Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Empty Pockets from Expanding WasitlinesThe Economic Implications of Childhood Obesity

By Julia EddelbuettelPublished December 5, 2019

From 2000 to 2016, the proportion of overweight children and adolescents worldwide doubled, going from 1 in 10 to almost 1 in 5, according to a recently published UNICEF report. This increase in obesity causes significant problems for individuals and society beyond the obvious health concerns; in their future, these children will face lower levels of productivity, high mortality rates, and higher health-care costs to treat the comorbidities of obesity, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Economically, obesity poses external costs to society from higher healthcare spending and job absenteeism, making it a negative externality. An article by Cornell University professor of Policy Analysis and Management John Cawley, notes that half of all obese school-age children become obese adults, and the estimated annual direct cost of treating obesity-related illness is $147 billion, while the indirect cost of obesity-related job absenteeism costs society $4.3 billion annually. A separate study published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that of the world’s 36 highest-income nations, $311 billion is spent per year collectively treating the comorbidities of overweight and obesity. More effective interventions are necessary to reverse the current obesity trends among the world’s youth. The next generation is being primed to not only be more unhealthy, but also live more costly lives due to an epidemic that has gone untreated far too long. Coherent government action at multiple levels is necessary to curb and counter the trajectory of childhood obesity.


The number of overweight and obese children is increasing across the world in part because the unhealthiest and most fattening foods are often the most affordable. A recent UNICEF report about global children’s health notes that, “worldwide, close to 45 percent of children between six months and two years of age are not fed any fruits or vegetables. Nearly 60 per cent do not eat any eggs, dairy, fish or meat.” They also affirm that 42 percent of school-going adolescents in low- and middle- income countries and 60 percent in high-income countries consume at least one carbonated sugary soda per day and 46 percent of adolescents in low- and middle- income countries and 49 percent in high-income countries consume fast food at least once per week. While it is important to note these changes, a cause needs to be identified in order to take effective action. 


Professor Cawley cites a of couple economic explanations for the rise in obesity. For youth from families of low socioeconomic status, body mass index (BMI) is the most sensitive to the price of fast food. Moreover, the prices of healthy alternatives such as fresh produce are increasing while the prices of sugary drinks and fast food are declining, making fast food and soda a more financially viable choice of food than healthier alternatives for many families. He also notes that agricultural policies influence prices, which impact food choice. For example, Cawley writes that subsidies on corn and import restrictions on sugar could be why many manufacturers are replacing sugar with its less healthy counterpart: high-fructose corn syrup. These explanations could point to why children around the world are gaining weight: a changing economic structure is trapping children into a system that provides them with little to no healthy food choices.


More needs to be done by governments to ensure that healthy foods are a financially viable option for individuals of all socio-economic statuses. Chile and Mexico have recently implemented sugary drink taxes, and Singapore announced plans to ban ads for sugary drinks, as cited by a recent NPR article.  Taxes on sugary drinks tax  are slowly being implemented in different cities across the US as well, but it’s possible that those may not be enough to change unhealthy eating behaviors, particularly if a lack of healthy alternatives is also at the heart of the issue.  Low-income children need healthy alternatives if their eating behavior is truly to be positively affected. Preventing unhealthy weight gain in childhood is crucial to saving individuals and society at large the undue economic and health burden obesity poses. Subsidizing healthy food options while simultaneously taxing unhealthy ones may be more successful in targeting the eating behaviors of low-income children and families, and changing the trajectory of their eating and health behaviors earlier in life. The issue of childhood obesity extends far beyond individual children; government interventions that attack multiple facets of the issue will be necessary to defy the trends highlighted by UNICEF and create healthier future generations.