Double chins

Ross Gittins today writes up research by David Cutler, Ed Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro, which suggests that the obesity increase over recent decades is largely due to improvements in food technology.

Just goes to show that in the Sydney Morning Herald, good things deserve saying more than once (and in Ross’s case, more articulately).

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25 Responses to Double chins

  1. harry clarke says:

    I cited it on my blog also but similar reaction – the research is old hat.

    I think there are ‘nanny state’ questions one can ask about the sort of position Gittins advances but I probably support it on balance.

    To be honest I am a bit uncertain and morally ambivalent about the whole thing. We are being systematically poisoed by large profit-making firms but peddle expensive food that causes obesity and diabetes but who wants to be the person who tells people what they should eat. Not this little buttercup – at least not without a fair measure of discomfit.

  2. harry clarke says:

    I inserted links in the previous which didn’t come out – this accounts for awful English. Sorry.

  3. Russell Hamilton says:

    How about the HECS principle, so beloved by economists ?

    If you are significantly overweight, and present to a doctor / hospital with an obesity-related illness, you can be treated, but you will incur a charge – income to be garnished, balance taken from your estate.

    Why should we pay for people’s lack of self-control?

  4. Sacha says:

    I think you’re not being completely serious Russell 🙂

    Perhaps a pertinent question is, why should everyone else pay to cure or rid me of something that I could have easily stopped happening but chose not to? Shouldn’t I pay the cost of the cure or getting rid of it? (And this isn’t necessarily referring to obesity…) Now I’m not saying that these are necessarily questions with easy answers, but they can be put in the air to think about, at least.

  5. Ben says:


    A humane society moves away from making moral judgments about the guilt of the sufferer in causing his/her illness. Othewise we can take this to extremes. We would penalise the weakest and most vulnerable in our society. eg. Hep C/ HIV sufferers, unlicensed drivers in car accidents, eating disorders etc. etc. etc. Health and socio-economic status are very closely entwined.

  6. Sacha says:

    Ben, you can take anything to the extremes if you want to, but that isn’t the basis of making an argument, and it’s not a matter of assigning moral judgments about guilt.

    But perhaps you’ve hit the nail on the head – maybe it is true that whether a person pays the cost of dealing with an injury or a sickness is associated with whether they are thought to bear the “guilt” of their sickness/illness by society/public policy.

    Thus, whether person X thinks that everyone should pay for someone’s treatment reflects to some extent X’s attitude to the question of who bears the responsibility (or guilt?) for the sickness. This makes sense.

    But this isn’t what I was talking about – I was talking about a situation in which I imposed a cost on everyone else due to my actions/inactivity, especially where it could be reasonably foreseen that the outcome could well have happened. Now, for the sake of argument, why shouldn’t I bear this cost? And where should the lines be drawn in relation to this?

  7. Kevin Cox says:

    We know that the excessive consumption of soft drinks is bad for our health. We know that too much highly purified foods like white bread and sugar are bad for our health. We also know that too much alcohol is not good etc.

    A possible solution is the following.

    We give people – not a discount on “good foods” such as fruit and vegies but a reward that is only given when they buy fruit or vegies and can only be claimed when they buy more fruit and vegies or (do something like grow vegies or attend a fat control course or…..)

    Why not just subsidise fruit and vegies? Because this takes control from the consumer and it is not a visible reinforcement. We want to change people’s behaviour and to do that we need constant reinforcement and reminding of desirable habits.

    So here is how it might work.

    Every time someone sells an apple then the customer gets a reward (a frequent fresh eater reward). The customer can only claim the reward – or sell it to someone else – if they spend it on some desirable food related thing.

    We get the money for rewards by putting the GST on ALL food and ensuring that the money collected from all food is put into the rewards fund. We make the GST on “bad food” higher than on good food. The poor would not suffer from the GST providing they spent their rewards on good foods – that is the GST is not a tax in the normal sense because it comes back to those who “do the right thing”. In these days of the internet and mobile communications this system would be relatively easy to implement and merchants who wanted to use rewards would soon implement the appropriate systems to participate.

    Of course you can see that the same principles can be followed to alleviate the problems of green house gases or to build good public transport systems or ….

    If anyone is interested in following this idea then contact me as we have proposed a system using the same principles to provide a sustainable water supply for urban societies and it has a good chance of being implemented and would provide a model for food and other goods and services. You can find me at my food blog 🙂

  8. Andrew Leigh says:

    Harry, I agree the research is a couple of years old. But it’s by far the best paper on the economics of obesity. I’d much rather Ross was talking about Cutler, Glaeser & Shapiro than some other half-baked piece of research. The only point of my post was to observe similar ideas cycling back through the opinion page.

  9. derrida derider says:

    Kevin, could you imagine what your subsidy scheme would look like once the farm lobby got hold of it? And the “different rates of GST” bit shows you’ve never had to administer a real life tax system.

  10. Matt Canavan says:

    Interesting issues raised in the article but I don’t agree with his policy prescription at the end of it. Even if you do believe that we need to do something about obseity banning junk food advertising to children seems a pretty ineffective way to do it. Much junk food advertising simply changes kids to eat a mars bar instead of a kit kat; it may not actually increase the amount of junk food consumption. Also, Sweden already ban junk food advertising and there are just as many porky kids there as elsewhere.

    And, I tend to agree with Harry that I’m uncomfortable with the government directing us what to eat. Junk food is not addictive like cigarettes and there are many things in our evolutionary make-up that causes us to make wrong decisions. What’s next, we bring back penalties for adultery!

  11. Sacha says:

    “Junk food is not addictive like cigarettes and there are many things in our evolutionary make-up that causes us to make wrong decisions. ”


    One thing about the obesity problem is that for a lot of people it boils down to the following simple and easy “equation”: energy ingested – energy used = energy retained.

    So, use as much energy as you consume, and you won’t have a problem. Simple. You have to make it happen. Unless you have a medical problem that makes this very difficult to do, you’re responsible for whether you expend the energy you consume. I’m responsible for whatever I eat, and parents are in the main responsible for what their kids eat at home.

  12. Sacha says:

    It’s no good blaming obesity on “our sedentary lifestyle” – you have to take personal responsibility for your health and stop being sedentary.

  13. Russell Hamilton says:

    Sacha – true, I only leapt to the right because Harry seemed to be crowding me out of a left position, but now that I’m there ….

    Ben – if students don’t study, and fail (at university), do we just keep letting them repeat the course endlessly at , partly, the taxpayers expense? If people won’t exercise and keep stuffing fries and thickshakes into themselves, why should I pay for the consequences ? The PBS will eventually collapse under the weight of a mass-medicated society in which a quarter of the population breakfasts on anti-depressants and statins, when exercise and diet would be a better prescription.

  14. Sacha says:

    Ok Russell, I understand now 🙂

    Forget about subsidies… how about
    1. educating people about a healthy diet and exercise regime
    2. they’re responsible for themselves in relation to diet and exercise
    4. if there are medical issues, well take them into account.

    Now, what’s wrong with this?

  15. Sacha says:

    3. was merged into 2. and I forgot to renumber.

  16. Andrew Whitby says:

    Focussing on the ‘energy in’ side of the equation, let’s implement a sliding (upwards) scale tax on fat (or sugar, or whatever). It works like this. You nominate your preferred supermarket with a Shopper Declaration Form. At your preferred supermarket you get a ‘tax-free fat threshold’ up to the recommended healthy level. At other supermarkets you are taxed at the top marginal rate.

    Per-gram tax on fat up to recommended daily intake = 0
    Per-gram tax on fat above recommended daily intake level > 0

    This could be levied at the checkout, with an annual reconciliation to work things out (your “Fat Tax Return”).

    Sound administratively complex? Nah, all you need is to link nutritional information on all available supermarket products into the checkout, force everyone to join a supermarket loyalty scheme, then link them all to the national ID card.

    And of course, you don’t *have* to supply your national ID card to shop – but if not tax on fat will be witheld at the top marginal rate.

    Now I just need to work out an efficient subsidy on fat-burning exercise!

  17. Sacha says:


    I’d prefer the `tax-free fat threshold’ to be averaged over the year, so you can increase your threshold when you’re feeling weak and unhappy and pay it back when you’re feel stronger and happy. We want responsive, dynamic tax-free fat thresholds, not staid, state-imposed ones!

  18. Sacha says:

    Then people can optimise their fat intake according to their own needs, and not according to what the Minister for Health in his/her wisdom declares.

  19. Sacha says:

    “Now I just need to work out an efficient subsidy on fat-burning exercise!”

    Andrew, this is trivial! Just ensure that everyone wears an accurate pedometer all the time that reports back to the ID card.

  20. Patrick says:

    Just make Rugby mandatory – everyone can play, whether big or small, and boy does it use calories:)

  21. Matt Canavan says:

    There is some pretty fat rugby players around though Patrick!

  22. Kevin Cox says:

    Derida good point. However the scheme does not require differing GST and if it is simpler to have the same rate then that will still work well. It would make the current GST regime simpler because there would be the same GST on everything.

    The scheme is best described as a rewards scheme not a subsidy scheme. The rewards are controlled by the consumers and where the rewards end up is determined by “the market” rather than by administrative fiat. Administration and compliance can be eased by building the reward structure so that the consumers and the merchants who wish to collect and give the rewards do most of the work. The administration and complaince would be paid for from the rewards pool of funds.

    The political argument that food should not be taxed because of its effect on the poor can be countered because the money is returned to the poor when they purchase “healthy” foods and would appeal to many of the likely opponents. The arguments would be ones of deciding what is a “healthy” food and what is not. The effects would be interesting and are difficult to predict but it is likely that

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  24. Thomas says:

    Why force the girl to being anorexic / bullimic or whatever disorders are hip these days??
    She is better off with a double chin.

  25. Matthew says:

    Good god, when any of us put our face down we get a double chin… at least the people I know. Granted we all eat food unlike many of the starving starlets.

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