The Obesity Epidemic: Another $550B in Costs by 2030
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The Fiscal Times
May 7, 2012

Let’s start with the good news, because, frankly, there isn’t all that much of it: The rate of increasing obesity in America has apparently flattened out some in recent years. After more than doubling from the late 1970s to 2008, the rate of expansion in America’s waistlines has been shrinking, at least among some groups.

“There's some evidence that at the very least, the curve of the increase may have changed at best, or a plateau,” Dr. Bill Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters Monday at a Washington, D.C. conference titled “Weight of the Nation.”

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Now the bad news: Even with that leveling off, 42 percent of the country will be obese by 2030, up from about a third today, according to a study presented at the conference and published Monday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. That works out to about 32 million more obese Americans. Those projections, as sobering as they may be, are still better than past projections that did not adjust for the recent improvement in the obesity trend line. In that case, assuming that the obesity epidemic would continue on as in recent decades, 51 percent of the country would be obese by 2030.

Finally, the really bad news: The new report still projects that the rate of severe obesity – defined as a body mass index of 40 or more, or about 100 pounds overweight – will more than double over the next two decades, from less than 5 percent in 2010 to just over 11 percent in 2030.

“If these forecasts prove accurate, this will further hinder efforts for healthcare cost containment,” the authors of the study conclude.

They also detail just how pricey their forecasts could be. Previous estimates put the cost of obesity in 2008 as high as $147 billion, or about 9 percent of annual health-care costs. The new study says that cutting the rate of obesity by 1 percentage point from the projected trend would lead to a savings of $85 billion by 2030, the authors write.

On the other hand, if the projected increases become reality, they would cost an extra $550 billion. “Another way to think about that number is if we could keep obesity rates flat or if they were flattening, we would save $550 billion,” the study’s lead author, Eric Finkelstein of Duke University, said Monday.

To move toward that goal, the Institute of Medicine on Tuesday will release a set of suggested strategies to further the fight against obesity. Stay tuned.

Executive Editor Yuval Rosenberg oversees coverage of business, the economy, technology and Wall Street. A former web editor at WNYC, Fortune and Newsweek, he also writes on a wide range of subjects.