High Health Costs of Obesity

By Melanie R. Margolis

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61% of American adults and 15% of American children are overweight or obese, and individuals who are overweight or obese are at an increased risk for hypertension, diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, some types of cancer, and other medical conditions. See http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/obesity/consequences.htm. As the scales are tipped higher and higher, so go the associated health costs.

A study recently published on the Website of the journal Health Affairs calculated American health spending attributable to being obese or overweight. See http://www.healthaffairs.org/WebExclusives/Finkelstein_Web_Excl_051403.htm. In “National Medical Spending Attributable to Overweight and Obesity: How Much, and Who’s Paying?: Further evidence that overweight and obesity are contributing to the nation’s health care bill at a growing rate,” researchers Eric A. Finkelstein, Ian C. Fiebelkorn, and Guijing Wang estimated that nearly $93 billion dollars is spent annually for medical spending attributable to Americans being overweight and obese. Id. Also, the researchers point out that the percentage of medical spending attributable to obesity and being overweight (9.1%) rivals that attributable to smoking (6.5%-14.4%). Id.

Several years ago Texas A&M University researchers surveyed approximately 500 Texas A&M employees for a study published as "Body Fat as a Predictor of Health Costs in University Employees," according to the Aggie Daily on March 14, 2000. See the Aggie Daily Web site at http://www.tamu.edu/univrel/aggiedaily/news/stories/00/031400-10.html. The researchers concluded that obese employees cost employers dearly in missed work and medical claims. Id. Higher body fat was found to almost double the risk of costing the employer $500 or more in medical payments over a one-year period. Id. The costs to Texas A&M University for medical claims from individuals surveyed who had higher body fat levels totaled almost $93,000. Id. Also, approximately 10% of all health insurance claims costs were linked to high body fat levels. Id. The researchers concluded that an estimated $3.4 million in health care costs would be attributed to high body fat levels. In addition, researchers estimated that almost 40 million days of lost work nationally can be attributed annually to obesity. Id.

Who is to blame for the obesity trend in America and who should be responsible for its costs? Reports in the media indicate that lawsuits have been filed against fast food companies by some obese individuals blaming the companies for their obesity and related illnesses.  See, e.g., http://www.msnbc.com/news/788799.asp?cp1=1#BODY; http://www.forbes.com/home/2003/01/23/cx_da_0123topnews.html; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/2151754.stm. One well-known suit was filed against McDonald’s in July of 2002 and dismissed several months later. See http://www.forbes.com/home/2003/01/23/cx_da_0123topnews.html. The plaintiffs sued for deceptive acts and practices under various federal and New York laws claiming that McDonald's acted negligently in selling high-fat and high-cholesterol food and failed to warn about the dangers of eating such food. Id. The judge dismissed the suit on the grounds that the individuals should have known of the dangers. Id. He did, however, permit the plaintiffs to replead the case, leaving open the possibility that a differently worded complaint could succeed where this one failed. Id.

More suits will likely be filed. See http://www.msnbc.com/news/788799.asp?cp1=1#BODY.  Should fast food companies be held responsible for the health costs of Americans who have become overweight and obese eating fast food? The courts will have to decide. Whether the plaintiffs will ultimately prevail in these lawsuits is uncertain, but the suits are already having some impact. Last September, for example, McDonald’s announced that it would reduce the cholesterol-raising trans fats in its french fries by half by changing the oil it uses to cook the fries. See http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/2002-09-02-mcdonalds-fries_x.htm.

The positive effect is carrying over to food manufacturers. For example, Kraft Foods announced on July 1, 2003, that it would modify its marketing programs (including eliminating in-school marketing), food packaging, fat, calorie and portion sizes to help address the rise in obesity in America. See http://www.kraft.com/newsroom/07012003.html. The Department of Health and Human Services commended Kraft for setting an example for other food manufacturers to follow. See http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2003pres/20030701c.html.

You may think individuals alone are responsible for what they eat, or you may feel that the fast food industry is at least somewhat responsible for Americans’ making poor food choices. If the fast food and junk food sellers are motivated by the prospect of lawsuits to sell healthier foods, it could benefit the health of many Americans by helping to reduce obesity and its related health costs.