A woman uses her mobile phone while holding a cigarette in central London, February 1, 2010. (Photo : Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett)
Should the government encourage healthier lifestyle choices by penalizing unhealthy habits like smoking and overeating , or should we save money and just leave smokers and obese people to die?
That question, prompted by a recent Associated Press report, has sparked a new debate over how much say the government should have in citizens' personal lifestyle choices.
Smokers and obese people cost the U.S. health care system a disproportionately large amount of money each year, according to Mike Stobbe, a medical writer for the Associated Press. "Annual health care costs are roughly $96 billion for smokers and $147 billions for the obese," he says. "These costs accompany sometimes heroic attempts to prolong lives, including surgery, chemotherapy and other measures."
So if smokers and obese people are such a heavy burden on the system, why not just let them die premature deaths? "If 1 in 5 U.S. adults smoke, and 1 in 3 are obese, why not just get off their backs and let them go on with their (probably shortened) lives?" asks Stobbe.
Because, say some public health researchers, anti-smoking measures work. If it's more inconvenient and expensive for people to smoke or overeat, people will change their habits, and smoking and obesity rates will drop. That's the reasoning behind New York's hotly debated soda ban, as well as California's proposed $1-per-pack cigarette tax (which ultimately did not pass).
But critics say such attempts to control the consumption of tobacco and fatty foods unfairly penalizes poor people, says Stobbe, because they "smoke more than the rich and have higher obesity rates...Have less money so sales taxes hit them harder...[and] are less likely to have a car to shop elsewhere if the corner bodega or convenience store stops stocking their vices."
The smoking debate will likely not be resolved anytime soon, but in the meantime, plenty of people are having their say on Twitter.
"Do penalties for smokers and the obese make sense?" said one user in a Tweet featured on MSN. "Shame/ stigma are cruel. Environmental policy & taxes work." Another user chimed in, "How about penalizing all? Let fat people, drinking alcohol, take drugs, promiscuous lifestyles, eat bad food die too?"