Obesity: Weighing Down Our Economy

First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking to mayors at the National League of Cities meeting last month, pointed out that obesity is “weighing down your budgets. It’s already hampering economic growth.”

Obesity is one of the most challenging health crises the country has ever faced. Two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children and teens are currently obese or overweight, putting them at increased risk for more than 20 major diseases, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

But as Mrs. Obama raised, it’s not just our health that is suffering: obesity-related medical costs and a less productive workforce are hampering America’s ability to compete in the global economy.

According to a 2009 economic analysis published in Health Affairs, obesity-related medical costs total $147 billion a year, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all annual medical spending. Obese people spend 42 percent more on health care costs than healthy-weight individuals. Childhood obesity alone is responsible for $14.1 billion in direct costs.

Of the $147 billion in direct medical costs, Medicare and Medicaid pick up the tab for $61.8 billion. Medicare and Medicaid spending would be 8.5 percent and 11.8 percent lower, respectively, in the absence of obesity. Annually, the average total of health expenses for a child treated for obesity under Medicaid is $6,730 while the average cost for all children under Medicaid is $2,446 – more than two-and-half times the cost.

And that’s just direct costs. Obesity-related job absenteeism costs the country around $4.3 billion annually, lower productivity costs are estimated at $506 per obese employee per year, and as a person’s body mass index increases, so do the number of sick days, medical claims, and health care costs.

Preventing and reducing obesity – by making healthier choices easier for Americans – is one of the most common-sense ways we can start to bend the cost curve on health spending and to speed the economic recovery.

The obesity epidemic affects every state in the country, but the states, cities, and towns with the highest rates of obesity are paying the steepest price. Businesses are reluctant to locate in areas with a population, particularly the future workforce, that is unhealthy. High health care costs and lower productivity are unattractive to employers and investors.

In Mrs. Obama’s talk to mayors, she brought the human dimension of childhood obesity together with the economic reality: “When we talk about childhood obesity, we’re talking about the workforce that you’re trying to build. We’re talking about the businesses that you’re trying to attract. We’re talking about the budgets that you’re trying to balance each and every day.”

Reversing the obesity epidemic will require all of us to work together – as individuals, families, schools, communities, businesses, government, and other organizations – to find ways to make healthier choices easier for millions of Americans who want and need additional support to stay healthy. Policies and programs can help lower health care costs and improve worker productivity – which makes communities more attractive to businesses.

In a poll we commissioned at Trust for America’s Health, in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for the most recent edition of our annual report, F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future, we found strong support to take action to reverse the obesity trends, particularly for children. Eight in 10 American voters agree that childhood obesity is a major problem. This viewpoint transcends all demographic boundaries, with at least 72 percent of every major partisan, ideological, regional, gender, age, education, income level, and racial group believing the childhood obesity problem is a serious one.

Seventy-three percent of voters said that preventing childhood obesity is an important priority for government to focus on, with 58 percent citing it as very important. Voters also recognize that preventing childhood obesity carries a real return on investment, with 56 percent believing investing in prevention will save us money, with more than six in10 supporting an investment in childhood obesity prevention regardless of whether it will save money or not.

In our poll, we found there is strong optimism for the future. Sixty-one percent of voters believe the childhood obesity epidemic is a problem we can solve in a generation, and they strongly support policies that invest in our kids and schools and increase access to physical education programs, information, and resources that help people make healthy choices.

Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move Initiative and the efforts of numerous mayors, governors, businesses, philanthropies, and others all around the country are making in-roads. These promising programs and policies are important – but a greater and sustained national investment is required to take programs to scale and turn the tide on crisis.

The current economic climate, particularly the stark budget situations many state and local governments face, present a threat to the progress that has been made and could limit efforts moving forward. Last year, 33 states cut funding for public health. Since 2008, approximately 15 percent of local public health jobs have been cut, and major cuts are proposed to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s core budget. As governments at all levels are facing difficult budget decisions, it’s crucial to think about the other side of the ledger – that cuts to obesity programs today mean higher health costs and a less healthy workforce down the road. Investing in prevention today means a brighter future tomorrow.


As a leading nonprofit health care research and consulting institute dedicated to improving human health, Altarum encourages open discussion and debate about the many challenges in health care today. All postings to the Health Policy Forum (whether from employees or those outside the Institute) represent the views of the individual authors and/or organizations and do not necessarily represent the position, interests, strategy, or opinions of Altarum Institute. Altarum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. No posting should be considered an endorsement by Altarum of individual candidates, political parties, opinions, or policy positions.

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