February 1st, 2014
04:03 PM ET

Is obesity the next smoking?

By Global Public Square staff

What was this week's most important economic story? No, it was not Obama's State of the Union speech. Nor the stock markets. And no, it has nothing to do with the U.S. Federal Reserve. We are talking about a decision made in Beijing this week to ban smoking in schools across China – all the way from kindergarten through middle school.

Why is this economic news? Well, consider these numbers.

China is said to have 350 million smokers – more than the entire population of the United States. We bring up the U.S. for comparison because the Surgeon General coincidentally released a report last month that really caught our eye. The fallout of tobacco use, the report says, costs Americans $289 billion a year – about four times as much as the U.S. federal budget for education combined. Twenty million Americans have died in the last 50 years as a result of smoking – more than the tally from all of our wars put together, of course. This year, nearly 500,000 Americans will die prematurely because of smoking.

These numbers are just staggering. And in China, the numbers are much, much worse.

Well, the good news is that things are actually getting better – and the ban in China is another big stride forward. According to the World Health Organization’s most recent data, from 2010, 109 countries had national bans on smoking in hospitals; 42 on smoking in restaurants and 35 on smoking in bars. Every year new countries join this list. India banned smoking in public places in 2008…so did France. The result is a substantial decline in smoking rates. In 1980, 41 percent of men around the world were smokers. By 2012, the number dropped to 31 percent.

At least some of the credit has to go to Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York. Remember when he first proposed a smoking ban in New York, back in 2002? Critics derided the plan as heresy. Europeans thought it was American puritanism at work. No one had ever pushed through a ban of that magnitude in a major metropolis. But within a few years, dozens of major cities followed suit, including ones in Europe where smoking seemed part of the scenery:  Paris, Rome, London. Places where it would have been unimaginable to limit smoking – like Jordan and, of course, now China – are moving in this direction.

The benefits in New York were seen almost immediately. According to the American Journal of Public Health, in 2004 (just one year after New York's smoking ban) there were 3,800 fewer hospital admissions for heart attacks. New Yorkers saved $56 million on health care costs that year.

Critics have called pioneers like Bloomberg a nanny – someone who wants to take away choice from the people. But when you consider the costs involved – costs borne by all of us who don't smoke – it seems like a no-brainer. The irony is that over time, most people seem to agree – even smokers. In 1965, 42 percent of all American adults were tobacco users. Today, that number has dropped to just 18 percent.

The lesson here is not just one about helping people make choices, but giving them the right information and options.

The next frontier is obesity – another preventable scourge. More than a third of all Americans are obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the annual medical cost of obesity in the United States amounts to $147 billion. How many lives lost, and how many dollars spent, before we do something to reverse this trend? We should look at what the smartest ways are to help people make informed choices about the thousands of empty calories that they – often unknowingly – consume.

That's not a nanny state but rather one that is trying to help you stay alive and healthy. And just as happened with smoking, if someone in the United States is bold enough to start something, people might at first say it's weird and cranky and crazy. But who knows? A few years later, they'll probably be doing the same thing in Paris and even Beijing.

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Topics: China • Health • United States

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