Obesity and the Academy

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Once upon a time, beauty pageant contestants would wow judges with vows to end world hunger. Apparently they’ve succeeded.

“In a systematic review of the economic burden of obesity worldwide, Withrow and colleagues concluded that obesity accounted for 0·7—2·8% of a country’s total health-care costs, and that obese individuals had medical costs 30% higher than those with normal weight,” a team of researchers wrote in an article which appeared in The Lancet in August 2011. “The combination of rising obesity prevalence and increased spending on obese people has been estimated to account for 27% of the growth in US health-care expenditure between 1987 and 2001.”

“Total health-care costs attributable to obesity and overweight are projected to double every decade to account for 16—18% of total US health-care expenditure by 2030.” The Lancet is a British medical journal, perhaps the equivalent of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The team of researchers who The Lancet engaged to solve the problem of international obesity include a health sociology professor from Harvard—Steven L. Gortmaker. After sounding the alarm, Gortmaker and his colleagues give caveats, then call for increased government funding and regulation.

For example, they warn that “If such trends were to continue unabated, the report’s authors estimate that about three of four Americans and seven of ten British people will be overweight or obese by 2020.” Yet and still, they measure the crisis, in part, by Body Mass Indices and time off from work.


Both of these are problematic as, in the first instance, BMI measures muscle as well as body fat without distinguishing between the two, and in the second, because in the countries they look at—Sweden, for example—employees pretty much seize on any opportunity for a government-mandated holiday.


Nevertheless, Gortmaker and company go on to entertain government levies as a means of combating obesity. “The inclusion of broader types of evidence was important in tobacco control: assessments showed that cigarette taxes reduced smoking, a policy change that could not be assessed by randomised controlled trials,” they claim.


As a smoker, I can say that the tax had no effect on my consumption although restrictions on where I can smoke have forced me to get creative. As I once heard psychiatrist E. Fuller Torey proclaim, “Addicts always know how to maximize the capital they can spend on their addiction.”


Moreover, the authors do overlook one aspect of government policy that could have an adverse affect on a healthy diet. Simply put, fruits and vegetables cost more than candy bars and potato chips.


The first of these food groups enjoy higher prices that are propped up by government price supports. The latter do not.


Hat tip: Matthew Boyle@The Daily Caller.


Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org