Puerto Rico Does Not Have the Answer

February 14th, 2015 by MorganDowney Leave a reply »

I’m sorry. There, I said it. I was wrong. In 2008, a Mississippi legislator proposed that restaurants should be prohibited from serving customers who were obese. In a USA Today article, I called the bill “the most ill-conceived plan to address a public health crisis ever proposed.” I was wrong. Puerto Rico legislators are going one better. (See Ted Kyle’s post.)They are proposing to impose a fine on parents of children with obesity. Yes, a fine. Oh, that will help! “Parents: Starve your children and you save a few bucks!” Wow, what a deal! That will overcome the cries of hungry children.

This kind of proposal is easy to shoot down. However, it reflects a grave public policy problem. Most of the public policy debate is now dominated by behavioral economists who only see incentives and penalties as valid interventions. They disregard any contribution of biology in their research. Some may see the contribution of the environment. However, their recommendations trend to changing individual behavior, not in environmental changes. That leaves the only option for policy-makers, led on by behavioral economists, to propose ever more and more brutal penalties on persons with obesity (such as the penalties on workers in ‘employer wellness’ programs) or, in this case, on the parents of children with obesity.

The origins of this kind of policy direction lie not in Puerto Rico. A prominent obesity researcher and clinician David Ludwig called on state child protective services to take children with obesity away from their parents. It used to be that political thought was opposed to visiting the sins of the father on his children. Behavioral economists have turned this inside out to visit the parent with the ‘sin’ of the children, in this case, being overweight. This is public policy madness  which will not solve the obesity problem but only put off any real, grown-up policy development.