Friday, November 21, 2014

Weigh More, Pay More

MELBOURNE – We are getting fatter. In Australia, the United States, and many other countries, it has become commonplace to see people so fat that they waddle rather than walk. The rise in obesity is steepest in the developed world, but it is occurring in middle-income and poor countries as well.

Is a person’s weight his or her own business? Should we simply become more accepting of diverse body shapes? I don’t think so. Obesity is an ethical issue, because an increase in weight by some imposes costs on others.

I am writing this at an airport. A slight Asian woman has checked in with, I would guess, about 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of suitcases and boxes. She pays extra for exceeding the weight allowance. A man who must weigh at least 40 kilos more than she does, but whose baggage is under the limit, pays nothing. Yet, in terms of the airplane’s fuel consumption, it is all the same whether the extra weight is baggage or body fat.

Tony Webber, a former chief economist for the Australian airline Qantas, has pointed out that, since 2000, the average weight of adult passengers on its planes has increased by two kilos. For a large, modern aircraft like the Airbus A380, that means that an extra $472 of fuel has to be burned on a flight from Sydney to London. If the airline flies that route in both directions three times a day, over a year it will spend an additional $1 million for fuel, or, on current margins, about 13% of the airline’s profit from operating that route.&

Webber suggests that airlines set a standard passenger weight, say, 75 kilos. If a passenger weighs 100 kilos, a surcharge would be charged to cover the extra fuel costs. For a passenger who is 25 kilos overweight, the surcharge on a Sydney-London return ticket would be $29. A passenger weighing just 50 kilos would get a discount of the same amount.

Another way to achieve the same objective would be to set a standard weight for passengers and luggage, and then ask people to get on the scales with their luggage. That would have the advantage of avoiding embarrassment for those who do not wish to reveal their weight.

Friends with whom I discuss this proposal often say that many obese people cannot help being overweight – they just have a different metabolism from the rest of us. But the point of a surcharge for extra weight is not to punish a sin, whether it is levied on baggage or on bodies. It is a way of recouping from you the true cost of flying you to your destination, rather than imposing it on your fellow passengers. Flying is different from, say, health care. It is not a human right.

An increase in the use of jet fuel is not just a matter of financial cost; it also implies an environmental cost, as higher greenhouse-gas emissions exacerbate global warming. It is a minor example of how the size of our fellow-citizens affects us all. When people get larger and heavier, fewer of them fit onto a bus or train, which increases the costs of public transport. Hospitals now must order stronger beds and operating tables, build extra-large toilets, and even install extra-large refrigerators in their morgues – all adding to their costs.

Indeed, obesity imposes a far more significant cost in terms of health care more broadly. Last year, the Society of Actuaries estimated that in the United States and Canada, overweight or obese people accounted for $127 billion in additional health-care expenditure. That adds hundreds of dollars to annual health-care costs for taxpayers and those who pay for private health insurance. The same study indicated that the costs of lost productivity, both among those still working and among those unable to work at all because of obesity, totaled $115 billion.

These facts are enough to justify public policies that discourage weight gain. Taxing foods that are disproportionately implicated in obesity – especially foods with no nutritional value, such as sugary drinks – would help. The revenue raised could then be used to offset the extra costs that overweight people impose on others, and the increased cost of these foods could discourage their consumption by people who are at risk of obesity, which is second only to tobacco use as the leading cause of preventable death.

Many of us are rightly concerned about whether our planet can support a human population that has surpassed seven billion. But we should think of the size of the human population not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of its mass. If we value both sustainable human well-being and our planet’s natural environment, my weight – and yours – is everyone’s business.

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    1. CommentedRick Lundgren

      Late to the conversation, but this was just on my facebook feed. One of the problems that I see as someone that works in healthcare is just weight used as a measure is a fallacy. For example I am six foot four, should I be charged more due to genetics? After all not only do we weigh more, but we are also taller on average taller. Why isn't this issue addressed? So, we could go with BMI, but that too is imperfect, because a body builder has a high BMI as does an obese person. Maybe the airlines should have everyone weigh in regardless and charge per ounce or kilo. I could see some discount carriers doing this.

    2. CommentedMK Anon

      obesity is a social-public disease, not a private one. it's also a disease of poverty in the rich countries. There is just often very little option but to eat unhealthy or very expensive. Not only in restaurants, but also in supermarkets, junk food is much cheaper and much easier. And finally, having the time to cook healthy food is also a cost many can't afford in the current world (think as an economist: aggregate labor demand for different type of jobs, price of good food, ect..)

      I agree with other posts on the following: up to which point are we going to "discriminate" individuals in order to have everyone paying his own price?
      This would mean measuring with no end everyone's behaviour, genes and preferences to determine it's price - and I don't think rationalising ad infinitum humans is worth doing, doable and liveable.
      It is not doable, but a few behaviours/features are picked to be segregated. It would be interesting to analyse why it's always to fat and the smokers who are to be blamed (despite the very minimal cost brought - come on: what's 25 Kg on a A380?) compared to other behaviours (prevention of accident within the house, driving attitude, walking attitude ?
      Is it because it's easy to measure. Or is there a bit of a religion - call it "Hygenism"- in that? Both probably.

    3. CommentedWilliam Wallace

      An aside: If the issue were primarily one of metabolism, that'd be some might fast evolution we are experiencing. But somehow I doubt obesity bestows an advantage in propagating one's genes. Methinks the sad but hard truth is diet and lifestyle. To the credit of the, um, bulk of the obese, 14 hour work days garnished with fast food do seem part of an inescapable fate for many.

    4. CommentedGiles Ritten

      An interesting article. Quite though provoking, with some points seriously worth consideration.

    5. CommentedPhilosopher's Beard

      First, stop writing at airports. Nothing publishable can come of writing in such conditions.

      Second, stop pretending you are an economist. You are an admirable extremist, who by taking certain propositions to their logical extreme conclusion have managed to say some important things in moral philosophy. But you have absolutely no training in the logistical consequentialist methods of economics and so you can say nothing sensible about 'true prices'.

      Third, your moral distinctions here are invidious or incoherent. Either this is a general principle which applies equally to the disabled and pregnant, in which case it is invidious. Or you are in fact punishing obese people for their sin, in which case you are incoherent. On this note my first point. Stop writing in airports.

        CommentedMK Anon

        Thanks for pointing this out. Ailrline's prices are really not related to costs like that, but rather "market discrimination". Does it cost more to operate a place if you buy your tickets 3 days for rather than 6 months? nope. the 15k thousands premium for first class is unrelated with space and luggage load, its rather a positioning good. Companies actually try to have an offer that fit the most closely the willingness to pay of consumers to maximise profit.

    6. CommentedNeil Garratt

      You refer to obesity and ill-health due to excess fat. But then seamlessly talk of surcharging people above 75Kg as if that represents an unhealthy weight. Let's look at the data.

      Someone weighing 75Kg would only need to be 175cm tall (5'8") for their BMI to be below 25, putting them in the normal, healthy range - not even overweight. To be classed as obese (BMI over 30) at 75Kg you would need to be under 158cm (5'2").

      Comparing those heights to a chart of caucasian male heights, even the 5th centile for an adult man is around 168cm. Median is about 178cm. Hence, we can conclude that for the vast majority of men, 75Kg would not be considered obese and for most men it would not even be overweight (BMI over 25).

      Even for women, 158cm lies somewhere between the 5th and 25th centiles so again most women would not be obese at 75kg.

      Your proposal also raises an interesting question about equality: someone's height is quite strongly correlated with their sex and their race, thus the impact of your charge would fall disproportionately on men and on taller races.

      Richer nations are more likely to use airlines, and among those populations you tend to find that poor people are more likely to be obese. So you're also likely to be proposing a surcharge on being poor or a subsidy on being well off.

      In short, any analysis of the impact of your plan is likely to conclude that it's sexist, racist and anti-poor.

        CommentedNaveen Bakshi

        Just Curious - why would it be any different than a clothing/shoe company charging different for different sizes?

    7. CommentedMarc Gawley

      Ultimately a person's mass is a fairly insignificant portion of the overall mass being moved - around 0.01% in the A380 example given – and there’s no reason that people of differing weights should be charged differently for use of the plane’s aerodynamic capabilities. More thoughts on that here:

    8. CommentedDeiter Flegelhump

      How about a surcharge for people who are so excessively rational and non-empathetic that they create arguments against treating other humans as equals? It seems like they ought to bear the true costs of their antisocial behavior!

    9. CommentedFred Seamons

      Yea, and while we're at it we should think about charging for cell phones, internet etc only on the specific amount of letters, words, or usage. And, don't forget we could be charging for gas by the amount of emmisions.your particular car puts out. And, a surcharge on the amount of garbage each individual generates, including when we are eating out etc. And, we chould be charging teachers a surcharge for the amount of paper they generate. It appears that there is no end to the surcharges we should be charging for all the extra costs that are generated by those who are using above the average or accepted level. And maybe we should be able to vote on the so called excess people on the planet that we could do without, so the amount of environmental damage could be held to an agreed upon level.

    10. CommentedDouglas Kidd

      Passengers come in all shapes and sizes; seats don't. Current seats are made for someone less than 5'9" and 170 lbs. Airlines need to make seats larger and provide more legroom for all passengers. (They used to.)

      This is not a luxury, as the tight seating in coach has been implicated in many passenger deaths from blood clots. Being small, thin, or fit does not help if you can't move because the seat is too small.

      Should the airlines charge more for larger seats and more leg room? Of course, but a less tightly packed plane will make all passengers happier.

      Charging more for heavy passengers but not providing adequate seating for all does not make any sense. In the example of charging the "overweight" passenger $ 29.00 more, will the seat be any larger? Will their be any extra legroom? Or just an extra fee to help the airline's bottom line?

      BTW professor, flying is a right, at least here in the United States:
      49 USC § 40103 - (2) "A citizen of the United States has a public right of transit through the navigable airspace.”

      We don't need more and more fees-we need seats and legroom sized for today's travelers, not children. We don't need more taxes. And we don't need more wannabe dictators trying to decide how much everyone else should weigh and what they should, and should not eat.

    11. CommentedPaulo Sérgio

      Boeing typically states aircraft seating capacity, structural payload, and maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) for an average passenger plus luggage weight of 210 pounds (about 95 kilos).

      If I weighed 75 kilos, I would be allowed luggage of 20 kilos before I was taxed for excess weight. If I weighed in at 90 kilos, just 5 kilos. If this was a hard rule, I think airlines already use it loosely, people pay for the excesses they want to ship beyond the capability for which the aircraft was designed. Of course, those seated in the front-end first class section have higher per weight figures than the rear-end just on interior installations and the space these installations take-up.

    12. CommentedPaulo Sérgio

      Effectively, this discussion is at best a part of the broader debate with how to get people to live healthier lives, lessen the impact of medical costs on the squeezed budgets of many advanced nations. In short this debate is here to stay, and will feature more prominently in those advanced countries.

    13. CommentedLukas -

      This argument has a flaw. It says the point of the surcharge is “not to punish a sin”, but to reflect the “true cost of flying” So, it doesn’t matter if an obese person is responsible for her/his overweight or not.
      According to this logic, it must then also be morally right to charge disabled people a higher ticket price, no matter if their need for a wheelchair etc. is their fault or not, since they also impose additional costs on their fellow passengers and their ticket price currently doesn't reflect their “true cost of flying”.

      I think, the proposed surcharge is only justified for obese persons who freely choose to be overweight. There is no rationale for surcharging people whose obesity is caused by reasons they are not responsible for (e.g. a disease). Of course, those 2 groups cannot be distinguished in practice.

      BTW, what about very tall people? They also weigh a lot. Will they also be charged more and if so, how is being tall different from being in a wheelchair (both conditions are not chosen)?
      Furthermore, it's highly debatable whether flying is a human right or not. There exists the right for freedom of movement (UDHR Article 13) including cross-border movement, which often can only be done by flying.