Tax on overweight not way to decrease obesity

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Overweight people may soon be adding more than their pounds to their daily consumption — a Senate bill passed last week could soon have them paying more for their health insurance. The health reform bill would allow employers and private insurers to charge overweight people more money than people of healthy weights for their health care coverage.

The reasoning for the Senate bill is two-fold. First, overweight people are more likely to develop expensive health problems for the insurer, such as heart disease and diabetes, which can be directly caused by weight gain. According to the CDC, the list of more vulnerable diseases numbers at least 30. Second, in a country where two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, there would be encouragement for these at-risk people to reduce weight gain by eating less or exercising.

Clearly, something needs to be done in a country with a majority of the population overweight. The bill presents a wellness initiative; however, this is not the answer — for several reasons. Some people are genetically prone to larger weights, and thus find it harder to lose weight. These people could then continue to be penalized despite their best efforts to lose the weight. The same could apply to people living at or below the poverty line. When fast food is all that people can afford, weight gain is very likely, and monetarily penalizing these people for such an effect would only worsen their poverty state. The bill’s protection for such circumstances comes in its barring of incentive programs that are “overly burdensome,” “highly suspect in the method chosen to promote health or prevent disease,” or “a subterfuge for discriminating based on a health factor,” according to a article. The vague terminology of these promises, however, lacks clearly enforceable situations.

An even more controversial component of the bill is the allocation of actual U.S. tax dollars to Medicaid and Medicare incentive programs to improve healthy habits. Each year, $15 million and $100 million would be appropriated to Medicare and Medicaid, respectively, to promote monetary incentive programs for those who demonstrate changes in such areas as smoking, cholesterol control, and weight reduction. The health reform bill promises to rigorously measure these changes and outcomes. With tax dollars at stake, however, and no regulatory agency or committee clearly set up to monitor these programs, the current conditions are not enough. When this much tax money is being reallocated in the midst of an economic recession, the conditions for incentive rewards must be clearly outlined and monitored so as to most efficiently use this money that could perhaps be used in another area of the economy that is struggling.

All matters considered, the most effective form of weight reduction for America’s vast overweight population should come not from government regulations or appropriations, but rather, from education. The statistics available on population obesity back up this idea that education lies at the crux of the problem. The United States features an adult population in which 67 percent of people are overweight, and 34 percent of this group is obese. For the rest of the population under 20 years old, however, the results are even more troubling: Children aged 2–5, 6–11, and 12–19 have respective chances of 11, 15, and 18 percent of being overweight. This means that children are not only growing up in a population of overweight adults, but that too many of them are being prematurely immersed into their own culture of over-consumption. Both parents and children need to be educated on what defines healthy food, as well as the importance of physical exercise in a healthy diet.

According to current projections, if childhood obesity continues to increase at its current rate, at least half of the U.S. population will be obese by the year 2050, according to a 2007 government study. The problem with this staggering increase is a resultant rise in serious health problems and allocation of resources to manage this population. Some nutritionist experts and media sources have even begun to call childhood obesity an epidemic.

The Senate health reform bill does not address education or childhood obesity at all, and includes only a meager, vague attempt at confronting adult obesity. To change the state of obesity in the United States, we need more. We need public education movements and requirements related to obesity and beginning in the primary years. Government regulation can definitely add to the effectiveness of obesity reduction. Its legislation, however, must be better thought-out and defined than the bill the Senate passed last week.