Obesity is not a public health problem


Jason Collins


February 5, 2015

It has taken a while for this month’s Cato Unbound, “Can Public Policy Stop Obesity?”, to warm up. But Christopher Snowdon’s latest post is full of good material. He takes on the question of whether obesity is a drain on the public purse, whether we consumer high sugar soda because we have no no choice, and the burden of sugar taxation.

The opening is particularly pointed. Is obesity a public health problem? And, can parents solve the childhood obesity crisis?

Firstly, I should say that I do not hold some of the opinions that Harris and Saunders consider to be truisms. Saunders says ”that obesity is a major U.S. public health problem is not a subject of much dispute” while Harris says that “All agree that parents cannot solve the childhood obesity crisis on their own.” In fact, I do dispute that obesity is a “public health problem.” I don’t share the currently fashionable view that a public health problem is merely the aggregate of a nation’s private health problems. Obesity differs from genuine public health issues, such as unclean drinking water, pollution, and tuberculosis, in that it is not infectious and it can be prevented and cured without government intervention. It a private health problem – or, more correctly, it is a risk factor for private health problems.

I am loath to start a sentence with the words “as a parent,” but as a parent I reject Harris’s assertion that “parents can’t compete with the overwhelmingly unhealthy food environment surrounding their children as soon as they step outside the front door.” Parents can prevent their children becoming obese, particularly when they are young. Collectively, therefore, parents can “solve the childhood obesity crisis,” if it must be put in those terms. Similarly, parents can prevent themselves from becoming obese. The evidence is all around us. Even in the United States, with its supposedly “obesogenic” environment, two-thirds of adults and 83 percent of children are not obese. Obesity is not rare enough to be called deviant, but nor is it normal enough to be viewed as an unavoidable consequence of forces that are beyond the individual’s control.

Read the rest.

In response, Russell Saunders partially runs up the white flag. Jennifer Harris gives a more spirited defence, particularly on advertising.