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Economics, Health

What Are We Trading For the Right to Be Obese?

I’m not sure why this topic is rising to the top of the list these days, but I can’t seem to escape articles about food, health and justice these days.  Yesterday was all about whether and why black women actually want to be fat and what that means.  Today, an update on how that choice affects society in pure economic costs.

Earlier this year, a report calculated that $190B, or one in every five dollars spent annually on health care in the U.S., was associated with obesity-related expenditures. That was double the amount previously estimated.

Now, according to recent findings from researchers from Duke, RTI International and the CDC, if we were to simply hold obesity rates at current levels, we would save $550B over approximately the next two decades.  This has major implications.

Bloated Government Vs. Bloated People
Consider the following:

  • $550B is almost 15% of the $4T that Democrats and Republicans have been tap dancing around for the past year or more as a goal for deficit reduction
  • In President Obama’s most recent budget, where he tries to highlight where potential cuts to the deficit can come from, the largest cuts are to discretionary spending – everything other than military, entitlement and debt interest payments ($520B), defense spending ($487B) and Medicare, Medicaid, etc. ($360B).

Granted, that these projections are inherently inaccurate and the timeframes don’t exactly line up in terms of the number of years, but this provides a sense of the tradeoffs being made.  Just stopping obesity from getting worse from a current starting point which is already untenable would provide comparable savings (at least) than the major deficit cuts being proposed in Washington.

What Are We Trading For the Right to Be Obese
Imagine shifting what we spend on obesity related illnesses to other more productive.  In other words, depending on your perspective, we are choosing to be fat at the expense of…

  • Everything being cut from entitlement spending combined (federal jobs and benefits, environmental protection, education resources, etc.)
  • Our national security (I personally don’t share this view, but many others do)
  • People receiving care via Medicare and Medicaid programs (though each program incorporates the costs of obesity, the mechanisms for reducing spending in either program – whether it be raising eligibility ages, reducing reimbursement rates to providers or the draconian Ryan proposals – would likely result in reductions in the number of people on the programs, not reductions in spending due to more healthy outcomes).

And It Gets Worse: “We are Subsidizing Obesity”
And the worst part of all of this is that we are doing it to ourselves.  We are providing subsidies for crap food and then paying for it on the back end in medical costs.  As Michael Pollan puts it: “We are subsidizing obesity.”  That’s a double whammy and makes the $550B figure from the CDC even bigger.  For instance, the Environmental Working Group estimates that we paid out $56B in corn subsides alone between 1995 and 2006.  This figure has only grown since then, so between the obesity subsidies and the costs to treat obesity-related illnesses, as a country, we are essentially giving away at least $650B.

I’m sure each and every one of us could find a way to put that money to good use.




  1. Pingback: Why the Health Nazis are on the March « CITIZEN.BLOGGER.1984+ GUNNY.G BLOG.EMAIL - May 10, 2012

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