Thursday, September 02, 2010

Should the Federal Government Try to Curb Obesity?

/PRNewswire/ -- The First Lady and the Surgeon General are trying to rally Americans to fight against the "epidemic" of obesity. Perhaps they will inspire many to follow their leadership by example. Otherwise, the role of the federal government in curbing obesity is questionable, write economists Michael Marlow and Alden Shiers of California Polytechnic State University.

The government's tools are taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, bans on soft drinks in schools, regulations forcing restaurants to post calorie counts, and government-funded motivational programs.

In an article in the fall issue of the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Marlow and Shiers argue that these methods are ineffective or even counterproductive.

Consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks doubled between 1960 and 1980, a period when obesity rates were stable, and has been declining recently. Taxes are more likely to affect the behavior of casual consumers, who are more price sensitive, than of heavy consumers. States with strong restrictive policies on soft drinks in schools have no better obesity statistics than those with no such policies. Calorie labeling laws do not cause consumers to order lower-calorie meals.

The idea of funneling "sin tax" revenues into government programs to discourage unhealthy behavior has been tried with tobacco taxes. Roughly 10 percent of tobacco tax revenue flows into smoking-control programs--which are not very effective--and the rest is used for unrelated government programs.

"We predict government intervention will make obesity worse as it crowds out market-based solutions that effectively tie weight loss to personal responsibility, higher wages, and lower insurance premiums," write Marlow and Shiers.

"The main effect of the campaign will be to extract more money from taxpayers and to expand government."

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