Is obesity caused by "market failure"?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 10/17/2007 08:33:00 PM
Make no mistake: obesity is a serious political economy issue. The same labor- and time-saving innovations of modernity have led to sedentary lifestyles which promote obesity. In turn, illnesses caused by obesity are resulting in spiraling health care costs. How do you break this vicious cycle? That' s the question that's been posed by a new government report here in Britain. The report is a bit touchy-feely in noting that obesity is not really an individual's fault. Rather, more blame is put on phenomena noted above--modernity is such that it promotes lifestyles which give rise to obesity. To me, the intriguing question here is, "Is obesity a market failure?" That's a tough one, and it really depends on how you define "market failure." In the sense that saddling the population with health risks is not an efficient outcome, you could answer in the affirmative. This question is raised in the BBC article on the report which I excerpt below:

Obesity, the authors concluded, was an inevitable consequence of a society in which energy-dense and cheap foods, labour-saving devices, motorised transport and sedentary work were rife.

Dr Susan Jebb of the Medical Research Council said that in this environment, it was surprising that anyone was able to remain thin, and so the notion of obesity simply being a product of personal over-indulgence had to be abandoned for good.

"The stress has been on the individual choosing a healthier lifestyle, but that simply isn't enough," she said.

From planning our towns to encourage more physical activity to placing more pressure on mothers to breast feed - believed to slow down infant weight gain - the report highlighted a range of policy options without making any concrete recommendations.

Industry was already working make healthier products available, the report noted, while work was advanced in transforming the very make-up of food so it was digested more slowly and proved satisfying for longer.

But Sir David [King] said it was clear that government needed to involve itself, as on this occasion, the market was failing to do the job…

Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo said it was too early to say whether the same "shock" approach seen in public health warnings against smoking would be adopted with obesity, or whether a tax on fatty foods, highlighted in the report but widely dismissed as unworkable, would be considered…

The Food and Drink Federation said it understood its role in tackling the problem.

"Our industry is now widely recognised as leading the world when it comes to reformulating products; extending consumer choice; and introducing improved nutrition labelling," a spokesperson said.

Below is the summary of the report. There's also a webpage where you can download the entire file:
By looking ahead 40 years, using scientific evidence, commissioned research and expert advice, the Foresight project, ‘Tackling Obesities: Future Choices’ has taken a strategic view of the issue of obesity.

In recent years Britain has become a nation where overweight is the norm. The rate of increase in overweight and obesity, in children and adults, is striking. By 2050, Foresight modelling indicates that 60% of adult men, 50% of adult women and about 25% of all children under 16 could be obese. Obesity increases the risk of a range of chronic diseases, particularly type 2 diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease and also cancer and arthritis. The financial impact to society attributable to obesity, at current prices, is estimated to become an additional £45.5 billion per year by 2050 with a seven fold increase in NHS costs alone.

The causes of obesity are extremely complex encompassing biology and behaviour, but set within a cultural, environmental and social framework. There is compelling evidence that humans are predisposed to put on weight by their biology. This has previously been concealed in all but a few, but exposure to modern lifestyles has revealed it in the majority. Although personal responsibility plays a crucial part in weight gain, human biology is being overwhelmed by the effects of today’s ‘obesogenic’ environment, with its abundance of energy dense food, motorised transport and sedentary lifestyles. As a result, the people of the UK are inexorably becoming heavier simply by living in the Britain of today. This process has been coined ‘passive obesity’. Some members of the population, including the most disadvantaged, are especially vulnerable to the conditions.

Successfully tackling obesity is a long term, large scale commitment. The current prevalence of obesity in the population has been at least 30 years in the making. This will take time to reverse and it will be least 30 years before reductions in the associated diseases are seen. The evidence is very clear that policies aimed solely at individuals will be inadequate and that simply increasing the number or type of small scale interventions will not be sufficient to reverse this trend. Significant effective action to prevent obesity at a population level is required.

Foresight’s work indicates that a bold whole system approach is critical - from production and promotion of healthy diets to redesigning the built environment to promote walking, together with wider cultural changes to shift societal values around food and activity. This will require a broad set of integrated policies including both population and targeted measures and must necessarily include action not only by government, both central and local, but also action by industry, communities, families and society as a whole.

Tackling obesity has striking similarities with tackling climate change. Both need whole societal change with cross governmental action and long term commitment. Many climate change goals would also help prevent obesity, such as measures to reduce traffic congestion, increase cycling or design sustainable communities. Tackling them together would enhance the effectiveness of action. There are also synergies with other policy goals such as increasing social inclusion and narrowing health inequalities since obesity’s impact is greatest on the poorest. No other country yet has an integrated, whole system approach to the prevention of obesity. Yet, based on the UK’s strengths in research, surveillance and public health there is an opportunity to pioneer a new approach that sets the global standards for success.