Opinion Brief

Could $5-a-gallon gas cure obesity?

Americans are too fat, and our gas is too expensive. But if economists are right, our pain at the pump could do more than fatten Saudi wallets

Two of America's larger problems could cancel each other out: Rising gas prices and rising weight. Some economists and public health researchers believe that if higher gas prices convince people to walk more and drive less, it will be better for the environment, and help combat our obesity epidemic. One economist, Charles Courtemanche at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, even put a number on this phenomenon: A $1 dollar increase in gas prices equals a 10 percent drop in obesity, plus $11 billion in health savings. Is $5-a-gallon gas our path to a healthier future?

Of course. If we walk more, we'll be thinner: Rising gas prices really might be a sort of "cure for obesity," says Kelly Hodgkins at Gizmodo. And Courtemanche isn't the only economist convinced of the driving-obesity link. Another study found that if U.S. drivers cut their daily driving commute by just one mile, to 36 miles a day, and walked that last mile instead, five million of us would be "slim and trim by 2017." The wild card is whether Americans would really "break out their sneakers to save a few bucks on gas."
"Are rising gas prices a cure for obesity?"

Let's not jump to conclusions yet: It is indisputable that Americans are driving more, and that they are getting fatter, says The Economist. And if you graph those variables, there's "a near-perfect correlation." But there's also one "strong caveat: Correlation does not equal causation." There are obviously other factors feeding the obesity epidemic, notably diet. Still, Americans have started driving less as gas rises, so if there's a link, obesity rates should start falling soon.
"Road hogs"

Rising gas prices alone won't cure obesity: It's pretty clear that the gradual shift from walking and biking to driving, "even on short errands," has at least contributed to the rise in obesity, says Joseph Bednar at BusinessWest. And "the benefits of hoofing it or pedaling extend beyond obesity prevention," to heart disease, breast cancer, and diabetes. But it will take more than gas prices to get people to switch. Businesses, for instance, can do their part by coming up with incentives to bike to work.
"Going my way?"

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