U.S. spent $75 billion on obesity-related ills

Taxpayers paid for half through Medicare and Medicaid, study says

January 22, 2004|By Robyn Suriano | Robyn Suriano,ORLANDO SENTINEL

Treating obesity related illnesses in America cost about $75 billion last year - or $350 for every adult in the country.

Taxpayers bore most of the financial burden through the government's Medicare and Medicaid insurance programs, according to a study released yesterday, and officials predicted the staggering costs would increase along with the swelling ranks of excessively fat Americans.

The study was conducted by a private research firm, RTI International in North Carolina, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Researchers used data collected by the government to compare the average health costs of obese people with the medical costs of those of normal weight. The study provided the first breakdown of each state's estimated cost.

It found that nationwide, about 5.7 percent of the country's medical expenses are related to obesity.

Other studies have estimated that tobacco-triggered illnesses cause about 7 percent of the country's medical bills and injuries rack up about 10 percent of the costs, said Eric Finkelstein, an RTI health economist.

While stopping short of recommending specific actions, the report suggests that the government could save money if it spent more to prevent obesity. Others have suggested everything from a tax on junk foods to mandatory physical exercise in public schools.

"Taxpayers are spending a lot of money through Medicare and Medicaid, so we think that justifies governments trying to reduce those costs if they can," Finkelstein said.

Nationwide, the CDC estimates that 61 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese, which is defined as having a body-mass index of 30 or higher. Body-mass index -or BMI - measures the relationship between a person's weight and height. For adults, normal BMIs fall between 18.5 and 24.9. People are considered overweight if their BMIs range between 25 and 29.9.

The percentage of obese Americans has doubled since 1980 to an estimated 27 percent of the population by 1999, according to the CDC.

Beyond the health problems connected to obesity, the condition can greatly diminish a person's quality of life, sense of self and mental health.

Officials say obesity is hard to deal with because the problem is fed by a multitude of factors. On an individual level, people gain weight simply because they eat more calories than they expend. But the reasons for over-eating are vastly more complex.

People rely increasingly on processed foods that are higher in calories; restaurants serve larger portions; and people get less and less exercise. The new study provides more incentive to keep people from reaching obese levels.

"This report is useful because it does provide states with the kind of information they can use to make decisions now about how to allocate resources" to address preventable health problems, such as those caused by obesity, said Deborah Galuska, associate director for science in the division of nutrition and physical activity at the CDC. "Clearly, obesity costs a lot of money and relates to a lot of health problems."

Ultimately, officials said the cost of obesity will only come down if everyone takes responsibility for the problem.

"This problem wasn't started by one entity or group, so it's going to take a broad-based effort to bring this under control," said Jennie Hefelfinger, chief of chronic disease prevention for the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee. "Government does have a role in promoting health lifestyles, so do the schools and work sites, parents and the individual."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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