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January 27, 2013

Do penalties for bad habits make sense?

NEW YORK — Faced with the high cost of caring for smokers and overeaters, experts say society must grapple with a blunt question: Instead of trying to penalize them and change their ways, why not just let these health sinners die prematurely from their unhealthy habits?

Annual health care costs are roughly $96 billion for smokers and $147 billion for the obese, the government says. These costs accompany sometimes heroic attempts to prolong lives, including surgery, chemotherapy and other measures.

But despite these rescue attempts, smokers tend to die 10 years earlier on average, and the obese die five to 12 years prematurely, according to various researchers’ estimates.

And attempts to curb smoking and unhealthy eating frequently lead to backlash: Witness the current legal tussle over New York City’s first-of-its-kind limits on the size of sugary beverages and the vicious fight last year in California over a ballot proposal to add a $1-per-pack cigarette tax, which was ultimately defeated.

“This is my life. I should be able to do what I want,” said Sebastian Lopez, a college student from Queens, speaking last September when the New York City Board of Health approved the soda size rules.

Critics also contend that tobacco- and calorie-control measures place a disproportionately heavy burden on poor people. That’s because they:

—Smoke more than the rich, and have higher obesity rates.

—Have less money so sales taxes hit them harder. One study last year found poor, nicotine-dependent smokers in New York — a state with very high cigarette taxes — spent as much as a quarter of their entire income on smokes.

—Are less likely to have a car to shop elsewhere if the corner bodega or convenience store stops stocking their vices.

Critics call these approaches unfair, and believe they have only a marginal effect. “Ultimately these things are weak tea,” said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a physician and fellow at the right-of-center think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.

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