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Study Estimates Cost of US Obesity at $140 Billion

A new study has quantified the costs of a growing problem in America - obesity. And experts are trying to develop strategies to reverse the trend.

Two-thirds of American adults, and one out of five children are above what doctors consider a healthy weight for their size, and those numbers have been increasing. People who are above their healthy weight are, not surprisingly, not as healthy.

It's no wonder experts talk about an "epidemic" of obesity.

"Obesity and with it, diabetes, are the only major health problems that are getting worse in this country, and they're getting worse rapidly," says Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He adds that the rate of obesity has doubled over the past generation.

A new study published this week puts a dollar estimate on that epidemic - $140 billion a year in extra medical costs.

Obese people spend on average $1,500 a year more for medical care on average than a person of healthy weight.

And of course, says Frieden, the financial burden is only part of the story. "Beyond the economic costs are the disability, the suffering and the early deaths caused by obesity. And this is something that we as a society need to take more action to address."

Obesity is defined based on a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. For example, if you weigh 100 kilograms and your height is 180 centimeters, your BMI is 31, which is considered obese. A separate category - overweight - applies to people who are above what is considered a healthy BMI, but not so much that it's classified as obese.

Obesity-related medical costs have doubled

The new study on the costs of obesity is published online by the journal Health Affairs. Lead author Erik Finkelstein says those costs have nearly doubled over the past decade. About half of the expense is paid for by government programs like Medicare, which insures older Americans.

"Their average expenditures are about $4,700 [per year] if they're normal weight, and if they're obese that number rises to about $6,400," Finkelstein says.

Finkelstein is affiliated with RTI International, a North Carolina research institute. He says much of the higher medical costs of obese older Americans is due to increased use of prescription drugs, as obese people are more likely to have chronic disease requiring medication.

"Clearly, obesity is costly. We've shown that to be the case. And in fact, I would argue that the only way to show real savings in health expenditures in the future is through efforts to reduce the prevalence of obesity and related health conditions, specifically improved diet and physical activity."

Finkelstein's research was one of the topics discussed in Washington this week at the CDC's first-ever national Conference on Obesity Control and Prevention.

CDC director Thomas Frieden told reporters that the burden of obesity is not shared equally.

"The rate of obesity among African-Americans and among Hispanics is significantly higher than the rate among white Americans. In addition, we know that there's a very tight correlation between obesity and poverty, such that those who are living in poverty are much more likely to become obese."

Numerous ways to attack obesity epidemic identified

A recent report in a CDC publication outlines a variety of ways to head off the spiraling obesity epidemic. William Dietz, head of the CDC's obesity unit, says the report identifies a number of strategies to help people get the weight off, or keep them from gaining weight in the first place.

"Strategies to support choices of healthy food and beverages, strategies to encourage breastfeeding, strategies to encourage physical activity or to limit sedentary behavior, or strategies to create communities that support physical activity," says Dietz.

Some of the recommendations: smaller portion sizes in restaurants, fewer beverages sweetened with sugar, increased physical activities in school, improved access to walking.

Eric Finkelstein, the researcher who quantified the financial costs, says Americans have to do something. "So many differentials are involved that the only thing we do know is that in the absence of action, it's unlikely that costs associated with obesity are going to decrease."

And as ingrained as things like eating habits and activity levels might be, CDC Director Thomas Frieden says there's reason for hope. He cites the success of higher taxes in reducing smoking by half among teenagers in New York.

"In the case of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, evidence from a couple of sources, including industry sources, suggests that higher prices will strongly discourage people from consuming soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages."

If the U.S. public health establishment wants to get people to exercise more, eat less and avoid fattening foods, it has a big challenge ahead.