Obesity less healthy than smoking, drinking

June 1, 2002

Pharmaceutical Representative

Obesity is a greater trigger for health problems and increased health spending than smoking or drinking, according to a new study.

Obesity is a greater trigger for health problems and increased health spending than smoking or drinking, according to a new study published in the journal Health Affairs (vol. 21, no. 2).

The study reveals that more people are classified as obese (23%) than as daily smokers (19%) or heavy drinkers (6%). To be clinically classified as obese, a person must have a body mass index greater than 30.

Obesity, smoking and heavy drinking are known behavioral causes of such chronic health conditions as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Yet according to the study, the effects of obesity on the number of chronic conditions a person has are significantly larger than the effects of current or past smoking or problem drinking. Those who are obese have 30% to 50% more chronic medical problems than those who smoke or drink heavily. The effects of obesity are similar to twenty years of aging (from age 30 to age 50).

A similar picture emerges for obesity's impact on physical health-related quality of life, with obesity contributing to a decline in quality of life at nearly four times the rate for problem drinking and smoking.

"Smoking and drinking, which are on the decline, have been the focus of research and policy work for years. Yet obesity, which can have far more serious health consequences, has received far less interest," said Roland Sturm of the UCLA/RAND Managed Care Center for Psychiatric Disorders, which conducted the national telephone survey of about 10,000 adults. "Given that obesity rates have increased nearly 60% in the last decade, prevention and treatment must be a higher public health priority for the healthcare profession and policymakers."

Obesity's impact on costs

Obesity is associated with a 36% increase in inpatient and outpatient spending and a 77% increase in medication costs, compared with a 21% increase in healthcare spending and a 28% increase in medication costs for current smokers and smaller effects for problem drinkers. In terms of absolute dollar increases for inpatient and ambulatory care, obesity is associated with an average increase of $395 annually, while smoking raises costs by $230 and heavy drinking is associated with a $150 annual increase.

Said Sturm, "Excess weight has long been acknowledged as a serious and very costly health risk, but it needs more attention from health professionals, the insurance industry and the government." PR

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