NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 27, 2006

America's problem with bulging waistlines has reached pandemic proportions, according to federal health officials, who warn that obesity is becoming society's No. 1 killer. But as doctors wrestle with the problem, economists have been pondering which corporations and industries benefit, and the role that changes in the overall economy have played in making us fat to begin with.

It turns out, economists say, that changes in food technology (producing tasty, easy-to-cook food, such as french fries) and changes in labor (we use to be paid to exercise at work, now we pay to exercise after work) combined with women's importance in the workforce, not the kitchen, have combined to produce industries able to cheaply and efficiently meet the demands of our busy lives.

For many corporations, and even for physicians, Americans' obesity has also fattened the bottom line:

  • William L. Weis, a management professor at Seattle University, says revenue from the "obesity industries" will likely top $315 billion this year, and perhaps far more.
  • That includes $133.7 billion for fast-food restaurants, $124.7 billion for medical treatments related to obesity, and $1.8 billion just for diet books -- all told, nearly 3 percent of the overall U.S. economy.

"Put simply, there is a lot of money being made, and to be made, in feeding both oversized stomachs and feeding those enterprises selling fixes for oversized stomachs," Weis wrote in 2005 in the Academy of Health Care Management Journal. "And both industries -- those selling junk food and those selling fat cures -- depend for their future on a prevalence of obesity."

Source: Michael S. Rosenwald, "Why America Has to Be Fat: A Side Effect of Economic Expansion Shows Up in Front," Washington Post, January 22, 2006.

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