Health Scares Reduce Smoking, But Not Obeisity

I don’t think people talk enough about public health issues in the policy realm, so I’m resolved to start following news like this even if it doesn’t have a clear policy upshot:

Smokers are three times more likely to quit if they get a wake-up call in the form of a heart attack, stroke, lung disease or cancer diagnosis, a new study has found.

But obese and overweight people lose two to three pounds at most after being diagnosed with a serious illness like heart disease or diabetes, according to the same report. The study, which looked at weight loss only in people under age 75, was published on Monday in The Archives of Internal Medicine.

Part of the issue, I assume, is that even though quitting smoking is incredibly hard in a large variety of ways, it’s not hard to monitor yourself. Nobody accidentally smokes a cigarette. And tobacco addicts can come to realize that we’re addicts and that we need to abstain from tobacco consumption.


Food isn’t like that. Healthy eating doesn’t mean you give up eating. But that means you’re subjected to all kinds of judgment calls. That leaves people subjected to misinformation about the healthiness of different foods — often deliberate misinformation — as well as a whole range of weakness of will and self-deception phenomena. Or perhaps to put it another way, if you get a health scare and resolve to stop smoking, you’ve made a first-order commitment to yourself: “I won’t smoke cigarettes anymore.” Resolving to eat healthier, by contrast, is a second-order commitment. People could probably do a pretty good job of resolving to quit one particular bad eating habit — no more Swedish Fish for me ever again — but it’s not clear how much that sort of thing would really help. Fewer Swedish Fish could just mean more delicious Sour Patch Kids.