Financial reward for weight loss not effective, US expert says

Personalised tax on indulgence one option, Galway conference told

Offering financial incentives to people to lose weight is of dubious long-term impact, a conference at NUI Galway on obesity has heard. People who use their own funds tend to have greater motivation than those offered "free exercise", the conference hosted by the university's Health Economics and Policy Analysis research group was told.

Prof John Cawley of Cornell University in the US said he had found very little evidence to show that financial incentives offered by employers to staff to reduce weight had long-term effects

Prof Cawley, who was keynote speaker, said a study of workplace "wellness programmes" found that 50 per cent dropped out in the first quarter and some 75 per cent of participants dropped out by the end of the year, even though all were offered a financial reward. Even among those who continued, there was very little weight loss, he said.

Cost of fat tax
Obesity raises medical costs by 160 per cent and costs just over $190 billion (€140 billion) a year in the US, he said, but in his opinion a "fat tax" was politically unattractive. The fat tax concept initiated in Denmark had to be dropped when it encouraged cross-border shopping in Germany, he said.

Prof Cawley said cessation of subsidies towards “bad diets”could be one approach. He also favoured a ban on advertising unhealthy foods targeted at children.


Prof Dave Madden of University College Dublin said moves towards a personalised tax system afforded by new technology could allow for a more equitable distribution of obesity-related health costs. With such a system, consumers of items known to be harmful to them, such as cigarettes, could volunteer to pay more for those items, he said.

Introducing a fat tax has been discounted on the basis that it would hit lower-income families, he said, but there were ways of designing a poverty-neutral tax/subsidy system.

A calculation of the compensation the State would have to pay to such families if a 10 per cent tax on dairy and sugary items was introduced would amount to about €28 million, based on the 2009-2010 household budget survey, Prof Madden said.

However, if healthy food such as fruit and vegetables were subsidised at the same time, it would be "revenue-neutral" .

Complex issue
Obesity is a complex issue that requires a complex multidisciplinary approach, said Prof Tim O'Brien of NUIG who gave an overview of the situation in Ireland.

Personal and social costs were estimated at about €1.13 billion in the Republic and about €0.51 billion in the North in 2009.

The Growing Up In Ireland study found that 19 per cent of nine-year-olds were overweight in 2011, while a further 7 per cent were obese.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times