Obesity costs us all

Moderated by Rick Badie

Our adults and youth are some of the heaviest in the U.S. While we understand the health ramifications of obesity, the harm done to our region’s economic diet can be equally damaging. Today, Phillip L. Williams, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia, writes that obesity costs employers thousands of dollars in health care and the state more than $2 billion yearly. Brenda Fitzgerald, head of Georgia’s Department of Public Health, suggests ways employers can promote healthy habits. Enter your comments below the essays.

The fiscal fallout of obesity

By Phillip L. Williams

The numbers are stark and the situation is nothing short of dire. In Georgia, obesity costs us more than $2.4 billion in medical bills per year. We are ranked second nationally for childhood obesity, and roughly two-thirds of our adult population is overweight or obese. If preventive efforts are not taken, we can expect that number to grow to $11 billion by 2018. All of these troubling statistics point to a looming fiscal and medical crisis for Georgia.

Last month, Gov. Nathan Deal unveiled Georgia SHAPE, a wide-ranging initiative that aims to get control of this obesity epidemic by improving the health of young people through physical fitness and better nutritional habits. To my knowledge, Deal is the first governor in state history to use his office to champion this cause. He deserves tremendous credit for taking this step to “get Georgia moving” in the fight against obesity. It’s a fight that affects Georgians young and old.

Most people gain weight as they age. We already have more than 1 million obese children in Georgia. When you start out overweight, the unpleasant outcomes associated with it — diabetes, heart disease and other chronic health conditions — typically accelerate and become magnified, presenting a looming medical and financial disaster for Georgia. The average Georgian is paying roughly $250 per year in additional health-care expenses to cover the extra cost of our obese population. That figure stands to grow over time given current trends.

The negative economic consequences don’t stop there. Overweight individuals on average cost their employers more than $6,000 annually in medical and absentee costs, nearly $5,000 more than non-obese employees.

The governor’s initiative —coupled with other high-profile, anti-obesity efforts, including a landmark effort being conducted by the University of Georgia — is a positive step. In 2010, I served as chairman of the Georgia Public Health Commission. Working in conjunction with the state Legislature and Deal, we established the Department of Public Health, which provides the infrastructure to support our public health officials and health care professionals. Additionally, at the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia and other schools of public health across the state, a new generation of public health workers is being trained to address these challenges.

But there is more to do and it starts with you.

There are two key components to ensure this initiative is a success. The first is the recognition that we all have to take more personal responsibility when it comes to managing our weight. The decision on whether to exercise or whether to “super size” our meals ultimately rests with you and me. Quite frankly, we all need more discipline in this regard.

The second component involves working together to make sure our communities are more conducive to choices and practices that will help curtail obesity. It’s essential we begin the challenging but necessary work of creating that environment.

Our health insurance market rarely, if ever, distinguishes between proper preventive behavior and poor ones. A system that offers incentives for preventive health could yield better medical and fiscal outcomes for our residents.

While these are tough decisions, we’ve made them before. From seat belts to smoking, our public health efforts have a track record of success when public buy-in is married with smart, targeted and efficient policy and programs. Obesity is different because one simply can’t choose not to eat, which means everyone shares some risk of becoming overweight.

However, we can take lessons learned from our successful efforts, make the appropriate adaptations and boldly aim to end this crisis before it further jeopardizes the health of our economy and neighbors.

Dr. Phillip L. Williams is founding dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia and a member of the Georgia Board of Public Health.

Epidemic has heavier price for children

By Brenda Fitzgerald

The cost of obesity each year in Georgia is staggering. Billions of dollars are needed for medical bills and care of people who face obesity-related illnesses such as chronic hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

Our children are the second-most obese children in the nation. And research indicates 80 percent of our obese children will grow to be obese adults, leading to even higher rates of illnesses, increased health care costs and higher insurance premiums.

That makes Georgia less attractive to business, halts economic development and increases poverty statewide.

Yet, there is an even greater cost beyond the billions of dollars spent on obesity and it’s a price that cannot be quantified.

Children are robbed of joy amid diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. How can we put a price on a child forced to watch others run and play because he cannot keep up?

How do we put a number on the fact that, for the first time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects obesity will result in a shorter life expectancy for this generation of children than previous generations?

We cannot.

And we cannot as Georgians sit idly by as this problem and the true costs associated with it continue to grow out of control.

All sectors of government, the business community and leaders from all backgrounds are needed to solve one of the most critical and important challenges that we face as a state.

Obesity cuts across gender, race and socioeconomic status. Obesity impacts everyone, even those who are not obese and we must all work to build the solutions.

The Georgia Department of Public Health has several initiatives to combat obesity across our state.

Breast-feeding alone brings healthier, fitter children. Research tells us businesses that adopt positive breast-feeding policies will enjoy reduced absenteeism and reduced health care premiums.

Businesses can join public health in promoting work-site wellness policies. At our state office, we have a work-site wellness program that encourages employees to be more active throughout the workday, make healthier food choices and take walks at lunch.

By implementing work-site wellness programs, companies can see reduced employee absenteeism, increased productivity and reduced health care costs.

Most importantly, we must, as a state, focus on those who are paying the true price of obesity and that’s our children.

We’re doing that through Georgia SHAPE, a statewide childhood obesity initiative, because we know the longer a person struggles with obesity the greater the chance for harm.

So we’re starting early in addressing obesity from birth through the elementary, middle and high school years.

The Georgia SHAPE website (GeorgiaSHAPE.org) makes it easier for the state’s children and their families to stay fit and healthy by offering local opportunities for fitness and healthy recipes.

Put forth by Gov. Nathan Deal, Georgia SHAPE offers a true solution. My Georgia won’t let obesity rob children of the joy of childhood and a healthy future.

We all must step up and take action against obesity. The true price of this devastating epidemic is astounding, and it is one that we in Georgia don’t have to pay.

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald is the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health.

21 comments Add your comment

Tanisha

June 28th, 2012
11:45 am

So many areas have broken, or no, sidewalks where people can exercise.

One relatively inexpensive thing local government can do to help with the obesity situation is to make high school tracks accessible to walkers and runners seven days a week. Most of them stay locked up because the athletic departments are afraid the unwashed masses will go onto their beautiful football fields.