Point vs. Counterpoint

Counterpoint: 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.

When people talk about the government getting involved in their day-to-day lives the term “nanny state” often comes to mind. And while making the government responsible for obesity might sound like a good idea, it is definitely a slippery slope.

One of the fundamentals of a free society is independence and self-ownership. If the government intends to encroach on our self-ownership and independence they do so only after proving that it is for the benefit of the majority. That is how our court system works. People are considered free and innocent until the government (through the courts) proves that they are guilty. Once they are proved guilty they are sentenced, and their independence is limited for the benefit of the public. Society accepts this as they know it is done to keep us safe.

Society has only accepted things such as public smoking bans, speed limits, and airport security because they are assumed to be for the benefit of the public, despite limiting some of our independence. Eating differs from these things as obesity harms no one other than the individual. So why should the government needlessly get involved in my life if I am not doing anything to harm others?

Eating is a trickier thing for the government to tackle than an issue like smoking. The fact of the matter is everyone eats. The government can tackle smoking by taxing cigarettes because everyone who smokes has to buy cigarettes. It’s a little different for obesity. Obviously, not everyone who eats is obese so by applying a food tax you’re not just affecting obese people, you’re affecting everyone. And even if the food tax was applied to only junk foods or fast foods, I’m willing to bet that most healthy people like to occasionally treat themselves to a burger, or a piece of cake, or some sort of unhealthy food. It is not really for the benefit of the public, so why should the majority be punished for the mistakes of a few?

The health-care costs of obesity is one reason I could see the government using for making obesity their responsibility. Obesity health costs are more important for us in Canada than in the US. In the US they have a private health-care system so obese people pay more health insurance premiums so others aren’t paying for their increased costs. In Canada, it’s a little different. We have a public health-care system (which I love!) so everyone pays into the health-care system and everyone has free (for the most part) medical care whenever they need it. That being said, obese people have a higher average yearly medical cost than a healthy weight person. That’s where the government comes in. They claim that since they are paying more money yearly to treat obese people, that they have a vested interest in stopping obesity and should therefore take responsibility for combating it. It’s almost like the government is making some sort of claim on obese people, saying that since they payed for their higher-than-average health costs they now own you and are going to force you to repay your debt.

That might be a little bit of an extreme statement but there is a ring of truth to it. Just look at smokers. The healthcare costs of a smoker are more on average per year than a healthy non-smoker, so the government uses that to justify putting a hefty tax on cigarettes. Here’s the thing though: most healthy people cost more to the health-care system over their lifetime than smokers or obese people.

The horrible fact is that the government in a way almost benefits financially from smokers and the obese. Obese people have a much lower life expectancy than healthy people. This means that a healthy normal weight person could live anywhere between 2-10 years more than an obese person. These extra 2-10 years of medical costs are typically more than the extra yearly costs an obese person accrues through his lifetime. That basically means that a healthy person will cost more than an obese person over his lifetime, which kind of negates the argument that the government needs to intervene to save money. Also, as horrible as it sounds, the government probably saves a lot of Canadian Pension Plan money from obese people dying early, further trivializing their claim that they need the money.

The key to reducing obesity is promoting self-responsibility through education. Sure, it might seem easy to make the government responsible for obesity because then it would be their problem and we wouldn’t have to worry about it. We could even blame the government if obesity rates didn’t go down! But that’s not going to change anything. The only people who can stop obesity are the obese themselves. They need to take responsibility for their own health, not take the responsibility off themselves and put it on the government. If an obese person doesn’t want to change then no sort of tax or intervention will stop that. They will always get the burger, or pop that they want even if they have to pay a little more for it. Instead of wasting money and time on legislation the government should instead educate people and let them be responsible for themselves.

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