The obese cost public health systems less in the long term because they die earlier.
And now it looks like those who are merely overweight rather than highly obese actually live longer than those who are of normal weight. JAMA reports that only categories 2 and 3 in the obesity rankings are associated with higher mortality risk; the overweight have a mortality risk of 0.94 compared with normal-weight individuals. From the study:
If the healthists keep talking about high proportions of the population who are overweight and obese, but it’s only the heaviest cohort within that group that experience increased mortality risk, and that group is only a small portion of the overall category we keep hearing about in the paper, why add the overweight and the category 1 obese to the tallies? To get bigger numbers and fuel perception of a crisis. Timandra Harkness explains [HT: @cjsnowdon]:
The reason this unassuming paper drew howls of outrage was the same as the reason the benefits of moderate alcohol intake are never noted without criticism: it spoils the headline health message that Fat is Bad.
Even worse, it blows the cover on the great myth – that an epidemic of Bad Fatness is sweeping the developed world. By including the dangerously obese, the innocuously tubby and the healthily plump in one category, ‘overweight including obese’, 60 per cent of the English population are labelled as potentially At Risk.
Being At Risk means these people need guidance and protection from their own vulnerable state, from the temptations of our obesogenic world and the frailties of their own sugar-addicted brains. At such a time of national peril, no measure is too extreme.
But less than a quarter of English adults are obese, according to new figures released just before Christmas, a fraction almost unchanged since 2007. And the ‘morbidly obese’ category – BMI over 40, the ones for whom it really might be worth shedding a few pounds, medically speaking – also remains steady since 2009 at 2.5 per cent of the UK population.
If only one in 40 of us is in significant weight-related danger, why do the other 97.5 per cent of us need to be protected by the state against sugary cereals and fizzy drinks? Could it be because only a few of us have fallen, but all of us are in peril? Weak, foolish and easily led astray, we need to be frightened back on to the right path. Thus Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum – who has called for children to be monitored from birth for signs of obesity – told the Independent: ‘If people read this and decide they are not going to die… they may find themselves lifelong dependents on medical treatment for problems affecting the heart, liver, kidney and pancreas – to name only a few.’
I suppose that an alternative hypothesis would be that some folks find the obese to be aesthetically displeasing and prefer to base policy interventions on a purportedly paternalistic basis than on an externality-via-aesthetics argument. The latter is more economically defensible, provided that we expect Hollywood et al get things roughly right about what sorts of actors more people prefer looking at, but harder to defend in popular forum. I’d also expect that since the morbidly obese suffer wage and health penalties already, any incremental Pigovean aesthetic tax added to the mix wouldn’t substantially affect things.