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Obesity Is Costly to State, Report Says

Times Staff Writer

The rapidly growing overweight and unfit population in California could cost the state $28.7 billion this year in healthcare expenses, injuries and lost productivity, 32% more than five years ago, according to a study released Tuesday.

State health officials who commissioned the study said they were surprised by the scope of the problem.

“The obesity epidemic is more than a public health crisis,” said Kim Belshe, California Health and Human Services secretary. “It is an economic crisis.”

California was the 27th-leanest state last year -- it was the sixth leanest in 1990 -- and has the third-fastest-growing rate of obesity, behind New Mexico and Georgia, according to the study. While more than half of California adults are overweight or obese, about 1.7 million residents are so obese they qualify for weight-loss surgery, such as stomach stapling.

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“This is really a wake-up call,” said Dr. Richard J. Jackson, the state’s public health officer.

Lost productivity, including sick days and disability leaves, cost $11.2 billion in 2000, the study said. Medical costs associated with inactivity and obesity, such as diabetes and heart treatment, were pegged at $10.2 billion. And on-the-job sprains and other injuries among the overweight and unfit resulted in $338 million in workers’ compensation payments.

Inactivity -- defined as fewer than three 20-minute workouts a week in the last month -- was identified as the most expensive risk factor. Nearly half of all California adults fell into this category in 2000.

The costs in all categories will rise in 2005 unless “aggressive action is taken,” the study said.

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The $30,000 study was conducted by Health Management Associates, a division of Chenoweth & Associates Inc., a North Carolina consulting firm that has done similar studies for six states as well as for several private employers. The firm examined medical claims data related to more than 25,000 Californians.

State officials said that acting on the study’s findings was a priority for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Mr. Universe who has touted putting fruits and vegetables in school vending machines. Health officials hope that putting a price tag on weight and fitness problems will prompt changes in the way employers, food manufacturers, restaurant chains and urban planners do business.

California has lost its fitness image in part because of the state’s car culture, a rise in fast-food outlets, drive-up windows, long work hours and the long stretches people spend commuting and eating on the way to work, said Susan B. Foerster, the chief of the cancer prevention and nutrition section of the state Department of Health Services.

“When you are filling up your car, you can pick up a mega-monster soft drink that’s 64 ounces,” she said. “Not only are you not burning the calories because you drive everywhere, but you are consuming more as you drive.”

The U.S. surgeon general first called attention to obesity as a major public health problem four years ago, blaming it for 300,000 deaths and $117 billion in costs annually nationwide.

Since then, several states and major employers have attempted to assess their own costs. Those efforts have led many employers to launch wellness promotion efforts, such as at-work exercise classes, sophisticated risk assessments and one-on-one health coaching.

Fitness perks are commonplace in white-collar jobs but are sorely lacking in factories, large farms and within the service industry, Foerster said. The study found that among some members of minority groups with less than a high school degree, more than 60% have weight problems.

Foerster co-founded the “California 5 a Day -- for Better Health!” campaign nearly 20 years ago to promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables.

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Public and private employers end up bearing the lion’s share of the medical and business costs from obesity problems, the study said.

California produces more than $1.4 trillion in goods and services annually, so the weight and fitness-related costs might seem small, said Howard Roth, the chief economist for the state Department of Finance. But even at 1.5% of the gross state product, such costs are significant, he said.

If employers didn’t spend so much on obesity- and fitness-related problems, the state’s economy would look significantly different, Roth said.

“You would see an improvement in personal income growth of the same order of magnitude,” he said. “You’d see more spending and more tax revenues and, hopefully, a little bit more job growth.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Bulging figures

Weight problems cost the California economy billions, according to a study.

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Total cost to California in 2000

(In billions)

Physical inactivity: $13.29

Obesity: $6.38

Overweight: $2.02

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Cost breakdown

(in billions)

Lost productivity: $11.2

Healthcare: $10.2

Workers’ compensation: $0.34

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Percentage of California adults with weight problem

Overweight: 35%

Obese: 17.5%

Total: 52.5%

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Source: State Department of Health Services


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