Why Puerto Rico May Soon Fine Parents of Fat Kids

Updated on

Bill Has Merit, Would Be Effective and Less Intrusive, Says Expert 

WASHINGTON, D.C. (February 23,  2015):  Puerto Rico is considering a novel and controversial bill which would impose fines on parents if their young children are obese, and if the parents then refuse to take reasonable steps to improve their children’s unhealthy weight during a 6 month period.

Although some are complaining that such a governmental requirement goes too far, it is less intrusive than removing obese children from the home  – which has already begun to occur in the U.S. – and far less intrusive than many other government requirements aimed at protecting children and even adults.

It also is likely to be far more effective than expensive taxpayer-funded health educational campaigns because it uses a technique – hailed by many conservatives – of imposing personal responsible for unhealthy choices on those who make them, and not on taxpayers, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf.

Banzhaf has been called the lawyer “Who’s Leading the Battle Against Big Fat,” “a Driving Force Behind the Lawsuits That Have Cost Tobacco Companies Billions of Dollars,”  “The Man Big Tobacco and Now Fast Food Love to Hate,” and “a Major Crusader Against Big Tobacco and Now Among Those Targeting the Food Industry.”

U.S. not far behind Puerto Rico in obesity

Although it’s much worse in Puerto Rico, the entire U.S. has been hit by a pediatric epidemic of obesity which will cost us all hundreds of billions of dollars in the years to come because obese children are much more likely to grow up to be obese adults with all the health problems associated with obesity.

These include heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes – which is so expensive because it often leads to blindness, amputations, the need for dialysis, etc.  Just hoping that parents will somehow become more responsible in feeding their children clearly isn’t working and obviously isn’t going to, says Banzhaf.

In a somewhat parallel area, imposing personal responsibility for the huge $300 billion a year which smoking imposes on the American economy (obesity costs us all only slightly less) – most of which is paid by nonsmokers – has been amazingly successful in reducing the incidence of tobacco use.

According to many studies, requiring smokers to bear some personal responsibility for their bad health choices by being required to pay higher cigarette taxes has proven very effective at reducing smoking.

Moreover, unlike anti-smoking education campaigns, which have cost taxpayers billions, hiking cigarette taxes costs nothing – indeed, it brings in billions of dollars for the various governments.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the British Medical Journal, and elsewhere, imposing a smoker surcharge by requiring smokers to pay more for their health insurance  – as the new Affordable Care Act [ACA] provides – can slash smoking rates among employees by 50%.

This is another dramatic example of the effectiveness of tackling expensive public health problems with financial incentives by imposing personal responsibility on those who make unhealthy choices, says Banzhaf, who was behind the ACA surcharge.

That is also the principle behind the bill in Puerto Rico.  If parents know that they may have to pay fines to help cover the costs associated with overfeeding their young children, now borne in part by everyone, they will have a very strong incentive to behave more responsibly, says Banzhaf.

The results will be much healthier children – and much healthier adults as they grow up – and huge saving in health care costs associated with obesity which are now largely borne by taxpayers in the form of higher taxes for Medicaid, Medicare, and many welfare programs, and in inflated health care premiums.

Parents who jeopardize the health of their young children in many other ways – e.g., by permitting them to smoke, to eat perishable food which has not been refrigerated, leaving them alone in locked cars, etc. –  frequently lose custody of their children, especially if they do not correct their ways after being warned.

Puerto Rico: Fining parents a better solution

Fining parents who make their young children obese is more humane and far less intrusive than removing the children for the home, something which has begun to occur in the U.S. when parents are found to have made their young children grossly obese, says Banzhaf.

Those who still argue that forcing parents to take steps to protect the health of their own young children is too intrusive seem to forget that we already require parents to properly buckle up their children in cars, to insure that their children wear helmets when bicycling, to seek medical care when they are ill or injured, to provide them with safe and suitable food, clothing, and housing, etc.

Indeed, notes Banzhaf, the government even imposes requirements on responsible adults to protect their own health – e.g. to buckle up in cars, to use motorcycle helmets, to refrain from using not only addictive drugs but even very safe drugs like Viagra (without a prescription) or Laetrile (even with one).

If the government can require even adults to buckle up in cars to protect only their own health, it is certainly not too intrusive to require parents to protect the health of their young children by buckling them up and keeping them from becoming obese.

When – under legal theories developed by Banzhaf – courts took custody away from parents who smoked, and even removed children from smokey homes, or when more than a dozen states prohibited smoking in homes when foster children are present, people initially argued that the government was going too far.  But, once people got used to the concept – that it was simply another way of protecting children from their own parents – it became widely accepted, and today there is little to no opposition to the concept.

Similarly, a few have argued that reporting to parents about their child’s obesity could be embarrassing, and also unnecessary because parents know if their children are obese.  But both are wrong.

Reporting to parents that a child is dangerously obese is no different from telling parents if their child is deficient in math or history (as virtually all schools now do), and arguably less objectionable than reporting not only obesity, but also if a child isn’t physically fit, as many Texas schools already do.

These objectors might also find it interesting to learn that in many cases parents appreciate being told so they can take appropriate action.  Surprisingly, many parents do not realize until such reports that their child’s weight in dangerously unhealthy, and that it isn’t just normal “baby fat,” etc.

That’s what’s likely to happen when Puerto Rico puts this new plan into effect, if not this year than in a year or to yet to come, predicts Banzhaf, with most parents happy that they received a wake up call regarding a serious health risk to their child in time to take action – a benefit which far outweighs any momentary embarrassment, with only a few needing the additional spur of possible fines.

We will look back years from now and wonder why we even permitted parents to deliberately and seriously endanger the health of their own children and impose their costs on society – whether it was by leaving them unbelted in cars, smoking in their presence in automobiles, or feeding them so many excess calories that they become morbidly obese, says Banzhaf.


Professor of Public Interest Law

George Washington University Law School,

FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,

Fellow, World Technology Network,

Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)

2000 H Street, NW

Washington, DC 20052, USA

(202) 994-7229 // (703) 527-8418

http://banzhaf.net/ @profbanzhaf

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