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Is Obesity the Government’s Business?

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Feb 16, 2012    •    1404 Views

To fight obesity, do you support government funded weight loss education? Soda taxes? Mandatory menu calorie counts? Banned bake sales?

A recent Intelligence Squared debate provided several answers. The evening focused on the proposition,  “Obesity is the Government’s Business.”  Opposed were libertarian journalist John Stossel and The Obesity Myth author, Paul Campos. On the pro side were former U.S. surgeon general, Dr. David Satcher and a Pew Foundation scholar on nutrition and metabolism, Dr. Pamela Peeke.

Even before the introductions were complete, Stossel compared prohibition to proactive obesity policy saying, “They mean well but they do more harm than good.” During the evening, he and Campos emphasized 5 points:

  1. When it tries to regulate private behavior, government is overextending its power.
  2. A more effective incentive, privatized health care would force people to bear the cost of unhealthy behavior.
  3. There is no clear dividing line between healthy and unhealthy food.
  4. We might be demonstrating prejudice about body size.
  5. Science has not definitively proved the correlation between between obesity and higher mortality rates.


On the pro side, after starting with a story about policy makers, Dr. Satcher shared a plethora of statistics that included burgeoning obesity rates, diminished exercise and diabetes, hypertension in children and adults. The basics of the pro position included 6 ideas:

  1. “Obesity is an epidemic.”
  2. Obesity creates increased risk for cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
  3.  Obesity adds substantially to our national health costs.
  4. It is government’s responsibility to fund the fight against obesity.
  5. It is government’s responsibility to diminish the availability of unhealthy foods.
  6. When we diminish the consumption of unhealthy foods with taxes and less advertising, long-term health care costs drop.


You can watch the debate here.

An Economic Lesson

Economically defining cost as sacrifice, whenever government helps one group, others and/or the same people experience a cost. More spent for controlling obesity means we sacrifice more spending in other areas. Or, it means we sacrifice lower taxes. Or, we sacrifice individual freedom. But, we enjoy the potential benefits of controlling obesity when the initiatives are successful.

An Economic Question: Referring to the points cited by the pro and con sides of  “Obesity is the Government’s Business,” defend the side you support.

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