• Mon, Apr 30 2012

Obesity Costs U.S. $190 Billion Per Year—Let The ‘Fat Tax’ Battles Begin

fat tax
There’s no question that American obesity rates are soaring—and it definitely comes at a cost to our health and well being—but new stats from the Campaign to End Obesity peg its annual drain on the U.S. economy at $190 billion. Considering that the goal of anti-obesity campaigners is to shock policy makers into action, you could argue the exact numbers (one of the costs considered was money spent in hospitals swapping out wall-mounted toilets om for floor models to better support obese patients). But however you cut it, it’s hard not wonder if pricing out the cost of obesity will just become another excuse for fat-shaming and discrimination.

How the $190 billion estimate breaks down isn’t exactly clear, but Reuters has released several articles that cite medical costs, raised insurance premiums, and reduced productivity of obese employees in the U.S. workforce. Here’s a snapshot of the kinds of numbers getting thrown around about the cost of obesity:

  • Very obese men take 5.9 more sick days a year; very obese women take 9.4 days more
  • Obesity cuts into productivity even when workers are present in the workplace, costing employers $3,792 per very obese male worker and $3,037 per female
  • Obese men account for an extra $1,152 a year in medical spending; obese women cost an additional $3,613 annually
  • Morbid obesity raises health care costs more than smoking
  • We spend $4 billion per year on the 938 million extra gallons of gasoline required to transport overweight and obese passengers in the U.S.

We’re all for putting out high estimates for shock value—in hopes that public groups and organizations will join in an earnest effort to curb and prevent obesity. But too often, the discussion skips over prevention programs and heads straight for the question of a “fat tax”—whether we formally admit it or not. Reuters described the income gap between obese and average-weight employees, pointing to evidence that obese women, in particular, are already paying an informal “obesity tax” via lower wages than their non-obese counterparts:

Decreased productivity can reduce wages, as employers penalize less productive workers. Obesity hits workers’ pocketbooks indirectly, too: Numerous studies have shown that the obese are less likely to be hired and promoted than their svelte peers are. Women in particular bear the brunt of that, earning about 11 percent less than women of healthy weight, health economist John Cawley of Cornell University found. At the average weekly U.S. wage of $669 in 2010, that’s a $76 weekly obesity tax.

Income discrepancies and insurance premiums might seem fair, when you consider the direct costs of obesity, but by that logic, we could instill a “cancer tax” or “mental health tax” to cover the cost of individuals with other kinds of critical health challenges that cost money. It’s hard to avoid the fact that obesity costs real dollars—in medical costs, productivity, and yes, even toilet seats—but I don’t think obese people should be left to cover the difference on their own any more than women should be left to cover the cost of birth control alone.

The issue isn’t made clearer by the fact that obesity is no longer an outlier. Just a few decades ago, the occasional obese worker or patient might have placed higher burdens on the health care system, but it was easy to absorb the cost, spread amongst a majority of healthy Americans. But with two-thirds of American adults considered obese—and many suffering related chronic diseases, it’s stupid not to consider this an imminent drain on the U.S. economy and—more importantly—an urgent public health issue.

Still, it’s impossible to discuss solutions without getting into dangerous territory; it’s all too easy to lay the blame for obesity solely on the obese, which inevitably leads to fat-shaming and discriminatory policies. But that doesn’t change the fact that we need to address it: I just hope the conversation revolves around preventing obesity, instead of penalizing it.

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  • Johnny

    Well you know we had to start another war so this one will be either the War on Fat or the War on Food. I have several fat politicians names that can be selected as the Czar on Fat. When in the military we had weigh ins if you were suspected of being a few pounds over and it could result in discharge for the good of the service. Lets translate this to the civilian sector and start discharging the overweights from their jobs. Mandatory physical education in every grade of school and an extra tax on any restaurant meal that exceeds 500 calories. At least the airlines are already in step by eliminating all meals and snacks.

    • Tolana

      The airlines are dropping perks to help their profit, it has nothing to do with helping people eat right.

  • Will

    Yea Johnny. The military was CLEARLY correct in doing so. But then they lost some of their best. So what you’re saying is, that it is OK to get rid of people so long as they don’t fit into your idea of healthy. Shall we debate the way they did body fat percentages as well?

    Problem is, you do this, what is the difference between doing so for people who are only blondes? Or only have blue eyes?

    I’d like more statistics from this research. As an obese person, I haven’t taken a sick day in more than 4 years. So where does that fall into the numbers? or are you ONLY polling those people that would fit into the numbers you’re looking for?

    I’m sure there are just as many skinny lazy people negligent at work doing nothing but surfing facebook.

    • Briana Rognlin

      Like I said in the post, a lot of these numbers are put out by organizations who have an agenda to shock people into taking action with new policies, etc.–so I’m not sure that we should assume all of them are perfectly accurate. But I do think that it’s hard to deny the cost of our country’s obesity rates. Unfortunately, I think framing the discussion around how much obese people don’t do at work, or how much their personal medical bills add up, just devolves the discussion into fat-shaming and discrimination. Instead, I think we should consider it just like we would any other public health issue: Because at the current rates, it is a public health issue that we should all take responsibility for.

    • Jon

      Will, no one cares that your fat. We just care that we will soon have to pay for you being fat. Most health related issues are caused by over eating and not taking care of yourself. Why should I have to pay for it? If people want to eat themselves to a young death then go for it. Just don’t come asking me for a higher premium so you can have your ding dongs.

  • RT

    You’re seriously comparing being obese to having cancer and reproductive health?

    The vast majority of obese people can do something to control their obesity, but they choose not to. That differs from cancer. Why should society take the cost burden of obesity like they do with birth control? Providing birth control to women has a direct, positive impact on all of society. Paying for obese people does not.

    Overall a poorly written article that asks us not to blame obese people for being obese.

    • Briana Rognlin

      Yep–I’m comparing obesity to other public health issues that society takes care of, because obesity isn’t an issue of just a few people being lazy and eating too much. It’s much more complicated than that.

      I agree that obesity is preventable, but I think that there are a lot of socioeconomic issues that play into it, and blaming it entirely on individual choice is ignorant.

      Paying for programs that prevent obesity is what I’m suggesting as a solution (not “paying for obese people” as you deduced)–how does that not have a direct, positive impact on all of society?

  • Dolomite

    “Providing birth control to women has a direct, positive impact on all of society.” You mean like fulfilling primal urges without having to be bothered with the consequences? Why should I pay for your promiscuity? Pay for your own birth control.

  • Jorge Sanchez

    The worst part is they haven’t even come up with a decent definition of obesity. If they start taxing obesity, am I going to have to pay an extra couple thousand a year more for my 35BMI than the skinny geek next door with the same body fat percentage as me because I spend 4 hours per week at the gym while he sits in front of his computer sipping Mountain Dew day and night? The slippery slope of socialized medicine from an irrational government is far scarier than any other threat we now face in the world.

  • Marian

    Surely preventative medicine is the most important aspect of ending the ‘obesity epidemic,’ and surely that should start at the beginning of the food chain. It is all very well teaching people how to live healthfully (and it is an important part of public health) if we don’t first make sure that the food grown is a nutritious as it possible can be. Cattle that has grazed has less fat then Cattle that has been fed corn, fruit and vegetables that have been ripened on the plant have more vitamins than ones artificially ripened, but corn fed Cattle grows faster, and artificially ripened fruit and vegetables last longer, so we need to decide what is more important profit margin or public health.

  • bs1514

    I think it is shameful to penalize smokers with additional costs to their health insurance but not obese people especially when obesity cost more than smoking related illnesses. Why is this such a taboo subject and considered discriminatory to address it but it is ok to shame a smoking addiction.