Controlling the Environmental Costs of Obesity

By Mann, Roberta F. | Environmental Law, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Controlling the Environmental Costs of Obesity


Mann, Roberta F., Environmental Law


Obesity is increasingly viewed as a major health problem across the world. Obesity presents both external and internal costs. Obesity alone may be responsible for some $2 trillion in medical costs and lost productivity, representing significant external costs. Internal costs occur because people make eating and drinking choices without being aware of the eventual damage to their health. Obesity also carries environmental costs. Consumption of certain energy-dense foods made from com and soy (including meat) increases soil erosion and water pollution from fertilizer use. Governmental policy encourages the production of such crops. Being overweight decreases physical activity and personal mobility, leading to increased use of motor vehicles. Environmental factors such as sprawl and transportation policy affect obesity rates. When people cannot walk or take public transportation to work, they spend more time in their cars. They have less time to exercise and prepare healthy meals. Hence, both obesity's effect on the environment and the environment's effect on obesity lead to increased carbon emissions and exacerbate climate change. Taxes can potentially control both the external and internal costs of obesity. By increasing the cost of certain foods, taxes can discourage their consumption. A number of national and subnational jurisdictions have enacted such taxes, including Denmark, Finland, France, Mexico, the Navajo Nation, and the city of Berkeley, California in the United States.

This Article will examine a variety of economic instruments for controlling obesity, including regulation, taxes, and nudges. The relative success of governmental measures to reduce tobacco use are also examined to see what lessons might be learned. Finally, the Article will explore existing U.S. tax provisions to consider how modification of such provisions might help with the problem of obesity.

I.     INTRODUCTION                                            696
II.    DEFINING OBESITY                                        699
III.   EXTERNAL AND INTERNAL COSTS OF OBESITY                  701
       A. Environmental Costs                                  701
          1. Environmental Causes of Obesity                   701
          2. Obesity-Related Environmental Costs               703
          3. Societal Costs of Obesity                         706
IV.    ASSESSING APPROACHES TO CONTROLLING OBESITY             707
       A. Reforming Subsidies                                  707
       B. Regulatory Approaches                                712
       C. Nudges                                               714
       D. Incentives and Taxes                                 717
          1. Incentives                                        717
          2. Taxes                                             718
V.     GLOBAL TRENDS IN FOOD TAXATION                          720
VI.    ANALOGIES                                               726
VII.   FREEDOM OF CHOICE, INEQUALITY, AND REGRESSIVITY         730
VIII.  CONSIDERING INCOME TAX SOLUTIONS                        731
       A. Existing and Modifiable Provisions                   731
          1. Medical Expense Deduction                         731
          2. Employee Fringe Benefits                          732
          3. Mortgage Interest Deduction                       733
       B. Models for Targeted Provisions: Denying or Limiting
          Deductions                                           734
       C. Tax Credits for Healthy Foods                        735
IX.    CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS                         738

"I used to worry 'bout rich and skinny, 'til I wound up poor and fat."
(1)

I. INTRODUCTION

Obesity is increasingly viewed as a major health problem across the world. Globally, 13% of adults suffered from obesity in 2014. (2) Obesity leads to adverse health outcomes such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes--shortening life and reducing the quality of life. …

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