First published in Business Life magazine, July 2007
Let’s face it, we’re fat. Half of all British adults are overweight or obese, which is good news only for the manufacturers of outsize trousers. Other countries are also suffering from rising obesity. So if you wanted to propose a policy to slim down the western world, what would it be?
That depends on what you think the problem is. Trust the economists to have an opinion about that. Armed with a big box of clever statistical tools and a keen sense of the costs and benefits of anything – even a cheeseburger – they have something to say that is worth hearing.
The clever statistics are essential. After all, is a kid who spends 40 hours a week watching television fat because he’s been watching advertisements for fast food, or fat because he isn’t outside playing football? Or is he watching so much television because he was already fat and so doesn’t enjoy playing outside?
The economists Shin-Yi Chou, Inas Rashad, and Michael Grossman realised that local networks all over the United States have different patterns of fast-food advertisements. They have used this difference to show that fast-food advertising does indeed make children, especially teenagers, fatter.
Another neat piece of analysis is from Henry Overman of the London School of Economics, along with three co-authors. They look at the common complaint that sprawling suburbs make people fat because they encourage too much driving. On the face of it, that seems to be true: fat people live in the ‘burbs. But Overman’s team tracked 6000 people over time to show that the suburbs don’t cause obesity. They simply attract overweight people, while compact pedestrian-friendly cities attract the slim and fit.
Obesity even lends itself to cost-benefit analysis, and it does seem that the incentives are starting to push people away from dieting. Because of new cholesterol-busting drugs, it simply isn’t as dangerous to be fat as it once was. (Sure, it’s bad for you, but it used to be worse.) I have heard more than one economist argue that that’s a reason for the rise in obesity: since it’s not such bad news to be fat, why not eat the odd chocolate bar that once you would have resisted?
Add to that the fact that the time and expense of making unhealthy food has plummeted. The Harvard economist David Cutler, with two colleagues, points to the potato as an example. It was once boiled or thrown into stews because making chips was a chore. Thanks to industrial processing, freezing and vacuum packing, we can enjoy chips in seconds and for just a few pennies. If you really want to slim down the nation, perhaps you should forget advertising and worry about microwavable chips.