The issue of obesity is everywhere nowadays. Even Bart Simpson (today’s Dennis the Menace) has overcome an addiction to well-advertised junk food to tackle a weight problem. When any issue gets this big, people start talking ‘solutions’ and start lobbying their government for change. That should be of concern, because most proposals being bandied about actually fail to deal with the principal problem of obesity.
Most costs of being obese, including lower productivity (lower income) and a shorter life span, are borne directly by the obese individual. On the other hand, the obese place an increased burden on Canada’s tax-financed health care program through higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, etc., which other Canadians are forced to fund. In other words, some Canadians, because of their behaviour and lifestyle choices, are imposing costs on others during their lives. If governments choose to intervene, their only legitimate role is to reduce this subsidy by non-obese Canadians.
Some obesity experts have suggested taxing foods high in fat or sugar. However, such a tax affects both the obese and non-obese. While a “fat tax” might internalize some of the costs of increased medical care when overweight people purchase these food products and discourage a few of those who are already overweight from consuming them, people in the healthy weight range would pay higher prices for little or no benefit. Put another way, ‘fat taxes’ penalize all Canadians regardless of their physical status.
Also, so-called “unhealthy” foods feature largely in the diets of low-income Canadians because they tend to offer more calories per dollar than other foods. Taxing these foods will disproportionately affect poorer people, either through higher food costs from continued purchase of these foods, or from the higher food costs resulting from switching to healthier options. In other words, fat taxes hurt low-income Canadians.
Experts have also called for eliminating advertising of high-fat and high-sugar foods, and banning the sale of these items in Canada’s schools. While the goal of both suggestions is to prevent obesity in children, both fail to address the costs imposed by obese people, and both deny choice regardless of weight. Restrictions on advertising may also be futile. Canadian smoking rates are higher than US smoking rates despite stricter controls on tobacco advertising in Canada.
Some have proposed creating more public spaces and public infrastructure for exercise and outdoor activities. But like taxes and bans, this policy also fails to address the cost imposed by obese people, and instead imposes costs on all Canadians regardless of their physical state.
Before considering the best way to deal with this issue it is important to take a moment and determine whether any intervention is warranted. Little is known about the underlying factors exacerbating the “obesity epidemic” or the overall costs of obesity (including the potential foregone pension payments and health expenditures for obese Canadians). This suggests that the best policy choice for now is continued observation and examination.
If governments decide to act, however, the best way to account for the costs the obese impose on society is to require these individuals to bear those costs that result from their decisions. This could be as simple as introducing health premiums scaled by the cost that individual’s lifestyle choices imposes on others. A scaled premium not only solves the problem of an increased burden on all Canadians created by the few who may be able to choose otherwise, but also gives those who are obese a reason to lose the extra pounds.
Allowing for a sufficient reduction in the charge for low-income Canadians would protect those who need the extra income the most, but still inform them about the consequences of their actions and provide an incentive to trim down. Further exemptions could be allowed for those who have a medical condition that prevents them from controlling their weight. One additional benefit of this policy is that it would go away when controllable obesity was eliminated, which would not necessarily be the case with the policies currently being proposed.
Canadians’ waistlines are expanding, and that will mean higher health expenditures in the short term. Without a full understanding of the factors surrounding obesity, including the overall cost, it may be best for governments not to intervene. If governments insist on acting, for whatever reason, they must avoid the bad policies that are commonplace in the discussion today. The way to deal with the problem is clear: require those who can choose otherwise to bear the burden of the costs they impose on others.