business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The Los Angeles Times reports this morning on a new study suggesting that the nation's obesity-related death toll "may be close to four times higher than has been widely believed, and all that excess weight could reverse the steady trend of lengthening life spans for a generation of younger Americans."

The study indicates that upon close examination, more than 18 percent of premature deaths in the US between 1986 and 2006 "were associated with excess body mass," as opposed to the five percent that s usually cited by researchers.

The story says that "the study makes clear that as obesity has become more widespread across successive waves of American generations, it has the momentum to reduce the average life expectancy of an entire population for many years to come."

And, the Times continues, "The study found that weight-related early mortality had struck American women harder than men, and that African American women had suffered the most. The premature deaths of 21.7% of white women between 1986 and 2006 could be attributed in part to excess weight, as could 26.8% of early deaths among African American women.

Among white men, 15.6% of premature deaths in that period were linked to excess weight. Among black men, the figure was only 5%. Though African American men have high rates of obesity, they are also more likely than all other groups to die prematurely of other causes, such as injury or violence.

Finally, the story says that "the latest calculation also calls into question the emerging belief that obesity in old age confers some protection against premature death — the so-called obesity paradox that has given comfort to many older adults struggling to shed weight. In fact, the study concluded, the probability of death among those carrying excess weight continued to rise after age 60, and did so steeply."

These numbers won't convince those who have railed against the "nanny state" to change their minds, and while I would describe myself as ambivalent about efforts to legislate against obesity, it seems to me that there could be and perhaps should be a public policy approach to any trend that is causing close to one out of five premature deaths in this country. At the very least, it underlines why transparency is so important when it comes to calorie and other nutritional information - when people are standing in line at a fast food restaurant, it should be evident to them on the menu boards how many calories those french fries, or taco, or double bacon cheeseburger, or sugary soft drink represent. I'm not sure an outright ban on jumbo-sized sugary soft drinks is the way to go, but it certainly suggests that NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg was taking aim at a problem that requires greater and more vigilant attention.

It is an Eye-Opener.
KC's View: