Spreading obesity might undo savings from health overhaul

Medill News ServiceNovember 19, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Spending to treat the health effects of obesity, $86 billion last year, will quadruple over the next decade, and almost half of U.S. adults will be obese by 2018, according to the annual America's Health Rankings study.

Doctors who participated in the study warned that if the trends continue and obesity rates keep rising, spending on the health effects of obesity — defined as being 20 percent or more above an individual's recommended weight — will grow to $344 billion by 2018.

Mississippi topped the list of states with the highest prevalence of obesity. Almost 38 percent of Mississippi's population is obese. The report estimates that more than half the state's population will be obese by 2018.

Oklahoma, Maryland, Kentucky and Ohio rounded out the top five states with populations that are projected to have the highest rates of obesity by 2018.

If obesity rates held at current levels, on the other hand, the U.S. would save nearly $200 billion in health care costs, the data show. The study, which was released this week by the United Health Foundation, the American Public Health Association and Partnership for Prevention, has the attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as they look to cut costs with a health care overhaul.

"It's an epidemic that is preventable," said Rep. James Moran, D-Va.

Though Moran's state was one of only four states and the District of Columbia with populations that are expected to keep obesity rates below 35 percent by 2018, he said obesity was the entire nation's problem, especially as costs continued to rise. "We need to use the example of what's working for states in the rest of the nation," Moran said.

While Colorado's obesity rate over the next decade is projected to be the lowest in the country, Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien said the state's population was far from immune from the obesity epidemic.

"Our adults are pretty healthy, but for our kids the obesity rate is increasing at a rate that mirrors maybe not the South, but certainly the Midwest. ... It's an alarming trend," O'Brien said.

Doctors and lawmakers agree that obesity prevention must begin with younger generations, and begin soon.

"We are going to see everything that's going on in terms of health reform washed out, because we will never be able to afford treating that much chronic disease," said Dr. Reed Tuckson of the United Health Foundation.

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Claytor, a graduate student in journalism from Oxford, Ohio, covers health issues.)

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