The Cost of American Obesity

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No matter how you slice it, America is facing an obesity epidemic. And it’s going to cost us.

During the past 10 years, rates of obesity (defined by a body mass index of 30 or higher) have increased dramatically around the country.

In 2009, there were nine states where more than 30% of the population was obese, whereas in 1999, there were none. In 2009, only Colorado and Washington, D.C. had obesity rates below 20% of population, when only 10 years earlier, 32 states had that distinction.

Obviously, obesity is bad for you. The condition carries a number of direct and indirect health risks like heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and respiratory diseases and certain cancers have been linked to the condition as well.

It’s difficult to quantify the total costs of the condition, too, as one must take into account factors like decreased productivity and absenteeism (as well as future productivity lost to premature death), in addition to the direct costs of treating obesity-related illness.

But in August, the Centers for Disease Control released a report on obesity that quantified the problem. It estimated annual medical costs related to obesity at $147 billion for the more than 72 million obese Americans out there. And from there, the CDC concludes that obese persons incur medical costs $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

Using that number as a basis, we have determined the cost of obesity per state by calculating the number of obese persons in each state (obesity rate x total population) in 2009 and multiplying that number by $1,429.

Some cost estimates have attempted to trace who pays for these costs, such as the CDC’s combined efforts with researchers to quantify how much is paid by public health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid, but these leave out costs distributed among the many public and private health care options present in each state. After all, even if the state itself is not paying those health costs, they represent cash that could otherwise be spent (and taxed) in the local economy.

Using our numbers, we found that those parts of the country with the highest obesity rates are not the places that bear the worst financial burden from the condition. Our analysis shows that California, while in the lower half of obesity rankings (24.8%), actually bears the highest price tag for the problem at over $13 billion a year. By comparison Mississippi, the state with the highest rate of obesity (34.4% of population), sits about midway through the cost spectrum, with annual obesity-related health costs of about $1.45 billion.

The lesson? States with lower rates of obesity shouldn’t assume their problem is less intense than that of another state with a higher proportion of its population characterized as obese. Similarly, national programs like the one championed by first lady Michelle Obama to address childhood obesity should direct more resources to those states with a higher financial burden, especially considering the struggle of many states to balance their books.

Just as not all Happy Meals are created equal, not all states’ obesity problems lead to the same economic problems.

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Source data:

Obesity Rate by state, 2009
Population by state, 2009

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