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Fat Americans, Heavy Farm Subsidies, and Big Medical Bills

September 16, 2009

by Charlie Sprague
Fat Americans, Heavy Farm Subsidies, and Big Medical Bills

Michael Pollan, a man who I normally find repetitive, has written an interesting article in the New York Times exploring the connections between America’s exploding health care costs, our national obesity epidemic, and the billions of dollars of government subsidies that support corporate agriculture.  In essence, his argument is that American public policy faces a serious internal contradiction between food policy and health care policy.  The United States government will increasingly socialize the costs of health insurance (regardless of whether reform passes due to the aging of baby boomers and their corresponding enrollment in Medicare) while its agricultural subsidies exacerbate the problem of rising obesity.  For example, the billions of dollars spent subsidizing corn every year strongly contribute to America’s massive consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.  As Pollan bluntly puts it, “The government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup." Pollan presents some powerful numbers to back up the claim that rising obesity is one of the main reasons our health care system is fiscally bloated (pun intended).  The Center for Disease Control states that 75 percent of health care spending goes to treat “preventable chronic diseases.”  Many, if not most, of these diseases (such as type-2 diabetes) are linked to poor diet.

Let me be clear, there are many reasons why Americans are getting fatter and thereby expanding health care costs.  Federal policy is nonetheless an important contributing factor.  America’s massive agricultural subsidies strongly favor wheat and corn, which leads to increased production and cheaper prices for things such as bread, cereal, and meats.  Decreasing or eliminating subsidies would increase the costs of these unhealthy foods and decrease their consumption, while increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables (since these products receive far less corporate welfare and are therefore relatively more expensive).

In addition to ending agricultural subsidies, fighting obesity in America will also require other changes to food policy.  For example, The National School Lunch Program feeds 30 million children a day, but it often gives dreadfully unhealthy food.  This is partly explained by the fact that districts are only reimbursed $2.68 to $2.70 for each lunch they give out, which means they must purchase the cheapest, and often most unhealthy, food (see this article).

Clearly, food policy needs to stop subsidizing the supersizing of Americans, but how far should government policy go in working to prevent obesity?  What about taxes on doughnuts, advertising campaigns against sodas (such as in New York), or other nudges to discourage unhealthy habits?  David Harsanyi at Reason Magazine is concerned that an emphasis on preventive health care as a solution to exploding health care costs will come at the expense of individual autonomy.   As he puts it, “There exists no warning label, no bone-chilling study, no crafty public service announcement that is going to separate me from my sour cream and cheese-infested burrito.”  Well said.  I won’t give up eating Tex Mex either.  Unlike Mr. Harsanyi, however, I believe that libertarian paternalism in the service of making Americans healthier is a justified and necessary step, especially in the service of making universal health care fiscially viable.

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