Sunday, March 8, 2009

Obesity Policy

The Governor of New York proposed a number of initiatives to try to decrease obesity. This, of course, is a reasonable thing to want to do. The key economic question is whether this is likely to help the state. Why would that be a question? Well, people who are health can spend more on health care in the long run. That has been shown in a number of studies. Of course, in any year when a person is healthier they will spend less—on average. However, people who are not overweight can live longer and die of things that take longer to kill them.

Second, even if the state were to save money on the care of these individuals, they still have to spend money to being about the changes. The key is that the spending on the solution has to be compared with the savings that will accompany the solution.

Posting calories at all chain restaurants is the most questionable recommendation. It has been pointed out by others before me that if consumers want this information it is available in some cases already. Further, if consumers want this information they could favor restaurants that already provide the information. Really, it is just not clear how closely people are thinking about calories when they go to chain restaurants. At some chains, they are mostly looking for speed. At other chains, they are looking for other aspects off the experience.

So, is this really what consumers want to think about when they go to chain restaurants? Interestingly, the governor suggested a tax on sugared beverages. If a public policy maker really wanted to try to shift people away from higher calorie foods, then maybe the suggestion should be to place an extra tax on chain restaurants. That would get people to think about how they use time and money together to get the nutrition they need and maybe shift them toward more homemade more nutritious choices. Although that is no guarantee. And, as an economist, I’d be just as concerned about how extra taxes on chain restaurant foods could lead to market inefficiencies. Yet another alternative would be to make people who are obese more responsible for their own health insurance and health care. But, then we return to the issue of people who can’t afford care in general.

Again, no easy solutions. We just go round and round wondering which solution will cause the fewest problems.

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