People in their 50s today tend to be about 20 pounds heavier than people in their 50s were in the late 1970s, according to a New York Times column written by David Leonhardt earlier this month. Leonhardt, an economics writer, raised the question as to whether a tax, similar to that imposed on tobacco, would be an effective way to fight obesity.
Our weight gains have lead to the current obesity epidemic the Center for Disease Control consistently warns us about. This epidemic not only impacts quality of life and shortens lifespan, it also costs a lot and during a time of health care reform, it makes you wonder what role this obesity epidemic should have in the debate.
According to an article in Health Affairs, Obesity costs $147 billion annually – mainly in taxes and insurance premiums.
Why? What has changed so much in 30 years? As Leonhardt points out, we have not become more irresponsible. Homicides, abortion and even divorce are down, so what is the problem? Why are we so fat?
The way we live has changed. Both parents work now and they work longer hours, so they are more inclined to just pick up something quick – takeout – instead of cooking at home. State budget cuts often target education and that has resulted in sports and gym classes getting the ax. Meanwhile, soda has fallen in price by 33 percent, while the price of fruit and vegetables continues to increase.
And for those who live in low-income areas, it’s even worse. A fast-food joint on every corner, few healthy grocers and a lack of parks and recreational amenities could explain why obesity and obesity-related disorders like diabetes and heart disease are disproportionately higher among lower wage earners.
So what’s the answer? Leonhardt talked to a heart surgeon who suggested that the national weight problem must have the same urgency as our antismoking efforts. Some of the suggestions range from the moderate ideas of increasing taxes on junk food and only subsidizing good, wholesome plant-based food, to as radical and undoubtedly controversial as making overweight people pay more for health insurance and refusing to hire them in health-care related fields.
Given the fact that low-income communities tend to be hit hardest by the obesity epidemic, the latter doesn’t seem to make much sense. But additional tax on unhealthy food producers, vendors and consumers may be an option worth considering. If a tax is pursued, the revenues should be directed at education, teaching people what they should eat and saving exercise programs from budget slashing. The discussion also belongs in the health-care reform debate. The health care system wouldn’t be so overburdened if we, as a nation, placed more value on what we eat and how move.