NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 21, 2009

Of the 2.5 million deaths that occur annually in America, something approaching half could be prevented if people simply led healthier lives, say researchers.  Our biggest problem, they say, is self-control. 

Clearly a lot of Americans are dying prematurely as the result of their own behavior:

  • A closer look at smoking suggests that smokers know the risks and would like to act differently; the American Lung Association reports that 70 percent said they'd like to quit, while another survey found that 44 percent had actually tried quitting in the previous 12 months.
  • Many eventually succeed; the prevalence of smoking in the United States today is roughly half what it was in the 1950s.
  • Unfortunately, obesity may be the new tobacco; two-thirds of Americans weigh more than they should, and too much weight kills.
  • But here, too, the prevalence of dieters -- and diets -- suggests that people aren't happy with their own behavior.

But what is to be done?  Researchers say it will take more study to figure out the costs and benefits of possible actions -- such as risk education, regulation, taxes, medical testing and treatments.  Some things seem obvious:

  • One is that banning what people want doesn't work; higher sumptuary taxes on unhealthy items might help but would run into practical problems and would penalize those who eat and imbibe in moderation.
  • Another is educating Americans on making better lifestyle choices.
  • Less-educated Americans are significantly more likely to succumb to behavioral risks, and a vigorous media campaign, along with higher cigarette taxes and social approbation, has worked wonders against tobacco.

Beyond this, people need binding ways to commit themselves to their enduring preferences, say researchers.

Source: Daniel Akst, "Losing Control," Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2009; based upon: Majid Ezzati et al., "The preventable causes of death in the United States: comparative risk assessment of dietary, lifestyle, and metabolic risk factors," PubMed (National Center for Biotechnology Information), Vol. 6, No. 4, April 2009.

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