The Economic Scale of Obesity

People gravitate toward examining obesity on an economic scale. A robust body of economic research tells us that obesity is expensive, that it has ties to economic conditions, and that economic remedies should be considered. John Cawley has brought together a thoughtful review of economic causes, consequences, and solutions to obesity that’s worth your time to read.

Cawley does an excellent job of putting aside the simplistic thinking that dominates much of the discussion of obesity.

It’s clear from his review that no single economic cause for obesity is dominant. A wide range of economic factors — prices, income, education, etc. — contribute a little. But their contributions vary greatly. In different groups and different circumstances, the effects may be large or insignificant.

The economic consequences, in contrast, are straightforward: lower wages and higher medical costs. The medical costs that result sometimes lead haters to advocate for punitive responses to obesity, which in turn compound the injury and make the problem more resistant to real solutions.

Economic solutions — taxes, incentives, and information — do not offer any single strategy that is likely to have more than a modest effect. Though boosters of strategies like junk food taxes promote them with projections that sound great, the hard economic truth is that these estimates are subject to many limitations. None are backed by solid evidence that they will have more than a modest effect and they may well have unintended consequences.

So, looking at the hard economic facts is worthwhile. Economic factoids to support a predetermined agenda are less helpful.

Click here to read Cawley’s analysis.

Küchenwaage, photograph © Christian Schnettelker / flickr

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August 22, 2015