Great News! Higher Gas Prices "Good" For You!

A new study from Washington University claims that “the 13 percent rise in obesity between 1979 and 2004 can be attributed to falling pump prices,” and that if gas prices were raised by $1 more, obesity levels would drop by 15% over the next 5 years. Apparently the closer the cost of a gallon of gas comes to a monthly gym membership fee, the more gym-like qualities it magically takes on.

Actually, according to the article, “Higher gasoline prices can reduce obesity by leading people to walk or cycle instead of drive and eat leaner at home instead of rich food at restaurants.” The study’s author, health economist Charles Courtemanche, said he got the idea for the study one day while pumping gas—he was thinking that if it got much more expensive, he’d have to take public transportation, which would increase his daily exercise (via walking) by 30 minutes per day.

Gas hit a record high of $3.22 per gallon this past May.

“Higher gas prices seen trimming down Americans” [Reuters]
(Original photo: Joe Shlabotnik)

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  1. ptkdude says:

    I can attest to the fact that I am on the cusp of taking transit to work. Especially once I realized that the hour it would take me to get to work on the bus/train isn’t much longer than the 45 minutes it takes now.

  2. nctrnlboy says:

    Yeah, being poorer can make you lose wieght.

    Peronally, I’d rather spend money on food than gasoline. Too bad I cant ride a bike, walk or take public transit to my 20 mile busy highway trip to work. I work the night shift, there is no public transit available from my home to my work. And even before the gas-hikes I was pretty frugal with my gas usage (made most of my trips to the store on the way to & from work instead of making special trips).

  3. humphrmi says:

    Does anyone have any clue why gasoline costs around six bucks a gallon in the UK? Does anyone really think that it’s because it costs more to ship oil from the Middle East to Britain than to the U.S.? No, it’s because Britain has long understood the value of expensive gasoline. Per-capita, they have far fewer drivers than the U.S, and lower obesity rates.

    My point is, the UK has long overtaxed their gas to bring it to artificially high levels to increase use of mass transit and reduce obesity.

  4. Jigen says:

    @humphrmi: Yes the UK is superior to America. They are all smarter and more beautiful than stupid Americans. I praise you and your almighty status as lords of the human race.

  5. Lordstrom says:

    Snarkiness aside, Britain does have a point in doing that. Personally I would *love* if gas was raised to at least $5 a gallon if it meant less poor people driving their shit cars so recklessly here. It would also make the expensive SUVs much less affordable, which oddly enough, are also driven recklessly.

    Clear the roads for me kthx.

  6. ShadowFalls says:

    One could also think that if gas prices went up people just wouldn’t leave the house at all and spend that money on pizza that gets delivered… Kind of defeats the whole gas prices going up lessens obesity theory.

    The news article is extremely vague on what the study actually was all about, including how it was conducted and the people of which it involved.

    One needs to remember that is a large gap of years to consider, that between those years, food delivery has become alot more popular.

  7. FromThisSoil says:

    @humphrmi:

    Pretty sure it’s higher because most of their gasoline, if not all of it, is refined elsewhere (not in the UK).

  8. RossMcD says:

    Cheap petroleum fuels -> cheaply synthesized nitrogen fertilizer -> cheap corn -> cheap corn syrup -> cheap calories everywhere in snack food

  9. joshieca says:

    Actually I don’t believe this article. Take any basic economics course and you will learn that as your ability to spend money on necessities becomes less you will sacrifice in other areas….like buying cheaper food. Cheaper food usually means higher fat or sugar content…thus the opposite would occur; and increase in weight due to lower funds (paying more for gas) forcing you to buy higher fat/sugar cheaper foods.

    Most people do not have the ability to take or use public transportation outside of major urban areas.

  10. Jiminy Christmas says:

    I wish I could remember the precise source of this, but I learned about it in an urban planning class (and it has since borne out via observation): 600 feet is the trip distance at which the typical American starts thinking about driving. That’s a little less than two city blocks.

    Americans have spent the better part of the past 50 years optimizing the landscape for travel by automobile, to the detriment of pretty much every other transportation alternative. So, on the one hand it’s pathetic that somebody won’t walk two blocks to get to the store. On the other hand, who can blame them if there are no sidewalks and they would have to walk in the gutter alongside high-speed traffic to get there.

  11. tracer333 says:

    since when is it a good idea to make responsible people pay for irresponsible fat assess who can’t control their caloric intake? seems like the people who work so hard to eat right and stay in shape are being penalized for other people’s self-apathy.

    so you’ve got a fat ass. not my problem and it never should be. it’s called survival of the fittest.

    this socialist bullshit is going a little too far these days.

  12. mrearly2 says:

    I WOULD use public transportation, if it were the least bit convenient. There aren’t any buses headed toward my workplace. Many of us simply must use the automobile.

  13. ugly says:

    @JOSHIECA I guess your basic economics course didn’t actually teach you about what actually constitutes a necessity (e.g. Food) vs. convenience (e.g. Driving)?

  14. Jiminy Christmas says:

    @FromThisSoil: Incorrect.

    British excise tax on petrol is about 50p per liter. That translates into about $4.00USD. Petrol is also subject to the VAT (national sales tax), so add about another 20p per liter. Under current exchange rates, I think that would put a gallon of petrol in the UK at the equivalent of $8.00USD.

    Ever hear of BP, aka British Petroleum? The UK actually has a very well-developed petrochemical infrastructure due to the North Sea oil fields. The UK was a net exporter from the early 1970s until just a couple years ago.

  15. jamesdenver says:

    If you really want to use your car less you can make it happen.

    I live in a transit/ped friendly neighborhood. My partner and I share a car. I bike or take transit to work, and do most of my errands by bike. You can choose whether or not you want to live in an isolated suburb where the only place you can walk is along a busy six lane arterial. Or you can live in a neighbor which may not have as many McMansions, but is walkable, more social, and easy to navigate sans car.

    Vote for local officials that support transit and pedestrian/bike friendly projects. I do this, care about this, and the area I live in is better because of it.

  16. FLConsumer says:

    @joshieca: You beat me to it, but you are entirely correct. Poorer people buy cheaper food, which is almost always less nutritious and more fattening.

    @ugly: Many poor people in this country are poor because they don’t have good financial skills and aren’t able to properly prioritise their spending. Furthermore, with the exception of major cities, for all practical purposes, there is no public transportation system available to Americans. Case in point, Tampa, FL. I live within the City of Tampa limits, yet there is no bus stop within 5 miles of here. There’s one beyond that, but they only run 1 bus a day from there, which happens to go nowhere near any of the places I’d need to go. With the way this city is laid out, there’s no practical way to do mass transit.

    In cities where mass transit is practical (Boston, NYC, Chicago, DC), people are already taking advantage of it and I don’t think any change in gasoline price is going to cause an increase/decrease of public transit utilisation.

    The study is another great example of statistics being misapplied. There’s a huge difference between correlation and causation. Obviously these researchers must have slept through that lecture in Stats 101.

  17. Maybe they should charge fat people more for gas and pass the savings on to us athletic gym members as a reward :D

  18. Parting says:

    @ugly:
    It depends where you live, for me a car means not wasting 2 hours of my life every day, because of bus, metro, walk.
    It means I’m less tired and can go for a walk in a park or take a yoga class in the gym, instead of being stuck in stuffy metro.

    A simple legislation, which would forbid cars with high consumtion (or just tax them to death) – like Hummer, for example, could help a lot.

  19. Parting says:

    @ humphrmi

    Sorry to blow your bubble, but I doubt gas prices has anything to do with exersize and fitness level in UK.

    It has more to do with fast food quality : the same McDonald’s fries in UK are a lot (and believe me the difference is HUGE) less greasy than in USA.

    Hell, in Canada fast food is still less greasy than in US. (even if it’s more close to US than to Europe).

  20. Buran says:

    @humphrmi: Taxes that fund the national health care plan and other things that we pay for out of pocket.

    You pay the same everywhere. They just get it in different ways.

  21. ARP says:

    It’s pretty simple:

    1) People want a big house. [Note, the average house size has doubled in recent years, while the average size of families shrinks.]
    2) Big Houses contribute to sprawl
    3) People don’t want to pay for public transportation, sidewalks in non-residential areas, bike paths, etc. because they pay enough taxes for their big house. Besides that stuff sound like “entitlements” and Bill O’Reiley says entitlements are bad.
    4) People vote for people who feel the same. No money is allocated for these purposes.
    5) People drive everywhere because there no sidewalks, public transport, etc.
    6) People get fat because they drive everywhere.
    7)Gas still prices go up because People drive everywhere and NEED a Hummer with only two kids
    8) People complain about taxes on gas prices. [Note, our gas tax is among the lowest in the world (next to oil producing countries)].
    8) People don’t change cars or driving habits, just buy cheaper food.
    9) People get fatter.
    8) People vote for those who would further cut taxes so they have more money.
    9) Politicians cut taxes.
    10) Less money for public transportion
    11) More urban sprawl because there’s no public transportation and people need to live further away.
    11) People drive even more because they want a big house or can’t afford live in certain areas.
    12) People get even fatter sitting in their car longer.

  22. Joafu says:

    Higher gas budget=lower food budget?? The numbers make sense.
    @Everyone saying how UK has high gas prices/slimmer figures: Do we really want the government to raise prices so we move around more? I would prefer to be responsible for myself, the government has enough of my wallet without putting me on the streets to move around more.

  23. mikewal79 says:

    @humphrmi: The high taxes heavily subsidize their mass transit & healthcare.

    But to put it in perspective, the UK is slightly smaller than Oregon. Policies that work in Europe aren’t usually practical for implementation in the US.

  24. spinachdip says:

    @chouchou: “It has more to do with fast food quality : the same McDonald’s fries in UK are a lot (and believe me the difference is HUGE) less greasy than in USA.”

    Don’t forget portion sizes. Good god, American portion sizes are huge, while soft drinks (the major culprit in obesity along with fries, not the main dish) have increased in size over the past couple of decades.

    People who say “Fast food is baaaad” are missing the point. If you control the quality and the quantity, fast food is acceptable, if not entirely healthy.

    And people think “serving size” in food labeling skews too small, but in fact, the recommended serving size is exactly how much a regular adult should be eating.

    BTW, the US used to have a decent public transit infrastructure. Even smaller cities had networks of electric cars connecting neighborhoods. But automakers did away with that nonsense, and white flight pretty much killed it off.

  25. joshieca says:

    @ugly: Actually it did, and driving is NOT a basic need, but rather food, water, and shelter are. <— Thank you Dr. Carreras, benefits of a classical education.

  26. nctrnlboy says:

    @spinachdip:

    I think the black menace has something to do with white flight.

    My job is in an “undesireable” high crime area. I’ve worked there 15 years. The area used to be decent when I started there…. not anymore. Hell yeah I dont want to LIVE anywhere near there… do you blame me? I’d rather live where I WONT get shot while walking to work (if it was within 5 blocks) by a carload of gangbangers.

    @jamesdenver:
    As for the rest of you all saying…. “go work at another place”, “move closer to work” “use the transit system”, etc.etc.. It just isnt always that simple. Yeah, I COULD turn my life upside down & throw away everything I worked for to save some gas, but would that be worth it?

    I think not.

    I truely hate glib, kneejerk responses.

  27. PeggyK says:

    I’m with @ChouChou. I actually have more time to exercise (and prepare a healthy dinner) when I drive, because it takes so long to get where I’m going by bus.

    Oh, and a small correction to the post: you say that the study claims “the 13 percent rise in obesity between 1979 and 2004 can be attributed to falling pump prices”, but what it actually says is that “13% of the rise in obesity between 1979 and 2004 can be attributed to falling real gas prices” (see the abstract). They aren’t claiming quite as large an effect as you indicate.

    I don’t have access to the whole article, but I wonder if the author included SoCal-type sprawl. The trouble is that public transit simply isn’t an option in most of the region, unless you are willing to spend most of your non-working hours in transit.

  28. jamesdenver says:

    @nctrnlboy:

    Engineering my life to maintain a smaller ecological footprint isn’t something I do glibly or in a quick knee jerk way.

    I don’t own a large house. I have a 1,800 square foot townhome near downtown with a one car garage. (Which to me is a mansion after remodeling it for two years.) For the same price I COULD have a much larger home in an outlying area, but I find close access to parks, local shops, close neighbors, and transit far more valuable than the extra square footage I’d have to heat/cool. I want to LIVE my life contributing to my small community within my big city – and support my local businesses. Not navigate down cul-de-sacs and beltways past 20 chain restaurants in a row.

    It’s all in how people choose to live their life. Some people that feel a 6,000 sq foot home with a 3 car garage filled with two car payments and a boat is a necessity and a sign of success, and they won’t change. But others life myself live a bit simpler, and back on topic aren’t nearly as effected directly by auto gas prices. Plus I pay less in heating/cooling bills. And no I’m not a hippie environmentalist – I do drive, and I have a hot tub in the back yard too.

    But for choosing to live on a smaller scale than most I’m thanked daily by my savings account, 401k, and travel fund.

    And I’ll hopefully never fall into the cycle ARP vididly describes above.

  29. sammyboy says:

    Did you know:
    1) More than 98 percent of convicted criminals are bread eaters !


    2) Exactly half of all children who grow up in bread – eating households score in the bottom 50% on standardized IQ tests !

    3) In the 19th century, when virtually all bread was baked in the home, the average life expectancy was less than 55 years; infant mortality rates were unacceptably high; many women died in childbirth; and diseases such as typhoid, scarlet fever, smallpox and influenza ravaged entire nations !


    4) Statistics show that more than 75 % of violent crimes are committed within 24 hours of eating bread !


    5) Bread is made from a substance called “dough.” Researchers have proven that as little as one pound of dough can choke a large animal like a horse. The average person eats more bread than that in one month !


    6) Bread is known to be extremely addictive. Subjects deprived of bread and given only water, actually begged for bread after just two days !


    7) Bread is a “gateway” food item, which usually leads to such items as butter, jam, peanut butter and even … bacon !


    8) Bread has been proven to kill. Scientists have now uncovered alarming evidence that 100% of the people who eat bread will eventually die !


    9) Unattended newborn babies can choke on bread !


    10) Bread is baked at temperatures as high as 425 degrees Fahrenheit ! Don’t laugh…that kind of heat can kill a full grown adult in less than five minutes.


    11) 96 % of cancer victims eventually admit that they’ve eaten bread !


    12) Sadly, 9 out of 10 bread eaters are unable to distinguish between significant scientific fact and meaningless statistical babbling.

    I’m gonna have to call bullshit on the relevancy of the correlation of information =/

    Personally, having to deal with public transportation [as inefficient and disturbing as it is in L.A.] would probably inspire me more to just give up and become a fat slob sucking up welfare than become a fitness guru.

  30. bsankr says:

    @FLConsumer:
    Amen to that, though HART has been making some progress…
    When I was looking to move into Tampa (I lived in Pasco and accepted a job in the city), I looked at Westchase, but there weren’t any lines that went within five miles. Even now, I live in Temple Terrace, but I won’t take HART because it takes an hour and a half to get me to work while driving there is 20 +/- minutes.

  31. humphrmi says:

    The fact that UK gas taxes fund mass transit and welfare doesn’t diminish the fact that a neat (and intended) knock-on effect is that UK consumers are more frugal about driving.

  32. jamar0303 says:

    I’m just a high-school senior, headed for college. I know that when I start my independent life, I’ll start it in a place with good mass transit so that I don’t have to worry about turning my life upside down later on.

  33. MalichiDemonos says:

    Professor Malichi D. states a new theory…
    1. Gas prices go up
    2. People buy gas still
    3. People have less money
    4. Less money to buy food
    5. Equals skinny people

    Or Theory #2

    1. Gas prices go up
    2. People buy food over gas
    3. People stay home due to lack of funds
    4. People become couch potato’s

    Hint: I’m not a professor and I didn’t spend a million dollars on my study.

  34. Bobg says:

    This sounds like more “junk science” to me. Think how hard it would be to prove this claim false. It is because of dubious claims such as this that I belong to The Union of Concerned Scientists.

  35. Skiffer says:

    Definitely junk science – correlation does not imply causation…

    What about when people are so broke from high gas prices, that they can only afford cheap, processed, unhealthy, HFCS-loaded, food – which is the real cause of increased obesity.

  36. Mary says:

    @jrford8: “Americans have spent the better part of the past 50 years optimizing the landscape for travel by automobile, to the detriment of pretty much every other transportation alternative. So, on the one hand it’s pathetic that somebody won’t walk two blocks to get to the store. On the other hand, who can blame them if there are no sidewalks and they would have to walk in the gutter alongside high-speed traffic to get there.”

    Sounds to me like the words of James Howard Kunstler in Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere. If not exactly, then he makes an extremely similar point. And it’s a point I’ve been trying to make people see, and can’t seem to get through to anybody about.

    America’s urban design is MADE for cars. It’s specifically designed to discourage bikes, walking, and even public transit. We’ve been this way since the car was invented, and goodness knows how we’re ever going to fix it. Especially when you consider that transit-oriented development and new urbanism get opposed at every turn by the people in the neighborhoods around them. Who needs affordable housing, or to put housing and shopping within walking distance and next to metro stations? That’s crazy talk, I want my beautiful scenery!

    *sigh* As for gas prices being tied to obesity: great. Let’s just take everything we can and make it about how fat we are. Get over it! There’s no magic reason, there’s no magic statistic. There’s no instant “This is why we’re fat and this is what we can do…”

    Besides the fact that we shouldn’t be looking at fat we should be looking at how HEALTHY we are.

  37. hi says:

    I’m calling bs. Everyone knows obesity is caused by global warming.

  38. @jrford8, @meiran: Yes! Exactly!

    Apparently, Charles Courtemanche has never heard of food deserts.

    You cannot force people to take non-existant public transportation by jacking up gas prices and gas would have to be really high before people would rather walk several miles in the street to buy groceries.

  39. GearheadGeek says:

    @humphrmi: “The fact that UK gas taxes fund mass transit and welfare doesn’t diminish the fact that a neat (and intended) knock-on effect is that UK consumers are more frugal about driving.”

    This is true, but as it’s been pointed out by another poster, the UK is smaller in land area than Oregon. Also, the population is a bit over 60 million people, resulting in a much higher population density than the US. Public transportation is vastly more effective in a denser area.

    It’s a really nice idea if you don’t think about the details, but I’m afraid it’s going to have to be market-driven here rather than tax-driven, because politicians can’t survive making tax policy decisions that inconvenience their constituents.

    To posters complaining they’d have to turn their lives upside down to make some changes that put them closer to work or whatever, well, planning is an important thing. Since grad school I’ve made it a point to try to live near work. I got lucky in changing jobs to one even closer to my house, but the location was a consideration. A position on the wrong side of a long commute would’ve had to really outshine one convenient to where I lived to get me to take it. At present I’m lucky enough to telecommute, reducing my commute time to how long it takes me to walk from the kitchen to my study in a tidy, small house in an older, dense neighborhood within walking distance of the medical school my partner attends. The benefits of this are more than just fuel savings, I knew more people by name on my block here just from the times we came up to work on the house before moving in than I did in the suburban neighborhood we moved from (that was quite close to my office) since many people more than 4 or 5 houses from the mailbox would DRIVE to get their mail.

    You can’t make these changes overnight. People who’ve invested their savings (or more likely signed up for big debt) in the far-flung suburbs to get the 3000 sq. ft. house the 2 of them NEED aren’t going to sell just because gas costs more, they’ll hang on until they’ve maxed out their plastic. If I never live in another generic suburban neighborhood with a busybody HOA, it’ll be a lifetime too soon.

  40. jamesdenver says:

    @GearheadGeek:

    Spot on and well said.

  41. tspack says:

    I don’t know… I’m thinking that being able to drive the 40 miles to the nearest grocery store less often due to higher gas prices would make my diet much worse because I’d only have fresh produce once in a while.

  42. tspack says:

    Oh, I should add that though the grocery store is a long drive, work is only 11 miles (there are no houses any closer; that’s the closest you can live to the workplace), which is why I live here. So actually I’ve cut the miles I would drive if I lived in civilization and commuted, but had easier access to a grocery store.

  43. ZekeSulastin says:

    Hrm, although my state does have a well-connected public transportation system (Got from college to NYC to my home in southern DE all on mass transit, and the DE segment was state run), I fail to see how it is ideal for people to use.

    My mother, for instance, works in a hospital. Said hospital is rather near the beach; indeed, the area surrounding the hospital within the usual range of mass-transit options has extremely (and inflatedly) high land values (even the area we live in has them to a lesser extent), and there is no way we could afford to move there to pay less money. The story is similar for most of the hospitals … are you saying that my mother should pay extra for gas because she cannot afford to move to eliminate a 35-45 minute drive in her compact car? (Also, she is becoming healthier as far as diet et. al. is concerned, not worse)

    You also have to realize that if your job has an odd schedule at all, mass transit decreases in value, and if you have extremely early/late hours, you’re generally SOL. I made it home on transit, but in DE one of the state buses arrived at a transfer station late and I missed the bus to home. Thankfully, I had the option of waiting an hour for the last one. Also, there is the situation of the worker on nights/call …

    And lastly, there is a real, unavoidable, non-selfish convenience factor. My 14-hour bus trip took the place of a drive that was only 5 hours long on the worst of days – and this isn’t that long a trip. If you have to go similarly long distances or farther, your options become quite limited. Greyhound isn’t always the answer, especially for an extended stay with extra baggage, and airports are right out …

    I’m not averse to walking. In the PA town I lived in most of my life, it was actually possible to get places in a halfway reasonable amount of time by walking – the school district didn’t even run buses, just walking routes from elementary school on up. If you wanted to go to the mall or to the Golden Mile of stores (due to our proximity to the MD state line), you could do it in 30 minutes tops. Most of the US isn’t like that, especially in more rural areas; this is something academics like the guy above need to start considering …

    In before tl;dr!

  44. ltlbbynthn says:

    I stopped eating out completely b/c I now need to save all my money for gas on my four-day-a-week commute to school. Luckily my work is only five min from my house, so I can drive home if I forget lunch. I used to take the bus and it took me 30 minutes to get to work. The buses don’t even have schedules in Miami. “Every 15-30 minutes” is the best they can do.