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Quarter Pounders With Cheese for Everyone!

The prices at McDonald’s didn’t go down yesterday, but eating fatty foods nonetheless just got a lot cheaper.

A new study released by the CDC is described in news reports as follows:

The death toll from obesity is less than a third of the government’s previous estimate, researchers are reporting today, contradicting warnings that poor diet and physical inactivity are overtaking smoking as the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States.

A study by respected researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute found that being obese accounted for 112,000 deaths in 2000, far fewer than the estimate of 400,000 deaths in a separate CDC study published last year.

Oops! Almost 300,000 extra deaths mistakenly attributed to obesity? This certainly says something about the current state of research on public health topics.

While this is news to most people, the political scientist Eric Oliver scientist sniffed it out some time ago. I’ve only met him once over lunch despite the fact we are both here at the University of Chicago, but I was so intrigued by our lunch conversation I asked him to send me an advance copy of his forthcoming book Big, Fat Politics: The Making of America’s Obesity Epidemic, which is due out late in the summer. (I’d link to it, but it isn’t yet available for pre-order on Amazon.) This is an excellent book, very much in the Freakonomics spirit of debunking conventional wisdom. I highly recommend it when it comes out.

What does this mean for your daily life? When you eat high calorie, high fat foods, you pay not only a price in dollars, but also indirectly in terms of slightly increasing the chance of premature death. My colleague Kevin Murphy (who, like me, loves McDonald’s) has done back-of-the-envelope estimates that suggest that each hamburger you eat shortens your life enough that the typical person would be willing to pay $2 to $3 to get rid of the adverse health impact. So, in other words, the health costs of a hamburger are about the same as the price you pay at McDonald’s. Or, I should say those were the health costs yesterday. Today they are only about one-fourth as large. So cheeseburgers for everyone!!

Surprisingly, McDonald’s stock price didn’t budge yesterday. Might be time to buy.