Sugar and fat taxes, controlling density of fast food outlets, and mandatory portion sizes are examples of policies that aim to reduce obesity by raising costs. Assume such policies would be effective. While they typically raise ethical questions about whether they promote welfare at too high a price in autonomy, will the policies promote welfare? Standard economics explains obesity as the result of cheap food and drink combined with a reduction in the health risk over the last 40 years. Put another way, obesity is the outcome of choices made in the presence of greater options. For the standard economics argument, people are not worse off for being obese, and restricting their choices would make them worse off. The main counterargument is that people’s choices fail in some way, in particular from failures of self-control. Widespread dieting is often cited as evidence. In this presentation, I discuss the philosophical topic of how a failure of self-control is related to welfare and give evidence that only a minority of people are trying to lose weight. The constructive element will be in giving a more fine-grained account than usual to help evaluate the welfare effects of obesity reduction; the destructive will be to show that even if obesity-reducing policies were effective, they would probably make most people worse off.
In a talk given at the University of Auckland, Martin Wilkinson asks whether policies that aim to reduce obesity by raising costs promote welfare.
Professor Martin Wilkinson is head of the Politics and International Relations department at the University of Auckland. In recent years his research has looked at ethics in organ transplantation and public health ethics.