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When Greener Means Healthier

Since controlling health care costs is the topic du jour in Washington right now, it's worth pointing out two environmental policies that could have some ancillary health benefits. First, it's true that gasoline taxes tend to be the ultimate political no-fly zone. But new research suggests that higher gas prices wouldn't just cut back on our carbon emissions—they might also cut back on our waistlines (and, accordingly, our medical bills). Christopher Steiner (via Matt Yglesias), writes in Forbes:

Charles Courtemanche, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has produced a study suggesting that permanent hikes in gas prices may slash obesity rates. The amount is hardly nominal: A sustained $1 increase in the price of a gallon of gasoline equals a 10% dip in the nation's obesity rate—that's about 9 million fewer obese people clogging up health care systems and costing society (and themselves) money. ...

Courtemanche found evidence in his data that rising gas prices resulted in more Americans walking and more Americans bicycling. Perhaps just as important, he noticed that, as gas prices increase, people eat out at restaurants less. In addition to more strolling and cycling, people use public transportation more, Courtemanche says, and that, too, burns far more calories than sitting in a bucket driver’s seat, sipping coffee, and flipping through radio channels. People who use subways, buses, trolleys or commuter rail services need to get to and from mass transit stops, and that probably means more walking on both ends. A $1 rise in gas means 11,000 fewer lives lost to obesity-related causes and $11 billion per year saved on health costs, Courtemanche says.

Meanwhile, the latest Center for Disease Control numbers on obesity suggest that there will be no health care reform without food reform. The CDC report finds that, while physical activity has remained constant and smoking rates have gone down over the last decade, incidence of obesity and diabetes have risen steadily, implying that Americans' love affair with highly-processed foods is the chief culprit.

One bill attempting to tackle this issue is H.R.1324, The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009. It seeks to amend the original 1966 act by bringing the food served in school cafeterias in line with standards that reflect current scientific knowledge on the relationship between food and health, though don't expect the beef, dairy, and beverage lobbies to let this bill pass without a fight. It's not IMAC, but as far as health costs go, still worth considering.

--Jesse Zwick