Advertising and Child/Teen Obesity--Posner's Comment
I agree with everything Becker says, but will add a few points. Not only would banning television advertising of fattening foods on programs oriented to children and teenagers not reduce obesity, but it might increase it. To the extent that, as Becker suggests, such advertising has a much greater effect on brand shares than on aggregate demand for the products, the advertisers as a whole might be better off if forbidden to advertise. With higher profits, and an important form of nonprice competition eliminated, advertisers might compete more on price, resulting in lower prices to consumers and therefore greater competition.
A more effective measure to reduce youthful obesity might be to ban the sale or service of soft drinks and other high-calorie foods in schools, or even to tax such foods heavily.
Of course such measures are from an economic standpoint justifiable only if the growth in obesity represents a market failure (and even then, only if the costs of the measures are lower than the benefits in correcting such a failure)."Obesity" is a loaded term; it is the name we give to being too fat. It is possible that being fatter than doctors think healthy is optimal, just as it is possible that eating a diet that deviates from what doctors would prescribe for someone who aspires to live to be a hundred is optimal. People trade off health costs for benefits in other currencies; food high in calories tends to be both delicious and cheap. The health effects of overweight are highly publicized. In addition, in our society fat people are generally considered much less attractive than thin people, and there is a considerable premium in the job market for attractive people, partly because coworkers and supervisors obtain utility from associating with attractive people, partly because being attractive enhances self-confidence, self-esteem, and social skills. In addition, thin people should have a significant advantage in competing for jobs involving trust, since thinness signifies self-control and in turn a low discount rate, which should make a worker more concerned with his reputation and therefore more trustworthy, although a countervailing factor is that employers may distrust the commitment to work of employees who look as if they spend most of their day in the gym!
Given all the negatives of overweight, it is difficult to believe that obese people have underestimated the costs of being overweight. But the huge diet industry, and the growing resort of the obese to dangerous abdominal surgery (gastric-bypass or bariatric surgery--"stomach stapling") are contrary evidence. It is much easier to avoid gaining weight than to lose weight, and while some people have an unfortunate biology that creates irresistible cravings for excessive amounts of fat, the obesity problem seems much more widespread. If the cause were biological, the well-documented increase in obesity over the last several decades would be inexplicable.
A factor that the economist Tomas Philipson and I have emphasized is the increasingly sedentary character of activity in both work and the home, as a result of the shift from manufacturing to services and the growth of labor-saving devices in both the workplace and the home. In the old days the average individual, male or female, was in effect "paid" to expend calories, the payment taking the form of pecuniary income for strenuous work in the workplace or nonpecuniary income from household work. Today one has to pay to expend calories by joining a gym or otherwise taking time from work or leisure to exercise. As Becker points out, the trend has affected children and teenagers because of the growing substitution of sedentary leisure activities for athletics. Strikingly, because of concerns over liability, many schools no longer make physical education mandatory.
Still another factor may be that as more and more people become overweight, the stigma of obesity diminishes. When I was a kid, fat kids were rare, and were teased. The more fat kids there are, the more ‚Äúnormative‚Äù their appearance becomes. In addition, if parents are fat, the credibility of their lecturing their children on the importance of remaining thin is undermined, "Do as I say, not as I do," is not a very effective means of persuasion.
Political correctness may even be a factor. Jokes at the expense of fat people used to be a staple of comedy (remember Abbott and Costello?). No more. Political correctness has reduced the use of ridicule to enforce social norms.
All this said, the case for public intervention to reduce obesity is uncertain. The main costs of obesity, in increased illness and disability, are borne by the obese themselves, which greatly weakens the economic case for intervention. True, the obese are able to shift some of their medical and disability costs to others through the Medicaid, Medicare, and social security disability programs, which are subsidized health and disability programs that do not limit benefits to the obese even though the obese experience increased illness and disability as a consequence of their obesity. Yet the benefits of preventive health can be exaggerated. It increases the percentage of the elderly in the population, and the elderly are very heavy demanders of expensive--and subsidized--health care and pensions.