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Ethical Economics

Ethical Economics Obesity costs U.S. $75.1 billion, study says: Taxpayers paid half that. Pa. and N.J. paid billions.
By Marian Uhlman Inquirer Staff Writer
Philadelphia Inquirer Jan. 22, 2004

How much does it cost to treat obesity-related ailments?

The United States spent $75.1 billion last year on medical expenses, such as drugs, doctor visits and hospitalizations, related to obesity, according to a study published this month in the journal Obesity Research.

And taxpayers paid half the bill through the government's Medicare and Medicaid health programs.

In Pennsylvania, about $4.1 billion was spent last year on obesity-related medical costs.

In New Jersey, the amount was about $2.3 billion.

"The report is alarming, given that obesity has been shown to promote many chronic diseases," said Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which financed the research. "The long-term effects of obesity on our nation's health and on our economy should not be underestimated."

Although other studies have estimated the national costs of obesity, the new research is the first to also examine the economic impact of obesity at the state level.

The findings indicated obesity-related health problems accounted for 5.7 percent of the nation's total medical expenses. The figure for Pennsylvania was 6.2 percent; New Jersey, 5.5 percent. The highest state percentage for annual expenditures was 6.7 percent in Alaska. The lowest was Arizona's 4 percent.

The study did not calculate other obesity-related costs, such as lost time from work.

"We need to continue to mobilize resources. This is a huge problem," said Lisa Bailey-Davis, who leads the cardiovascular-health section for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The department receives a $649,000 annual CDC grant for obesity-prevention programs. "The report is very important and gives another piece of the puzzle when we are looking at the entire obesity problem."

Celeste Wood, an assistant commissioner in New Jersey's Department of Health and Senior Services, said $2.3 billion "is a lot of money, which is attributable... to a condition that oftentimes can be prevented... . We need to improve people's perceptions of what is healthy."

About 30 percent of American adults are obese. For a 5-foot-4 woman, for instance, this means she is 30 or more pounds over a healthy weight.

The study calculated obesity-related costs as the difference between the annual medical expenses for obese individuals and normal-weight people. The researchers culled data from government health surveys between 1998 and 2000.

Because people tend to underreport weight in surveys, the $75.1 billion estimate may be conservative, said Eric Finkelstein, the study's lead author and a health economist at RTI International, a nonprofit research group based in Raleigh, N.C.

The study revealed that obesity-related costs were about 10.6 percent, or $21.3 billion, of total expenses for Medicaid, the government's health program for low-income Americans. Among Medicaid recipients in Pennsylvania, the figure was 11.6 percent, or $1.2 billion. For those in New Jersey, it was 9.8 percent, or $630 million.

The findings also showed that the costs represented about 6.8 percent, or $17.7 billion, of expenses for Medicare, the government health program for senior citizens and the disabled. For Pennsylvania Medicare participants, the figure was 7.4 percent, or $1.2 billion. In New Jersey, it was 7.1 percent, or $591 million.

Shiriki K. Kumanyika, a University of Pennsylvania epidemiology professor and obesity expert, said: "When you see this information, you want to see how you can reduce the costs."

Although the public has become aware of obesity as a major public-health problem, she said, "I don't think the serious policymaking has really started." People need to get deep into issues, including food pricing and advertising, she said.

Contact staff writer Marian Uhlman at 215-854-2473 or muhlman@phillynews.com.

2004 Philadelphia Inquirer

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