June 27, 2005

Obesity costs soar tenfold to $36.5 billion in US

By Kim Dixon

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Americans' losing battle against thebulge also bears a burgeoning price tag, with the amount ofmoney spent treating obesity-related health problems increasingtenfold over 15 years, a study said on Monday.

Between 1987 and 2002, private spending on obesity-linkedmedical problems mushroomed from $3.6 billion, or 2 percent ofall health spending, to $36.5 billion or 11.6 percent ofspending, the study, published in the journal Health Affairs,found.

Obesity is a major risk factor for many chronic illnesses,including diabetes and heart disease. With about 30 percent ofU.S. adults now obese, treating these conditions is a leadingdriver of double-digit health care insurance premium hikes.

"These are very expensive patients," said Ken Thorpe,professor at Emory University's public health school and authorof the study. "If insurers and employers are serious aboutreining in health care spending, then obesity prevention shouldbe at the top of their agenda."

Researchers studied data for about 28,000 privately insuredindividuals comprising a nationally representative sample.

About 60 million Americans are obese, according to the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the surge incosts is primarily due to those rising numbers, as opposed torising treatment costs per patient.

In 2002, obese individuals dominated the category of adultstreated for the top 10 medical conditions contributing tomedical spending, including arthritis, asthma, back problems,diabetes and heart disease.

These data suggest that health insurers' currentcost-cutting strategies, such as boosting co-payments forpatients, are aiming at the wrong target. Such measures tinkeraround the edges of the health cost burden but do not addressthe problem's roots, Thorpe said.

"We're going to have to tackle this they way we did smoking- with a variety of big strategies," Thorpe said.

With tobacco, that included taxes on cigarettes, anaggressive push for new products like the nicotine patch and abig role for government.