Theories on fighting the obesity epidemic can be divided into two camps: punishing or restricting bad behavior (like oh, say, banning new fast food restaurants in poorer neighborhoods) and rewarding good behavior. So far, the bulk of what’s actually been done falls in the first category. Arguably, the most effective options would lie somewhere in the second.
Enter a new law enacted in Alabama, in which state employees who are obese or who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or high glucose will have to pay $25 a month more in health insurance if they don’t lose weight and get healthy by 2010. True to form, the law punishes the chronically obese with financial penalties—exactly as it has punished smokers, who’ve been paying a $24 surcharge for their habit. The state isn’t leaving it all to the employees; state officials say they’ll offer programs such as Weight Watchers and gym discounts to help people drop pounds and avoid the penalty.
Alabama has the second highest obesity rate in the country—the big winner being its neighbor, Mississippi. The Sweet Home state employs over 37,000 people, meaning that statistically, around 12,000 of them are obese. While just about every health policy expert (and the majority of employees) will say that positive incentives are better motivators than punishments, the one thing we’re really lacking is hard data. Maybe a year or two of numbers from Alabama’s state employee roster could settle the debate once and for all—or at least give us a clue as to whether economic incentives are useful in the slightest.