There’s a lot of talk right now about how much fat people cost – specifically when it comes to gas prices and healthcare. Are those costs calculations completely bullshit? Yes. Am I going to break down why? Of course. But before I do let me suggest this:
Anytime we choose a group of people we can identify by sight, calculate their “cost”, and then create a National program to eradicate them, we are making a grave error.
Now let’s look at some egregious misuses of math:
Someone drudged up a 2006 study that Americans use a billion more gallons of gas per year than we would use if we weighed the same as in 1960.
First, calling this a study is generous.
The authors are:
Sheldon H. Jacobson Department of Computer Science, Simulation and Optimization Laboratory,
University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois, USA
Laura A. McLay, Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research, Virginia
Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, USA
Neither author has any other study that has anything to do with obesity (or fuel costs) which may be why they start with a discussion about obesity and health but offer absolutely no research to support that.
Let’s look at what the researchers didn’t know when they calculated how much gas we use:
- How many fat people have drivers licenses
- How many fat people have cars
- What kind of cars fat people drive
- How many miles fat people drive
- If fat people are driving with passengers and what the passengers weigh
In fact, the authors admit that their analysis doesn’t even try to adjust for changes in driving habits or differences in socioeconomic status since 1960 – in fact they made the assumption that there have been no changes in driving habits since 1960.
Really, these are the statistical equivalent of “back of the envelope” numbers. But the kicker is that even if their numbers are correct, a billion gallons (which is rounding up from their actual findings of 938 million gallons) might seem like a lot until you find out that it’s only .7% of gas usage. Less than 1 percent.
What do the authors admit has at least 3 times the impact? Fuel economy can be improved
- 3% by practicing better tire inflation
- 4% by keeping the engine properly tuned
- 10% by changing clogged air filters more often
Trying to make fat people thinner works less than 5% of the time. Tire inflation, engine tune ups and changing air filters have a much higher rate of success, how about focusing on things that are possible and would have an impact of 17% instead of just 0.7%?
Finally I have to wonder, what’s the point of asking this question? Why would two statisticians who seem to have no experience or any other work published having anything to do with fuel use or people of size decide to do this study? There is no real reason to calculate this other than shaming fat people for being expensive. Knowing that there is almost no chance of me becoming thinner what do they want me to do – weep and run gravel through my hair? When, miraculously, we are done scapegoating fat people, who is next? Should we start calculating the cost of gas for parents who own SUVs and take their kids to multiple activities and then shame those parents? We’re also taller than we’ve ever been – how much gas is spent because tall people choose bigger cars to fit their long legs? Should we calculate the cost of people who own full size quad cab duallys that haul nothing more than their owners and then shame them? It seems to me that focusing on blaming individuals means that the focus is off companies that make tremendous profits from selling us gas, and the government that they heavily lobby to get favorable laws and tax code. It strikes me that this is probably really working out for them, but not for the general public. Is this really just a giant game of “hey, look over there!?”
Speaking of shifting attention from massive public issues and onto blaming fat people, let’s talk about calculating fat people’s impact on the Healthcare system. I blogged about this in depth here, but for a little preview, this graph represents the healthcare costs that can be attributed to disease prevalence (that’s the blue portion and the purported costs of obesity are included) and healthcare spending that can’t be attributed to disease prevalence (that has nothing to do with obesity and it is the green area)
It’s time to stop scapegoating fat people as a way to distract the public from massive issues of access to foods, safe movement options, and affordable (or free) evidence based healthcare. It’s dangerous, irresponsible and cowardly.
Huge thanks (in no particular order) to Jon Robison, Virginia Wood, Fall Ferguson, Linda Bacon, Deb Burgard, Deah Schwartz, Jeanette DePatie, Bill Fabrey, Abigail Saguy, Lydia Jade Turner and Lisa for their help and support in researching for this particular blog. The credit is theirs, any mistakes are all mine.
Edit: Big Liberty has done an incredible post expounding on this post. You can check it out here!
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