Obesity in the United States has reached crisis proportions. Is this yet another societal problem to be loaded onto the shoulders of business leaders? For several reasons, the answer is yes -- and some companies are already showing what can be done to turn the tide.
Going back to the flappers of the 1920s, thin has always been in. Though for many decades concer ns about body weight had mainly to do with perceptions of attractiveness and the vicissitudes of style, circumstances have changed. Today, more and more Americans are not just a few pounds overweight but may be classified as obese. And obesity is a major risk factor for a host of health problems including diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, dementia and more.
Since the 1980s, the percentage of obese Americans has risen from one-sixth of the population to nearly one-third. The problem is particularly acute among children and adolescents, where the obesity rate has tripled in 30 years. But what should business do about this trend? Isn’t obesity really a problem of personal responsibility and self-control?
Yes — up to a point. But for at least four reasons, business leaders should actively seek to abate the problem of obesity in America. The first reason is simple self-preservation. Ever since Eric Schlosser’s immensely popular book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Harper Perennial, 2002), food and beverage companies of all sorts have been in the trial lawyers’ crosshairs. So far those companies do not seem as vulnerable to tort decisions as Big Tobacco, but the battle is a relatively new one and complacency is not a strategy.
The second reason is closely related to the first. The food and beverage industry is the target of the public’s increasing ire over supersized portions; unhealthy ingredients such as hydrogenated oil (trans fats); and high-fat, high-sugar food and drink aimed at schoolchildren. Indeed, in December 2006, New York City banned the use of trans fats in cooking oils in the city’s 24,000 food establishments.
The third reason is that companies will not be able to function efficiently if a significant proportion of their current and future employees suffer from obesity. The likelihood of more absenteeism and “presenteeism” (when workers are on the job but unable to perform optimally), as well as rising health care costs associated with obesity, make it imperative for business leaders to get involved.
Finally, executives should care about obesity for good old-fashioned business reasons, because opportunity exists for companies to develop new products and to create a positive brand image that will fatten the corporate bottom line while helping obese Americans shed dangerous pounds.