Unchecked Obesity Rates Could Bankrupt Nation
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The Fiscal Times
September 19, 2012

Obesity rates have doubled over the past two decades and will almost double again over the next two decades unless the public comes to grips with its swelling waistlines, a new study says.

The rising tide of obesity threatens to send health care costs soaring. Already, the nation spends an estimated $147 billion to $210 billion per year on obesity-related diseases including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension,  heart disease, and arthritis. Unless the projections are altered dramatically, additional medical costs associated with treating preventable, obesity-related diseases could swell by another $48 billion to $66 billion by 2030, the report said.

“We have this middle-aged cohort who are obese today and in the next 10 to 20 years will become quite costly,” said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, which co-authored the report with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “They’re the really tough nuts to crack when it comes to combating obesity.”

RELATED: The Crippling Costs of Obesity in the Workplace

About 35 percent of adults were obese in 2010, up from 15 percent in 1980. Obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. Nearly 12 million children ages 2 to 19 are now considered obese, triple the level of three decades ago, the study said.

Looking ahead, every state in the union will have an obesity rate above 44 percent in 2030, up from a nationwide average of about 30 percent now, the study said. Some states will top 60 percent. Its projections were based on the latest data from the Centers for Prevention and Disease Control.

A dozen states already have adult obesity rates above 30 percent and the ten states with the highest rates of obesity-related Type 2 diabetes and hypertension are in the South. Mississippi, with its 34.9 percent obesity rate, earned the title of fattest state in the land in the state-by-state rankings contained in the report. Twenty-six of the 30 fattest states were located in the South and Midwest.

The report estimated that 42 percent of the additional health care costs due to obesity were absorbed by Medicare and Medicaid. If the nation could eliminate its entire obesity problem, health care costs for the two programs would be reduced by 8.5 percent and 11.8 percent, respectively.

Studies have shown that obese people spend 42 percent more on health care costs than people with weights considered normal. The average health expense for an obese child on Medicaid is $6,730 compared to a normal weight child, who only costs the program $2,446 on average.

In the past 30 years, obesity rates for children ages 6 to 11 have gone from 6.5 percent to 19.6 percent. Teen-age obesity rates have climbed from 5 percent to 17 percent between 1980 and 2010.

“We’ve created a society that makes it difficult to engage in physical activity,” Levi said. “With No Child Left Behind, more time is being spent in the classroom while physical education is out.”

The same pattern is true for adults, who are working longer hours in jobs that provide fewer opportunities for physical activity. Leisure-time activity, especially for people who earn less than average or don’t have a college education, has also become more sedentary.

Nearly 33 percent of adults who did not graduate high school were obese, according to the latest CDC data, while just 21.5 percent of college graduates were. About a third of adults earning less than $15,000 a year were obese compared to just 24.6 percent of those who earn at least $50,000 a year.

The report called for raising nutrition standards in schools, restoring physical education and expanding the “community transformation” grants program, which earmarked $900 million over five years to help local communities create more opportunities for physical activity.

spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.