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Tomoko Furugori

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Our obesity, Tomorrow's Problem

Tomoko Furugori
Professor of Labor Economics, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University

In a word, economics is the study of money and human activities related to it. If it is related to money, any human activity becomes an issue in economics. For example, a person's lifestyle changes materially, mentally, or in both ways, depending on the income of his or her spouse. In economics this is theorized as an issue of what is the best age, academic record, income, occupation, and status, etc., to have in a marriage partner, and then analyzed and investigated. This is where the economics of marriage is born.

I currently have an interest in the economics of obesity. So, how did I treat obesity when I saw it as a subject for economic research? I would like to talk a little about entering into that research.

Obesity spreading throughout the world

Increases in income, education levels and affluent lifestyles are accompanied with changes in society. One of the changes is the so-called money issue where despite becoming materially wealthy, robberies have increased, and retrogression of the mind occurs. The topic I have taken up here, obesity (metabolic syndrome) is also a deep social issue related to rich lifestyles.

Obesity triggers social problems including medical issues, bullying and stigma. From an economic perspective, it brings up issues related to medical fees (social security) and workplace discrimination (employment, promotion, dismissal, etc.)

The obesity phenomenon is now a problem on a global scale. Obesity has spread throughout countries both rich and developing, afflicting adults and children. This phenomenon has sent alarm bells ringing in the WHO with obesity being the world's largest health issue to the extent of being called a modern infectious disease. It is a fact that, while there are over 800 million people starving in the world today, there is more than 2.5 times that, 2 billion people, struggling with obesity. This figure will continue to rise even more, with the 3 billion people mark expected to be reached in 2015.

Body mass index (BMI) is calculated by dividing one's weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters. A person with a height of 160cm and weight of 60kg would therefore have a BMI of 23.4. International standards state that a person with a BMI of 30 or higher is obese. When measured by these standards, excluding people from small South Pacific island nations, the country with the highest obesity rates is the US (33.8%), followed by Mexico (30.0%) and New Zealand (26.5%). This means that in the US, one in every three people standing at a height of 160cm would weigh in at over 80kg. For European countries, the obesity rates are as follows: England (24.5%), Germany (13.6%) and France (10.5%).

In Japan, obesity is defined as a BMI of 25 or more. Obesity statistics are also taken from this standard, so a simple comparison between Japan and western countries cannot be made. Going by international standards, Japan's obesity rate (3.4%) falls into the lowest group (India is the lowest, with both males and females under 1%). On the other hand, more than 70% of American adults would be obese under Japanese standards.

According to Japanese obesity statistics (BMI≧25), the obesity rate for adult males has doubled from 15% to 30% in 30 years. On the other hand, the obesity rate for females, depending on age group, lies between 20% and 22%. This means the obesity ratio is one in every three adult males (about 18 million) and one in every five females (about 13 million).

Why are we becoming obese?

You gain weight if you intake more calories than you can burn. According to calculations, you can achieve a healthy weight when you maintain a good balance of calorie intake and physical exertion. However, obesity varies greatly among individuals. There are people who become fat even though they eat only a little. There are some people who don't become fat and some that do even if they eat the same amount of food. There are even people who don't become fat even though they intake obesity's nemeses, fat (trans fat acid) and sugars.

In any case, Obesity is a phenomenon spreading rapidly worldwide. I believe this has more to do with the state of society and environmental conditions than individual circumstances. Advances in technology, changes in lifestyle environments and habits, and policy influences are all involved.

The 20th century saw the Technological Revolution. This also applied to all stages relating to food, from production, to processing, and to distribution. Agricultural mechanization and efficient production, food processing and preservation technology, seasoning and refrigerating / freezing technology, vacuum packaging and courier systems, all were hard to imagine in the previous century. Thanks to those, we can now get good tasting food anywhere, and what's more, at cheap prices. Behind the obesity phenomenon is cheaper food prices due to technological advances, and on the other, a decreasing amount of physical labor due to housework and jobs becoming more sedentary.

Also in the background of obesity, and more closely related to our lifestyles and lifestyle habits, is women entering the workforce and eating out, and the changes brought about by lifestyles and mental health in a advanced society. Eating is a strongly addictive action. We habitually eat cheap and good tasting food, but habits are difficult to change. Obesity can be said to be a phenomenon where self-control is lost and the preference structures concerning the time of obtaining larger satisfaction from present consumption rather than future consumption.

It can't be denied also, that policies such as city plans with no playgrounds, lack of sports facilities, transport policies encouraging car usage, and town-planning policies centered on convenience stores and fast food outlets, have had a negative influence on obesity. There is also the effect of farm subsidies.

The influence of farm subsidy policies is one point that is easily overlooked. Taking America as an example, farming policies over the past 30 years have seen prices drop of agricultural products, especially corn and soybeans. Farmers, rather than take risks by growing other products, naturally choose to produce corn, the price of which is controlled. As a result, surplus corn is turned into sugars (syrup), and in turn, used to produce cheap, good tasting processed food products. Those products, in addition to encouraging overeating, appear on international markets. Here, the series of subsidies→overproduction→low prices→overeating→obesity is born.

Why is obesity an issue?

Obesity has negative effects on health. The fatter the person becomes, the easier it is to contract lifestyle diseases, and the risk of having cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure rises. If that happens, it is an issue involving life. Then medical costs will rise, and along with placing a great financial burden on individuals, business, and governments, there is a large influence on social security systems. If life expectancy becomes shorter, part of the workforce is lost.

Obesity has tangible and intangible effects on wages and employment. Actually, there is a famous study proving that good-looking males and females receive higher wages than those who are not. Obesity brings about weight discrimination. Discrimination against obese people doesn't stop at the application and employment stage, but it can also be seen in selection, reassignment, remuneration, promotion, training, and dismissals, etc. Especially in the case of females, obesity affects the status and level of their jobs, and impedes promotion.

Effective measures against obesity

Japan presently boasts being a low-obesity country in the world. Against the backdrop of having a comparatively well-balanced diet, Japan is experiencing the effects of having a culture that highly values slender figures. In fact, in a survey of university students, more than 40% of female students made up the group of BMI<19, close to the international standard for being underweight of BMI<18.5.

Even so, recently there are many articles related to obesity in newspapers. A health examination designed to prevent lifestyle diseases linked to obesity (metabolic syndrome health examination) even started three years ago.

In the world today, there is no country that exists without relations with other countries. When you think of the influences of the food situation, changes in eating habits, the distribution revolution, and a globalized society, etc., I believe we have come to the point where Japan cannot avoid, in the not too distant future, the road to obesity, and the health, medical, social security system problems, the labor issues of disrespect and victimization, and the employment and discrimination issues that come with these. Moreover, meals used to be something you made to eat. Now they have changed into something you buy and eat (processed food). In those circumstances it will be difficult for Japan to continue standing at the edge of the international tide.

The origin of obesity undeniably lies in eating. Eating habits are related to what food is made, how the food is distributed, and how the food is eaten. On that point, obesity can be said to be an eating environment issue, and it is necessary to devise measures for obesity (prevention) from that viewpoint.

Tomoko Furugori
Professor of Labor Economics, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
MBA (University of Rochester), PhD (SUNY). Major: Labor Economics. Entered current position as professor in the Faculty of Economics, Chuo University, after working as an assistant professor at the University of Akron, Cleveland State University, and the Open University of Japan, and professor at Meikai University. Visiting research at the University of Hawaii and the University of California (Berkeley). Advisory council member in central government ministries and agencies and the Kanagawa Prefectural government; held successive posts on the Tokyo Metropolitan Labor Relations Commission and the Central Labor Relations Commission; Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) advisor, JIL research advisor, Institute of Statistical Research director. Published works include A Prototype Regional-National Econometric Model (Pion Ltd, England), Labor Market Mechanism Research (Economic and Social Research Institute), Labor Economics (NHK Publishing Co., Ltd.), Service Economics Theory (NHK Publishing Co., Ltd.), Irregular Labor Economics Analysis (Toyo Keizai Inc.), Economics of Working (Yuhikaku Publishing Co., Ltd.) and Economics of Obesity (Kadokawa Gakugei Shuppan Publishing Co., Ltd.), as well as many co-written, edited, and translated works.