Over the past five years, health care costs have dramatically increased due in large part to a general unhealthy lifestyle led by many. Obesity has been directly linked to "higher rates of depression, absenteeism, low productivity, and more medical claims. An overweight employee costs employers $5,000 more a year in health costs than a healthy weight individual."One could say that this is an entirely personal issue, but I beg to differ. I think there is a clear externality involved here...
E.g. Suzie chooses to partake in a relatively active lifestyle and makes mostly healthy food choices. Because of this lifestyle, she gets a clean bill from the doctor during her once yearly physical exam and is less likely to develop a plethora of health problems ranging from diabetes, to high cholestorol, to heart issues. Bob, on the other hand, has never endured any kind of physical activity other than the stroll from his car to his office building, which leaves him winded. His daily diet consists of Big Macs and XXL Coca-Colas. Because of his lifestyle choices, he does develop health problems. Suzie and Bob work for the same company and because of people like Bob who cause 1000s of dollars in extra health care costs every year, and misses more work because of it, Suzie is forced to pay more in health care costs (or their employer covers less). Bob is not intending to cause higher costs for Suzie, but that is exactly what is happening. If that isn't a negative externality, I don't know what is! Although a tax is the common way to correct a negative externality, an "obese tax" might be a little silly or extreme.
More and more employers are recognizing the problems associated with unhealthy employees, and are starting to step up. The first article cited above is one of many which discusses the different ways in which employers are encouraging their employees to make healthy lifestyle choices. I think this is a great alternative to another stinking tax. Statistics show that individuals who work out more than three times a week have 44% lower health costs. Lower health care costs for a few lead to lower health care costs for many. If employers can start expecting that their employees will incur less medical costs, they can provide better rates for everyone. If more employers follow suit and encourage their employees to get in better shape, and therefore lead healthier lifestyles, the payoffs benefit everyone.
The second article cited talks about companies (Walmart in particular) who are penalizing smokers. I left smoking out of the previous argument because one, cigarettes are already taxed (and quite heavily in some places), and two, that discussion is much more controversial. But I do fully believe there is clear negative externality associated with smoking as well. I mean, if I'm in a bar as a non-smoker (obviously, not in Colorado, but many other states still permit smoking in public restaurants, etc.) and I'm surrounded by smokers, my health is largely affected, especially since second hand smoke is even worse for your health (because you are inhaling the smoke directly with NO filter). The effect may be unintentional, but it is happening nonetheless. Again, I'm not really looking to get in to the smoking argument, just another interesting article along the same lines.
I know this is easier for me to argue as a healthy indvidual, but I make choices that help me maintain that characteristic and I don't feel like people, like myself, should have to incur higher costs because others don't make the same choices. I'm not even talking about overweight, I'm talking obese, and there is a very clear difference. And yes, there are those out there who suffer from things like a thyroid problem which makes maintaining a healthy weight impossible, but those people are the minority without a doubt. Instead of penalizing those who CHOOSE (because nobody forces them to eat fast food and sit on their butts) an unhealthy lifestyle, it seems more positive and beneficial to encourage them to make healthier choices.