Commentary

Obesity and “Public Health”?

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson says, “Obesity is a critical public health problem in our country.”

Wrong. Obesity is a problem for many people, but it is not a public health problem. By calling it one, however, Thompson can promise that we, the taxpayers, will pay for everyone’s diet programs, stomach surgery, and behavioral counseling. Get out your wallet.

The meaning of “public health” has sprawled out lazily over the decades. Once, it referred to the project of securing health benefits that were public: clean water, improved sanitation, and the control of epidemics through treatment, quarantine, and immunization. Public health officials worked to drain swamps that might breed mosquitoes and thus spread malaria. They strove to ensure that water supplies were not contaminated with cholera, typhoid, or other diseases. The U.S. Public Health Service began as the Marine Hospital Service, and one of its primary functions was ensuring that sailors didn’t expose domestic populations to new and virulent illnesses from overseas.

Those were legitimate public health issues because they involved consumption of a collective good (air or water) and/or the communication of disease to parties who had not consented to put themselves at risk. It is difficult for individuals to protect themselves against illnesses found in air, water, or food. A breeding ground for disease-carrying insects poses a risk to entire communities.

Plenty of people in Africa and Asia still need those basic public health measures. As Jerry Taylor writes in Regulation magazine: “Diseases associated with inadequate sanitation, indoor air pollution from biomass stoves and furnaces, and contaminated water occur mainly in developing countries and account for 30 percent of the total burden of disease in those nations. Diarrheal diseases, brought on by poor sanitation and contaminated water, alone kill more than three million children annually, and experts believe that two million of those deaths could easily be prevented with even minimal improvements in sanitation and water quality. Approximately seven million die each year from conditions like tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid, and hookworm that could be inexpensively prevented and cured and are virtually unknown as serious health problems in advanced countries.”

In the United States and other developed countries those public health problems have been largely solved. For instance, in the 1920s there were 13,000-15,000 reported cases of diphtheria each year in the United States. Only one case was reported each year in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Before 1963, there were about 500,000 cases of measles and 500 measles deaths reported each year. A record low annual total of 86 cases was reported in 2000.The last cases of smallpox on earth occurred in an outbreak of two cases (one of which was fatal) in Birmingham, England in 1978, almost 30 years after the last case in the United States.

But bureaucracies are notoriously unwilling to become victims of their own success. So, true to form, the public health authorities broadened their mandate and kept on going. They launched informational and regulatory crusades against such health problems as smoking, venereal disease, AIDS, and obesity. Pick up any newspaper and you’re apt to find a story about these “public health crises.” Those are all health problems, to be sure, but are they really public health problems?

There’s an easy, perfectly private way to avoid increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease: Don’t smoke. You don’t need any collective action for that. Want to avoid AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases? Don’t have sex, or use condoms. (The threat to the blood supply did have public health aspects and was dealt with promptly.) As for obesity, it doesn’t take a village for me to eat less and exercise more.

Language matters. Calling something a “public health problem” suggests that it is different from a personal health problem in ways that demand collective action. And while it doesn’t strictly follow, either in principle or historically, that “collective action” must be state action, that distinction is easily elided in the face of a “public health crisis.” If smoking and obesity are called public health problems, then it seems that we need a public health bureaucracy to solve them — and the Public Health Service and all its sister agencies don’t get to close up shop with the satisfaction of a job well done. So let’s start using honest language: Smoking and obesity are health problems. In fact, they are widespread health problems. But they are not public health problems.

Secretary Thompson should not require the taxpayers to pay for individual behavioral choices. But maybe if our taxes go up enough, we won’t be able to afford to overeat.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer (Free Press, 1998).