Obesity is a problem and we don’t know what to do about it

What makes the obesity problem so difficult is that it pretty much came out of nowhere and we, in essence, have no reliable solutions to pursue.

The Wall Street Journal wrote last week:

The singular feature of American obesity is its steep, out-of-nowhere rise. For most of the 20th century, U.S. obesity rates were stable, with a slight upward trend through the late 1970s. Suddenly, they spiked across all demographic groups and have continued to rise unabated. In sheer body mass, the entire population is heavier than it used to be, and the heaviest are much heavier. Just between 1998 and 2006, obesity rates increased by 37%, according to the CDC.

The costs are nearly as startling. In a study published this week in the journal Health Affairs, CDC researchers estimate that obesity now accounts for 9.1% of all medical spending—$147 billion in 2008. The Milken Institute estimates that chronic disease costs more than $1.2 trillion every year. On top of the medical resources devoted to preventable illness, a fatter and sicker work force is a drag on economic growth. In effect, we’re eating money. (link to Health Affairs study)

Last week the CDC held its wittily named “Weight of the Nation” conference to discuss obesity in order to game plan its approach to fighting the problem.  What’s been tried/suggested (a few): discourage auto transit, eliminate agriculture subsidies, ban food advertising, interventions in the school, family, and community.  Read about them here in a piece by Megan McCardle; her summary of obesity-fighting efforts indicates most interventions up to (right) now have been rather unsuccessful:

But the political opposition these actions would face is absolute(ly) enormous. Americans were not blindly seduced into an auto-based lifestyle by the paver’s union; they voted for lots of roads because they like their cars. Every president since Reagan has wanted to eliminate farm subsidies, and every president since Reagan has thoroughly, utterly, entirely failed. Similarly, the food and entertainment industries are not going to stand idly by while you do away with 10% of advertising revenue. “Fix the schools” and “fix crime” are two agendas that society is currently aggressively pursuing, with limited success. And I’m skeptical that you’re going to find something north of $30 billion a year for the kind of early-child interventions that really seem to make a difference.

Addressing the obesity problem at the point of (health) care is too late.  It’s (mostly) a problem of individual choice and it seems the solution likely falls in the same hemisphere.  But that’s rhetoric, now onto the implementation…

Any ideas?

RELATED UPDATE: Guess we’ve been “shaving the bear…”

3 thoughts on “Obesity is a problem and we don’t know what to do about it

  1. Wow, buddy, I just found myself getting engulfed in that McArdle piece about obesity. Very interesting stuff. Is she a conservative? I like most of what she has to say, but I don’t quite get the idea that a lot of people have (probably including you) that every problem we have in society is government’s job to solve. The problem, and the only plausible argument for government intervention, is a significant portion of healthcare costs are funded through tax revenues, thereby exposing the average taxpayer to the bill for our aggregate obesity epidemic. If we could lessen the percentage of healthcare costs funded through tax revenues, then we could return the decision and resulting consequences of choosing whether or not to be fat or skinny (healthy or unhealthy) to the household and individual level. One would then be incentivized to become or remain healthy, because they would understand that society at large (i.e. taxpayers) is no longer on the hook for their bad decisions, they are on the hook. The only one to blame and the only one writing the checks is the guy or gal in the mirror. Until that becomes the thought process of the obese members of society, then everything else is rhetoric and window dressing.

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  2. Ashley and I joined a gym last night. It costs us around $30 each per month to be members at this gym (Urban Active, very nice facility), but I do not feel that is a wasted $30. I truly feel, if we use the membership properly, that those dollars are really more like invested capital that produces a positive rate of return. First, exercise should lead to an increase in energy levels, productivity, and self-confidence, all of which should help one be a better employee, which could lead to accelerated promotions and monetary raises in your career. Also, it should save us some money in the long-term due a statistically likely lowering of future healthcare costs. Again, Drew, we need more people to see the monetary benefits of health and fitness before we can move the aggregate needle.

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  3. I like Megan McArdle’s stuff, too. I’m not sure of her politics but it seems she leans right. Well, that’s supposed to be government’s role: solve problems for the collective that markets won’t/can’t fix. This is a matter of national productivity. My interpretation of the research is that this is more than just a simple “move your body” for 30 minutes problem. No one knows what the solution(s) is/are/will be. Working out is a good start and insurance companies have been trying to incentivize that behavior for a while now. It doesn’t seem to be moving the needle. We need government to help us find/research solution possibilities. I’d certainly like more personal responsibility in taking care of yourself and staying fit but the reality is that we have a problem right now. It’s becoming more of a problem. Look to people and diets, even the most disciplined people have trouble managing their weights. Forcing individuals now to be responsible for the obesity problem would be abandoning them in a time of need. Now government intervention can’t be expected to make this all better alone and as you note in your comment the $30 is a tool for you to invest in your and Ashley’s long-term health, but I’m afraid that won’t be the solution for everyone, at least not in our collective’s current way of thinking.

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