The Economics of Unhealthiness

Will this be the omage to the American empire?

Will this be the homage to the American empire?

With an annual $2.2 trillion price tag for health care in America (1), is it possible for people to stop pointing their finger at insurance companies, doctors and Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement caps for one second, and instead use that finger to pry the bear claw out of his or her respective mouth? People should first focus on the economics of their own unhealthiness.

For some, the bear claw is a metaphor for a cigarette; for others it is a figurative expression for an alcoholic beverage; and yet for others, it is an MSG-ridden, salt-laced plate of mandarin chicken. One thing is for sure: America is a gluttonous nation, and gluttony is a deadly, expensive sin.

The first cost anchor in the economics of unhealthiness is obesity. People love sugar. In fact, they love sugar so much that once they come to terms with the fact sugar isn’t all that great for them, they move on to fake sugars like aspartame (NutraSweet®) and sucrolose (Splenda®). As it turns out, fake sugars probably aren’t that great for you either; particularly if 60 ounces of diet soda per day is your diet plan to shed a few pounds for bikini season.

Johnson & Johnson makes Splenda look so nice. Plus they're on Facebook; they must be our friend.

Johnson & Johnson makes Splenda look so nice. Plus they're on Facebook; they must be our friend.

Long-term studies of sucrolose have not been performed on humans, which makes the ultimate effect of sucrolose on the human body unknown. Most of the studies were conducted on animals over short periods of time. The alleged symptoms across the inter-webs associated with sucralose are gastrointestinal problems (bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea), skin irritations (rash, hives, redness, itching, swelling), wheezing, cough, runny nose, chest pains, palpitations, anxiety, anger, mood swings, depression and itchy eyes. Also, the fake sugar family has been associated with weight gain, disruption of sleep patterns, sexual dysfunction, increases in cancer, MS, Lupus, diabetes and a list of epidemic degenerative diseases. (2) (3)

In the manufacturing process of Splenda®, a current leader in the artificial sweetener market, chlorine atoms are attached to the sugar molecule by chemists, replacing oxygen-hydrogen molecules. The chlorine atoms are considered a carcinogen, and has been used in poisonous gas, disinfectants, pesticides and plastics. Yummy. (3) (4)

Splenda® has been marketed as “made from real sugar”, and “natural”, by Johnson & Johnson, a giant in the health care industry. I’m not here to ignite conspiracy or make accusations, but in any event, I will continue to avoid chemical compound, wannabe sugar sweeteners like the plague.

Excessive sugar consumption, or perhaps excessive fake sugar consumption, is a leading cause of obesity. Health Affairs, an industry publication, reported earlier this year that obesity accounts for 9%, or almost $150 billion, of all medical spending. That’s up from 6.5% in 1998. Obviously, fatty foods and increasingly sedentary lifestyles factor into the obesity picture as well. So remember: those love handles may cost you more than just a date. (1)

Hypertension, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular disease is the next cost anchor in American health care expenditures. People can’t get enough of their salty snacks, and excessive sodium consumption is a leading cause of the aforementioned conditions. We all have that friend (maybe we are that friend) who orders french fries at Mickey D’s, but the salt already entrenched on the deep fat fried potatoes isn’t enough. Out comes the extra salt packets and a shower of sodium. (1)

The recommended consumption of salt by the Institute of Medicine is no more than 2,300 milligrams/day, or about a teaspoon of salt, daily. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that most Americans age two and older consume about 3,436 milligrams of salt, about 1-1/2 times the recommended level. (1)

According to research group Rand Corp., lowering sodium intake to recommended levels could save the nation $18 billion annually in health care spending. Heart disease and strokes are the first and third leading causes of death in the United States. The total cost to health care to treat both these diseases is as high as $475 billion/year. (1)

Then we have tobacco and alcohol use (not to mention elicit drugs). Frankly, if you’re smoking or chewing, you’re just not that bright. It is your right to use tobacco, but seriously, give the early 20th century, smoking-is-cool-because-classic-cinema-says-so mentality, back to whomever you stole it from. The CDC estimates that 44 million Americans are still lighting up cigarettes, while I’m sure 42 million claim only to do it when they’re drinking; problem is, they drink 5 nights/week. Alcohol-related health problems cost the United States an estimated $45.5 billion/year while around 443,000 people die prematurely each year from smoking, or being exposed to secondhand smoke. (1) Deaths and health problems from tobacco and alcohol have indirect costs to society as well. These people leave behind what would have been a lifetime of production, or watch their production diminish due to poor health. And those who quit their tobacco or alcohol using ways may face health problems for the rest of their lives, due to past use.

Undoubtedly, the choice of so many Americans to sabotage their own health through a series of economic choices, causes externalities for others when the $2.2 trillion health care tab is tallied up, and partially divided amongst taxpayers.

No, thank you Sea-Tac Mall in Federal Way, Washington, for creating this masterpiece.

No, thank you Sea-Tac Mall in Federal Way, Washington, for creating this masterpiece.

So lift your Cinnabon in the air for a toast, America (that is, if you can lift your arm above shoulder height). Insurance companies may be denying you coverage due to a pre-existing condition. Your grandmother may be having trouble keeping up with the cost of meds contained in her Sunday-Saturday pill tray. Doctors may even choose not to see you due to a cut in Medicare reimbursement by the government. Yes, the current health care system has serious kinks that need to be worked out. The thing to remember is that one of, if not the greatest kink, is you. It’s us. We must live healthier lives if we expect to solve the health care crisis and manage the public debt.
Get Your Health Care Thinking Caps On…Other Health Care Articles to Browse:

Health Care Economics Unspun: Start In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Healthcare Reform: The Public Option or the Singapore Model

(1) These 5 health care culprits cost $1 trillion –, retrieved November 3rd, 2009,

(2) Artificial Sweeteners (cont.) –, retrieved November 3rd, 2009,

(3) SPLENDA EXPOSED –, retrieved November 3rd, 2009,

(4) The Science of SPLENDA® Brand Sweetener –, retrieved November 3rd, 2009,

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