Vice Squad
Thursday, March 11, 2004
 
Obesity (with update)


All sorts of movement on the obesity front recently. A few days ago, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their report showing that physical inactivity and poor diet are on their way to catching tobacco as the leading behavioral causes of death. CDC estimates that in 2000, some 435,000 Americans died from tobacco-related causes, with obesity behind another 400,000 deaths; alcohol claimed 85,000, while illicit drugs were connected to 17,000 deaths. One day after the report was released, the US House of Representatives passed a bill (Los Angeles Times story, registration required) that would forbid class action lawsuits attempting to hold the fast-food industry responsible for obesity in their customers. Some states have already adopted similar legislation, while other states have related bills under consideration. Here's an article about Ohio's measure; Wisconsin, Washington, and Florida also are among those states with pending legislation. Meanwhile, McDonald's has announced that it is phasing out super-size portions (no word on the super-duper-size), while the Swiss are considering a tax on fatty foods.

The standard off-the-shelf economics approach to all this, of course, is to ask, well, what's wrong with obesity? Eating mounds of food and not exercising are consumer choices, and as long as there is no deception taking place, there's not much of a case for government intervention (or for those blame-the-seller lawsuits). But such reasoning only applies if we can trust the "rationality" of decisions to eat and (not) exercise. How could we make an argument that such choices are not rational? One approach might be to note that our tastes for food evolved over eons in which food was harder to procure than it is now -- sugar itself did not become a global commodity until relatively recent times. So our appetites are not well suited to the new situation of food abundance that characterizes today's rich nations. Alternatively, one could make the same sort of “self-control” (dynamic inconsistency) argument that comes up in looking at consumption of addictive products.

A recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer 2003), “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?,” by David M. Cutler, Edward L. Glaeser and Jesse M. Shapiro, attributes American weight gain to improvements in the mass production of food and a resulting increase in caloric consumption (calories expended have not changed much in the last 20 years). These authors argue that for most people, these technological changes have been welfare-improving, even though they have contributed to obesity. Only people with extreme self-control problems, according to the article, would find themselves worse off from the technological improvement in centralized food preparation, and as there is little evidence for such extreme preferences, most Americans have benefited, just as naive economic reasoning would suggest.

Update: Vice Squad has looked at obesity policy in the past; oh, and another look was taken during my guest stint at Crescat Sententia. Overlawyered has a post on the House vote, with reams of useful links. The Adam Smith Institute fills us in on developments in the UK, where food advertising is attracting regulatory attention.

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