Why obesity should concern conservatives

Does it really matter how many ribs Michelle Obama ate on her vacation? For too many conservatives, the answer seems to be yes, with pundits poking fun at the anti-obesity guru’s dinner choice. But conservatives need to give it a rest: many seem to prefer scoring easy points against the First Lady to arguing about the best way to attack the obesity epidemic — and some even claim that obesity isn’t really a problem.

Conservatives, though, should be concerned about obesity for five reasons.

Fat is fiscal. Obesity and resulting illnesses are a major cause of rising costs for Medicare, Medicaid, and private health insurance–now consuming ten cents of every health dollar spent.

Obesity affects national security, since thousands of recruits are turned away from military service because of failed physicals and poor overall health.

Obesity is a drag on America’s competitiveness: it’s now one of the leading causes of disability in the workforce.

Obesity contributes to government waste: at a time of record deficits, taxpayers are still on the hook as Congress continues to subsidize profitable agribusinesses that produce unhealthy foods.

Finally, obesity undermines the American dream, since the condition leads to a range of health woes that shorten the lifespan of millions of decent Americans who deserve better.

Some conservatives claim that none of this is a problem because obesity rates may have stabilized. Yet obesity isn’t the same kind of problem as say, climate change, which is mostly an issue of what may happen in the future.

Suppose the temperature stays roughly the same over the next decade. If that happens, global warming critics will ask why temperatures haven’t gotten warmer, while the rest of us enjoy the reprieve. But obesity isn’t like that; the epidemic is here and now. Even if obesity rates don’t get any worse, medically speaking, obesity is already far too common.

Even with a stable obesity rate, health risks and financial consequences remain for the millions of people who are obese, year in and year out. By one recent estimate, if all other factors are held equal, a person who’s bearing more weight than the human body was designed to carry will cost America’s health-care system over one-third more each year than a non-obese patient.

In economic terms, that’s the price taxpayers and employers will pay every year to treat a condition that’s usually preventable–the price of treating diabetes and heart disease, of replacing knees and hips, and so on. A Duke University study estimates that obesity’s direct cost to employers is over $73 billion a year, over and above the billions in rising public health-insurance costs.

American freedom is inspirational because it helps people make better choices. Conservatives defend freedom because, the thinking goes, people will do the right thing more sincerely and more consistently if they choose to do so themselves.

Personal health shouldn’t be an exception to that ideal. The obesity issue offers us a chance to prove that individuals can cut health-care costs without heavy-handed government intervention–if only people could be motivated to be more responsible about their own health.

Millions have done so already, in the best American tradition of individual action. Some were inspired by the examples set by political leaders – like former Governor Mike Huckabee, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

This isn’t an endorsement of various bad ideas touted by the left. Rather, it’s a call to arms: conservatives should criticize those ideas, rather than deny the obesity issue in the first place.

After all, it’s conservative to ask individuals to take better care of themselves. They’ll never do that, though, if they spend their time harping on Michelle Obama’s occasional baby-back indulgence.

David Gratzer is a physician and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is author of The Cure: How Capitalism Can Save American Health Care.

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