Controlling the Environmental Costs of Obesity

Environmental Law, Vol. 47, 2017

45 Pages Posted: 21 Sep 2017

See all articles by Roberta F. Mann

Roberta F. Mann

University of Oregon School of Law

Date Written: September 20, 2017


Obesity is increasingly viewed as a major health problem across the world. Obesity presents both external and internal costs. Obesity alone may be responsible for some $2 trillion in medical costs and lost productivity, representing significant external costs. Internal costs occur because people make eating and drinking choices without being aware of the eventual damage to their health. Obesity also carries environmental costs. Consumption of certain energy-dense foods made from corn and soy (including meat) increases soil erosion and water pollution from fertilizer use. Governmental policy encourages the production of such crops. Being overweight decreases physical activity and personal mobility, leading to increased use of motor vehicles. Environmental factors such as sprawl and transportation policy affect obesity rates. When people cannot walk or take public transportation to work, they spend more time in their cars. They have less time to exercise and prepare healthy meals. Hence, both obesity’s effect on the environment and the environment’s effect on obesity lead to increased carbon emissions and exacerbate climate change. Taxes can potentially control both the external and internal costs of obesity. By increasing the cost of certain foods, taxes can discourage their consumption. A number of national and subnational jurisdictions have enacted such taxes, including Denmark, Finland, France, Mexico, the Navajo Nation, and the city of Berkeley, California in the United States.

This Article will examine a variety of economic instruments for controlling obesity, including regulation, taxes, and nudges. The relative success of governmental measures to reduce tobacco use are also examined to see what lessons might be learned. Finally, the Article will explore existing U.S. tax provisions to consider how modification of such provisions might help with the problem of obesity.

Keywords: food, taxes, obesity, regulation

JEL Classification: K34

Suggested Citation

Mann, Roberta F., Controlling the Environmental Costs of Obesity (September 20, 2017). Environmental Law, Vol. 47, 2017, Available at SSRN:

Roberta F. Mann (Contact Author)

University of Oregon School of Law ( email )

1515 Agate Street
Eugene, OR Oregon 97403
United States
541-346-3854 (Phone)
541-346-1564 (Fax)

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