Former President & CEO, INTEGRIS Health

Risky Behavior

Published in The Journal Record
September 23, 2015

Question: When you get into the back seat of a car do you buckle your safety belt? If you’re honest, most would say, “No,” though you intellectually understand safety belts exponentially increase your chances of surviving an auto accident. As a matter of fact, how many would buckle their safety belt in the front seat if there was no whiney noise emanating from your dashboard? Even with laws requiring safety belts and an irritating noise, drivers using safety belts are pegged at approximately 80%. It appears the rest of us buckle the belt behind us.

Who doesn’t know that smoking is harmful to your health and a lifetime of it gives you a very high chance of lung, lip, or mouth cancer? I suspect we all know that high caloric food with high carbohydrate content also is very unhealthy exposing us to multiple maladies, including diabetes.

So if we know all these things, why do we insist on taking risks with our own health?

For decades public health officials have encouraged us through extensive media campaigns to eat healthy or to quit smoking or to wear our safety belts, often with little or no impact. It seems the short-term pleasure of using these products clearly outweighs our long-term fear of the consequences.

Many public policy experts have wondered at the lack of any mention in the Affordable Care Act of rewarding healthy behaviors or penalizing bad ones. Political pundits speculate there is very little political upside to rewarding or penalizing people for their behavior. Companies that have taken aggressive positions with their employees relative to rewarding good behavior or punishing employees who smoke or are obese often find themselves facing angry employees with class action lawsuits.

So here’s the deal. As it turns out our bad behavior has very little negative economic consequence to us. While there are certainly personal consequences to overeating or smoking, the short term economic consequences are zero. It can be argued the long term consequences are likewise nothing. Those individuals who ride motorcycles without helmets could be personally devastated as a result of a bad fall but the truth is helmet-less riders will be scraped off the street and delivered to a high cost hospital while the rest of us pay the bill.

There is, therefore, often little incentive to change our risky behavior.

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