The Price Per Pound: Using Economics to Understand and Reverse the Obesity Epidemic

Award Year:
John Cawley
Nutrition and Obesity
Obesity has risen dramatically in the U.S. in the past thirty years. Today, 35.7% of all adult Americans are clinically obese. Obesity-related illness costs $190 billion annually (or one out of every five dollars spent on health care) and is responsible for 365,000 deaths per year in the U.S. Compounding these problems, obesity exacerbates socioeconomic and racial disparities in the U.S.; for example, it is far more common among African-American women (58.6%) than white non-Hispanic women (33.4%). For these reasons, preventing and reducing obesity is a top priority of the U.S. Surgeon General, the Institute of Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This research project will culminate in a book that uses the theory and methods of economics to: 1) measure the extent to which prices and incentives contributed to the rise in obesity; 2) calculate the financial costs of obesity; and 3) demonstrate how public policies can change prices and incentives in order to prevent and reduce obesity. A wide range of policies will be examined, including taxes on high-calorie foods and financial incentives for weight loss. The project is significant in its potential to provide important insights into the causes, consequences, and possible solutions to one of the most important public health problems facing the U.S., is innovative in its use of an under-utilized perspective (economics) to gain important insights into obesity, and is policy relevant in its ability to explain how public policies can be designed to alter prices and incentives in order to reduce obesity. This three-year project will produce a book, a series of journal articles, a blog, and a massive open online course (MOOC).