The Economics of Childhood and Adolescent Obesity
- Nathan TefftNathan TefftDepartment of Economics, Bates College
Obesity is widely recognized as a chronic disease characterized by an elevated risk of adverse health conditions in association with excess body fat accumulation. Obesity prevalence reached epidemic proportions among adults in the developed world during the second half of the 20th century, and it has since become a major public health concern around the world, particularly among children and adolescents. The economics of childhood and adolescent obesity is a multi-faceted field of study that considers the numerous determinants, consequences, and interventions related to obesity in those populations.
The central economic framework for studying obesity is a life-cycle decision-making model of health investment. Health-promoting investments, such as nutritional food, healthcare, and physical activity, interact with genetic structure and risky health behaviors, such as unhealthy food consumption, to generate an accumulation or decumulation of excess body fat over time. Childhood and adolescence are the primary phases of physical and cognitive growth, so researchers study how obesity contributes to, and is affected by, the growth processes. The subdiscipline of behavioral economics offers an important complementary perspective on health investment decision processes, particularly for children and adolescents, because health investments and participation in risky health behaviors are not always undertaken rationally or consistently over time.
In addition to examining the proximate causes of obesity over the life cycle, economists study obesity’s economic context and resulting economic burden. For example, economists study how educational attainment, income, and labor market features, such as wage and work hours, affect childhood and adolescent obesity in a household. Once obesity has developed, its economic burden is typically measured in terms of excess healthcare costs associated with increased health risks due to higher obesity prevalence, such as earlier onset of, and more severe, diabetes. Obesity among children and adolescents can lead to even higher healthcare costs because of its early influence on the lifetime trajectory of health and its potential disruption of healthy development.
The formulation of effective policy responses to the obesity epidemic is informed by economic research. Economists evaluate whether steps to address childhood and adolescent obesity represent investments in health and well-being that yield private and social benefits, and they study whether existing market structures fail to appropriately motivate such investments. Potential policy interventions include taxation of, or restricting access to, obesogenic foods and other products, subsidization of educational programs about healthy foods and physical activity inside and outside of schools, ensuring health insurance coverage for obesity-related preventive and curative healthcare services, and investment in the development of new treatments and medical technologies.