Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Obesity and Public Health Control

This month’s American Journal of Public Health brings us a primer (abstract here; subscription required for full text), written by lawyers supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, teaching “policymakers to avoid potential constitutional problems in the formation of obesity prevention policy.”

The article isn’t exactly a Steal This Book for the anti-obesity crusaders, but the authors’ stated aim is to help those crusaders skirt legal challenges to statutes that might, for instance, ban fast foods or require the posting of accurate calorie counts on restaurant menus:  “This primer is meant not to deter obesity prevention efforts but to foster them,” the authors adumbrate.

Of course, the anti-obesity crusade is well on its way to using the law to tighten the control of behavior already.  And the failure of restaurant calorie counts to show any effect on eating patterns isn’t dampening enthusiasm, it seems.

Brian Elbel of NYU and colleagues just reported in Health Affairs that the calorie counts now posted by law in New York (another piece of legislation backed by our bluenose mayor) don’t affect how much people eat,  based on a study of over a thousand New Yorkers from minority neighborhoods (abstract here, full article here).  At Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner surmises that this sort of program only helps people “who are already the most vigilant about their health and well-being.”  But it’s hard to find anyone in public health who is opposed.

They should be.   The public health industry, which likes to claim its main interest is human dignity, should be lobbying for less regulation of human appetites, not more.

But public health is often the pre-eminent paradigm of control in our society. Rename the acts or traits you find morally repugnant as diseases, and you can hand them to the health sector for management.   Once you say you’ve got an epidemic on your hands, you can count on the public health industry to respond.  Alcoholism, addiction, smoking, obesity, social anxiety… there seems to be a big supply of epidemics that used to be moral offenses or threats to the social order and are now opportunities for your doctor or your health commissioner — not your clergyman — to tell you how to act.

The neat thing about the control exercised through public health is that you never have to sermonize, read Bible verses, or prophesy Apocalypse.  The rhetoric of risk is a lot easier for the self-professed progressives in public health to swallow than religious sermonizing would be.  Even when the sermon and the risk rhetoric have the identical goal: wiping out the moral offense.

From Junkfood Science, we learn that

Employers will now perform random tests of employees for evidence that they’ve smoked outside of work and will weigh employees in the workplace and report their BMIs to the state. Employees deemed noncompliant with the State Health Plan’s employer wellness initiative, will pay one-third-more for health insurance. Employers believed that eliminating smokers and fat people would lower health costs.

And from WSJ Health Blog, that the CEO of pharmaceutical corporation Schering-Plough agreed (at a meeting at the Cleveland Clinic) that people with unhealthy behavior should pay more for health insurance.  Sure — you certainly wouldn’t want the wealthy to pay more.

That’s not the only problem with the public health industry’s vigorous embrace of behavioral control, but it’s a big one.  Start classifying people based on how they behave, and you begin discriminating against the ones who don’t act right.  But the ones who you think don’t act right are almost always the ones society was already discriminating against — the poor, most of all.

And even when the poor aren’t getting shafted in the crusade against the unhealthy, inquiry about how a just society should work is going down the tubes.  The profound moral-philosophical questions of what is the right way to live a life, the right way to raise children, the nature of liberty, and so forth, are surrendered in the public health paradigm – replaced with the simple dichotomy:  healthy vs. not-healthy.

America, Free of Risk: Taxing Soda

The possibility of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages has been re-awakened, sparked by this week’s New England Journal of Medicine article, written by some prominent researchers and officials.  It’s the latest instance in the long battle to turn the conduct of private American lives over to the care of larger forces — Big Science and Big Public Health.  Another step toward the public health vision of risk-free America.  Another step away from the relief of suffering in favor of meddling with people’s choices.

The NEJM paper argues that there would be health benefits of a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks — preferably to take the form of about a penny’s worth of excise tax levied per fluid ounce for any beverage containing “added caloric sweetener” (possibly to be defined as more than 1 g of sugar per 30 ml of beverage).

There’s much to be learned by the response.  The NY Times article, in its Business section Wednesday, was titled “Proposed Tax on Sugary Beverages Debated” but was generally slanted strongly in favor of the proposal.  If you read only the Times, you would think that objections to the tax come only from industry, which obviously has an economic interest in keeping sales of soda and sport drinks up by keeping the price down.

Shirley S. Wang at yesterday’s WSJ Health Blog adds some insight.  She points out that a 2-liter bottle of soda subject to the proposed tax, assuming the tax is entirely passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices, would still be much cheaper than a half-gallon of orange juice.

James Knickman of the NY State Health Foundation, writing in the NY Daily News last week, acknowledged that a soda tax would be essentially regressive, affecting the poor more powerfully than it does the wealthy.  He urges that

To counteract the soda tax’s regressive nature, revenue generated from the tax should go to health-related programs that benefit the poor – essentially putting the money back into their pockets. The revenue could be used for myriad initiatives, including subsidies for federal health reform – which is estimated to cost $1 trillion over the next 10 years – subsidies of fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods in low-income community grocery stores, and food stamp increases for the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Knickman gets at one of the main purposes of a tax like this:  to get the poor to pay more of the costs of doing business.

But what isn’t being discussed, it seems, is the underlying logic.

First, there’s the assumption that obesity is uniformly and intensely bad.  The NEJM article begins with the statement “The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has been linked to risks for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease,” citing three articles — two of them authored, in part, by the same men who helped write this week’s soda-tax NEJM article.

What’s the point of the misleading opening in the NEJM paper (apart from getting some additional citations for the authors’ other work)?  The line suggests that drinking sugar-added beverages causes heart disease, yet no evidence suggests that.  Extra calories might add up to extra weight, some people (less than half) who have BMIs in the “obese” range report having diabetes, and diabetes can predispose to heart disease — but the NEJM authors make it seem that the sugar-heart connection is somehow direct.  The point is to create an impression of uniform and unavoidable harm. Who would want to be for heart disease?

The supposition that obesity is a terrible illness responsible for broad impairments to Americans’ health — a premise that the soda tax depends on —  is amply and cogently criticized in a series of posts by Sandy Szwarc at Junkfood Science (start here, for instance, or here).  In fact, epidemiologic studies point to a relatively small effect of obesity on mortality, primarily at the upper end of the weight-for-height (body mass index, BMI) scale.  A careful analysis of national survey data from a few years ago (Flegal et al., JAMA 2005) shows that the effect of high BMI on mortality has been declining over time and almost entirely vanishes after age 70.  In fact, some studies point to a protective effect of high BMI for older Americans.

And the claim that increasing the price of sugary beverages is a suitable inducement to Americans to change their behavior rests on standard — but flawed — economists’ analysis.  It’s rational choice theory come home to roost at your refrigerator door.  If you know that it’s going to cost two bucks and a half to replace that 2-liter bottle of root beer in the fridge, you’ll drink it more sparingly than if it cost only $1.29, the theory goes.  Here is where the regressive aspect comes in.  It’s primarily to the poor that coming up with $2.50 for a bottle of root beer seems substantially more difficult than $1.29.  Here, the soda tax reveals itself as just another attempt to get members of what is perhaps America’s most despised ethnicity — the poor — to “fix” their behavior.

And it all rests on a premise so common we might call it the American assumption:  that people only do things that might harm their health because they don’t know any better or because they can’t stop themselves.  Ergo, laws and rules, to make sure everyone knows where and how to draw the line — taxes, bans on smoking in restaurants (or, perhaps soon, parks) and bans on serving trans fats, removal into foster care of kids whose mothers use drugs, prosecution of parents whose kids are too fat, et cetera.  And of course, we need the products that will provide substitute enjoyment or relief.  Thus:  sugar-free soda, trans-fat-free potato chips, Prozac and other SSRIs, diet books, gyms, alcohol-free beer, and so on.

And we need it all to be wrapped up and rationalized in the language of avoiding risk.

Apparently, it isn’t plausible to the doctors and scientists who wrote the NEJM paper, or the legislators who are eager to institute the proposed soda tax, that people might drink too much soda — or eat too much, or smoke, or stay home and watch TV instead of jogging — with full awareness of the possible consequences.   In the risk-free zone of America as envisaged by the public health industry, only the insane and the uninformed would engage in “risky behavior.”

Nobody, in risk-free America, does anything because it feels good, knowing it might be harmful.  Nobody overeats because it brings her pleasure, nobody screws without a condom because it turns him on, nobody smokes because she had a bad day or a good day or because the day hasn’t started but it looks unpromising, nobody rides her bike without a helmet because she likes the feel of the wind in her hair.  It’s risky.  We all know better.

The libertarians think it’s big government you give up your private choices to, and the progressives think it’s big business.  But really, it’s neither — or both, working together.  And the public health and medical industries are complicit.  It’s not a conspiracy.  It’s more like religion.

Bodies Using Bodies

Larissa MacFarquhar’s article on kidney donation in the July 27th New Yorker reminds us that our society remains uncomfortable about the satisfying of bodily needs by making use of other people’s bodies.

This is a good discomfort, no?  Nobody should blithely take advantage of another person, coercing him into donating his organs or making use of her for sexual pleasure without consent.  Watching Stephen Frears’s 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things leaves you appalled and angry at the kidneys-for-passports trade, as it must.  Slavery is an outrage and an offense, a rejection of the values that make ours a civilized society.   Every thinking person decries the trafficking of women for sex.   In modern society, it feels wrong when one person’s body is used to  advantage another’s body.

The exchange of money in the process seems to change the moral valences without exactly alleviating the discomfort.  That children’s families are paid for their manual labor in processing cocoa for the chocolate we eat doesn’t make the practice of child forced labor seem less heinous.  Maybe we even boycott chocolate manufacturers who use chocolate from Ivory Coast, where child labor is involved.  Taking advantage of children’s bodies disturbs us (even to the point of limiting our chocolate purchases).

Money registers differently when it comes to adult sexual exchange.  In the usual American view, there is a bright line between sexual enjoyment obtained through the use or threat of force, and the same enjoyment procured by payment but without force.   Both forcible rape and prostitution are illegal, but most people would recognize a distinct difference between the moral repugnance elicited by rape and the tinge of moral corruption carried by sexual advantage obtained by payment.

Payment introduces a legal twist to sex, too:  the law holds the man who procured sexual advantage through force to be culpable in the act of rape.  Yet, when it comes to paid sex, the legal code holds the woman who provided the sexual service accountable.  The bluenose might scorn both the sex worker and her client equally, but the law makes a distinction.

By contrast, payment makes all the difference when it comes to the use of someone else’s body for productive manual labor.  Your neighbors would be repelled if you were to use force to make a passer-by reshingle the roof of your house, and might have you arrested.  But they aren’t bothered when you hire a roofer.  Most aren’t very bothered when the roofer has some immigrant laborers do the scut work for below-minimum wage — which seems someplace in between a true fee-for-service contract (you in need of a new roof, a roofer able to build one) and slavery.  When money changes hands, it softens the moral impact of making use of someone else’s body.

But the moral flavor doesn’t disappear.  If your roofer refused to let his immigrant workers come down off the roof during a lightning storm, his meager payments to his workers would feel less important than his endangering their welfare.   In other words, onlookers would still be moved by the moral flavor involved in making use of someone else’s body.

Now for the tricky part. What about the use of others’ bodies for medical research? An article in today’s Times laments the shortage of willing bodies for testing cancer treatments.  Contemporary medical ethics presupposes a human trait called “autonomy” and requires that researchers respect this characteristic – for instance by refusing to experiment on a person unless she has signed a consent form acknowledging that she agrees to be experimented on and asserting that she understands the risks and rewards involved.

Of course, the reward system is often obscure, no matter how verbose the researchers are in the process of obtaining consent – in part because it’s often hard to predict who will benefit if new treatments are deemed to be effective, in part because it’s often hard to know how effective a treatment is likely to be, and in part because a big chunk of the benefit accrues to the researchers (articles published, grants funded, awards won) and the research industry (grant funding justified, administrative costs rationalized).

Nobody would accept a system in which people are forced to become medical research subjects.  In fact, the discoveries at Nuremberg about forced participation in medical experiments during the Second World War gave the impetus to the modern field of medical ethics.

But how much does it change the moral outlook if you are rewarded for allowing your body to be used by medical researchers with a cash payment?  The researcher has to be able to claim that her  subjects are not forced to participate – and the medical ethicists who are attached to the autonomy concept will still worry that the subject’s decision to lend his body for research will be coerced, not free and autonomous, if the payment is too grand.

For some classes of people, including children and addicts, payment is deemed to be especially coercive.  The thinking being that if the researcher were to offer $100  to an addict, the addict would use it to buy dope, and that would be harmful, and therefore the researcher would be doing a bad thing even though her research was really meant to do good.   Physician researchers always need to feel that they’re doing a favor to society (not to themselves).

Meanwhile, others decry payments that are too small, arguing that time, angst, and (sometimes) physical or mental suffering involved in being a research subject ought to be reimbursed at respectable rates.   Although the idea of a professional workforce of permanent research subjects, who might receive a retainer in return for surrendering their bodies and tissues for research, rubs physician researchers the wrong way.

Our society really likes medical research. We don’t want our doctors to stop looking for ways to help us to live longer and more comfortably.   Bodies must be used, but they shouldn’t be used without consent, they shouldn’t be purchased outright (that would be slavery), they can’t be paid too much, they shouldn’t be paid nothing, they shouldn’t be recruited for research use in perpetuity or receive the sort of ancillary benefits of employment that professionals get, and they should preferably not be “vulnerable” (young, developmentally disabled, imprisoned, or pregnant).

Which brings us back to kidney donation.  Should kidneys only be allocated anonymously and through a universal system that provides kidneys in accord with a complex algorithm that takes account of the likely benefit of the transplant?  Should there be a federally controlled market in kidneys, or at least some system that encourages donors through market-value incentives (like tax breaks), as Sally Satel has advocated?  Should there be a fully open market through which you could purchase the organ you need from a suitable and willing donor?

The conjunction of bodies-in-service-to-other-bodies and dollars makes the kidney question — like sex work, child labor, and medical research — fraught with moral meanings.  Simple solutions won’t serve.

The Preacher at CDC

Just weeks into his tenure as CDC Director, Dr. Thomas Frieden is already preaching moral improvement to the American public.

Yesterday, according to an Associate Press report, Frieden sermonized that “obesity and … diabetes are the only major health problems that are getting worse in this country, and they’re getting worse rapidly.”  Now, Dr. Frieden heads the agency that collects data on illness and calculates disease rates; presumably, he knows that many conditions are either increasing now or have risen to high levels from which they have not retreated — MRSA, Lyme disease, injuries in certain occupations, and foodborne illness, to name just a few.

But as Dr. Frieden’s campaigns in New York City against trans fats, unprotected sex, and TB sufferers who didn’t take their meds  revealed, when there is a moral battle to be fought the facts just get in the way.

The impetus for yesterday’s obesity sermon was a study by investigators at RTI who had determined that “obesity-related diseases” account for over 9 percent of U.S. healthcare costs.  Most people who suffer from most of the so-called obesity related conditions are not actually obese.  Even diabetes, the one most commonly associated with obesity in the popular mind (and, apparently, Dr. Frieden’s) occurs more often among people who are not and have never been obese than it does among those who are obese.  So the study was really showing that obesity accounts for much less than 9 percent of healthcare costs.

But that wasn’t the only problem.  While the RTI study found that obese people spend 40 percent more than comparison “normal” people on health, most of the increase in spending was related to pharmaceuticals.  So one might ask if it was obesity that was increasing expenditures, or the price of certain drugs.

Furthermore, there’s no way to know whether being fat was causing the obesity group in this study to be sick in ways that cost more money, or if they were fat because they were unwell in the first place.

In fact, the study wasn’t designed to test whether becoming obese led to an increase in medical expenditure — which might have shed some light on the question of whether obesity causes higher costs.  Many people in the study had no  expenditures at all for certain types of healthcare costs.  But the researchers weren’t interested in finding out whether obesity sometimes costs nothing at all, so they used an adjustment technique to allow them to relate obesity to predicted expenditures.

Finally, the estimate of percentage of total healthcare costs attributed to obesity-related expenditure was based on the assumption that obese people who return to “normal” weight suffer no consequences of their weight loss — an assumption that is well known to be false.

So it’s a falsehood to state on the basis of the RTI findings that obesity is accounting for a tenth of American healthcare costs — although AP, Reuters, and other media outlets so claimed in covering the Frieden sermon.

In fact, a lucid assessment of the findings would ask why, if obesity is supposedly up 37% among Americans and if two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese, obesity would account for only 9% of costs?  Surely if obesity is so bad, increasing its prevalence by more than a third would be swamping the healthcare industry with fat people.

But the whole appeal of a sermon is that it isn’t based on fact or lucid assessment of the present reality. It’s based on suppositions about the future with a steadfast moral foundation.  Frieden has the supposition and he has the moralism.  His religion is that it’s up to the “community” to perfect itself.

As Shirley Wang at WSJ Health Blog reports,  Dr. Frieden believes that  increasing availability and decreasing price of healthy foods, while decreasing availability and increasing  price of unhealthy ones, “is likely to be effective.” He claims that the decision to adopt such a strategy “is a political one.”

But of course it isn’t political in its essence; it’s moral.  When the community is told to perfect itself it rises to the occasion by looking to the usual moral suspects:  women, especially pregnant women or mothers; the uneducated; the poor.  Last fall, Frank Furedi discussed the moral underpinnings of British authorities’ removal of fat children from their parents’ homes.  And we can hope he’ll have something to say about what’s happening in the U.S., where the community policing can be even worse:  a few days ago, a South Carolina mother was arrested and charged with neglect for having a son who weighs over 500 pounds.  Other states have contemplated other methods of dealing with parents who violate the community standards of parenting.  Not by hitting their kids, starving them, or forcing them to work — but by allowing them to get fat.

Obesity is offensive, it seems, in just the way that sexual license and intemperance with alcohol have been found offensive by some.  And just as the problem with sex and drinking has been found in the environment — in “peer pressure,” the “latchkey phenomenon,” TV advertising, Hollywood, and the decline in “family values” — so it is with obesity.  “We did not get to this situation … because of any change in our genetics or any change in our food preferences,” Frieden adumbrated.  “We got to this stage of the epidemic because of a change in our environment and only a change in our environment again will allow us to get back to a healthier place,”

It isn’t obvious what to do when appetites produce offense — so it’s handy to claim that the environment is at fault and then to hand the problem to public health.  Because for certain health officials, it’s always clear what to do:  Take the moral high path, clean up the offending elements, urge the community to police itself better.  If more parents are arrested… well, perfection has its price.

New Fronts in the War Against the Fat

We thought that American hysteria over obesity was nonpareil, but British anti-fat warriors seem to be giving the American crusaders a run for their money.

Back in April, a fast-food establishment in Leytonstone, in the northeastern part of London, was shut down as a public-health threat.  As Patrick Hayes explains at Spiked, a 2009 initiative of the local council, called the Sustainable Community Strategy, outlaws the establishment of new carry-outs within 400 meters of a school.

Supporting the rhetoric, Professor Kathy Pritchard-Jones, president of the European Society for Paediatric Oncology, stated in February that “If we don’t … tackl[e] how much exercise our young people take and how concerned they are about what they eat and their weight, we are going to have another explosion of cancers.”

Last week, the U.K.’s Environment Secretary, Hillary Benn, invoked the fight against obesity as rationale for increasing access to open spaces, asserting that “green spaces are good for us” – a pitch which moved Spike’s sharp-eyed Rob Lyons to note that “You can’t even go for a stroll these days without it being turned into a health initiative,” and to anticipate that “chubby people [will be] quick-marched around a south London park for 30 minutes on a regular basis to help them lose excess pounds.”

There are so many pieces to the fanfare over the “obesity threat” that it’s impossible to assign one cause for the commotion. For a long time, Junkfood Science has investigated the sociology of the “science” of obesity in detail, and has exploded many of the central myths of the anti-obesity movement – most importantly the apocrypha about fatness and mortality.

And Paul Campos’s brilliant book The Obesity Myth (Gotham, 2004) explains how a constellation of wealthy industries together support the lose-weight-now rhetoric.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s assessment of some new books on the topic in this week’s New Yorker embraces the tired rhetoric, assuming that fat is bad and asking why people eat so much.  To her credit, Kolbert takes the plunge into examining the new field of fat studies.  But she ends up disparaging fat studies for “effectively all[ying] itself with McDonald’s and the rest of the processed-food industry, while opposing the sorts of groups that advocate better school-lunch programs and more public parks.” Apparently, asking that fatness be examined in the context of both social structures and individual liberties strays too far from the central dogma of the anti-obesity crusade.  To which (pace Hillary Benn) public parks are balm and tasty fries are anathema.

But an often-neglected aspect of the anti-obesity panic is the overtone of class and the undertone of race. In Leytonstone, for instance, it turns out that the community has been troubled by the profusion of cheap eating establishments, especially in regard to the “anti-social behaviour” that it supposedly brings.

Yet, as Hayes notes at Spiked, it was a Jamaican establishment that was singled out for closure – while more echt-English outlets, like fish-and-chips shops, have been ignored.  The decision that behavior is anti-social being always in the eyes of the beholder – or the skin color of the beheld.

In most of the developed world, fatness is more common among the poor.  In the U.S., it is far more common among African Americans.  Obesity is a marker for being out of power.  To assert that you are against obesity is to state that you intend to identify with those who have power, and mean to keep it.  You can wag your finger at the misdemeanants who eat fast food and fail to exercise — without having to come out and say that what is really troubling you is that your people are starting to look like those people – like the poor, like the dark-complected … like the fat.

No wonder the anti-obesity rhetoric has heated up in Britain, and is catching on in Europe.  It’s a winning way to wage the war against the poor and unentitled, without having to seem arrogant or racist.