Obesity Has Financial Implications

October 12, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — In setting out to do something about obesity and the associated high costs, a grassroots coalition in Grand Rapids wants to go well beyond merely promoting healthy lifestyles, good nutrition and wellness.

Attacking what the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled as an epidemic in America — especially among children — requires action on a far broader front, say organizers of the new initiative Project Takeoff.

Ensuring that employer health benefits are packaged to provide employees financial incentives to maintain and improve their health, examining school curriculums on nutrition and physical activity, and even promoting public policies on land use to encourage greater development of hiking and bike trails in urban and rural communities are among the issues that organizers of Project Takeoff envision addressing.

"This is only going to work by changing our environment," Dr. Tom Peterson, medical director for the physician group Michigan Medical PC, said last week during a community forum on obesity sponsored by Healthy Kent 2010.

"It's a different value system and a different way of thinking. This is the only chance we have, in my opinion, to change this whole epidemic," Peterson said.

The forum, which attracted more than 250 participants, publicly launched Project Takeoff, an initiative that organizers are just beginning to design. Participants came from a variety of sectors, representing business, government, nonprofit organizations, education and health care.

The goal of Project Takeoff's organizers is to reverse the growing overweight and obesity incidence rates locally that not only have implications for the health of people but also financial consequences for everybody.

A study released last spring by Michigan Economic Development Corp. concluded that overweight and obese persons could expect to incur $1,500 in additional medical costs annually because of heath problems associated with their conditions — costs that are a contributor to ever-rising health insurance premiums.

The state study showed that 61 percent of Michigan's population is overweight and 24.7 percent is obese, putting those individuals at greater risk for chronic illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, some forms of cancer, heart disease and sleep apnea.

In KentCounty, 37.3 percent of adults answering a 2002 behavioral risk survey reported they were overweight. Another 19.6 percent of adults said they were obese, according to a Kent County Healthy Department survey, up from 17 percent in 1993. The obesity incidence rate was higher for African Americans in KentCounty — 28.3 percent.

Rising incidence rates, resulting from the sedentary lifestyle more people have adopted over the years, combined with unhealthy eating habits, come with a high economic cost.

Financially, a Governor's Council on Physical Fitness, Health and Sports analysis last year estimated the cost of physical inactivity by Michigan residents at $8.9 billion annually. Under current trends, that cost will rise 42 percent to $12.65 billion by 2007. Costs include direct and indirect medical care, worker's compensation and lost productivity in the workplace.

Nationally, medical expenditures alone directly related to obesity and being overweight are as high as $93 billion, or 9.1 percent of all health-care expenses in the United States — a figure that nearly rivals the cost of smoking, according to researchers whose findings were published in the May 2003 issue of Health Affairs, a national health-care journal.

A 2000 study from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention placed the cost of obesity at $117 billion annually in direct and indirect costs.

Beyond the medical, social and financial implications for people who are overweight and obese, there's a cost to all of society, as well, through indirect costs and higher health insurance premiums resulting from treating people with ailments related to their weight.

"The fact of the matter is we are drowning in a stream of obesity, and no one is exempt," said Marilyn Vander Werf, an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University's Kirkhof School of Nursing whose doctoral work is centered on community health and lifestyle change.

To stem and reverse rising incidence rates, one needs to understand the forces that contribute to a person's condition, such as sedentary lifestyles, lack of physical activity, and their lifestyle and dietary habits, Vander Werf said. From there, you work on a myriad of fronts to change personal behavior and, as with land-use policies, the community structure to address the problem, she said.

"This is not a 'one-size-fits-all' solution," Vander Werf said. "This is about the social context on which we will make everyday decisions on what we do with our time."

In formulating Project Takeoff, organizers plan to install a method to measure the effectiveness of the initiative over a period of years, allowing them to build on what works, discard what doesn't and generate new ideas.

Project Takeoff is the latest initiative in West Michigan designed to address high overweight and obesity rates and the forces behind them. In MuskegonCounty, where incidence rates of chronic disease are higher than state averages, an assortment of groups came together earlier this year to launch Stay Active Muskegon with a goal of "increasing physical activity, health conscious eating and improving community health."    

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