No matter where you fall on the spectrum of personal responsibility versus our obesogenic environment as the primary factor in the obesity crisis, there is one thing we all seem to agree on: Fast food is awful. Whether you think it’s your fault for choosing to eat it or the companies’ faults for engineering such addictive concoctions of fat, salt and sugar, everyone knows that fast food will kill you by inches. That’s not up for debate.

And yet there’s a reason there is a McD’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, or any other edifice with a drive through window at every major intersection in America. See, fast food is the Charlie Sheen of nutrition; we all love to vilify him and yet everyone giggles watching Two and a Half Men, even though it’s so stereotypically stupid that butter knives look sharp by comparison. So how would you feel if you knew Charlie Sheen was actually an assassin bankrolled by some of the most powerful companies in the world and sent to kill you for their profit?

Ok, took that analogy one step too far. Back up to fast food. Actually back up one step higher – to the companies who buy stock in fast food. According to “Harvard Medical School researchers, 11 large companies that offer life, disability, or health insurance owned about $1.9 billion in stock in the five largest fast-food companies as of June 2009.” Yes, you read that correctly. The people whom you are paying to be invested in your health are actually invested in ruining it.

One one level it does make a certain amount sense. The harder your arteries and the bigger your belly, the more money they make in bypass surgeries and drugs. The Harvard researchers emphasized this:

“The insurance industry cares about making money, and it doesn’t really care how,” says the senior author of the study, J. Wesley Boyd, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in Boston. “They will invest in products that contribute to significant morbidity and mortality if doing so is going to make money.”

They don’t actually come out and say your insurance company is trying to make you sick but then again Charlie Sheen was spotted a couple agoith a shaved head – the new universal symbol of crazy a la Brittney. Some things just don’t need to be explicitly said.

The insurance companies, naturally, disagree. Their first point – that their stock portfolios are made up of many diverse stocks of which fast food is only a very teeny tiny percentage – is a good one. Heck, I don’t even know what all stocks are in my portfolio and I’m only working with a few thousand bucks. For all I know I could own stock in Al Qaeda Airlines. But all this talk of index funds, subsidiaries and parent companies is boring. Frankly I’m more interested in their second point which is that it does not serve their long-term financial purposes to go killing off their customer base.

“Health insurance companies get profits if they invest in tobacco and fast food, [but] these are some of the top drivers of mortality in the country,” says Sara N. Bleich, Ph.D., an assistant professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore, Maryland and who researches obesity policy but was not involved in the current study. “They are essentially killing off their consumer base, so it’s not a sustainable model in the long-term. Long-term goals should be consistent with health, because that ensures a large population from which to draw consumers.”

I love that we are having a national discussion about whether or not sickening one’s customers is a “sustainable business model.”

The study authors call for insurance companies to jettison the fast food stocks which makes for good news bites, I suppose. Unfortunately this introduces a whole other set of ethical dilemmas. If insurance companies are barred from – or guilted out of – investing in any companies that are possibly detrimental to their clients’ health then Wall Street is going to see a mass dumping of stocks for everything from Jim Beam to Willy Wonka to Charlie Sheen’s Production Company. While this is an entertaining take on the health care debate, it’s not a very meaningful one. Let’s put the focus back where it belongs: pearl-clutching over KFC’s latest abomination, the double down (that’d be two pieces of fried chicken bracketing two pieces of cheese and two strips of bacon).

What do you think – do insurance companies have a corporate responsibility to only invest in healthful stocks? Would you eat the Double Down (guess what – despite all the hype it has less fat and calories than one piece of Chicago style pizza.)? Also, can anyone tell me what fast food icon the 3rd one from the left in the above picture is supposed to be?? Seriously, I have no idea and I’ve been staring at it for 20 minutes now.


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One Comment

  1. While I enjoyed the article and will do more research, it seems that the title is a bit misleading as this has nothing to do with The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare. It seemed like Obamacare was responsible for insurance companies investing in fast food, which isn’t the case.

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