More fat, less cost

I don't know what the communitarian scolds will make of this study, but apparently people who live short and unhealthy lives cost no more to society than their healthier, slimmer, counterparts:

LONDON -- Preventing obesity and smoking can save lives, but it doesn't save money, researchers reported Monday.

It costs more to care for healthy people who live years longer, according to a Dutch study that counters the common perception that preventing obesity would save governments millions of dollars.

"It was a small surprise," said Pieter van Baal, an economist at the Netherlands' National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, who led the study. "But it also makes sense. If you live longer, then you cost the health system more."
In a paper published online Monday in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal, Dutch researchers found that the health costs of thin and healthy people in adulthood are more expensive than those of either fat people or smokers.

While I can't vouch for the accuracy or reliability of the data or the methodology, what's a surprise for me is that no such study would have been done before -- despite years and years of nagging and scolding.

I can understand the compassionate side of the communitarian equation. No one wants to see people die premature deaths. But if you're going to scold people with economic arguments, shouldn't you make sure that the numbers are at least correct?

The irony is that if this study is accurate, libertarians and communitarians (at least the utilitarian communitarians) might for once be on the same side -- if for very different reasons.

No longer is there any need for laws banning trans fats! Ridiculous extortionate taxes on cigarettes can be repealed! No more insane legislative efforts like this to make it a crime for restaurants to serve fat people!

While it's small comfort to me emotionally, now that I think about it, all the friends I lost to AIDS back in the 1980s and 1990s probably saved society a bundle.

The only downside of this news is that it might provide ammo for opponents of life extension technology. (A better way to address that concern might be to advocate a cutoff in social security benefits for people who live too long with the help of technology. But hey, don't expect me to do Leon Kass's job!)

posted by Eric on 02.05.08 at 09:00 AM


I believe that RJ Reynolds or Phillip Morris actually did such a study of smokers in Europe during the eighties. They did the study in Europe because the various national healthcare systems have more comprehensive records in one place than here in America. Anyway, they came to the same conclusion: smokers are way cheaper than non-smokers. I believe they actually presented the study during the big tobacco lawsuits in the nineties.

Jardinero1   ·  February 5, 2008 9:17 AM

Considering how expensive AIDS medical treatment is, I'm surprised that Britain's National Health Service hasn't called for the euthanization of all AIDS victims.

Bob Sykes   ·  February 5, 2008 9:27 AM

Thank you so much for your insight. It does make sense on one hand but I would like to see more data.

Oval Office Report

Oval Office Report   ·  February 5, 2008 11:40 AM

Like Jardinero1, I remember this argument coming up before. I think it was made by the tobacco companies when the states were suing them. The states were claiming to be harmed by the cost of treatment of tobacco-related illness. My hazy memory is that the judge(s) ruled the argument invalid, and the tobacco companies were not allowed to present it.

SteveBrooklineMA   ·  February 5, 2008 1:27 PM

Just because something doesn't have a dollar price on it doesn't mean it is worthless. Any rational government run by rational men should want its citizens to live long healthy lives rather than short unhealthy lives.

chocolatier   ·  February 5, 2008 1:42 PM

The comparative medical costs should not be the only economic element considered if you want to make an economic argument. If you factor in the amount of taxes collected on the tobacco and the significantly less drawdown of Social Security, maybe the government should encourage smoking. Can't you see the campaign? "Save Social Security. Have a Marlboro."

Leon   ·  February 5, 2008 7:18 PM

Tyrants don't hold the moral high ground? Say it isn't so!

Brett   ·  February 6, 2008 12:07 PM

The problem is that there is (eventually) no such thing as a "long healthy" life. Even the most fanatical health food and exercise faddist will likely begin to suffer from expensive age related debilities at some point-after drawing a government funded pension for a lot of years. In fact, if their healthy lifestyle keeps them alive longer than someone who smoked two packs a day and ate junk food all their lives, they will be even more of a net drain on society's resources. I'm not saying I agree with this line of argument mind you, but it is disingenuous of crusaders against smoking, fast food, trans fats etc. to use an economic argument to bolster their position, but then to sputter in indignation when the numbers actually seem to go the other way.

MarkM   ·  February 6, 2008 9:59 PM

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