A new study from Hoover Institute fellow and Stanford Medical School professor Jay Bhattacharya provides some much needed clarification on what makes a legitimate public health crisis, and why rising rates of obesity, no matter how you spin them, don’t qualify:
A sharp increase in the prevalence of a dangerous infectious disease like tuberculosis is no doubt a public health emergency, but the same is not true for an increase in back pain. In the case of tuberculosis, drastic public actions, including quarantines and forced treatment, may be justified; in the case of back pain, such actions would be wildly inappropriate … The obesity epidemic is no public health crisis.
One of the more clever ways obesity activists have tried to make people’s waistlines an issue of government interest is by arguing that unhealthy people make us all pay more for health insurance. Sounds plausible enough, and if it’s true we all really would be suffering from someone else’s bad decisions. But Bhattacharya’s research shows that the vast majority of obesity’s costs — like lost productivity and higher medical bills — are borne by obese people themselves. What’s more, he argues, heavy handed attempts to force people to make “better” decisions are likely to cause more harm than good:
Any government intervention should be scrutinized for unintended and harmful side effects. For instance, taxing burgers at fast-food restaurants may sound like a good idea, but doing so would hurt the poor. My colleagues Darius Lakdawalla and Tomas Philison have shown that raising the price of ground beef can increase anemia rates among poor children in the United States. That anemia rates and the price of ground beef rise together is not surprising because beef, often consumed at fast-food restaurants, is a primary source of iron for poor children. This is yet another warning against adopting policies appropriate for a public health crisis when no such crisis exists.