With the success of graduated driving licenses in reducing deaths involving teenagers behind the wheel, we try to think about ways in which other regulatory solutions might impact childhood obesity. But obesity is immediately a much thornier problem isn’t it? No licenses or government scrutiny generally involves itself in what food is put on the table in an American household. No government agency regulates how much TV time a child gets or how much exercise a school offers. We tend to want our governments to stay away from issues of person responsibility and home decisions and activities.
But yet the deadliness of childhood obesity forces us to think harder and give some real thought to the possibility of a public health solution. What kinds of ideas might be crafted?
Well, some have posed financial incentives rather than direct regulations. For example financial breaks and discounts on things like health insurance, automobile registrations and other fees. Companies, governments and schools consider reduced rates for people with a healthier BMI since it ultimately saves money to have healthier individuals in the group. Studies have shown that financial incentives do matter when people attempt to lose weight. But would widespread use of such incentives serve to further discriminate against overweight people, who, as a group, already face a good deal of discrimination?
And where does government fit in? California waged a very successful campaign to reduce smoking with the use of funds from a tobacco tax. A University of California multivariate regression analysis showed that the rate of decline in smoking, fell more sharply after the campaign took on tobacco with clever billboards and a carefully crafted ad campaign that made fun of smoking and portrayed it as uncool, not sexy, and just plain dumb. Could something like this work to curtail obesity? Or would it end up appearing to single out overweight individuals for ridicule?
For now, there seems to be little controversy in the idea that public health experts and government can and should influence the lunch menu and food options at public schools. But how far should even this small step be taken? Eliminating high calorie snacks and drinks from the school also eliminates a source of precious funding for school extracurriculars.
The public health solutions are thorny. But the enemy we face is more deadly than cancer, and more destructive to the workforce, and to the longevity of individuals, than other enemies that we have previously faced. So it is worth taking some time to consider unconventional solutions as well as those that have proved successful in the past.