Comparing apples and pears…

“Obesity is costing the UK economy more than violent crime and the war on terrorism” ran the headline on the news bulletin on BBC Radio 2 at 7am this morning. The report had been prompted by a McKinsey Global Institute paper that calculates the total cost of obesity to the world economy at US$1.3 trillion annually. Apparently, the UK share of the total is £47 billion. You can see the BBC news item here : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-30125440

A couple of things intrigued me about the news story : firstly, the implausibility of any sort of meaningfully accurate calculation of the actual cost of obesity to the world economy (remember, God only created economists to make weather forecasters look good); and secondly, the incongruity of comparing the claimed economic cost of obesity with the costs of violent crime or the war on terrorism. What possible connection can there be between these things, and why choose violent crime or terrorism as the comparators, rather than (say) unseasonal weather or flu?

Is there a subliminal suggestion here that violent crime is linked to obesity? Are dangerously overweight people so desperate for their next fast-food fix that they’re mugging people to fund their Big Mac habit? Or is it the case that in fact, obese people are the victims – easy pickings for heartless, fit muggers who don’t even have to go to the bother of chasing down their prey? Of course, these suggestions are ridiculous, adding nothing to a greater understanding of the story. And that’s the point : the comparison between the claimed costs of worldwide obesity and the costs of fighting terrorism is utterly meaningless and adds nothing to a better understanding of the issue.

In fact, it is a measure of the extent to which our values have become distorted that obesity makes headline news as an economics story at all. The reality is that each obese individual has become dangerously overweight for a whole range of reasons – social, biological, psychological, physiological, educational, to name a few. Only when we tackle the root causes at an individual level can we hope to halt the epidemic. The answer almost certainly won’t be found in macro-economics.

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