NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Fat Chance: An Analysis of Anti-Obesity Efforts

March 12, 2012

In tackling the chronic obesity problem in the United States, the federal government has become increasingly interventionist in it approach.  Regulators justify further intervention by arguing that obese people suffer from a lack of information or cause negative externalities on society.  However, neither of these justifications appears true and government intervention seems ineffective, say Michael Marlow and Sherzod Abdukadirov of the Mercatus Center.

  • It is difficult to accept the argument that overweight and obese people suffer from information asymmetry: numerous studies have found that this population is well-aware of their increased susceptibility to diabetes, heart disease and strokes.
  • In a study, 9,035 individuals estimated that the weight problems of obese and overweight people would reduce their life expectancy by an average of 4 years and 2.5 years, respectively -- these estimates are reasonably close to actual figures.
  • When New York City required in 2008 that restaurant chains post calorie counts on menus, consumers made no substantial changes to their eating habits.

Furthermore, several studies have found that obese people do not suffer from a lack of motivation, and that government bans on unhealthy food and economic incentives for healthiness are ineffective.

  • Obese people already face substantial incentives to lose weight, such as longer lifespans, fewer diseases and higher wages, and several studies have found they are well-aware of these benefits.
  • In addition, employers nationwide have widely embraced weight-reduction efforts in an attempt to reduce health insurance expenses, offering onsite facilities and nutritional counseling.
  • Studies of middle school-age children have also found that restricting access to junk food in schools resulted in negligible gains over obesity, suggesting that consumption habits were already ingrained before this age.

Additionally, the argument that obese people cause a negative externality on society through higher health care costs is unfounded.  Specifically, because of the shorter life expectancy of the obese population, they actually consume a less-than-proportional share of healthcare over their lifetimes.

Finally, government intervention is often foolhardy.  Among its failures is the arbitrariness of its goals and standards.

Source: Michael Marlow and Sherzod Abdukadirov, "Fat Chance: An Analysis of Anti-Obesity Efforts," Mercatus Center, March 2012.

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