Public Health

Obesity Epidemic Cancels Out Anti-Smoking Gains

Americans are snuffing out their cigarettes, but packing on the pounds. And normal increases in life expectancy rates are being held back because of it.

Donut and a cigarette. i i

hide captionAmerica switches one health vice for another.

iStockphoto.com
Donut and a cigarette.

America switches one health vice for another.

iStockphoto.com

Smoking rates have dropped 20 percent in the last 15 years. So American life expectancy should be getting a boost, if it weren't for the obesity epidemic. It's filling the gap and then some, according to a study published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Relative to what's been happening with our improvements with smoking, our increases in Body Mass Index really are offsetting that," Dr. Allison Rosen, a study co-author, told us.

While smoking rates were dropping overall, obesity rates shot up 48 percent in the last 15 years. If these current trends continue, almost half — 45 percent — of Americans are expected to be obese by 2020. And that means the negative effects obesity has on health and life expectancy will surpass any positive effects the decline in smoking might have had.

Obesity may soon become Public Health Enemy No. 1, but Rosen, a University of Michigan internal medicine and health policy expert, says lessons learned in the anti-smoking campaign can be used to turn the obesity trend around. "We as a nation really took on smoking. We increased the taxes on cigarettes to such an extent that it really priced a lot of people out of the market. Which is a good thing — if you can't afford the cigarettes then you don't smoke them."

Yet, Rosen admits, "You can't price people out of the food market. People need to eat to live."

So instead of endorsing proposals to tax sugar or soda, Rosen favors financial incentives for reaching weight-loss goals or paying for some weight-loss medication. But mostly, she says, Americans need to focus on diet and exercise, or they could be paying with the quality and length of their lives.

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