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

Hillbilly D

June 26th, 2012
8:47 pm

All of us use some things we don’t pay for. All of us pay for some things we don’t use. C’est la vie.

SAWB

June 26th, 2012
11:36 pm

I continue to hear about this obesity epidemic, but I just don’t see it in my family, Church, neighborhood, workplace, etc. So, where are all these obese people? I mean yes I do see larger folks occasionally, but the media makes it sound like every other person in Georgia is a 350 pounder.

ceciliagladney

June 27th, 2012
6:21 am

I have always used coupons, but if I thought the generic was cheaper I would just buy that instead of the smaller name brand size or even samples from Get Official Samples can help

nelson

June 27th, 2012
6:53 am

As long as there is food there will be obese people. People like to eat. For some it is their only enjoyment. The really large ones are wheel chair bound. They get bigger and bigger.
Who are children’s role models, they are foot ball players and foot ball players top 300 pounds. A lot of parents see their child as being a foot ball player if they can get him up to 300 pounds.
As for girls when they decide they are not going to be an incredibly attractive hollywood celebrity they just let it all hang out.
Becoming thinner is a losing battle.

Citizen of the World

June 27th, 2012
8:12 am

SAWB, I don’t know where you live, but obesity does seem more prevalent in some areas than in others. If I go to Phipps Plaza, I don’t see hardly any obese or even overweight people. If I go to Discover Mills, I don’t see hardly any people who aren’t obese or overweight. This observation alone tells me there are cultural factors at work here — whether it’s related to education, economics, community norms, built environment or all of the above. It’s a huge problem, and if every other person in Georgia isn’t overweight, at least every third person is.

Jason

June 27th, 2012
9:02 am

SAWB, it might simply be that you see so many overweight people that they appear normal to you. Spend some time in Colorado or overseas and then come back to Georgia, You’ll be shocked. In my early twenties I lived in a rich suburb of Los Angeles for a few years. When I’d come back to the South to visit relatives, I was shocked at how fat everybody looked though they really hadn’t changed any. If you don’t want to travel, go rent an old Humphrey Bogart movie and notice the size of the people in the movie compared to who you see out on the street.

Alane L. Sullivan, Nuclear Medicine Technologist

June 27th, 2012
10:44 am

I just finished reading Dr. Phillip Williams article, and I found it to be very valuable and quite informative. I am a Certified Nuclear Medicine Technologist. For over 2 years, I worked in a local Cardiology practice where I performed Nuclear Cardiac Stress Tests. These tests are used as a diagnostic tool to access coronary artery disease. I found that there are certain risks factors that were always seen together: Hypertension, High cholesterol, Diabetes, and Obesity. These risks factors appear to go together like a burger and fries. I became very educated in heart health while employed there. I, having a weight problem myself, lost over 40 lbs while employed there. Today, as I continue to persue my weight loss goals, reading your article served to put many things in perspective as it pertains to our economic health. Thank you for your informative article.

Alane L. Sullivan

Fairequal

June 27th, 2012
11:48 am

It is urgent our elected reps and state employees immediately take the role of leaders in this matter. They should take full responsibility to get themselves in shape and save the taxpayers billions in health costs.

Eric

June 27th, 2012
12:50 pm

I have always been someone who is health minded. I try to eat relatively healthy, I try to work out several times a week, and I see my doctor regularly. But as I have aged, I too have become a bit thick in the middle. I have spoken to doctors and nutritionalists and everyone agrees that my diet is not the problem. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not obese, I have gained about 10 pounds of unwanted fat around the middle. My doctor thinks this is just part of natural aging, as I approach my middle 40’s. So in some respects I do think weight gain is genetic. But that does NOT excuse those who eat a 4,000 calorie a day diet and wonder why they are considered obese.

For years I have frequented this particual buffet style restaurant and each time I watch those around me. The buffet is filled with relatively healthy foods, but some people seem to think they can fill plate after plate of “healthy” food and that it doesn’t affect their waistline. Nothing is further from the truth, you still have to eat in moderation. The bottom line is more calories in than out results in bulging waistlines. So push yourself away from the table and go for a walk.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that some people are not capable of a lot of physical exercise, but in that case small efforts can have a big payoff. Just make it your mission to move a bit more today than you did yesterday. You will have days where you can’t, but don’t get discouraged, just try a little harder the next day. If you fall of the wagon, brush yourself off and get back on. And the last thing you need to worry about is what others think, other than maybe your doctor. If you know you are making efforts to improve, then in time you will get there. The problem is that people see it as a race between themselves and fitter people. The real race is against yourself, and as long as you continue to compete with yourself, you will make progress.

So that is my soapbox speech for the day. I applaud those larger people I see in the gym. At least they are trying. They may never have a perfect body, but they are making strides to improve themselves. And over the years those strides pay off in better health. So say no to that second or third helping at dinner time, and move a bit more today. Baby steps can make all the difference in the world between success and failure.

TrishaDishaWarEagle

June 27th, 2012
1:08 pm

I don’t much(nay, at all) care about you or your childrens health. I take care of my health, yours is totally up to you. I won’t be going out of my way to do anything about other peoples problems, and this is the next manufactured crisis by government to try to extract more money from your pocket now that global warming has failed as public boogey man.

And I still am not going to wear my seatbelt..300k miles since age 16 without a wreck.

Doc Brown

June 27th, 2012
1:29 pm

Fat people eat cheap food.

nnd

June 27th, 2012
2:10 pm

@Fairequal Speaking as a state employee, your tax dollars do not pay my health insurance. Every state employee has monthly health plan premiums to pay, just like private industry. Cigna gets plenty of my money. It is actually the uninsured individuals that walk into public hospitals that are wasting your tax dollars.

Jimmy62

June 27th, 2012
3:04 pm

The solutions are obvious. We need to take away choice and freedom. Fat people should no longer have the right to be fat. This is a crisis, and Obama’s former Chief of Staff (now the mayor of Chicago where the murder rate is worse than most 3rd world countries) told me that we should never let a crisis go to waste. This is a crisis, and we should use it to increase control over our lives. More government, more politicians, more bureaucrats. They can tell us what to eat, and when science proves them wrong, then twenty years later they can change it. And who cares about the people who die in the meantime? They won’t be able to vote, so the politicians don’t.

It’s all about power and control, and this is just another excuse for more of it. You know how the obesity epidemic started? Government food guidelines that encouraged us to eat what they thought was healthy, and practically forced our kids to eat that crap. And what happened? We all got fat eating the thick part of the food pyramid (grains, cereals, pasta, bread, etc.). So the obvious solution is to get the government to meddle again. With luck we’ll all be 350 pounds in a couple of decades, and we won’t have any choice or options.

More government, the solution to every crisis!

sonria

June 27th, 2012
3:32 pm

TrishaDishaWarEagle, so when an an uninsured drunk driver hits you head-on and your own car/health insurance denies all but a few of the bills because you weren’t wearing a seatbelt (and see if they won’t!) does that mean you’ll take the six figure bill out of your pocket? Or will you just expect the hospital and such to write the bill off and/or accept $10/month for a few years until you get tired of paying it? Your behavior CAN and DOES cost the rest of us money. Act like a responsible member of society and put the d@mn seat belt on. And take a basic economics class so you understand that health costs are based on populations, not individuals.

Thomas

June 27th, 2012
4:10 pm

What do you expect? Schools have cut recess, and P.E. courses down to bare minimums. With the rise in perverted crimes, no parent is just going to put their kids out on the street or parks to play. But, it is more than that, we have one of the highest uninsured rates in the nation, this naturally couples with the highest mortality rates as well. We have dreadfully hot, buggy and humid summers, not overly conducive for being outdoors. None of the solutions suggested are easy, but good habits start early, so I would think encouraging PE courses, and after school sports would be an easy place to start.

TrishaDishaWarEagle

June 27th, 2012
4:12 pm

@sonria

You miss both the point and the depth of my disdain for society in general and it’s collective wants, needs, and desires. If you want to decouple my actions from your purse, as I wish to decouple yours from mine, the solution is obvious..elimination of government medical payments be they premium subsidy, medicare, medicaid.

Old School Girl

June 27th, 2012
4:46 pm

Greetings,

NND, unfortunately you are incorrect. Your premium only pays a portion of your insurance. Our tax dollars pay for your salary, and your benefits which include insurance.

Everyone wants limited government regulations in their lives…personal rights. However, no one ever says anything about personal responsibility when it comes to health care. Just get sick, loose your insurance, and guess what, you have coverage…just go to the ED, and by law, they have to at least evaluate you. Guess what again, you can do that as many times as you want, and guess what? Your local, state and federal taxes pay for all of the free care that you lack of personal responsibility can muster. If everyone really had to pay their medical bills in full, we would not have the problems that we have today. Insurance gives you a false sense of security…that is, until you loose it. Obesity will never go away as long as we have the right to eat what we want, get as sick as we want, and know that we will receive all of the care that we want…on someone elses dime.

madmommy

June 27th, 2012
7:37 pm

The reason that health care is so expensive is because there are no set rates or prices for anything. It would be one thing if we could all see the variation in cost from year to year, but alas someone has to make money off sick people. As far as weight issues, I know it costs a heck of a lot more to be skinny than it does fat based on the costs of foods, but not all that much more. It has more to do with people sitting for 8 hours plus a day at their job, not to mention the trip into the office and then back home again. Did I mention I am tired and just ready to relax when I get home because I had had a long day already? Now I need to focus in on my children, hubby, house work, dinner and whatever else is tossed at me last minute? I am one of the few people I know who LOVE to workout and would do it for two plus hours a day if I could spare the time, but I can’t and feel like I am doing something when I can get an hour in or at the very least 45 minutes in.

We all have choices to make with our time, but keeping yourself and family healthy is always worth the extra time and effort in my home. Just about what really matters to you in the long run and for most people it is not worth the effort it takes to keep in shape and to get into shape. We are a sad nation as a whole and I feel for our chubby children.

Eric

June 28th, 2012
7:55 am

Sorry, but the government and business should not be involved in what people choose to eat. If employees are made to join a wellness program, they will be at work all day, because the workplace already asks too much of people.

Consider another reason for obesity: the cost of healthier fruit and veggies is much higher than that bag of potato chips and candy bar. Make healthier food made more affordable, then I’ll buy it.

Eric

June 28th, 2012
7:59 am

I wonder why this is the crisis when hospitals are allowed to charge $50 for a bottle of aspirin. THIS is the real health care crisis and threat to our economy.

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.