Growing Obesity May Boost U.S. Health Cost By $66 Billion a Year

U.S. health-care spending will rise by as much as $66 billion a year by 2030 because of increased obesity if historic trends continue, researchers said.

Almost 100 million Americans and 15 million Britons are already considered obese, based on body-mass index, a ratio of weight to height, Y. Claire Wang, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York, said yesterday at a London news conference.

Another 65 million American adults and another 11 million British adults would join them in the next two decades based on past trends, said Wang, one of the authors of a four-part series on obesity published in today’s Lancet. The increased cost represents about 2.6 percent of the U.S.’s annual health-care bill. In the U.K., costs would rise as much as 2 billion pounds ($3.3 billion) a year, or 2 percent of yearly health spending.

“We are in an obesity and chronic disease crisis although it doesn’t feel like it,” Boyd Swinburn, a professor at Deakin University in Melbourne and another of the authors, said at the press conference. “It’s a little bit like the frog sitting in hot water -- it doesn’t realize that it’s going to boil until it’s too late.”

Obesity rates have increased globally since the 1970s as changes in the food supply affect what people eat, Swinburn said. The condition has been driven primarily by the “passive overconsumption” of more processed, affordable, available and promoted food, he said.

UN Meeting

The United Nations will hold its first high-level meeting on noncommunicable diseases in New York Sept. 19-20 and government leaders there need to address the worldwide obesity epidemic, the researchers said.

“Governments certainly need to lead obesity prevention but so far few have shown any leadership,” said Steven Gortmaker, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and one of the authors of the Lancet report. “If we have no measures and don’t set any targets we’re not going to make a lot of progress.”

Taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages, “traffic-light” style labels and reduced advertising of junk food and beverages to children are among the measures that governments should consider to improve health and save on costs, Gortmaker said. He said food manufacturers had resisted efforts that could help address the obesity crisis and compared them to tobacco companies fighting anti-smoking campaigns.

The authors said while national plans to combat obesity have yielded few results, two “positive signs for the future” are the U.K.’s cross-government strategy of marketing restrictions and improving school food and, in the U.S., first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to reduce childhood obesity. She has pushed to make food labeling easier to understand, encouraged schools to increase exercise levels and reached agreements with companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest retailer, to sell healthier food.