Point vs. Counterpoint

Point: Should Obesity be the Government’s Business?

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.

There are currently two leading contributing causes of premature death in the Western world: smoking and obesity. The parallels of the threats presented by a smoking lifestyle and by an obese lifestyle are very clear if one chooses to examine them. I choose to use the word lifestyle with apprehension because I believe that the word ‘lifestyle’ indicates choice. A human can rightfully choose whether or not to buy a pack of cigarettes at a local store, as can he or she choose to purchase a sugar-loaded soft drink or a bag of trans fat-laden potato chips. It is a choice and a multitude of these choices does lead to a lifestyle. However, the difference is that when a person chooses to buy a pack of cigarettes, they must first overcome a host of government induced barriers to make that choice. Yet when a person buys a bag of chips or a soft drink it comes at no great financial or ethical cost. In some ways, junk food is just as poisonous as cigarettes, and an obese lifestyle is just as dangerous as one of smoking. The government should remove their veil of ignorance, recognize these parallels and take greater steps to protect its population.

Everyone knows that smoking greatly increases the likelihood of cancer, heart disease, emphysema, stroke and asthma. Yet for every deadly disease caused by smoking there is a malady caused by junk food. Obesity, like smoking, leads to a host of cardiovascular issues and is linked to increased rates of cancer, muscle and joint issues and diabetes. Fortunately, even schoolchildren are aware of the risks of choosing either an obese or smoking lifestyle. Still, the government has a much less in-your-face attitude towards preventing obesity than towards preventing smoking despite health effects that are similar in severity. One can simply compare the act of purchasing a bag of chips against a package of cigarettes to see this blatant disparity.  To buy a pack of cigarettes a consumer has to request the store clerk to obtain them from an enclosed cabinet, this very act reminding the consumer that what they are doing is detrimental to their own health. Next, the consumer has to pay the prohibitive cost for cigarettes, which consists of 56.6 % taxes. After having asked the store clerk for the product and paying the inhibitive cost, the consumer has to look at a gruesome photo depicting a blackened lung, yellowed teeth, a crippled heart or some other equally unappealing ailment caused by the consumption of the product they just bought. On top of all this, the consumer must be at least 19 to buy the product.

Conversely, a child can walk into a store with no intention of buying harmful junk food, walk by a rack full of attractively labelled bags of potato chips or chocolate bars and suddenly decide that he or she could use a snack. They can then buy the product at a reasonably, equally taxed price. For less than five dollars anybody of any age can easily consume more than their daily value of fat, sugar or sodium along with a host of other dangerous preservatives without being reminded of the adverse effects on their health. Despite the similarities between the dangers provided by the consumption of either product, it is far cheaper and less guilt-inducing to choose to eat poorly then to smoke. This needs to change.

The health effects of obesity also place a huge burden on our already-overloaded healthcare system. A recent study revealed two eye-opening pieces of data. Firstly, if obesity were no longer a factor, 10% of all visits to doctors in Canada would be erased. This factor also does not incorporate the number of visits associated with Type II diabetes which is linked to obesity. The research also yielded that out of 60,000 patient visits, more of them were associated with problems linked to obesity then issues tied to smoking. Also a recent article published in Forbes magazine revealed that more money is spent on obesity related health issues then on those related to smoking in the US today, a country with obesity rates similar to Canada’s. Despite the fact that smoking places a larger burden on our vulnerable health care system then smoking, government has done little to ease the consumption of the products responsible for obesity, at least compared to the approach taken towards cigarettes.

Perhaps the most inhibiting factor preventing the government from going after products causing obesity is an inherent complexity in tackling the issue. Imposing a market wide tax on ‘junk food’ would be incredibly complicated. Defining what qualifies as junk food versus what does not qualify as junk food would be very difficult. However, small steps could first be taken. These could include subsidizing healthier foods, such as fruits, vegetables, fish and poultry. The government could also take steps to limit the amount of advertising done by soft drink, candy and chip companies on children’s television. Steps such as banning junk food in school vending machines have been a step in the right direction, and could be taken further through banning the sale of such items in more public buildings. Impactful public service messaging, akin to that presented on television indicating the dangers of second hand smoke, could also be more broadly promoted.

I am not advocating that a child should not be able to buy a bag of potato chips or a soft drink, or a market-wide “fat tax” is necessary, but I do strongly believe that obesity is just as dangerous as smoking and that the government needs to recognize this. I have presented a few small steps that could go a long way in preventing obesity, and I believe that perhaps these could kick start a more widespread anti-obesity movement on all levels of government. It is true that people are responsible for their choices, but when those choices present danger to the consumer, they need to be made aware of the risk. It is this philosophy that saved much of my generation from the smoking induced maladies seen by the generations before us, and it is this attitude that can save the next from the devastating effects caused by obesity.

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