The Economics of Obesity

I will be participating in the “Weight of the Fox Valley Summit” this week, ostensibly to talk about the economics of obesity.  Economists, of course, get their fingers in a lot of pies, and so this turns out to be a very broad ranging topic.  For example, this USDA Economic Research Service workshop includes topics from why have Americans become more obese to labor market impacts of obesity, to what you might expect — implications for health insurance and economic costs of obesity.

I haven’t published in this area, but I did spend a year working with colleagues and students at Carnegie Mellon on a database charting obesity in the American population, so I have some idea of the basic issues.  For those of you interested in an introduction, as always I recommend you go through the back issues of the Journal of Economic Perspectives to see what the profession has been up to.  As per usual, you don’t have to go back very far to find some work by some top scholars in the area:

Jay Bhattacharya and Neeraj Sood (2011) “Who Pays for Obesity,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(1): 139-158

David M. Cutler, Edward L. Glaeser, and Jesse M. Shapiro (2003) “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 17(3): 93-118.

Those should provide a reasonable, readable introduction to the economics literature on the topic, chock full of references to the primary research.

Another good source for a rough approximation is the EconTalk archive.  I learned a lot listening to Russ Roberts interview Darius Lakdawalla.  Here’s a nice cite on differential costs, with the surprising finding that the overweight and obese might actually live longer than “normal” weight folks, but spend a higher proportion of their years battling diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and osteoarthritis.   The authors estimate an additional $40,000 in lifetime medical expenses for the obese compared to someone with normal weight.  Here’s that cite:

Darius Lakdawalla, Dana Goldman, Baoping Shang, The Health And Cost Consequences Of Obesity Among The Future ElderlyHealth Affairs (2005)