The Economic Costs of Obesity

September 14, 2010

The total costs of obesity in the U.S. alone may exceed $215 billion annually, according to a new comprehensive study co-authored by Ross Hammond, senior fellow and director of the Center on Social Dynamics and Policy, and Ruth Levine. With more than two-thirds of American adults now considered overweight, and one-third obese, Hammond gives an overview of economic and policy impacts of the epidemic at the national level.

Obesity As a Public Policy Challenge
“Our study looked at the economic cost associated with the obesity epidemic which, as you know, is primarily thought of as a public health challenge here in the United States. It is associated with much higher risk of a lot of serious health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and so on. It also turns out that there are some economic costs associated with it. In our study, we review the evidence of what those might be. There are really several major categories. The first category is direct medical spending, and this is the category that comes about because of the higher incidence of disease associated with obesity, which means that higher health care costs are incurred by people that are obese – as much as 100% higher, in fact. Those costs add up. They might total, in the U.S., between about $86 and $147 billion a year, which is quite a bit and is very important as we think about health care cost savings and the current concern over the explosion of health care costs. Those costs have roughly doubled (perhaps) over the last decade and may continue to go up at a substantial rate until we succeed in reducing the growth in obesity rates in this country.”

Health Cost Containment Threat

“We were surprised by just how large these costs really are on an annual basis here in the U.S., particularly in light of the conversation that has been going on recently about exploding health care costs and containing those health care costs. Unfortunately, obesity is something that has increased rapidly. Obesity in children is continuing to increase rapidly, and this may mean that these already substantial costs will just grow more over the next several decades and really jeopardize the health care cost containment that is being discussed now.”

Obesity’s Complex Causes

“Some of the things we know are drivers of obesity or associated with obesity include: certain polymorphisms of genes that are heritable; certain kinds of neuro-psychological variables that are associated with a greater risk of being obese; we know that social norms and social networks play an important role, and our media and the way people are portrayed in the media, all play a role in obesity; we know that the way our cities are built, the walkability of our cities, [and] the way our transportation infrastructure is set up plays a role in obesity; and we know that food prices and food production and the agribusiness industry play a role in the obesity epidemic. But sorting out just how much of a role each plays and how they are connected is a very complex challenge.”