Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Taking A Bite Out Of Obesity: Alabama’s New Fat Fee For State Workers

In a move that already has some getting their mu-mus in a twist, Alabama state has instituted a new annual fee for obese state-workers to offset lost productivity and high insurance costs. The fee is only $25 dollars for the year, which is half of what some smokers pay per month at companies and in state offices around the country because of their habit. Still, some are calling the new policy oppressive, even “Big Brotherish,” which I think we all can agree is hyperbolic and malapropos, not to mention ironic: By name alone, Big Brother would seem a kindred spirit to the “Big Boned” lot.

To other state workers, however, this sort of kick in the rump is long overdue; Alabama is at critical mass, with over 30 percent of the adult population now obese, second only to Mississippi and eking just ahead of Tennessee in third place. If weight is not curbed soon, this generation and those that follow will be facing astronomically higher incidences of obesity-induced diseases, bringing higher health-care costs to companies and the state, higher mortality rates and less productivity. In areas where the economy is already sagging like an unsightly mudflap, the situation is dire.

The issue at hand only becomes more complex, larger and jigglier as one considers it, for the bathroom scale only tells a portion of how obese individuals’ eating habits impact their lives. Most overweight people are not packing on the pounds by eating leafy greens and fresh fruit, but rather high-fat, low-quality foods. One must remember that this is often not by choice; poorer communities have the least access to fresh, healthy foods and frequently subsist on fast food and pre-packaged snacks which per serving have 1 percent of one’s daily required nutrients, 100 percent of one’s daily fat allowance, and 1000 percent of the trans-fats, pesticides, rat hair and roach droppings that one would ever wish to consume. In other words, obese individuals may ultimately be accountable for their own weight, but the infrastructure and culture that surrounds them makes it all too easy to pack on those costly pounds.

There is a lot of sensitivity surrounding the issue as well, and those who will be affected are already lowing at the gates about the unfairness of the situation. The main complaint among the policy’s detractors is that obesity is caused by health problems and heredity over which obese individuals have no control; therefore, these individuals should not be hit with a sort of “fat tax”, unlike smokers, who choose their unhealthy habit.

This argument is particularly weak, but I can see both sides of the issue. For kicks and giggles, let’s look at a point-counterpoint breakdown of some of the controversy surrounding obesity.

Obesity is and always will be voluntary. Generations before were thinner because they ate better and exercised more. It isn’t genetic, it isn’t magic, and there is no disease that makes one gain weight spontaneously, so says the first law of thermodynamics.Certain individuals are genetically pre-disposed to store that consumed energy which makes them more prone to weight-gain. This, combined with the lethargy inspired by contemporary culture, leads to eventual obesity. To penalize individuals for this is discrimination.
This isn’t penalization; it's recouping losses that, though they may not be entirely in your control, still cost the system a great deal of money—much more than $25 per year, in fact.To suggest that we pay more into the system also suggests that we are doing something wrong or that we are parasites on that system.
Yea. Pretty much. The truth hurts, huh fatso?You know, it is derogatory remarks like that which cause a lot of overweight people to become depressed and seek solace in food, thereby exacerbating the problem.
‘Exacerbating the problem’ being code for ‘adding a cup size.’I’m a man!
Indeed you are, a man whose very presence calls into question the words of John Donne: "No man is an island unto himself."Screw this. Where are my Ding Dongs?

In the end, the fee is so minimal that no one’s wallet will be hurting for it, though a few feelings may be hurt. As the fee is also only annual, it will soon be forgotten and thus provide little motivation to people to lose weight. Furthermore, the fee is discretionary, and if an individual is putting forth a genuine effort, it can be waived.

The one last worrying aspect of this is that it creates one more precedent of what one might call a lifestyle tax. Though I personally would like to see fees levied against people who overuse the word “synergy” or sound effects in Power Point presentations (the mental anguish caused by these infractions does indeed cause lost productivity), I wouldn’t legislate these things for fear that I might one day be nickel-and-dimed by my own foibles and lifestyle choices. After all, if I want to drink a little paint when I kick back and play Russian Roulette at the local leper colony, I may be putting my health at risk, but that’s my business, thank you very much.

I’d love to hear from huskier readers what they think. Is this sort of policy motivational or degrading? Leave a comment and we’ll chew the fat.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm in favor of a fat tax on packaged foods and fast foods. If the government can tax tobacco, they should be able to do the same for Frito Lays and McDonalds, which pose a much higher risk to your health. Heart disease kills many more people than lung cancer, so if the government wants to protect public health they should be consistent.

Also I think it is unfair for the public. More government revenues being allocated to increased medicare and health care costs means less money for other important things. Healthy people shouldn't have to suffer for the negligence of others. Obesity is a choice - it's not like getting cancer. It can be prevented and cured with the right diet and exercise.