WASHINGTON – Obesity's not just dangerous, it's expensive. New research shows medical spending averages $1,400 more a year for an obese person than for someone who's normal weight. Overall obesity-related health spending reaches $147 billion, double what it was nearly a decade ago, says the study published Monday by the journal Health Affairs.
The higher expense reflects the costs of treating diabetes, heart disease and other ailments far more common for the overweight, concluded the study by government scientists and the nonprofit research group RTI International.
RTI health economist Eric Finkelstein offers a blunt message for lawmakers trying to revamp the health care system: "Unless you address obesity, you're never going to address rising health care costs."
Two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, and the average American today is 23 pounds overweight, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Obesity and with it diabetes are the only major health problems that are getting worse in this country, and they're getting worse rapidly," Frieden said Monday at the CDC's first major conference on the obesity crisis.
It's not an individual problem but a societal problem — as the nation's health bill illustrates — that will take society-wide efforts to reverse, Frieden stressed. His agency last week released a list of strategies it wants communities to try. They include: increasing healthy foods and drinks in schools and other public venues; building more supermarkets in poor neighborhoods; encouraging more mothers to breast-feed, which protects against childhood obesity; and discouraging consumption of sodas and other sweetened beverages.
The average American consumes 250 more daily calories today than two or three decades ago, 120 of them from those kinds of drinks, Frieden said. Science suggests that while eating a candy bar before dinner will spoil your appetite, liquid calories don't — you won't cut back on dinner if you have a sugary soda first.
He said there's some evidence that adding a tax to those drinks might help curb consumption, although he stressed that wasn't a view of the Obama administration.
The new Health Affairs study found obesity-related conditions now account for 9.1 percent of all medical spending, up from 6.5 percent in 1998. During that time, the obesity rate rose 37 percent.
On average, health bills for a normal-weight person are about $3,400 a year, but that rises to $4,870 for someone who's obese, Finkelstein said. Prescription drugs are the biggest driver of those costs: Medicare spends about $600 more per year on medications for an obese beneficiary than a normal-weight one.
Health economists have long warned that obesity is a driving force behind the rise in health spending. For example, diabetes costs the nation $190 billion a year to treat, and excess weight is the single biggest risk factor for developing diabetes. Moreover, obese diabetics are the hardest to treat, with higher rates of foot ulcers and amputations, among other things.
The new study's look at per-capita spending may offer a shock to the wallets of people who haven't yet heeded health warnings.
"Health care costs are dramatically higher for people who are obese and it doesn't have to be that way," said Jeff Levi of the nonprofit Trust for America's Health, who wasn't involved in the new research.
"We have ways of changing behavior and changing those health outcomes so that we don't have to deal with the medical consequences of obesity," added Levi, who advocates community-based programs that promote physical activity and better nutrition.