Junk Food: The Pariah That's Replacing Tobacco

Obese people and politics in America
Obese people and politics in America

Tobacco companies can breathe a sigh of relief. There's a new health terror taking over the public radar: fat Americans.
The idea that growing American waistlines are posing a huge threat to financial well-being is gaining momentum. Signs increasingly show that this topic will affect public opinion and public policy.

Last year, San Francisco banned including promotional toys with fast-food meals that didn't meet certain nutritional requirements.

Now, on the heels of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's controversial stance -- banning large, sugary drinks -- Reuters reports that a California public health watchdog group is demanding a government report on how frequently food stamps are used to procure high-calorie soft drinks and unhealthy food.

Developments like these are making companies like McDonald's (MCD) and Coca-Cola (KO) hopping mad. Although such companies have moved to offer some healthier fare, they argue that consumers' choices are being taken away.
You'd think deep-pocketed corporations like those above would have a lot of influence over these decisions, but part of the issue here is that some people have been crunching numbers about our nation's so-called obesity epidemic -- and those numbers are not good.

Weighing the Data

A recent study from Cornell University claims that obesity-related problems weigh in at nearly 21% of U.S. health care costs, with an estimated total price tag of $190.2 billion per year, twice as much as previously estimated. The study made a strong case for government to intervene more intensively to reduce that number.

Apparently 34% of Americans are now considered "obese," three times as high a percentage as in 1960. Morbid obesity afflicts 6% of our fellow citizens. Those who are studying the outlays of resources on this weighty problem say that obese people are sick more, have more chronic illnesses, and lose work productivity.

Some have even crunched the numbers on other wasteful possibilities when individuals carry extra weight on their frames. Take this data gem Reuters unearthed: Cars need a billion more gallons of gas per year to tote their passengers around than if typical passengers still weighed in at the same amount as they did in 1960.

The obesity health epidemic is sure to overshadow the massive public campaign that's been waged against smoking for years. That's because of a little-known fact: Smokers aren't as much of a financial strain on the system -- because they die younger. By contrast, because many of the medical conditions associated with obesity are chronic but not fatal, the epidemic could have a much larger financial impact.

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Big Bottom Line

Obviously, a case is being made that obesity is an extremely expensive concern, and that its costliness is going to affect every American, whether it's because of higher insurance premiums or higher costs as companies build larger capacity for their overweight customers and all kinds of expenses hurting different bottom lines. And growing taxpayer responsibility is a big part of the reason why government's getting increasingly concerned.

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But is a large, sugary soda really that evil? What about an occasional Big Mac?

Public-policy makers will increasingly try to convince us that that's the case, and at some point, overweight people may join smokers as the public's favorite pariahs.

Few would defend habits that we all know full well are unhealthy, but many of us still make these choices, for whatever reason. Everybody has a bad habit or two; some people are even self-medicating for emotional reasons. Some people's problems with weight, health, or longevity have more to do with genetic predispositions than bad habits. (I'll bet everyone knows a person who ate whatever they wanted and lived to be 100, or a healthy-living marathon runner who passed away young.)

However, the ongoing drive by politicians and others to demonize behaviors that cost society too much money -- and therefore must be legislatively stopped -- is probably going to be a really major epidemic. Where will it end?

Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Coca-Cola. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Coca-Cola and McDonald's.

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