Recent health-focused interventions on the part of employers, government, and community organizations reflect a new perception of personal lifestyles as a collective, rather than just individual, concern. When ill health was perceived as impacting only the individuals involved and their families, decisions pertaining to smoking, diet, and the like could remain a private matter. As we have come to better understand the true costs of health deficiencies on businesses and municipalities, lifestyles have shifted into the public domain—becoming a topic of concern to everyone and fair ground for policymakers.
The new collective consciousness surrounding health is making people more mindful of the impact their individual lifestyle choices are having on others. What I choose to eat in the morning and drink at night may well have an impact on the taxes we both pay and the services our community is able to provide.
Obesity is serving as an interesting test case for the new movement toward collective health responsibility. At the One Young World summit held this past fall in Zurich, television chef–turned-activist Jamie Oliver drew the delegates’ attention to the fact that obesity costs the U.S. government $10 million an hour. With other countries also battling rising rates of obesity and overweight, the global impact clearly is enormous. Under the circumstances, obesity has become less a question of reduced life expectancy (and quality) than a concern over a collective financial cost that communities and countries are in no position to pay.
Despite the financial burden it creates, however, there is some ambivalence on the issue, as was seen in the results of Euro RSCG’s 2011 Health and Wellness global survey. Together with sexually transmitted disease, obesity is the health issue over which people are most likely to feel they have at least some control (8 in 10 Prosumers and 7 in 10 mainstream consumers agreed with that notion). Nevertheless, only a bare majority of the global sample (52 percent) was willing to agree even somewhat that obesity is not a disease but more a problem of lack of willpower and self-control, and a significant 35 percent disagreed. These findings suggest there are ample stores of sympathy for those battling the bathroom scale—likely because it is a near-universal struggle in many countries.
It’s entirely possible that obesity will eventually be treated like smoking, with tax hikes on junk food and even financial penalties waged by employers or government. Denmark recently levied a tax on saturated fat in food products. More likely, given the sheer number of people affected, is that solutions will come instead through increased nutrition education in schools, more transparency in packaging and on menus, and the cooperation of businesses in bringing more healthful options to market.