You're Fat and You Know It: Why Government Anti-Obesity Efforts Fail

How much more is the federal government going to spend making the case that obesity = bad?

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Ã?Â??mit Erdem/Shutterstock

Katherine Mangu-Ward

(Thanks for the intro, Megan. Looking forward to a couple of weeks of blogging. As a followup to the intro/this post: Here's the recipe for those cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates. I recognize that this does not help solve the obesity epidemic. Apologies.)

Fat people know they're fat. They know why they're fat. And they know that being fat kinda sucks.

This may seem obvious, but think about how many anti-obesity initiatives -- federal, state, and local--are aimed at promoting the message that being obese or overweight has terrible consequences and/or warning grazers and gorgers off specific food choices.

Two new papers from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo economist Michael L. Marlow take on this weird gap between the problem government anti-obesity efforts seem to be trying to solve and problems that actually exist. Obesity is an expensive, sticky problem, no doubt about that. (Megan has addressed this issue many times in many forms). But Americans themselves aren't deluded on that point. The fat=bad message has been sent and received, thank you very much. Yet government interventions like menu labeling requirements, public awareness campaigns about the dangers of sugary soda, zoning regulations to limit the prevalence of fast food restaurants, programs to eliminate "food deserts" and bring supermarkets to poor neighborhoods are multiplying. They fail, writes Marlow in a Mercatus Center working paper out this month, because they are little more than taxpayer-funded sermons to the chubby, chubby choir.

Fat people have a surprisingly accurate sense of the health costs of being fat, for example:

Finkelstein et al. conducted a survey of 1,130 adults in the United States to test whether overweight and obese individuals believe they are at greater risk of obesity-related diseases and premature mortality. They found that obese and overweight adults forecast life expectancies that are 3.9 and 2.4 years, respectively, shorter than those of normal-weight adults....The authors concluded that mortality predictions generated from the survey were "reasonably close" to those generated from actual life tables for adults in the United States.

Numerous studies have found that lack of information about a healthy diet or opportunities to eat well aren't the problem either. Cramming calorie counts and other nutrition information down customer's throats doesn't do much to change food choices. A second Marlow paper, forthcoming in what I'm told is the respectable journal Applied Economics Letters, finds that living near fast food doesn't cause weight gain. That finding is supported by another recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which found that living near supermarkets doesn't improve diets, and (with the possible exception of young, low-income men) living near fast food doesn't make for a less healthy diet.

Marlow and his Mercatus co-author point to massive (and growing) sales of diet books, health foods, and other weight loss products--plus efforts by employers and insurance companies to create a slimmer risk pool--as evidence that people are already well aware of the problem, they already have strong incentives to correct it, and are experimenting with a wide variety of strategies. Nobody's doing an especially good job at the moment, but that goes for government just as much (if not more) than individuals. Why ignore all the desperate private efforts at slimming down? Marlow et al. speculate: "Paternalists appear to disregard market attempts to deal with obesity, since its prevalence offers them latitude to overstate the effectiveness of interventions."