As the clock counts down to raise the debt limit, obesity rates and their related costs are on the rise. With some in Congress eyeballing obesity prevention programs as a quick-fix bargaining chip during deficit negotiations, these rates and costs may not soon change.
Among the items potentially on the chopping block is the Prevention and Public Health Fund. Created as part of the Affordable Care Act, the Fund supports efforts by state and local governmental agencies and community organizations to increase healthy food options in schools, create physical activity programs and promote incentives for workplace wellness.
If this program seems like something Americans can live without, consider where the obesity epidemic has taken us in the last few years. In 2010, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported nearly 20 percent of the increase in health care spending from 1987 to 2007 was caused by obesity. That number stands to rise; just last year, obesity rates in the U.S. increased in 16 states and did not decline in any state, according to new findingsfrom the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The taxpayer costs associated with this epidemic are unsustainable. Even in Colorado, the least overweight state with a 20 percent obesity rate, obesity-related health conditions cost the state more than $1 billion a year, officials recently told Bloomberg. Nationally, obesity costs taxpayers $168 billion annually in medical costs alone, and according to researchers at Emory University, that number may rise to $344 billion by 2018.
These staggering figures are particularly burdensome for employers, who by themselves experience a loss of more than $73 billion each year due to diminished productivity, absenteeism and medical costs attributed to obesity, according to researchers at Duke University. Taken in context of a June jobs report that—for a second month in a row—found faltering growth, and it becomes even harder to argue that we can afford to do away with efforts to combat the obesity epidemic.
Certainly there are no easy choices when it comes to dealing with the nation’s debt and deficit. However, removing programs that will target the obesity epidemic and curb its mounting costs will not put us on the path to long-term fiscal responsibility. Rather, obesity prevention and treatment programs like those that will be funded under the Prevention and Public Health Fund are effective, essential tools we need to get our nation on track to a healthy weight and our fiscal house in order.
Dr. Joe Thompson is the Surgeon General for the State of Arkansas and a member of the Campaign to End Obesity Board of Directors.