Singer: Weigh more, pay more
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March 12th, 2012
01:05 PM ET

Singer: Weigh more, pay more

Editor's Note: Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Animal LiberationPractical EthicsThe Ethics of What We Eat, and The Life You Can Save. For more from Singer, visit Project Syndicate's website, or check it out on Facebook and Twitter.

By Peter Singer, Project Syndicate

We are getting fatter. In Australia, the United States, and many other countries, it has become commonplace to see people so fat that they waddle rather than walk. The rise in obesity is steepest in the developed world, but it is occurring in middle-income and poor countries as well.

Is a person’s weight his or her own business? Should we simply become more accepting of diverse body shapes? I don’t think so. Obesity is an ethical issue, because an increase in weight by some imposes costs on others.

I am writing this at an airport. A slight Asian woman has checked in with, I would guess, about 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of suitcases and boxes. She pays extra for exceeding the weight allowance. A man who must weigh at least 40 kilos more than she does, but whose baggage is under the limit, pays nothing. Yet, in terms of the airplane’s fuel consumption, it is all the same whether the extra weight is baggage or body fat.

Tony Webber, a former chief economist for the Australian airline Qantas, has pointed out that, since 2000, the average weight of adult passengers on its planes has increased by two kilos. For a large, modern aircraft like the Airbus A380, that means that an extra $472 of fuel has to be burned on a flight from Sydney to London. If the airline flies that route in both directions three times a day, over a year it will spend an additional $1 million for fuel, or, on current margins, about 13% of the airline’s profit from operating that route.

Webber suggests that airlines set a standard passenger weight, say, 75 kilos. If a passenger weighs 100 kilos, a surcharge would be charged to cover the extra fuel costs. For a passenger who is 25 kilos overweight, the surcharge on a Sydney-London return ticket would be $29. A passenger weighing just 50 kilos would get a discount of the same amount.

Another way to achieve the same objective would be to set a standard weight for passengers and luggage, and then ask people to get on the scales with their luggage. That would have the advantage of avoiding embarrassment for those who do not wish to reveal their weight.

Friends with whom I discuss this proposal often say that many obese people cannot help being overweight – they just have a different metabolism from the rest of us. But the point of a surcharge for extra weight is not to punish a sin, whether it is levied on baggage or on bodies. It is a way of recouping from you the true cost of flying you to your destination, rather than imposing it on your fellow passengers. Flying is different from, say, health care. It is not a human right.

An increase in the use of jet fuel is not just a matter of financial cost; it also implies an environmental cost, as higher greenhouse-gas emissions exacerbate global warming. It is a minor example of how the size of our fellow-citizens affects us all. When people get larger and heavier, fewer of them fit onto a bus or train, which increases the costs of public transport. Hospitals now must order stronger beds and operating tables, build extra-large toilets, and even install extra-large refrigerators in their morgues – all adding to their costs.

Indeed, obesity imposes a far more significant cost in terms of health care more broadly. Last year, the Society of Actuaries estimated that in the United States and Canada, overweight or obese people accounted for $127 billion in additional health-care expenditure. That adds hundreds of dollars to annual health-care costs for taxpayers and those who pay for private health insurance. The same study indicated that the costs of lost productivity, both among those still working and among those unable to work at all because of obesity, totaled $115 billion.

These facts are enough to justify public policies that discourage weight gain. Taxing foods that are disproportionately implicated in obesity – especially foods with no nutritional value, such as sugary drinks – would help. The revenue raised could then be used to offset the extra costs that overweight people impose on others, and the increased cost of these foods could discourage their consumption by people who are at risk of obesity, which is second only to tobacco use as the leading cause of preventable death.

Many of us are rightly concerned about whether our planet can support a human population that has surpassed seven billion. But we should think of the size of the human population not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of its mass. If we value both sustainable human well-being and our planet’s natural environment, my weight – and yours – is everyone’s business.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Peter Singer.

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Topics: Economy • Health • Ideas

soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. phrancis

    From a pragmatic standpoint I totally agree, but I just don't think charging air-fare would fly in our ultra PC world. It was already difficult to get severly obese passengers to buy 2 seats on many airlines...

    March 12, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Good idea! Those who are overweighed should pay more!

      March 12, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Reply
      • Cory

        Peter Singer is into Zoophilia...just so you know

        March 12, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
      • Justsayin

        Normal weight for males over 5'11" is more than 75 kilos so you will also punish the tall. Lets hope the basketball team doesn't have to fly anywhere.

        March 14, 2012 at 8:07 am |
      • Doughco

        Re. Justsayin's point about people over 5'11" weighing more than 75 kilos – the airlines already punish us with their small, cramped seats! Whadda ya want?? Maybe they should charge short people for reclining their seats into our knees too....Say, $10/inch? Thank God I worked hard, stayed slim, and can afford Business flabover there!

        March 26, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  2. Ussef

    Being overweight means that you've ingested more than what your body needs. Here is an ethical rule: eat only what you need. It will mean there will be more food to go around, that food will become cheaper, that many will stop being hungry, and ultimately that humanity could exploit only enough land and water and preserve the rest for wild life. It will also mean less costs for energy, health care, etc... I started trying to live by this rule last year, I lost 20 pounds, and will lose the other extra 20 pounds next year. I'm also careful not to spoil food. I wish many more people would do the same.

    March 12, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
    • talus12

      Started doing that 3 months ago. Lost 10 pounds. I really hate eating oats but they do wonders for you.

      March 14, 2012 at 9:39 am | Reply
  3. Cory

    So apparently Peter Singer is on CNN...disgusting, do some research on Peter Singer and judge for yourself. I like reading how he is hated by disabled people and his views on eugenics and Nazism

    March 12, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Reply
  4. pmcdonald

    Why does Singer start off talking about Australia. Its just a poxy insignificant country that nobody cares about with a tiny population. Why not talk about The Netherlands...or Portugal.

    If Singer wants to generate alarm he should use data from large places with lots of people, fat ones or soon to be fat ones such as the US, China, India and Europe. Then the stats might make one sit up.

    March 13, 2012 at 4:45 am | Reply
    • pmcdonald

      Having read the comments now I see Singer is an Australian. That would account for his sociopathic views as well I suggest.

      March 13, 2012 at 4:48 am | Reply
  5. OregonTom

    Please do not let yourself get obese. Please stay healthy, if not for yourself then for the ones that love you.

    March 13, 2012 at 10:28 am | Reply
  6. Punkass

    As someone who works out and eats right I have very little sympathy for over weight or obese ppl but I dont want to go down the road of telling ppl what to do. On the other hand, we shouldnt make it easier or more accomodating to those ppl either.

    March 13, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  7. NJgal

    hey CNN, how about instead of pushing the perception through your picture above of fat people always being lazy & overeaters– how about you put one up of an average worker, overwight, in a shirt & tie or dress behind a desk filled with stacks of papers and a family photo of spouse and kids looking absolutely stressed and exhausted and show the office clock at the 7pm hour? Seems more realistic.

    March 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Reply
    • Betsy

      Working out reduces stress and the fact is your average person doesn't fit it into their day. How about they get of the couch, turn off the T.V., and take that family they "love" on a walk or to the park to play tag.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:38 am | Reply
      • NJgal

        Hey Betsy, if people work until later in the evening, it may be dark out, or unsafe. Would you walk an infant in the dark? Moron.

        March 14, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  8. john

    Some children it is genetic, which they cannot help. Insurance companies would love to just insure their selections. Sounds like the author believes in the IDEAL RACE. Seems Nazi Germany thought the same thing. I think Singer should mind his own business, before someone throws him off the plane.

    March 13, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
    • john

      i dont think we should overestimate obesity by genetics. it is true that medical condition make some people put on weights, but only so much.... i'm not aware of any genetic condition that make children obese. overweight, yes, but not obese.

      it is not probably genetic but the childhood poor diet and hunger that make kids and adults obese because their metabolism got so low growing up.

      so we shouldn't accept that some people are born to be fat but rather try to solve childhood hunger and malnutrition that lower their metabolism.

      March 13, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
    • Ange P

      Well said Big Guy!!! I cannot believe the adacity of this article.

      March 13, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Reply
  9. john

    i see the pint but overgeneralization is also dangerous. for people whose medical conditions make them fat, it is not actually healthy for them to be thin.

    i weight 52-3 kg and 50 kg discount would encourage me to lose that 2-3 kg. however, i would be a bit underweight if i weight 49 kg. there is also cost to be too thin.

    body shape and weight shouldn't be ignored or only judged by esthetics, but the solution for reducing obesity is not as simple as the author's suggestion.

    i would prefer things like soda tax or mandate exercise at work like some companies do.

    March 13, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  10. S. Knight

    Hear, hear! I have been making this comment for years. As a small female, I feel that I am being penalized by having to pay luggage charges, when the person standing next to me in the airline line clearly weighs twice what I weigh! Why is that fair to me? I like what Mr. Singer is proposing. How people gain weight and decide to stay heavy, well, that's their decision. The issue here is, don't penalize the skinny ones to pay for the fat ones! Make it a fair ride all the way around.

    March 13, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Reply
    • Richard

      The system isn't completely fair. It is only reasonably fair. To expect that the airlines should charge based on weight for the sake of fairness is unreasonable.

      March 14, 2012 at 1:16 am | Reply
  11. A big guy


    Consider this: A man purchase a ticket for the plane. A sensor they have at the check-in terminal where he stands with his luggage totals in at 203 lbs. Due to this idea of yours this man has to pay an additional fee upon checking his luggage. However this man is a US Marine on a flight home during leave to visit his family, tipping in at 6'3" and 185 lbs, of nearly all muscle (since his post requires him to be capable of holding and traveling with a heavy amount of gear). By your logic expressed in the weight vs fuel consumption (which I have no problem with), simply by being taller and employed in a manner that increases his weight, he is automatically forced into this echelon of additional fees.

    In general, this naturally makes taller people more prone in general to stepping over the weight boundary, since the majority of people over 6'0" already weigh in at over 165 lbs. I'm not saying fuel costs shouldn't be maintained or taken into account, but this would be specific categorization and discrimination of some passengers.

    March 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
    • Sol

      Not palatable, but that's exactly his point. Though he focuses most on the obese, he'd probably admit that large, athletic Marines should pull (or pay) their weight too. He's not categorizing people. He's calculating numbers. Whoever's numbers calculate high—healthy or not, athlete or flabby, Marine or subterranean—pays.

      March 16, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Reply
      • Sol

        Might as well add, I don't know how to feel about this yet, but Singer's calculations would impact not only those who intended to be fat and those who intended to be densely muscular, but also those who didn't intend anything, those whose genes predispose them to whatever, etc.

        March 16, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  12. NickD2

    Sorry, maybe we should place a tax on people who want to control everyone elses lives. We have enough silly restrictive laws on the books. Its time to start erasing them not making more.

    March 13, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Reply
    • Justsayin

      Thank you

      March 14, 2012 at 8:10 am | Reply
  13. Katie

    So, following this reasoning, should public schools charge an extra levee to educate someone who is obviously a moron and will take more time from the teacher and the other staff than someone who was raised better? (I am NOT talking about those who have a developmental disability here in case anyone wishes to misunderstand me.) Good grief. As if flying isn't enough of a pain in the a@#, now we'll have to have the fat police on our cases, too? I think stupidity ought to be taxed - then there will be enough for all of us to fly free!

    March 13, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Reply
    • Justsayin

      Thank you, Katie. Wonderful point!

      March 14, 2012 at 8:14 am | Reply
    • JJ

      Katie, do you really not understand the difference between a public school and an airline? God help us. I think when you go to the airport you get on a scale with all your luggage and get a surcharge/discount based on your total weight. Think UPS/fedex

      March 14, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Reply
    • Sol

      As Singer says, flying is not a human right. Presumably you believe education is. But you could argue that flying is, if you wanted.

      March 16, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Reply
  14. P. O. Carl

    As the world population increases, and people get larger and larger, does the mass of the earth increase?

    March 14, 2012 at 12:03 am | Reply
  15. Richard

    There are some benefits to charging based on the weight of the passenger. They are outweighed by the costs, though. I mean, to enforce that you are going to have to put passengers on the scale and have someone look at how much they weigh. It's rather invasive, and I value my privacy more than I do the benefits of weight-based pricing. I suppose you could go by the honor system but there would be so many cheaters if you did that, and that isn't fair at all. From a business perspective, it doesn't make sense for the airline, either. Who wants to fly on the "we check your weight" airline?

    Another problem is that this only indirectly promotes healthy lifestyles, and in some cases may actually reward destructive lifestyles. For example, anorexics would get a discount. Tall, fit men could be penalized. Charging based on weight also sets a dangerous precedent that could lead to social acceptance of objectively unfair practices. For example, increasing bus fares for elderly or disabled people who take a long time to get on the bus to account for their disproportionate use of time-based operating expenses.

    March 14, 2012 at 1:11 am | Reply
  16. Sam

    I completely disagree with your article. People who are skinny spend more money in whole foods and healthy,organic foods.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:01 am | Reply
  17. skeetz

    Just keep emphasis on the evils of smoking so that the fat ones can stay invisible. Doesnt matter if the fat folks dont smoke, they should be very easy to lose the weight just like its easy for anyone that smokes to quit. So there is no excuse for have fat and obese people in America. If you are overweight, just stop shoving food in your pie hole.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:24 am | Reply
  18. Ian

    "many obese people cannot help being overweight – they just have a different metabolism from the rest of us." What joke of an excuse that is. While, were at it, lets consider that all these people with slow metabolisms just so happen to live in the developped world and appeared in the last 20 years?

    March 14, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  19. ep tor

    Even though some people are obese due to their metabolism, they still need to pay for what they use, whether it's fuel, food, special clothes. Everyone needs to carry their wieght. By the same token, children and other smaller people should pay less. On a plane or other transportation mode the cost formula would need to be a combination of weight and space.

    March 14, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  20. Judy 2983948

    I'm sure a part of the equation is that airport personnel must hoist and handle her luggage and the airports cover union pay, insurance and osha fines for unsafe workplaces. Even the fattest people usually make it to their seats under their own power.

    Also, will my 45 lb 7 year old get a discount using the same logic as Mr Singer?

    March 14, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  21. Judy 2983948

    It's the perfume wearers that bother me the most on a flight.

    March 14, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  22. CPP

    You people that think obesity is caused by genetics are complete idiots. If that was the case, then why has obesity skyrocketed in the last 30 years? I guarantee the gene pool hasn't changed that much. It's because crap food has become so readily available and cheap and people are too weak in willpower not to gorge on it. And TV has made it unnecessary to entertain oneself with other activities that require physical exertion. The only genetic trait that leads to obesity is a weak mind and lack of willpower.

    March 20, 2012 at 11:28 am | Reply
  23. steve souza

    Of course people who want to fly should PAY their far share for ONCE! I try hard to stay healthy plus travel light and get NO benefit at all. Weight matters with transportation so DEAL WITH IT!

    March 22, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  24. Roselyn

    I am an obese person, but my butt fits on the seat, the arm rest goes down and I don't need an extra buckle. It's no lie that plane rides aren't that comfortable no matter WHO YOU ARE, but that is no reason to discriminate against obese individuals. I travel very often and there have been many times that I have had to sit next to a larger person (then myself) making it the journey very uncomfortable, but there have also been many times when I have sat with a seat in my lab because the individual in front of me decided to recline their seat all the way back and I have also sat next to a mother of new born baby who threw up on me. But I didn't complain because I understand that getting on an airplane is not a vacation, I am pretty sure the people of 911 weren't concerned about riding a flight with a FAT person. The true problem is that Americans and people in general have just forgotten that those FAT people they are sitting next to, are also humans. And yes no one should have to pay for another person’s "lifestyle choices," but that also means that you cannot force another to pay for how they choose to live their lives. I feel no need to get into a discussion about whether or not being overweight or obese can be a genetics thing because I frankly don't care for the sciences, but I will say this I grew up in a family of overweight and obese individuals and if I could choose whether or not to be fat I certainly wouldn't have chosen to be fat. The first time I ever cried about being fat I was 8 years old and since that day I have always been on a diet, yes I like to eat but I am also very into living a healthy lifestyle and exercise has always founds its way in my life. On top of me being obese I am black, Haitian and a female, and no I do not have this extreme anger because of who I am, because unlike many I believe my destiny or my life outcomes are what I choose them to be, but I am just so sick of having to prove to people that I am way beyond the stereotypes they see me as. The first job I ever held my boss admitted that he thought I would just be a horrible, "angry" worker, but that I turned out to be one of the best workers he had ever known. He never apologized for his actions but he did get to know me for who I was and for that I am forever thankful. My high school psychology teacher didn’t believe that I was smart enough to pass the AP exam, but I passed and that was satisfaction enough for me. So, next time you get on an airplane before you look at the person for their size, why don't you try and strike up a conversation with that person, they just may be the most amazing person you have ever met.

    May 7, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Reply

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