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High Obesity Rates Stress U.S. Health Care Budgets

A new study finds that obesity rates grew 37 percent from 1998 to 2008 and account for 10 percent of the nation's health care spending. The author of the report speaks with Gwen Ifill about health concerns in the U.S.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The skyrocketing cost of getting and staying healthy has emerged as a key issue in the ongoing congressional debate over health care reform.

    The journal Health Affairs reports today that nearly 10 percent — or $147 billion — of the nation's health care spending can be traced to one factor: obesity.

    We're joined now by the author of that report, Eric Finkelstein, the director of health economics at the research institute RTI International.

    Welcome, Mr. Finkelstein. In 1998, you wrote a report in which you said that the health care costs attributed to obesity was at about $78 billion?

  • ERIC FINKELSTEIN, RTI International:

    That's correct.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It's doubled now. What happened?

  • ERIC FINKELSTEIN:

    That's right. Well, between 1998 and 2006, which is the year our study is based on, the prevalence of obesity actually increased by 37 percent. And so along with population growth, we just have a lot more obese individuals.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So is it prevalence or is it cost that's driving this big new number?

  • ERIC FINKELSTEIN:

    It's mostly prevalence. We show that about 85 percent of the increasing cost resulting from obesity is due to rising obesity prevalence.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And explain what we mean when we say "prevalence."

  • ERIC FINKELSTEIN:

    Prevalence is essentially the number of individuals in the country who are obese. And obesity is pretty much defined by body mass index, but basically what it means is, if you're about 35 pounds above your ideal weight, you'd be classified as obese.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And the reason why there has been this increase in prevalence, is it because of diet? Is it because of lack of exercise? Or just because what?

  • ERIC FINKELSTEIN:

    Well, we argue it's because of economics. Essentially, the calculus has changed so it's just easier and cheaper to engage in behaviors that promote obesity and more difficult to engage in those behaviors that are associated with fitness.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    OK. So when you make the connection then between obesity and medical care and the cost of medical care, what are the weight-related diseases that then drive up the costs that we're talking about?

  • ERIC FINKELSTEIN:

    Well, unfortunately, excess weight impacts nearly every system of the human body, but some of the significant drivers are associated with diabetes and hypertension and heart disease and high cholesterol.

    And certainly one of the things that we saw in our study was that prescription drug expenditures were a significant driver. And all of the diseases that I just mentioned, once you get them, you tend to get prescribed medications, and you stay on those medications for most of your adult life, if not all of it.