Reducing Obesity Will Increase Costs?

I’m a sucker for counter intuitive statistics. It’s probably why I love economics. Anyway, we’ve all heard that America’s obesity problem is contributing to rising annual health care costs. What about lifetime health care costs? Jacob Sullum at Hit & Run helps answer this question.

Far be it from me to deny the undeniable, but the fact that obese people have higher annual health care costs does not mean they have higher lifetime costs. It therefore does not follow that reducing obesity would reduce total medical spending in the long run. In fact, a study published last year in PLoS Medicine reached the opposite conclusion: Because obese people tend to die sooner than thin people do, the researchers found, eliminating obesity would increase spending on health care. “Although effective obesity prevention leads to a decrease in costs of obesity-related diseases,” the authors wrote, “this decrease is offset by cost increases due to diseases unrelated to obesity in life-years gained. Obesity prevention may be an important and cost-effective way of improving public health, but it is not a cure for increasing health expenditures” (emphasis added).

I have never thought about the issue like this, but it makes perfect sense. Reducing obesity is an important issue, but it’s not going to help with health care costs. If we’re really committed to reducing obesity we should tax food that’s fattening. I have no problem increasing taxes on goods that harm the public.

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