There’s no question that obesity is a serious problem in the United States. The Center for Disease Control estimates that about one-third of adults in the U.S. are obese and about 17 percent of kids ages 2 to 17.
Obesity is a risk factor for numerous serious health conditions, including diabetes, heart failure, strokes and several cancers. Obesity has been strongly linked to low socioeconomic status in developed countries like the U.S., and treatment of these conditions in people who can’t afford health insurance is a strain on an already struggling economy.
An article in the New England Journal of Medicine recently addressed this situation. The typical American diet is loaded with saturated fat, sodium and sweeteners, which have all been linked to obesity. The situation has become so bad that this diet is considered a serious threat to public health, but experts debate the best way to approach the situation.
The Personal Responsibility Solution
Some health advocates support interventions at the personal level. Since each person is ultimately responsible for their food and exercise choices, these interventions would be delivered through education from the health care system or through the community. Unfortunately, this system has not proven to be ultimately successful at changing the desire to continue eating an unhealthy diet, as years of habitually making poor food choices have acclimated American’s food tastes toward sweet or salty foods.
Changes in Public Policy
The answer to the obesity epidemic may lie in system-wide policy changes. This can be a tricky business, however. Americans are accustomed to certain freedoms, and any policy change that smacks of limits on choices is likely to draw fire. Our free trade system must also be addressed, as well as the problem of the poor being heavily affected and more likely to rely on unhealthy foods to make up a larger proportion of their diet.
The Cap and Trade Solution
The NEJM article proposes a cap and trade system, similar to the one used in the 1990s to successfully combat acid rain. In this program, a cap would be set on unhealthy ingredients in food sold in the U.S., essentially treating them like pollutants in our food supply. Cap and trade in the U.S. food supply would have the following benefits:
· The approach requires the capped substances to be easily measurable. Ingredients like sugar, sweeteners, salt and unhealthy fats are quite easy to measure.
· Since different sectors of the food industry would be impacted in different ways, it makes sense to allow a fast food chain, who deals heavier in sodium, to purchase sodium allowances from a restaurant specializing in healthy food.
· Companies will be forced to find new ways to produce the foods that Americans desire, possibly creating a sort of compromise.
· By carefully designing regulations, the system can generate funding for public health programs and subsidization for creating healthier food.
· Consumer choice would not be limited, and products would not need to be taxed.
The biggest challenge to this system would be the fact that it requires incorporating more government regulation in the food industry, something that might prove to be a touchy subject in today’s current political atmosphere. Previous healthy regulations have set a precedent, however, including seat belt and helmet laws, as well as mandated airbags and vaccination programs.