Dueling research: Smoking curbs obesity, but should still be reduced

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Scientists publishing new research through the National Bureau of Economic Research have concluded that quitting smoking is the biggest quantifiable cause of obesity.

In a working paper released Monday morning, Charles Baum of Middle Tennessee State University and Shin Yi-Chou of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania found that a decrease in the average number of cigarettes smoked per person in America likely causes an increase in obesity.

Referring to the Body-Mass Index, a crude but common obesity measurement, the researchers write: “We find that cigarette smoking has the largest effect: The decline in cigarette smoking explains about 2 percent of the increase in the weight measures. The other significant factors explain less.”

Other variables Baum and Yi-Chou compared include food stamp enrollment, the physical demands of people at work and urban sprawl. Urbanization and food stamps were both related to obesity, but not nearly as much as the nationwide decrease in smoking in recent years.

Though they found continuing or starting smoking helps curb obesity, Baum and Yi-Chou aren’t suggesting people should smoke.

“No one recommends cigarette smoking (or higher cigarette taxes) as a means to combat obesity,” the economists wrote. (RELATED: Obama comes back for seconds with annual ‘Childhood Obesity Awareness Month’)

Baum and Yi-Chou also found that taxing certain foods or beverages government officials consider unhealthy isn’t likely to solve any obesity problems either. Using local zoning restrictions to “limit or prohibit fast-food restaurants,” or “using tax credits to promote supermarkets in underserved areas” won’t solve obesity issues either, the study says.

Their research comes as a British respiratory medical journal Thorax published new research calling for more regulation of films depicting actors and actresses smoking cigarettes.

“Smoking in films remains a major and persistent driver of smoking uptake among children and young people, which the actions of the irresponsible film makers, incompetent regulators, and insouciant politicians are abjectly failing to control,” British researchers John Britton and Ailsa Lyons of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies said.

Britton and Lyons argue that movies should be “rated by exposure to smoking in the same way that they are currently rated by level of violence.”

“Smoking and its adverse consequences are certainly a larger public health problem,” they say.

The two conflicting studies demonstrate that there is no consensus in the medical and scientific communities on whether massive government-sponsored public health initiatives will solve the global obesity problem, curb tobacco use, or limit health care spending related to either.

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