April 20, 2005
OK, definitely super size me
Since Super Size Me It’s been hard to look at a Big Mac without… well, OK, without wanting to eat it, but the revulsion factor has definitely soared.
Today it’s declined a bit, thanks to new research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Cancer Institute, published in the April 20th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study concludes that the annual death toll from obesity is lower than previous estimates—much lower.
Last year the CDC estimated that being significantly overweight (Body Mass Index of 30+) caused 400,000 U.S. deaths in 2000, a number it later revised to 365,000. The new study cuts that revised estimate dramatically, to just 112,000. This puts poor diet and exercise well behind smoking (which kills 435,000 people a year) as a cause of preventable death.
The study also found that being somewhat overweight (BMI of 25-29.9) was not associated with excess mortality—in fact it caused 87,000 fewer deaths than expected. By contrast, being underweight (BMI of less than 18.5) had a higher risk of death, with nearly 34,000 more deaths than expected. Go figure.
When you eat high calorie, high fat foods, you pay not only a price in dollars, but also indirectly in terms of slightly increasing the chance of premature death. My colleague Kevin Murphy (who, like me, loves McDonald's) has done back-of-the-envelope estimates that suggest that each hamburger you eat shortens your life enough that the typical person would be willing to pay $2 to $3 to get rid of the adverse health impact. So, in other words, the health costs of a hamburger are about the same as the price you pay at McDonald's. Or, I should say those were the health costs yesterday. Today they are only about one-fourth as large.
As Levitt concludes: cheeseburgers for everyone!!
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