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Battling Obesity: Government Imposition v. Individual Responsibility

Last year, the life expectancy in the United States dropped for the first time in nearly 25 years, and health experts believe that this may be the trend over the course of the next 20 years. The number one cause of death in the U.S. is cardiovascular disease; meanwhile, 7 of the top 10 causes of death can be directly linked to dietary consumption.

Additionally, with debates about potentially repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka Obamacare, understanding some of the reasons behind the high cost of healthcare is beneficial for anyone trying to argue the pros and cons about the ACA. In one article (“Poverty and Obesity in the U.S.” J.A. Levine. Diabetes Journal, 2011), it states “obesity-associated disease already accounts for 70% of U.S. health costs.” Factor in the startling facts from the Department of Health and Human Services:

  • More than 2 in 3 adults are considered to be overweight or obese.

  • More than 1 in 3 adults are considered to be obese.

  • More than 1 in 20 adults are considered to have extreme obesity.

  • About one-third of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be overweight or obese.

  • More than 1 in 6 children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be obese.

Nevertheless, citing unsettling facts about the obesity epidemic is one thing, but it only benefits us to come up with a solution. Countries like Mexico and Australia believe that imposing taxes upon sugar-sweetened beverages, such as sodas and fruit drinks, may be the answer. A common challenge for developed nations is widespread obesity, and many health experts believe that sugary drinks are a major contributor. Additionally, in these developed nations, the prevalence of obesity is higher for low-income populations. In the U.S., since low-income individuals are more prone to choosing to bypass health insurance coverage because of the high cost, this magnifies the threat to these individuals’ well-being, particularly those that are overweight or obese.

In the research article concerning Australia’s tax implementation for sugary drinks (“Modelled health benefits of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax across different socioeconomic groups in Australia: A cost-effectiveness and equity analysis”. A. Lai, A.M. Mantilla-Herrera, L. Veerman, K. Backholer, G. Sacks, M. Moodie, M. Siahpush, R. Carter, A. Peeters. PLOS Journal, 2017.), it looks into the potential health and economic effects across different levels of personal wealth. The Australian government believes that passing a 20% tax upon sugary drinks; in effect, it may create an undesirable economic impact for low-income populations, which happen to have the highest percentage of the overweight and obese population. By creating an economic hardship for these individuals, it is believed that they would be less prone to buying and consuming sugary drinks, therefore, reducing overall caloric intake and, thus, reduce their likelihood of becoming overweight or obese.

While the potential health benefit of reducing sugary drink intake is positive, the more conservative individuals argue that it may create economic crises for producers of such sugary drinks and a slippery slope that may also produce negative effects for other industries. With lower demand, there would be higher supply; if this is the case, companies are likely to reduce productivity, thus, may be more inclined to reducing the size of their workforce, which would have a rippling effect on the economy. Additionally, while, for the moment, it is only sugary drinks targeted by the tax, there lies the possibility that the fast food, ice cream and, possibly, the bakery industries may be next. Proponents of the tax argue that companies would naturally adjust and make the necessary changes to produce products that appeal to a more health-conscious market; that, in and of itself, is not an easy road to travel, particularly for companies whose brands have long been associated as “indulgence” brands. The unfortunate reality is that these taxes have the potential to damage business for some companies that they may have to shut down.

The obesity epidemic in the America is incredibly troubling, and hugely responsible for shortening the quality of life and life expectancy of many, while spiking up the cost of healthcare. Also, with low-income individuals having a higher susceptibility of being overweight or obese due to poor diet, reduced availability of healthy foods in urban areas, higher rate of sedentariness and less likelihood of purchasing health insurance, they are the most at-risk. A few years ago, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg passed a law that would tax sugary drinks in the city, but a judge slammed it for its lack of legality. Recently, Berkeley, California passed a similar law, which is still in effect; however, Berkeley is an overwhelmingly high-income city, thus the health impact may not be too significant since wealthy individuals have lower lifestyle-related health rates than the impoverished, such as obesity.

The debate about the government’s role involved in individuals’ health has excellent points and counterpoints, and one cannot expect it to be resolved anytime soon. For now, educating families about making healthier choices with their diets and lifestyles may help, as will increasing the availability of healthy food choices with things such as farmers markets. Ultimately, each individual is responsible for what they choose to eat or drink and knowing the consequences of overindulging with unhealthy dietary choices can be the difference between living a long, healthy life versus dying before age 60.

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