Who Cares If Obese People Cost Less?

In a blog post-cum-interview about obesity and health savings, Megan McArdle writes:

With health care in the news, everyone's looking for magic bullets to save money.  Obesity seems to be a growing favorite:  wouldn't it be great if we could make everyone look like Jennifer Anniston, and be cheaper to treat?  There are a lot of holes in this theory--the morbidly obese are very sick, but die young, while lower levels of overweight/obesity aren't so well correlated with poor health. But still, the idea's power seems to be growing every day.

As someone who feels totally fine slapping additional taxes on soda or cigarettes -- in part to reduce public health consequences like obesity and lung cancer -- let me say that I don't think the best justification for this policy has a whole lot to do with to do with reducing health spending. A less obese population that doesn't die young from fast-onset lung cancer might end up spending more on health care. Totally possible.

And that's fine. Taxes on public health threats will still raise revenue. And they will still reduce the amount of behavior that damages public health. The value of reduced obesity and lung cancer rates shouldn't stand or fall depending on whether or not it saves society money. They are valuable because our society considers morbid obesity and early, horrible deaths bad things that are worth discouraging. (Our society might also think that universal health insurance is a good thing that requires additional public revenue, but the tea leaves on that seem somewhat unclear at the moment.)

Presented by

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.

Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors at a world-class life sciences lab are trying to change the way people think about their health.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Politics

Just In