Obesity is in the headlines again this week. The narrative is long past predictable, but multiple news outlets are reporting that our growing waistlines could result in national economic disaster, and it's time for the federal government to tackle the problem head on. According to The Hill, a new study commissioned by the Campaign to End Obesity argues that "...Without targeted efforts to prevent the rise in obesity-related health care costs, the budgetary burden of obesity could overwhelm federal spending in the not-too-distant future."
The argument goes like this: Fat people are more likely to suffer from several serious diseases, which have to be treated, which in turn puts an inordinate burden on the health care system. It sounds like a reasonable proposition, but as Forbes columnist Tim Worstall put it, "the argument ... is entirely gibbering nonsense."
Undoubtedly, obesity is costly. In the long run, however, people with unhealthy lifestyles actually put less stress on the health care system than the rest of us. The reason? People who live longer (non-smoking, thin people who drink little) require more health care as they age. Effective obesity prevention does reduce the costs of treating obesity-related disease, but this reduction in costs is "...offset by cost increases due to diseases unrelated to obesity in life-years gained" according to the authors of 2008 study in PLoS Medicine. The researchers concluded, "Obesity prevention may be an important and cost-effective way of improving public health, but it is not a cure for increasing health expenditures."
Other studies have reached the same conclusion, too.
Of course, nobody (myself included) wants to see others live shorter lives because they make unhealthy choices. That being said, let's quit arguing that obese people are costing society more money, because it probably isn't true.
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