Saturday, August 01, 2009

Obesity and Healthcare Costs

Two facts from the Wall Street Journal a few days ago:

The prevalence of obesity rose 37% between 1998 and 2006....Obese people spent 42% more than people of normal weight on medical costs in 2006.
This is consistent with what I said in a column on healthcare fallacies in the NY Times a couple years ago:

Americans are also more likely to be obese, leading to heart disease and other medical problems. Among Americans, 31 percent of men and 33 percent of women have a body mass index of at least 30, a definition of obesity, versus 17 percent of men and 19 percent of women in Canada. Japan, which has the longest life expectancy among major nations, has obesity rates of about 3 percent.

The causes of American obesity are not fully understood, but they involve lifestyle choices we make every day, as well as our system of food delivery. Research by the Harvard economists David Cutler, Ed Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro concludes that America’s growing obesity problem is largely attributable to our economy’s ability to supply high-calorie foods cheaply. Lower prices increase food consumption, sometimes beyond the point of optimal health.

FYI, here, from OECD data presented in the O'Neill study, are the percentages of the male population with a body-mass index of 30 or more (female obesity rates are similar):

Japan 2.8
France 9.8
Germany 14.4
Canada 17.0
U.K. 22.7
U.S. 31.1

The bottom line: Differences in healthcare costs and health outcomes, either over time or across countries, depend on a lot more than the national system of health insurance.