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What Is The Worsening Obesity Epidemic Costing Us?

There was more grim health news earlier last week when a new study revealed that obesity rates in every U.S. state have risen sharply since the 1990s. The state with the highest rate today is Mississippi, where more than one-third of all adults are obese. And even the state with the lowest obesity rate today—Colorado, with an obesity rate just below 20 percent—would have had the highest rate in 1995. Colorado estimates that its obesity problem costs the state over $1 billion per year. But what about the costs in the rest of the country, where obesity rates are even higher?

The far-reaching impact of America’s obesity epidemic confounds a simple calculation of the problem’s costs. But a 2010 article by Ross Hammond and Ruth Levine of the Brookings Institution broke down the cost by examining four common categories in the research: “direct medical costs, productivity costs, transportation costs, and human capital costs.” There are a number of societal problems associated with each category: Direct medical costs include conditions associated with obesity, such as hypertension, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Productivity costs include observed relationships between obesity and absenteeism, lost productive time at work, and disability. Transportation costs are severe as well, since heavier people simply require more fuel to transport (one study found that in 2000, the extra fuel costs to airline caused by obesity totaled $275 million). Finally, there is some evidence that obese children miss more school days and that obese teens may be more likely to drop out of high school.

The authors caution that comparing among studies is difficult, but they can nonetheless draw some basic conclusions: A simple addition of the key factors in their study, they report, “suggest total annual economic costs associated with obesity in excess of $215 billion.”