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

soundoff (216 Responses)
  1. Scott

    I have no issue with people smoking, provided that they are 18 years old or legally classified as an adult. I think they should just have to pay more for health care and life insurance.

    February 5, 2014 at 7:48 pm | Reply
  2. Rod

    Life expectancy of Chinese people goes up. Stock valuation of Phillip Morris goes down.

    February 5, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Reply
  3. Stephanie

    "No I don't smoke that [stuff] I save it for the young, the poor, the black, and the stupid"
    -Phillip Morris

    February 7, 2014 at 1:51 am | Reply
  4. Karen Moke

    Ban smoking and the stop of cigar selling will be good for every country as if one's countrymen health deteriorate, it will add to cost to the country. Medical cost will add a burden to the country!

    February 8, 2014 at 7:39 am | Reply
  5. sixthromeo

    Smoking has never been allowed in US schools, why is this any type of news? Obesity has been an issue in school cafeteria programs even before Zechariah was born. Vending machines for snacks, soda and meal menu items have all been addressed before the parents of the children now in primary and secondary schools were even born. Aren't there important news items to discuss?

    February 8, 2014 at 10:48 am | Reply
    • Rob

      You're very defense, good luck with that weight issue there.

      February 24, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Reply
  6. Maripen

    @sixthromeo – Teachers were allowed to smoke in the faculty lounge/lunchroom until the early 1990's in most U.S. states. Individual state then began to restrict smoking to a designated area, and eventually banned it on school grounds (including at outdoor athletic events). Evidently you never were in a school faculty lounge. It was suffocating for nonsmokers to eat lunch with so much cigarette smoke. I can remember some of my teachers from high school (in the late 1960's) smelling of cigarette smoke. I gave up studying a foreign language after 2 years because my teacher reeked of cigarette smoke.

    February 9, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  7. anthonyturner388

    Since quitting smoking, I can't bare be in the same room as somebody smoking, it is worth giving up. Since giving up, I have nearly run marathons, not kidding. If you would like info on how to quit and clear your lungs fast, please read my blog http://smoking-detox.blogspot.co.uk/

    February 17, 2014 at 6:54 pm | Reply
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    March 27, 2014 at 4:41 am | Reply
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