The Public Interest

The economics of obesity

Inas Rashad & Michael Grossman

Summer 2004

HARDLY a day goes by that we do not read about the dire consequences of the increase in obesity. In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted that obesity will overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States by next year if current trends continue. “This is a tragedy,” Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers, told the Washington Post. “We’re looking at this as a wakeup call.” The obesity problem is real, Gerberding’s melodrama notwithstanding, and seems to be worsening each year. The percentage of adults who are obese has doubled since the late 1970s, and tripled among children. From increases in the size of coffins, to increases in the size of pets, to the appearance of new diets and new surgical techniques to lose weight, and to a patent for an in-car system for dieters that weighs them and tells them when they have strayed, the evidence of America’s obesity problem is everywhere.

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