NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 2, 2005

Parents are suddenly facing a plethora of ways to stack inches onto their height-challenged children, say Arlene Weintraub and Michael Arndt of Business Week. Several drug companies are seeking Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for an entirely new class of drugs to treat children whose bodies produce growth hormone but cannot benefit from it.

As with earlier treatments for short stature, the latest wave of drugs has met with a chorus of controversy:

  • The companies argue that their products offer a safe way for parents to insure their children against a lifetime of discrimination in work and romance.
  • Critics respond that drugmakers are profiting off a condition that is merely cosmetic and not a medical problem.
  • Growth hormones, on rare occasions, can cause dangerous side effects such as pressure on the brain; some patients have developed leukemia, though the link to growth drugs is uncertain.

Weintraub and Arndt say the debate gets even more heated when economists enter the fray. Studies have long indicated that short adults earn less money than their tall co-workers. Lead researcher Daniel Silverman of the University of Michigan, studied more than 17,000 people in Britain and 12,000 in the United states and found:

  • Even short teenagers who grow into normal-size adults are doomed to earn up to 13 percent less in the workplace than people who were tall as teens.
  • The earnings gap widens over the short teen's life - again, regardless of how tall an adult he or she becomes.
  • This "height premium" is comparable to wage gaps caused by race and gender.

Silverman concludes the possible return on a $25,000-per-year investment in growth hormone -- as much as a 2.7 percent boost in wages for every inch gained -- is too tempting to ignore.

However, others fear if physicians give growth hormones to children who fall below the mean, the mean could rise, too, creating a whole new class of kids who qualify for the drugs.

Source: Arlene Weintraub and Michael Arndt, "My, How You've Grown," BusinessWeek, November 28, 2005; and Dan Silverman, Nicola Persico and Andrew Postlewaite, "The Effect of Adolescent Experience on Labor Market Outcomes: The Case of Height," Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 112, No. 5, May 2004.

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