Last week, news of rising obesity rates made big headlines. “Obesity Rates Keep Rising, Troubling Health Officials,” declared The New York Times.
According to the widely reported study, 27 percent of American adults in the U.S. are obese. The findings are drawn from a telephone survey of 400,000 adults who answered questions about their own height and weight.
Telephone surveys are far from perfect, and it should be noted that the result is different from another CDC-backed survey – the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). In that survey, which combines both interviews and physical exams, 34 percent of U.S. adults are found to be obese.
Obesity is a major problem. Whether or not it’s a growing problem is debatable (NHANES data suggests we may have hit a plateau) but with roughly 3 in 10 adults tipping the scales, so to speak, obesity is something that must be addressed. First Lady Michelle Obama, as I’ve noted before, has done much good work in this area. Shortly before the survey results were released, she put the pen to paper again.
One of the hot topics at the city level is how to address food deserts. Inner-city America is rich in crime, poverty, and fast food. The dearth of vegetables and fresh fruits – what experts term the food desert – partly explains rising rates of obesity, particularly among minority communities. Three million Chicago residents and half of Detroit’s population reside in food deserts.
First Lady Michelle Obama, in her high-profile campaign against childhood obesity, has specifically targeted food deserts; many cities – including Chicago and New York – are attempting to address the problem. See, for example, Time’s excellent article on Farmers Best Market in Chicago.
Though generally favored and championed by the left, these efforts are worthwhile. As an aside, I’m particularly impressed with Baltimore’s efforts (a topic for another day).
But the full magnitude of the problem is important to remember.
Last year, the Department of Agriculture released a thoughtful report on the topic, “Access to Affordable and Nutricious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences.”
The authors write: “Of all households in the United States, 2.3 million, or 2.2%, live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. An additional 3.4 million households, or 3.2% of all households, live between one-half to 1 mile and do not have access to a vehicle.”
Urban initiatives may irrigate food deserts, but that will probably help only a sliver of the population.
What’s to be done? Professor Tomas Philipson and Judge Richard Posner suggest a robust role for the private sector in terms of medical innovation – an idea that is touted by the right. (Though, for the record, Philipson and Posner do see a legitimate government initiative: subsidies for medical research in order to foster medical innovation.) They argue:
Another form of technological change—medical innovation—may be the most promising solution to the obesity problem, and here the government may serve a useful role by subsidizing basic research. Medical R&D has proved effective in disease control when behavioral change proved costly. Consider the replacement of quarantines by vaccines or of low-cholesterol diets by drugs, or drug treatments for HIV, which have changed the disease from a death sentence to a chronic condition, at least in wealthy populations.
Philipson and Posner see hope in recent pharmaceuticals, like Onexa (which is up for FDA approval).
And while it would be great to believe that we’re just a pill away from an obesity fix, the reality is that both left and right seem to be prescribing thin solutions for a major problem.