By Thierry Malleret, economist
An alarming trend: how the rates of obesity just continue to worsen in the United States. According to recent data from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), the epidemic shows no signs of abating. Nearly four out of 10 adults are obese; for children, it’s nearly two out of 10. A recent projection from Harvard University indicates that most of today’s 2-year-olds will develop obesity by age 35.
Obesity rates have increased the fastest among low-income Americans and racial minorities, exacerbating pre-existing health disparities, as well as social isolation, depression and other major mental health problems. According to the American Diabetes Association, the annual cost of diabetes in 2017 was $327 billion: $237 billion in direct medical expenditures and $90 billion in reduced worker productivity. The total impact of obesity and its related complications on the US economic output is estimated at between at 4 and 8% of GDP (to be compared to the 2018 defence budget ($643 billion) and Medicare ($588 billion). This exacerbates long-term fiscal pressures, leading political parties to fight over shrinking resources.
In a nutshell: the more the government spends on healthcare and the more tax revenues it loses, the fewer the resources available for discretionary spending (such as education, infrastructure or the environment) and safety net services.
The fact that the government could save a couple hundred billions dollars every year by rolling back obesity makes us confident that wellness policies will gain some momentum.
What could they be like?
Most academics and independently minded policymakers would agree that the establishment of a federal commission to coordinate obesity policy constitutes a prerequisite. It is now so fragmented among a plethora of federal, state and local agencies that it lacks coherence and the power to serve as an effective counterweight to the political influence of “Big Food” manufacturers.
As a first step, banning junk food advertising to young children is a simple measure that has proved highly efficient in the countries that have implemented it (like France). But in the end, taxing processed foods and use the proceeds to subsidize whole foods and wellness activities (like fitness centers) may prove to be the most effective measure.