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Obesity Is Even More Costly Than We Thought


Recent headlines have not shied away from the economic effects of obesity: “Obesity bigger cost for Britain than war and terror,” says The Guardian. “Global costs of obesity almost equal to that of smoking,” says NewsChannel3. A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) says obesity costs up to $2 trillion annually worldwide, and new research released yesterday by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health shows that obesity in the U.S. costs $8.65 billion per year due to absenteeism in the workplace—accounting for more than 9 percent of all absenteeism costs.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine today, provides the first “state-level estimates of obesity-attributable costs of absenteeism among working adults in the U.S.” According to the study, in Wisconsin, for example, the cost of obesity-related absences from work were $14.4 million per year; in California, it was $907 million per year.

To conduct the study, researchers estimated the number of days people missed work due to obesity-related problems and compared that number of to the days missed by healthy coworkers. They took their 14,975 subjects from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for the years ranging from 1998-2008.

Obesity and healthy-living behaviors are not simply individual choices, but economic ones as well, affecting businesses worldwide at a productivity level, says the senior author of the study, Y. Claire Wang, co-director of the Obesity Prevention Initiative at the Mailman School of Public Health. It’s a policy question, too, says Wang. Although employers have to think of health as an investment, so do lawmakers. “Fiscal policies like [a tax on sugary drinks] would change the relative pricing of cheap but energy-dense and nutrition-poor foods," Wang says. And this might lead to subsidies for healthy fresh fruit and vegetables.

For her, this new research was meant to spark a debate beyond previous studies on obesity and healthcare costs. In 2011, she published a study along with colleagues at The Lancet “estimating a $66 billion higher medical expenditure by 2030 if the U.S. trend in obesity continues.” Whether they want it or not, businesses may have to start investing in healthy living for their employees.

This piece has been updated.