What policies best address obesity?

Credit: Glen Gyssler

May 12, 2021

Sections Public Policy

Collections IGM Poll

One risk factor for severe COVID-19 illness is obesity, which the World Health Organization describes as “one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century.” In many European countries, obesity’s prevalence has tripled since the 1980s, according to the WHO, and obesity affects 10–30 percent of adults. The situation is even worse in the United States, where it affects about 42 percent of adults, and the related medical care costs were an estimated $147 billion in 2008, which translates to $181 billion in 2021 dollars. The health issue is complex, as obesity can result from a number of causes, including heredity. However, could policies motivate people to adopt behaviors that would help, such as moving more or eating better? Chicago Booth’s Initiative on Global Markets polled its US and European Economic Experts Panels on the issue. 

Statement A: Policies that aim to reduce obesity by increasing incentives for physical activity would improve social welfare more than policies that increase the financial costs of consuming calories.

Responses weighted by each panelist’s confidence

Pinelopi Goldberg, Yale
“Losing weight requires reduction in calorie intake. Physical activity helps, but does not solve the problem of obesity.”
Response: Disagree 

Eric Maskin, Harvard
“Taxing junk food could conceivably be more effective against obesity than subsidizing exercise. But its incidence would fall on the poor.”
Response: Uncertain 

Carol Propper, Imperial College London
“The literature on changing health behaviors largely concludes that one tool alone (be it taxes, bans, or facilities) is not enough.”
Response: Agree

Statement B: A ban on advertising junk foods (those that are high in sugar, salt, and fat) would be an effective policy to reduce child obesity.

Responses weighted by each panelist’s confidence

Rachel Griffith, University of Manchester
“It might reduce temptation, but prices would likely fall (increasing quantity), and the overall impact of reducing junk food is unclear.”
Response: Uncertain 

Richard Schmalensee, MIT
“The definition of junk would be controversial and would affect product design in interesting ways.”
Response: Uncertain 

Antoinette Schoar, MIT
“It can help at the margin but will have minor effects by itself. Given the severity of the obesity crisis, we should use all possible tools.”
Response: Agree

Karl Whelan, University College Dublin 
“There are lots of unhealthy foods. Picking some specific products to ban seems unfair and unworkable.”
Response: Disagree