Tag: fat rights

Little Fat Man Isn’t It a Shame

by on Aug.16, 2009, under Politics

In the New York Times, David Leonhardt asks why we don’t treat fat people like we treat smokers, asking them to bear the brunt of their cost to society. It’s an inane and offensive argument on many levels. For example:

Cosgrove mentioned to me an idea that some economists favor: charging higher health-insurance premiums to anyone with a certain body-mass index. Harsh? Yes. Fair? You can see the argument. And yet it turns out that the obese already do pay something resembling their fair share of medical costs, albeit in an indirect way. Overweight workers are paid less than similarly qualified, thinner colleagues, according to research by Jay Bhattacharya and M. Kate Bundorf of Stanford. The cause isn’t entirely clear. But the size of the wage difference is roughly similar to the size of the difference in their medical costs.

Bigotry results in a wage penalty for being overweight (as it does in similar penalties for being short, or female)–and Leonhardt thinks public policy should follow from it.

The comparison to smoking is valuable, but Leonhardt gets it wrong by confusing a debilitating condition with a behavior that causes it. Cigarette taxes, whatever else they are, are not a punitive tax on people with lung cancer. So why would a smart public policy penalize, as Leonhardt proposes, “anyone with a higher body-mass index?”

Towards the end of the article, Leonhardt offers that the problem may have a social element:

The solutions to these problems are beyond the control of any individual. They involve a different sort of responsibility: civic — even political — responsibility. They depend on the kind of collective action that helped cut smoking rates nearly in half. Anyone who smoked in an elementary-school hallway today would be thrown out of the building. But if you served an obesity-inducing, federally financed meal to a kindergartner, you would fit right in. Taxes on tobacco, meanwhile, have skyrocketed. A modest tax on sodas — one of the few proposals in the various health-reform bills aimed at health, rather than health care — has struggled to get through Congress.

Again, smoking rates weren’t cut in half by ostracizing people with lung cancer, and obesity shouldn’t be attacked by shunning the fat. Most importantly, it would help to stop subsidizing the production of cheap, unhealthy food. A proposed California cigarette tax would raise revenue to fight cancer, and the costs of obesity could be fought with a soda or snack tax.

And fat people will continue to walk the earth–mostly-healthy-eating, occasionally-snacking people who remain fat. Public policy shouldn’t be designed to punish them.

Advanced reading: “Fat rights are where gay rights were at 30 or 40 years ago,” Paul Campos at Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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