Food and Health: A European Perspective

This paper addresses four issues which arise from increasing concerns about overweight and obesity in European countries. First, we explore the main stylized facts of the phenomenon. We show that although Europeans are not obese like Americans, there is robust evidence that adult and childhood obesity rates tend to increase substantially in many European countries. The second part of the paper surveys the recent theoretical literature on the economics of obesity. In particular, we focus on the debate about the merits and limits of public policies in this area. This paper presents an alternative perspective from that suggested by the rational-choice approach according to which government intervention is not necessary. We emphasize the potential positive role of well-designed public policies by emphasizing that in a world with less than perfect information, externalities, self-control problems, endogenous preferences and social inequalities, the equivalence between individual choice and individual as well as social welfare is weakened. We suggest that the right framework for thinking about public policy in this area is a multi-factor and multi-stakeholder approach. This approach casts some doubt on the notion of a strict link between determinants of weight gain and the choice of policy tools to tackle the phenomenon. We argue that just the multi-factor nature of the obesity phenomenon allows to identify several instruments and policy tools. Several non-food policies targeted to different purposes such as environmental issues, social cohesion, and urban planning can also have useful consequences in mitigating weight gain. Thirdly, we explore the determinants of European obesity patterns. In particular, we examine the relevance for Europe of the food consumption hypothesis recently developed by Cutler, Glaeser and Shapiro according to which technological change easing access to food plays a key role as a determinant of weight gain. It is argued that this hypothesis can provide a plausible explanation for overweight and obesity patterns in Europe, although we also find that in some countries there is evidence of weight gains in the absence of significant increases in food calorie intake. Finally, the paper proceeds to examine current policies in Europe at both national and European Union level and the implications of the findings for addressing more effective policies.

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Proceedings of the 10th Joint Conference on Agriculture, Food, and the Environment, August 27-30, 2006, Duluth, Minnesota

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