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5 Ways to Make America Less Fat

As relentless as the obesity crisis appears to be, its expansion doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion.

If Benjamin Franklin was writing his famous letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy today, his famous aphorism might read: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and the obesity crisis.” It seems no matter the year or the season, that crisis inexorably continues, with experts now saying  42 percent of Americans will be obese by 2030. And whether you are one of the 42 percent or not, that trend is going to affect you, because it is expected to cost the country roughly half a trillion (yes,  trillion) in additional health care costs.

And yet, as relentless as the obesity crisis appears to be, it’s expansion doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion. That’s because, unlike a naturally occurring epidemic, it’s almost completely human created — a reality which allows for the possibility of a human-directed reversal.

What does such a reversal require in practice? First and foremost, awareness – and thanks to everything from Michelle Obama’s fitness campaign to HBO’s new documentary  “The Weight of a Nation,” that prerequisite is finally starting to be met. But then what? As GI Joe said, “knowing is half the battle” — but it’s only half. Once more of us are aware of the emergency at hand, what will be the most reliable way to address the problem?

In an instant gratification culture obsessed with extreme makeovers and get-thin-quick diet schemes, it’s easy to feel confused about a path forward. But a tranche of new science, data and public policy proposals that cut through the fog of misinformation suggests that path is there — if we’re willing to take it. Here are five of the most promising ways forward:

1. Tax Junk Food

Over the last 4 decades, we went from spending $3 billion a year on fast food to now  $110 billion a year on fast food. At the same time, there’s been an explosion in the amount of chemically-enhanced, calorie-packed processed foods Americans eat at home, at work and in the school cafeteria. Not surprisingly, in predictable cause-and-effect fashion, this has all happened as obesity became a public health epidemic.

The response from some policymakers has been to champion junk-food taxes – initiatives whose supreme press-release-worthiness can make them seem a bit gimmicky, but whose merits are nonetheless rooted in substance. Indeed, a bevy of new studies show that such levies, when structured properly, can disincentivize junk food consumption on a large scale.

In one University of North Carolina study,  ABC News reports that “Patients got significantly less of their calories from soda or pizza when there was a 10 percent increase in the price of either.” In another  study of college-age adults, “researchers found that the students generally bought fewer lunchtime calories when sugary, high-fat fare came with a tax of 25 percent or more.” In yet another  study, this one from the University of Buffalo, it was much the same result – higher taxes meant more healthy consumer choices.

New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman has  noted that while taxes alone won’t solve the obesity crisis, they are an important part of a multifaceted attack on the problem — and they will also raise much-needed public revenues at a time of crushing deficits:

A study by Y. Claire Wang, an assistant professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, predicted that a penny tax per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages in New York State would save $3 billion in health care costs over the course of a decade, prevent something like 37,000 cases of diabetes and bring in $1 billion annually. Another study shows that a two-cent tax per ounce in Illinois would reduce obesity in youth by 18 percent, save nearly $350 million and bring in over $800 million taxes annually. Scaled nationally, as it should be, the projected benefits are even more impressive; one study suggests that a national penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would generate at least $13 billion a year in income while cutting consumption by 24 percent…A 20 percent increase in the price of sugary drinks nationally could result in about a 20 percent decrease in consumption, which in the next decade could prevent 1.5 million Americans from becoming obese and 400,000 cases of diabetes, saving about $30 billion.

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