Commentary: Should We Give Up on the Sick and Obese?

Experts debate whether or not government interventions are appropriate. 

Posted: 02/11/2013 09:45 AM EST

Here is what we know to be true: We don’t have the best health. African-Americans bear the brunt of the obesity epidemic; we are more likely to die from a range of cancers including prostate, breast and lung; we are disproportionately impacted by heart disease and diabetes.

Most important, we don’t live as long as whites.

No doubt, our poor health is connected to structural issues such as poverty, lack of access to health care, lack of access to affordable healthy foods. But we have to keep it real: Our choices and behaviors are part of the problem.

And while our quality of life pays the price for our "bad" choices, others “foot” the bill too.

According to a USA Today report:

Annual health care costs are roughly $96 billion for smokers and $147 billion for the obese, the government says. These costs accompany sometimes heroic attempts to prolong lives, including surgery, chemotherapy and other measures.

But despite these rescue attempts, smokers tend to die 10 years earlier on average, and the obese die five to 12 years prematurely, according to various researchers' estimates.

And so what can be done, if anything?

Some health and economic experts believe that taking care of the sick and obese costs taxpayers and the government way too much and that more interventions are needed. Some believe that the government should stop interfering by imposing soda taxes, nicotine taxes, soda bans and higher health insurance premiums for the obese. Let people who are sick be sick. 

Yet, one major opposition to government interventions is who they mostly impact: Low-income and people of color. USA Today wrote that they: 

— Smoke more than the rich, and have higher obesity rates.

— Have less money, so sales taxes hit them harder. One study last year found that poor, nicotine-dependent smokers in New York — a state with very high cigarette taxes — spent as much as a quarter of their entire income on smokes.

— Are less likely to have a car to shop elsewhere if the corner bodega or convenience store stops stocking their vices.

And so I get it, the people with the less amount of money are impacted the most. But let’s not lose sight that it’s low-income Americans and people of color who are the sickest and most obese in this nation. But in many cases, these extra taxes translate into educational programs for those who need it most.

Now I do believe in free will. I don't want to live in a "nanny state" that tells me what I cannot eat and cannot drink. I don’t want to have to pay more for health insurance if I weigh more. But I also don’t want to live in a nation that continues to turns its back on the sick by doing and saying nothing.

In the end, I do believe that there are times that the government should step in, but this issue is not black and white. Even in my own support for some of these interventions, I also find that the responsibility of our health cannot solely be placed on the shoulders of the most marginalized. Perhaps a way of meeting in the middle is making sure that multi-billion dollar companies — soda companies, processed foods, soybean manufactures, etc. — that make money off of our poor health should be just as penalized as we are for consuming their products. Then, maybe, this fight for better health may seem fair.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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(Photo: Rick Gershon/Getty Images)

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