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Let's Have a Grown Up Discussion About Obesity

Experience suggests that policies like fat/'junk food' taxes, vending machine bans, menu labelling requirements, reduced availability of particular foods, simplified or directive food labels, graphic warning labels, zoning restrictions, and advertising restrictions, will not be successful at reducing the prevalence of excess weight.

The response to my recent study (with Patrick Basham) on obesity trends and policy in Canada has been sharp and plentiful. Critics reiterated their view that Canadian waistlines are expanding continuously, putting lives and health (not to mention the health care system) at serious risk, with the only solution being taxation and regulation. Some even claimed the report contained misleading information. But few seem to have actually read the report before pounding out their critiques.

Let's set the record straight.

We affirm the observation that there are more overweight or obese Canadians than in decades past. In the study we note: "While there still may be too many expanded Canadian waist lines, the number appears to have stabilized and may even be turning a corner." And that's the point: the available data from Statistics Canada do not support the view that things are growing ever worse. That's not us talking, that's Statistics Canada.

According to that data, there has been no statistically significant change in the prevalence of overweight/obesity among Canadian youth since at least 2005. There has also been no significant change in the proportion of overweight adult males since 2003 while obesity in 2012 was no different than in 2007 and may have declined slightly. The only group still experiencing an increase in the prevalence of obesity in recent years are adult females. These are simply matters of fact, suggesting Canadians should be skeptical about an obesity "epidemic" overtaking the country.

The study also clearly notes that while there may be health risks associated with carrying excess weight, public discussion may exaggerate them. A number of studies show that the health and longevity risks associated with excess weight lie at the higher end of the weight spectrum, and that those who are currently classified as 'overweight' might actually be longer lived than those who are 'normal weight.' Thus, the health-based justification for obesity interventions may exist only among a smaller segment of the population with very high excess weight.

What about the economic and health care costs associated with obesity? A closer look finds most of the costs associated with obesity (lower income, reduced employment opportunities, reduced enjoyment of life, greater illness, and a potentially shorter lifespan) are borne by the obese individual. The argument for government intervention to reduce health care costs is weakened considerably by the finding that obese individuals may have lower lifetime healthcare costs than the non-obese because of their shorter lifespans. These are harsh realities that some would rather avoid acknowledging, but that doesn't make them less relevant in a policy discussion.

Even if we ignore all of these realities, there remains the prickly problem of government impotence: there is little solid evidence to support the notion that commonly proposed government interventions will have an impact on the high prevalence of obesity. Experience suggests that policies like fat/'junk food' taxes, vending machine bans, menu labelling requirements, reduced availability of particular foods, simplified or directive food labels, graphic warning labels, zoning restrictions, and advertising restrictions, will not be successful at reducing the prevalence of excess weight.

Such policies will, however, impose costs on Canadians through reduced choices, increased costs from taxation and regulation (raising food prices), and taxpayer funding of programs and the increased bureaucracy they require. These costs fall indiscriminately, and potentially regressively, on both obese and non-obese Canadians.

Exaggerated claims about the problem of excess weight will only engender policy discussions and proposals that will be intrusive, unfair, costly, and ineffective. It's time we had a grown-up discussion about obesity and admitted that taxes and regulations are not going to solve it.

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