Americans make obesity the next plague

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These days, grisly statistics and dire predictions about America?s weight problem compete for newspaper space with presidential politics and terrorism on a daily basis. And yes, the numbers can turn your stomach: An appalling two out of three Americans are overweight; the rate of overweight youths has doubled in the last 20 years. A steady flow of research tries to explain the bleak statistics: Sedentary lifestyles, fattier foods, and irresponsible marketing by McDonald?s are plausible targets of blame.
Nevertheless, the metabolic reason people gain weight is that they are taking in more energy than their body is expending; all the factors being researched merely try to explain why this weight-gain epidemic across America is happening. The truth is simple: Taking in excess calories is exactly what we gluttonous Americans want to do, and our consumerist economy is happy to satisfy us.
There is no doubt that our culture values food quite highly, but we seem to care more about quantity that quality. This notion explains why we have fast food places trying to convince us that their ?Biggie Size? is bigger than their competitor?s ?Supersize.? We have pizza places falling over themselves to give away bread sticks, cheese sticks, cinnamon sticks, ?Dots,? and any other yummy treat to attract an over-indulgent consumer?s appetite. Krispy Kreme gives away donuts to customers waiting in line. No wonder the company is expanding faster than our jeans size.
Food in many European countries is even more fattening than our own, yet Europeans are a distant second in world fat statistics. The reason is that they simply do not wish to stuff themselves like we do. Go to a nice restaurant in France and you will get a very rich meal that is half the size of its American counterpart. The French want the 6-ounce filet mignon, we want the 20-ounce T-bone; we both get exactly what we want. The consumer is king! Isn?t this great?
Unfortunately, no, this time Adam Smith?s invisible hand is leading us towards a world in which obesity is the number one cause of preventable death. And it is for this carefree attitude towards obesity that our society pays a grave price in terms of health care costs and quality of life. The consumer-oriented economy fails society in other sectors as well, such as the entertainment industry. Personally, I think much of what airs on TV is garbage. Fear Factor and The Osbornes represent a shameless catering to the lowest, sorriest denominator in our society. But then I see Ozzy Osborne raking in millions to be his charming, barely coherent self for all to enjoy. I know nothing has gone wrong with our capitalist, consumer-oriented society.
Unfortunately, Americans want to see this, no matter how disgusting or mindless it is. As soon as we turn off this trash, stop buying gangsta rap albums, and quit paying $8.50 to see Bruce Willis blow things up, the market will no longer give it to us. Such is the beauty of the system.
Businesses respond more swiftly to changes in consumer preferences than any other economic variable. Problems arise on the occasions when these aggregate preferences result in negative effects on the individual and on society, specifically in the cases of obesity, along with gas-guzzling SUVs, excessive alcohol consumption, and smoking.
The way our government deals with such problems is by trying to get people to change their preferences; the easiest way to accomplish a desired change is to tax accordingly. Thus, we have gas taxes, cigarette taxes, and alcohol taxes, the point being to raise the price and decrease demand.
However, some things we consume cannot effectively be regulated through taxation. The entertainment industry is one of them. No doubt TV has been sliding in terms of morality and quality during the last 20 years and is harmful to society, yet the average American continues to watch roughly 23 hours of TV per week. Taxing marginal consumption is simply not possible.
So, are a certain number of societal failures inevitable in a consumer-oriented economy? It appears so. In the food market, Americans? preferences currently do represent a societal failure. We still believe the benefit of stuffing ourselves at dinnertime outweighs the cost of a most likely shorter and less satisfying life for ourselves, and increased healthcare costs for everyone else. No scary statistic or trendy diet will change this fact.
The only way to fix the problem in the short run is to make food more expensive through taxation. Even though the vast majority of Americans could afford significantly higher food prices, many are in poverty. Taxing food, a basic need for survival, is not an option. Our only hope is that our preferences change. As long as Americans prefer to sit around watching TV and gorging on pizza, we are doomed to remaining the fattest nation in the world.

Jeff Cullers (jcullers@) is a Contributing Editor and a senior in Social and Decision Sciences. He welcomes all responsible replies.