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New Study: Obesity Continues To Fatten Health Care Costs In U.S.

As obesity has been outed as a major cause of rising health care costs, Earth Eats' Cory Barker looks at a proposal to stop the expanding waistlines and costs.

Why Americans are fat by chingers7 on flickr
Photo: chingers7/Flickr

A study released just yesterday has placed the blame of rising health care costs in America on our ever-expanding waistlines. That’s right folks, obesity is to blame.

The study, done by Health Affairs, found that medical care spending for an obese person is about $1,400 more than it is for a non-obese individual per year.

American health care spending for obesity-related issues pushed over $140 billion, double the amount it was just ten years ago.

Even worse, taxpayers have paid for more than half of that massive figure. Over 9 percent of all health care spending is now obesity-related, compared with about 6.5 percent in 1998.

The researchers presented the study during “Weight of the Nation,” a CDC-sponsored event that tackled ways to reduce obesity. From the presentation:

“Obesity is the single biggest reason for the increase in health care costs,” says Eric Finkelstein, a health economist with RTI and lead researcher on the new study. “If you really want to rein in health care dollars, you have to get people dieting, exercising and living a healthier lifestyle. Otherwise somebody is going to be paying for treating these weight-related illnesses.”

With the Obama administration attempting to push health care reform that many are already skeptical of, this discovery cannot be good. I think we all understand that someone is going to have to pay for universal health care if it becomes a reality, and that someone is us, the American taxpayer.

If people recognize that they’re having to pay higher taxes to help a stranger’s obesity-related health issues (which there is a good chance of, considering over 34 percent(!) of adults are obese), couldn’t they reasonably be upset?

Maybe. But there are rumblings of possible alternatives to this development – tough taxes on high-calorie, non-healthy foods.

That brings us to another study/panel from the Urban Institute, which wants to take a page out of the anti-Tobacco movement by pushing high taxes onto fattening foods.

The taxes would probably be something like a excise tax, with the money collected going right back to health care operations to combat the problems the tax itself is trying to combat. The re-labeling that would have to be done might be a bit tricky so we all know what products are or are not healthy/taxed, but other countries have had some success with similar programs and the positive outcomes could be substantial, according to the LA Times:

And here’s the payoff: Conservatively estimated, a 10% tax levied on foods that would be defined as “less healthy” by a national standard adopted recently in Great Britain could yield $240 billion in its first five years and $522 billion over 10 years of implementation — if it were to begin in October 2010. If lawmakers instituted a program of tax subsidies to encourage the purchase of fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, the added revenue would still be $356 billion over 10 years.

It’s clear that obesity has become a major problem in the United States, but fortunately it seems to be one that people are waking up to and at least attempting to tackle. The question remains is whether, given the large number of obese people in the country, how much of a stir will these new tax proposals cause and will it be hard to gain enough popular support to get them through congress? Also, does everyone think this is fair and that obesity-causing foods should be held to the same standard as tobacco?

For more, check the full study at Health Affairs web site.

Cory Barker

Cory Barker is a summer intern for Earth Eats and senior IU student from Hartford City, Indiana. He is double majoring in journalism and communication and culture with a minor in business.

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