The High Cost of Excess Weight
Apart from tobacco, there is perhaps no greater harm to the collective health in the U.S. than obesity. Worldwide, too, obesity’s health effects are deep and vast—and they have a real and lasting impact on communities, on nations, and most importantly, on individuals, today and across future generations
In the U.S., among adults under the age of 70, obesity is second only to tobacco in the number of deaths it causes each year. (1) As tobacco use continues to decline, and obesity rates continue to rise, the number of deaths due to obesity may soon exceed that of tobacco.
Like tobacco, obesity causes or is closely linked with a large number of health conditions, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol, asthma, sleep apnea, gallstones, kidney stones, infertility, and as many as 11 types of cancers, including leukemia, breast, and colon cancer. No less real are the social and emotional effects of obesity, including discrimination, lower wages, lower quality of life and a likely susceptibility to depression.
It is a broad swath of harms that has a huge societal effect—on the economy, national productivity, and even national defense. The health care costs of obesity in the U.S. were estimated to be as high as $190 billion in 2005, (2) a number that is double earlier estimates, and that is expected to rise, along with obesity rates, over the coming decades. This includes money spent directly on medical care and prescription drugs related to obesity. But obesity has other costs associated with it, too, among them, the cost of lost days of work, higher employer insurance premiums, and lower wages and incomes linked to obesity-related illnesses. Countries with lower obesity rates than the U.S. spend a smaller share of their healthcare dollars on obesity, but the burden is still sizable. Perhaps one of the most surprising consequences of the current obesity epidemic in the U.S. is its impact on recruitment for the armed services, with data showing that close to 30 percent of young people in the U.S. are now too heavy to qualify for military service. (3)
Read more: economic costs
Taken together, it’s clear that obesity is a global crisis that already touches everyone in one manner or another. And this realization should be a call to action, because there is good news amidst the bad: Obesity is preventable. We can reverse the trends that led to the current epidemic by making changes in public policies and practices, so that healthy food and activity choices are easy choices, for all.
1. Danaei G, Ding EL, Mozaffarian D, et al. The preventable causes of death in the United States: comparative risk assessment of dietary, lifestyle, and metabolic risk factors. PLoS Med. 2009; 6:e1000058.
2. Cawley J, Meyerhoefer C. The medical care costs of obesity: an instrumental variables approach. J Health Econ. 2012; 31:219-30.
3. Mission: Readiness. Too Fat to Fight. Washington, DC: Mission: Readiness; 2010.
The aim of the Harvard School of Public Health Obesity Prevention Source Web site is to provide timely information about obesity’s global causes, consequences, prevention, and control, for the public, health and public health practitioners, business and community leaders, and policymakers. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The Web site’s obesity prevention policy recommendations are based primarily on a review of U.S. expert guidance, unless otherwise indicated; in other countries, different policy approaches may be needed to achieve improvements in food and physical activity environments, so that healthy choices are easy choices, for all.