Improving Health and Building Wealth: Meeting Two Goals with Many Strategies
Christine FryChristine Fry is a policy and program associate at Public Health Law & Policy (www.phlpnet.org), a research and training center based in Oakland, California. Public Health Law & Policy works with community leaders nationwide to advance public health goals through policy change. Christine holds a Masters of Public Policy from the University of California at Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
What’s the most promising way to keep obesity prevention efforts going in this economic climate?
Strategies that are good for health and business alike.
The obesity crisis is threatening more than our health and our children’s well-being. It’s taking a major toll on our already fragile economy: costs associated with obesity total about $147 billion a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That includes direct medical costs for diagnosis and treatment, as well as indirect costs like missed work days and lost productivity. Businesses suffer along with an unhealthy workforce, and corporate investors are backing away from communities with high rates of obesity and other diseases.
Businesses want healthy employees but often don’t realize how their decisions affect public health. Policymakers, meanwhile, are looking for ways to help businesses play a part in improving residents’ health. Public policy can influence business decisions by requiring or encouraging the private sector to take action.
Consider, for example, some local and state government approaches to restaurant nutrition. California, Puerto Rico, and several communities nationwide have enacted bans on trans fats, prohibiting restaurants from using these unhealthy ingredients in their meals. Other places, such as Colorado and the city of San Antonio, offer incentives like free advertising to restaurants that commit to offering healthier meals.
Policymakers have various reasons for choosing incentive-based strategies over requirements. Sometimes regulations are just not politically feasible. In other cases, not every business in a community needs to adopt a new practice in order to achieve the desired impact for the community. Or, if a new business practice is perceived as expensive or untested, incentive policies can serve as pilot projects to give a better understanding of what’s involved and ease the transition to a new practice.
Every day, business owners and real estate developers make decisions that have tremendous impact on our health. Local government incentives can motivate them to establish healthier food stores and restaurants, build parks and playgrounds, and create neighborhoods where it’s easier for residents to walk and bike to meet their daily needs.
How? For one thing, by easing the bureaucratic burden for businesses and developers that commit to important features to promote residents’ health. Streamlining the process to get a license or get building plans approved, reducing fees, or provide zoning exemptions can all make it easier for a developer to move through a project – and make it more lucrative to locate in a neighborhood in need. Government can also make it easier to businesses to obtain financing for their projects by offering grants or low-cost loans in exchange for healthier practices.
Local governments across the country are already pursuing innovative incentives like these to promote public health. In New York City, for example, new or renovated grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods may qualify for tax relief if they devote at least 30 percent of their space to perishables like fruits and vegetables. Minneapolis reduces minimum parking requirements for commercial buildings in exchange for bicycle parking spots. In Kansas City, Missouri, mobile vendors who meet certain nutrition standards may be eligible for reduced permit fees. And the state of Oklahoma offers low-interest loans to healthy corner stores.
As with any investment of public dollars, it is important to compare the cost of the incentive with the benefit for the community. The government’s investment should reflect not only what the new practice will truly cost businesses, but also the economic value of the impact on community health and well-being. Policymakers should also be certain that businesses would not already adopt the healthier business practices without the incentive.
We have at our disposal an array of strategies that can generate resources to sustain both our health and our economy. Every community and state can choose a set of feasible strategies addressing business and health — perhaps a mix of incentives and requirements — that will meet their residents’ needs. Given the current economic landscape, pursuing all of these approaches is more important now than ever before.