to worry about an obesity crisis, but banning candy is schools is like putting a Band-Aid on a third-degree burn.
According to the American Obesity Association, “approximately 127 million adults in the U.S. are overweight, 60 million obese, and 9 million severely obese.” That’s a huge number of people, and basic medicine predicts that their weight problems will turn into more serious conditions such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, a number of cancers, gall bladder-disease, osteoarthritis and obstructive sleep apnea.
Economics of Obesity
In short, people are eating themselves to death. While consequences are dire for each obese individual, what many don’t realize is that their choices also harm the part of America that remains healthy. The most obvious impact is the economic strain. Numbers provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that obesity costs Americans a ton.
For instance, in 1998, medical expenses due to obesity accounted for 9.1 percent of total U.S. medical expenditures and may have been as high as $78.5 billion. That’s a lot of cash, but the kicker is that approximately half of these costs were paid by Medicaid and Medicare — in other words, by taxpayers. There’s something disturbing about this situation, which could be described as socialized obesity. By sharing the health care costs with obese people, health-conscious Americans lose tax dollars and see health insurance premiums shoot up.
Last year, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson designated obesity as a disease. But much of obesity is caused by poor nutrition and behavioral problems. By making obesity a disease, government does all Americans — large or not — a disservice. Many diseases hit individuals through no fault of their own, but obesity is in a different category.
To ward off obesity, proper diet and exercise are necessary. Yet the socialization of the costs of the problem only makes it more likely that individuals will carry on with their destructive behavior. It’s not rocket science: Whatever is subsidized will grow. And by incentivizing individuals to ignore the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle, we all suffer a productivity hit when otherwise smart people die early due to obesity-related diseases.
Dr. Bruce Ames, the eminent biochemist and inventor of the Ames test for carcinogens, has made longevity and diet one of his key areas of study. His conclusions show that in order to live longer, individuals must maintain a good diet, including the proper amount of vitamins and antioxidants. This advice might seem a no-brainer, but it is easy to ignore in a society where junk food marketing is everywhere and the costs of individual overeating are distributed amongst everyone.
The best way to help mitigate the onslaught of obesity is to make sure that individuals are aware that the costs of their behavior will be borne by them. That is, if they choose to eat potato chips and sit in front of the television night after night, instead of eating fruits and vegetables and exercising, then they should not expect society to help them pay the higher costs of health insurance.
Perhaps this is a cultural issue as much as a political one, which brings the discussion back to Governor Schwarzenegger’s quest to ban junk food in schools. The idea of educating the population about the risks associated with empty calories, such as those found in soda, is a good one. And in a publicly-run system where government is supposed to be responsible for the well being of children, perhaps it makes sense. But there is a larger issue.
While schools should educate children about nutrition and a healthy diet, ultimately, kids will have to make their own decisions. So the lesson is also one of individual responsibility. That’s how a free and healthy society operates.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.