Is obesity the government’s problem? Debaters during a recent Intelligence2 US faced off over this topic. Those for the motion suggesting that the government is responsible and needs to, among other things, build more parks; while their opponents, including Paul Campos (of University of Colorado, Boulder), suggest that obesity is a myth altogether and that maybe we should stop accusing people of it if we really don’t want them to feel bad.
Just looking around during my travels, I can’t believe that obesity is only a problem of body types. Overweight appearing people are more common in some states than others and, judging by airplane seats, some countries have less of a problem than others too. Something must be going on and the government, through subsidies that have dramatically effected our food chain might well be culpable. The thing is, what could the government do about it?
Is education really the answer? Well, we’ve tried that before, with, for example, smoking, and it rarely moves the needle much in terms of public behavior. Rachel Herz’s book That’s Disgusting may have an answer.
Herz’s book surprises us by revealing that the complex emotion of disgust is learned, not innate. Little children aren’t the least bit disgusted by mud pies and their own poo, and, it turns out, the older we get, the less often we’re disgusted as well. Disgust is socially acquired and it helps shape our behavior in everything from what foods to avoid to which laws not to break.
Smokers continued smoking long after they learned how bad it was for them. American society is especially individualistic and thus, few of us care about what someone does of their own volition. If education did little to stop smoking, what finally changed people’s habits? Once it became known that second-hand smoke might be harming your baby, it became difficult to avoid accusing looks from others as you pushed the carriage, cigarette in hand. When the health risks of smoking became a social problem, opinions started to change. Disgust is social—when the group impact of smoking was seen not in its individual effects, but in a broader, you’re-killing-the-bartender, way it began to lose its coolness and smoking has certainly decreased dramatically.
Stigmatizing over-weight people has done little to lower shrink our waste bands. Of course, we haven’t yet closed the circle on obesity. Obesity is, of course, linked to a range of health problems later in life, but here we are, an individualistic society, and, well, that’s that individual fat-guy’s problem!
I don’t believe that obesity is the government’s business, but it’s quite likely that many will start disagreeing with me once the Affordable Health Care Act (Obama-care) is in full swing. Suddenly, that fat guy’s later-in-life health problems are my problems. They’re costing me money! The stigma of obesity could suddenly become real enough to effect change. Could this be an unintended (and positive) side-effect of Obama-care?
I believe it could, but there are a few problems. First, we can readily stigmatize smokers because, addicted as they may have become, it was, and still remains, their choice (even if a difficult one) to smoke. Obesity is sometimes a choice and sometimes genetics, and we barely know enough about why, let alone who is just eating too much of the wrong foods, and who has a much tougher battle that diet alone will not solve. It seems a bit callous, and hardly helpful, to sneer at every fat person for wasting our money if there is no fault to be found. Thus, some will get a free ride, living an unhealthy lifestyle free of disgusted looks from others because we can’t yet know if they’re “to blame” or not.
Sadly, perhaps we won’t have such an easy solution to a growing, (weak pun intended) problem. But while the government is busy trying to make obesity its business, maybe our money would be better spent removing and rationalizing the food and farm subsidies which have made so many empty calories so inexpensive to produce. If it’s not one set of unintended consequences, it’s another. Let’s fix one problem before adding some more.