Start: 95.4 Last week: 90.5 This week: 89.5

All fine, all good; got to keep going.1

I recently spent a fine vacation in the United States, a singularly pleasant experience except for the sickening “debate” on reform of health care. That, however, is not my main subject, except tangentially. Fat people, according to a recent article in The Economist, are expensive. The average obese American’s medical costs are $700 a year higher than a thin person’s. And the total medical costs of obesity are higher than those of smoking: $200 billion a year.

The Economist brings up these numbers in the context of examining various proposals to rein in expanding waistlines with taxes. None of them -- from a ban on sugary drinks to a tax on junk food more generally to a tax on actual weight -- makes much sense. I think they’re misguided.

Obesity is associated with poverty, and poor people are not stupid. They spend their money on junk food precisely because it delivers the most calories per dollar. The problem lies in what one might call economies of scale, though there’s probably a better term.

If a hamburger, fries and milkshake offers cheap calories, a double burger, large fries and giant shake is even cheaper per calorie because of the way fast-food joints price these things. Double the calories often costs only 67% more.2 Same on the supermarket shelves. A 100 gm pack of corn chips (if you can find such a teeny bag) at $1.00 is very poor value compared to a 500 gm bag at $2.00. Same for all those bogof (buy-one-get-one-free, innit) deals in supermarkets, and how often do you see those on fresh fruit and veg anyway?

Clearly there are all sorts of incentives for manufacturers and vendors to shift bigger packages. And -- people being people -- big bargains are more attractive. Again -- people being people -- restraint is a scarce commodity and so we end up eating more just because it is there. Natty clips to close those giant bags and keep the contents “fresh” are right there next to the giant bags; my suspicion is that they aren’t used very much in obese households.

What to do? Taxes, however you construct them, are unlikely to be workable; what about enforced portion control? Without actually setting prices, which is as unworkable as taxes, what if legislation prevented the perverse pricing that offers cheaper calories the more of them you buy at once? It’s probably pie in the sky, and I learn from an old copy of The Independent newspaper that David Cameron, leader of Britain's Conservative Party, is considering “urging restaurants to stop ‘super-size’ portions becoming the norm” -- which suggests the idea is doomed.

Manufacturers and vendors are expert at maximising profits, and more-for-less is one way they do so. Withdraw that ability, and I’m sure they will find a price per calorie for any given food that works for them no matter what the portion or pack size. And they will surely find loopholes too, like insisting that a double cheeseburger, hold the cheese, is somehow different from a double burger, no cheese. The bogofs could continue too, but with a genuine discount of 50% or 33% available no matter how many you buy.

My feeling is that if 100 gm of chips cost the same per gram as 500 gm or 5 kg, people might just be helped to eat less.

Added later: “small changes in one’s environment may lessen one’s tendency to overeat.” Source.

  1. I'm going to try and write something about food each week, instead of about me and food.  

  2. I'm winging it on prices; if you have up-to-date information, let me know.  

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