Obesity, Pollution and Life Expectancy

Radley Balko uses this article about how deaths from breast cancer are declining to declare that:

Somehow, despite the dire headlines about rampant obesity, toxins in the environment, the pollutants in processed food, and the like, we seem to be be getting healthier.

He also points out that, “We also continue to set records for life expectancy, across all demographic groups.”

It bugs me when libertarians cite higher life expectancy and improving health conditions to refute people’s concerns about issues such as obesity and pollution. I see this argument over and over again. Does it not occur to libertarians that these problems can still be ligitimate, but gains in life expectancy could be occuring in spite of these problems? Medical science has improved drastically over time, so it makes perfect sense that people are living longer now. But it is still perfectly valid to argue that life expectancy could be increasing even more rapidly than it is, were it not for rising obesity and pollution.

On an issue like obesity, I wholeheartedly agree with libertarians when they oppose government attempts to regulate what people eat or lawsuits that attempt to blame obesity on fast food companies. But libertarians often go a step further, getting apoplectic over any attempt to portray obesity as a problem, or any attempt to expose the dangers of fast food. Though I don’t agree with everything in it, I think a book such as Fast Food Nation serves a useful purpose because it informs people what’s in the food they’re eating and it enables them to make informed decisions about what goes into their body. If anything, this is the strongest case imaginable for how a free society can deal with social problems without the need for government interference. But libertarians are quick to dismiss such endevors as alarmism.

I find it ironic that of all things, Balko chooses to point out a study showing that breast cancer rates are declining to illustrate his point about media alarmism. One of the main reasons the American Cancer Society gives for declining breast cancer rates is earlier diagnosis. I would argue that more women have been getting screened for breast cancer precisely because media attention increased awareness of the disease.

Likewise, I think all the media attention on fast food and obesity is a good thing, if it makes people reconsider what they are putting in their bodies.