Health costs soar as 60 million Americans classed as obese

According to a new study the amount of money spent treating obesity-related health problems in the U.S. has increased tenfold over 15 years.

In the battle against the bulge Americans appear to be losing and between 1987 and 2002, private spending on obesity-linked medical problems ballooned from $3.6 billion, or 2 percent of all health spending, to $36.5 billion or 11.6 percent of spending.

The study found that about 30 percent of U.S. adults are now obese, and as obesity is a major risk factor for many chronic illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease, treating these conditions is a leading cause of double-digit health care insurance premium rises.

Ken Thorpe, professor at Emory University's public health school and author of the study, says these patients are very expensive, and if insurers and employers are really serious about slowing down health care spending, then obesity prevention should be at the top of their agenda.

The researchers studied data for about 28,000 privately insured individuals comprising a nationally representative sample.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 60 million Americans are obese, and the surge in costs is primarily due to those rising numbers, as opposed to rising treatment costs per patient.

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

The data therefore suggests, says Thorpe, that health insurers' current cost-cutting strategies, such as boosting co-payments for patients, are measures which tinker around the edges of the health cost burden but do not address the root of the problem and are aimed at the wrong target.

Thorpe says the obesity problem has to be tackled with a variety of big strategies as with smoking.

That included taxes on cigarettes, an aggressive push for new products like the nicotine patch and a big role for government.

The study is published in the journal Health Affairs.

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