Is the stick mightier than the carrot?

The New York Times has a fascinating piece today about how large corporations are penalizing employees for unhealthy behaviors. Wal-Mart, for example, is imposing a charge that can rise as high as $2,000 for employees that smoke, while others dock employees that are obese or high levels of cholesterol. The article describes the programs as a “more stick, less carrot approach to get workers to take more responsibility for their well-being.”

These corporate decisions say volumes about the most effective ways to change lifestyles. Programs that offered rewards, the article notes, were often ineffective. But initiatives that forced people to pay up for unhealthy behaviors made many reconsider whether that cigarette or trip to the drive-through were really worth it.

It should be noted that it’s not only “big, bad” corporations that are experimenting with such programs. In 2007, the Cleveland Clinic announced that it would no longer hire smokers at all. (Candidates who were refused employment were offered access to smoking cessation programs. Those who quit within 90 days were encouraged to reapply.)

These programs raise questions, of course. Is this simply cost-shifting by employers, like Wal-Mart, that already pay their employees minimal wages? Do they constitute discrimination? Will there be unintended consequences by marginalizing those whose health is already at high risk?

But these efforts show how the stick can – and must — be part of the equation in how we create a healthier nation. And the government should take a page from corporations’ playbook. That might mean soda taxes or restricting what families on food stamps can buy with their government benefits. Neither of these proposals is a silver bullet. And neither has got much traction, in large part because of fierce opposition by right-wingers who brand the efforts as one more example of Big Government. (Note the deafening silence, though, when corporations take the same tack.) The fact is that most people, like corporations, intuitively understand what it is their self-interest. To beat back obesity, leaders must use that to their advantage.

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Saveur, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.