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MEI in the Media


9 May 2013May 9, 2013

No Magic Pill: Positive Solutions to the Obesity Issue

Research Paper proposing a global and non-coercive approach to fighting obesity

No Magic Pill: Positive Solutions to the Obesity Issue

In recent years, we have witnessed the emergence of groups that, in the name of public health, seek greater government supervision over our daily lives. This can take the form of taxes or regulations, as the case may be. When it comes to the phenomenon of obesity, the Research Paper by Dr. David Gratzer, in collaboration with Jasmin Guénette, suggests a positive approach that takes account of the complexity of the problem rather than turning to a tax on specific products, a route that has failed to deliver the hoped-for results, as explained in a previous MEI Economic Note.

Media release :: Prescription against obesity: stop looking for a magic pill

Economic Note (November 2012) :: Are Soda Taxes A Cure for Obesity?


Related Content

Le gouvernement n'a pas sa place dans le garde-manger des Québécois (Le Soleil, May 8, 2013)

Are Doctors Part of The Obesity Problem? (The Huffington Post, May 9, 2013)

Taxes will make obesity even costlier (Sun Media Papers, May 17, 2013)

Research Paper prepared by Dr David Gratzer in collaboration with Jasmin Guénette, Vice President of the Montreal Economic Institute.


There is no question that the growing proportion of overweight and obese people in our society has become an important health problem, with non-negligible financial consequences. But agreeing on the seriousness of a problem doesn't mean that the solutions to be applied are obvious and uncontroversial.

Unfortunately, the solutions we most often hear about are those that rely on taxation, coercion, regulation, and in general on more government involvement in people's lives. There are interest groups that have been set up in recent years specifically to lobby for the implementation of new taxes on certain food products. They propose that the funds raised from these taxes be used to educate the public on healthy habits and good nutrition. And such programs could be managed by. groups like themselves. How convenient!

Whenever a public debate involves public funds and more government intervention, we can be sure that groups that stand to benefit from such interventions will emerge and come to dominate that debate, even though there is no evidence that the solutions they propose will work.

What we eat and what we do with our own bodies are very personal issues. Taxes and regulations are crude instruments that very rarely bring about the kinds of changes in behaviour that are sought after on the part of individuals and corporations. No program will achieve results in the long term unless the targeted individuals are convinced of its usefulness and are willing participants.

There are other types of solutions that are respectful of personal choices and that rely on individual freedom and responsibility. This is the approach taken by Dr. David Gratzer in this Research Paper, on which I had the pleasure of collaborating.

Dr. Gratzer is one of Canada's leading experts in health care policy. He proposes various positive incentives that can be put in place by government, businesses, families and the health care community to help the overweight and obese eat better and exercise more. As he shows, there is no magic pill to cure such a complicated and multifaceted problem. But if all those involved do their part to promote better habits, we stand a much better chance of getting this problem under control.

Jasmin Guénette
Vice President of the Montreal Economic Institute

Mr. Guénette also collaborated on the Economic Note "Are Soda Taxes A Cure For Obesity?" authored by Dr. Gratzer and published by MEI in November 2012.

Executive Summary

Medical researchers and journals have repeatedly and rightly sounded the alarm about the risks of widespread obesity. Those risks are real. The demand for early ankle and knee replacements is rising, hypertension is more common, and Type II diabetes rates are soaring. Medical facilities have been forced to retool with new equipment designed to handle heavier patients.

While obesity rates are growing internationally, there are important differences between regional and individual factors. Unlike tobacco, food is sold and consumed in an unpredictable variety of public, private or semi-private environments, in millions of nonstandard units, with supply chains that can vary radically from product to product.

This is why, for policy purposes, the only sensible way to address this reality is to attack obesity as the mass outbreak of millions of similar yet unique examples of an individual condition.

Solutions to this problem should focus on the incentives that individuals face. Negative incentives aim at discouraging (or prohibiting) certain behaviours on the part of consumers. They have a poor track record of success. Positive incentives, for their part, aim at reinforcing desirable behaviours on the part of consumers. Less often tried with regards to obesity, such incentives aim at increasing the returns for healthy behaviour.

The first step in crafting an effective anti-obesity policy is to accept that there are practical and political limits to the state's ability to micromanage dietary behaviour in a free society. Policymakers must abandon the search for one magic policy pill that can melt a nation's pounds away. There is no one law, no single tax, and no single food product scapegoat that can serve as the foundation for a successful anti-obesity strategy.

The puritan, coercive approach to the obesity problem favoured by many in the public health community is not the only possible one. Given the unique features of the crisis, it is time to give more weight to a more positive alternative approach. We have built social and economic systems that subsidize and accentuate bad choices. To replace them, we need systems, policies and attitudes that facilitate better choices.

Thanks to various government and private initiatives in schools, children are now the vanguard in the fight against obesity, with several studies showing positive results. Government can do more, not only in schools, but also by facilitating higher exercise rates in everyday adult life, and by developing a health insurance model based on positive incentives.

The medical profession has a critical role to play in the implementation of a successful anti-obesity policy. Patients often respond more earnestly to medical advice about clearly defined risks. Given the culture of our profession, physicians also tend to be more comfortable offering advice on specific risks and ailments. With this in mind, it may be time to aggressively "medicalize" the medical world's response to obesity.

Key industries and employers can also foster a healthier adult society by building in support for positive changes, such as redesigning their routine environments to normalize healthy foods and regular physical activity.

While individual responsibility is a crucial tool in the obesity fight, food and beverage firms must be responsible as well. They must do their part to reduce the unhealthy impact of existing products, especially where added sugar, fat or salt can be reduced in the existing supply chain. They should seek to diversify their product portfolio to include a range of healthy products. And they should make clear and complete nutritional information about their products easily available to consumers.

Without responsible individual action to prevent obesity, there is little hope of reducing obesity rates, even if environmental factors are mitigated. Our policy choices must be designed to positively reinforce millions of individual choices for the long term. There is no shortage of positive approaches available. What has been missing is open-mindedness on the part of the public health community, which persists in its mistaken belief that only heavy-handed policy interventions are worthwhile.

Read the Research Paper on


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