business news in context, analysis with attitude

A number of emails yesterday referred me to an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) in which he suggests that the biggest impact on the US health care system can be achieved through addressing the nation’s generally poor diet.

“We’re spending $147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the many types of cancer that have been linked to the so-called Western diet,” Pollan writes. “One recent study estimated that 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past 20 years could be attributed to the soaring rate of obesity, a condition that now accounts for nearly a tenth of all spending on health care.

“The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care … food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.”

Pollan concludes that reforming the food system will be even more challenging than reforming health care. “Cheap food is going to be popular as long as the social and environmental costs of that food are charged to the future. There’s lots of money to be made selling fast food and then treating the diseases that fast food causes. One of the leading products of the American food industry has become patients for the American health care industry.”

But, he says, this could change if health care reform is passed by the Congress and signed by President Obama: “Even under the weaker versions of health care reform now on offer, health insurers would be required to take everyone at the same rates, provide a standard level of coverage and keep people on their rolls regardless of their health. Terms like ‘pre-existing conditions’ and ‘underwriting’ would vanish from the health insurance rulebook — and, when they do, the relationship between the health insurance industry and the food industry will undergo a sea change.

“The moment these new rules take effect, health insurance companies will promptly discover they have a powerful interest in reducing rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to diet … When health insurers can no longer evade much of the cost of treating the collateral damage of the American diet, the movement to reform the food system - everything from farm policy to food marketing and school lunches - will acquire a powerful and wealthy ally, something it hasn’t really ever had before.”
KC's View:
Fascinating piece…and however one feels about the contentious health care debate, it is hard to argue with the notion that a system based on prevention rather than treatment would be far more efficient and effective. I’m not sure it will be as simple as Pollan suggests – wouldn’t it be pretty to think so – but it does seem like a logical conclusion, and one that could be good for smart food retailers and manufacturers.