New York Department of Health and the Public Good vs. Nanny State

My wife shared an article from Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog from Jan 9 , which poses an interesting question on the role of government in society. The New York Department of Health has a new anti-obesity campaign against portion size. Is this Nanny State? Should Sarah Palin swoop in and start handing out cookies to New Yorkers? Or is this government looking out for the public good?

According to a study by the Society of Actuaries, the math people who determine risk for the insurance companies, the economic cost of an overweight, obese population in the United States is $270 billion. With obesity rates on the rise in America, this number is only going to go up.

CDC data showing obesity trends in the U.S. over the last 20 years.

To view a CDC powerpoint on obesity trends over the last ten years, click here.

The researchers looked specifically at increased necessity for medical care and a loss of economic productivity due to disability or death. The economic costs were broken down specifically, with $127 billion for excess medical care, $49 billion to loss of productivity due to death, $43 billion in lost productivity for active workers due to disability, and $72 billion for totally disabled workers.

“We found substantial evidence that overweight and obesity are becoming world-wide epidemics, and are having negative impacts on health and mortality,” said actuary Don Behan, an independent consulting actuary and one of two researchers who reviewed almost 500 articles on obesity. “As actuaries, we are working with the insurance industry to help incentivize consumers through their health plan design to focus on health and wellness, which will hopefully help curb the weight and health problems we face today.”

“Overweight and obesity have been shown to increase the rate of several common adverse medical conditions, resulting in this extraordinary economic cost to society,” said Behan. “We can’t stand back and ignore the fact that overweight and obesity are drivers of cost increases and detrimental economic effects. It’s time for actuaries, the employer community and the insurance industry to take action and help consumers make smart, healthy decisions.”

Government spending on healthcare is going up. Government spending on education is going down.

Health-care vs. Education Spending as Percentage of GDP (from Business Week)

Is this really the best use of the public’s money? Is this even sustainable? Having more money to spend on education seems like a good idea, especially for a nation so concerned with jobs. A study done by the Brookings Institute found that cities with the lowest unemployment rates tended to be those that have enough educated workers to fill available jobs.

The data shows that we are getting fatter and less educated. Soon enough we are all going to rolling around like the characters in Wall-E.

Hostess declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and this week. Fox and Friends ran a segment defending American’s right to eat a Twinkie. On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough offered up the Twinkie as an example of “American exceptionalism,” and said that we landed on Omaha Beach, “for the right for me to eat a Twinkie.”

Yes, people have a right to eat whatever they want. But given the current economic climate and the fact that state and federal governments are facing massive shortfalls leading to cuts to education, police departments and other institutions of the public good, maybe finding ways to reduce the cost of healthcare isn’t such a bad idea. We need to make better individual choices about our health. But government can help with rules that make sense.

I would not consider myself obese, though for the first time this year my doctor told me I needed to lose 20lbs during my annual physical. Then a few months later I found myself at the sports medicine doctor for knee pain. His diagnosis? “It isn’t serious. Do some strengthening exercises and lose some weight.”

I am a chronic over-eater. At times I will take on the personal discipline of “mindful eating.” I simply attend to my food, both the manner and volume of its intake. After each bite I put down my fork so I can taste each bite. I find that I enjoy my food more and overeat less. Do you know what I have never found? Myself still hungry looking at a clean plate. Especially when I am out to eat. Experience tells me that this is a better way to live. But I do not have the personal discipline to make it permanent.

For right now, I am a fan of the New York Department of Health. If they try to outlaw Shake Shack I will call Sarah Palin. But that does not seem likely.

On a lighter note, Fox News was actually good enough to post a recipe where you can make your own healthy Twinkie by replacing the chalky vanilla sponge filled with preservatives with a combination of  instant coffee, almond extract, toasted chopped nuts and liquor. Yes, liquor. This is still a children’s snack, right?

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