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Fat of the Land: Obesity Costs State, U.S. Billions, Studies Say

Times Staff Writer

The cost of obesity is enormous in California and around the country, two new studies say.

Taxpayers nationwide spent $75 billion in Medicaid and Medicare funds treating obesity-related illnesses in 2003, according to a federal report being published today. California, the most populous state, spent the most in public monies on health care for obese people last year: $7.7 billion.

That study by the nonprofit RTI International and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the first-ever state-by-state analysis of such expenditures related to obesity. It is to be published today in the journal Obesity Research.

More comprehensive data provided this week by the California Department of Health Services, however, estimate the costs to be far higher. Inactivity, overweight and obesity cost an estimated $24.6 billion a year in private and public medical services, lost productivity and workers’ compensation in the state, according to the department.

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In California, 59% of adults are considered overweight or obese, according to state health department statistics.

“In the end, the individual makes decisions about what they eat, but this shows we might need to look at how we can make an environment so people can make healthier choices,” said Deborah Galuska, associate director of the CDC’s Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity.

“Obesity is not just a personal issue, to the extent that we all pay for obesity,” said Eric A. Finkelstein, one of the RTI/CDC study’s authors. The amount of Medicare and Medicaid money spent on obesity-related illnesses, Finkelstein said, is slightly less than that spent on smoking-related illnesses. Smokers account for 6% to 8% of such medical expenditures and obesity about 6%; injuries account for 10% of that spending, he said.

Susan Foerster, chief of cancer prevention and nutrition for the state health department, said her staff is analyzing a variety of factors -- such as car-dominated or unsafe neighborhoods and limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables -- that could cause millions of people to gain weight in a relatively short time.

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Obesity “is way up over where it was even 15 years ago,” Foerster said. “It’s not a matter of simply pushing away from the table or getting up off the couch -- the increase in rates over time has been a function of changed lifestyles and changed environment.”

Reversing the trend will require the kind of all-out efforts that have reduced smoking, said state Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), chairman of the California Task Force on Youth and Workplace Wellness. The task force presented one of the first California Fit Business Awards this week to American Apparel in downtown Los Angeles.

Besides providing fresh fruits and vegetables to its employees, American Apparel provides bicycles so they can ride around on breaks.


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