Living large: Obesity health costs surpass those of smoking

By Posted : 04/30/2012

Obesity is 20 percent of health care costObesity is not only unhealthy, it's expensive – costing the U.S. $190 billion in health care costs, or 21 percent of U.S. health care expenditures, according to a Cornell University obesity study.  

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The study found that medical costs associated with obesity are nearly double previous estimates. The Cornell study reports that an obese person incurs medical costs that are $2,741 higher than if he or she was  not obese. Nationwide, that translates into $190.2 billion per year, or 20.6 percent of national health expenditures.  Previous estimates had pegged the cost of obesity at $85.7 billion, or 9.1 percent of national health expenditures, according to the study.

"Obesity raises the costs of treating almost any medical condition. It adds up very quickly," John Cawley, study co-author and professor of policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology and professor of economics at Cornell, said in a statement. The study appeared in the January issue of the Journal of Health Economics.

But the Cornell report isn't the only recent study to tackle the cost of being overweight. For instance, a Mayo Clinic study found that medical costs associated with obesity exceed that of smoking.

 The annual incremental mean costs of smoking by age group ranged from $1,274 to $1,401.The incremental costs of morbid obesity by age group ranged from $5,467 to $5,530, according to the Mayo Clinic study published in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

Heavier drivers increase fuel consumption, too, because car engines must use more energy to move more weight. This costs motorists an estimated $4 billion a year for the nearly 1 billion gallons of extra gas, according to another recent research paper written by Sheldon Jacobson, computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Smoking, being overweight impacts life and health insurance cost

In light of these findings, it's no surprise that there is a  recent trend in group health care aimed at motivating workers to become healthier as a means of reducing health care costs. Employees who embrace healthy lifestyle choices, such as quitting smoking and losing weight,  increasingly are being rewarded with lower insurance premiums, cash awards or other incentives – and those who don't are being penalized.  (See "Take care or pay a higher share of your health care costs.")

You don't need your employer 's help to save money on life insurance – shedding pounds on your own can cut your premium. ( See: "How much can you save on life insurance by losing weight?") Additionally, you can buy comprehensive life insurance with money you save from quitting smoking. (See: "Smokeout: How much life insurance your cigarette money can buy.")

The 'plump-my-ride' trend

The news of how much obesity is costing the country comes at a time when there's little doubt that Americans, overall, are getting heftier.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third  -- 35.7 percent -- of U.S. adults are considered obese. About 17 percent,  or roughly 12.5 million, children and adolescents aged 2 to 12, also fall into that category.

Given the increase in obesity,  it's perhaps no surprise that some carmakers are making bigger vehicles to accommodate heavier drivers. "Plus size" cars are becoming more common as auto makers adjust to customers' expanding waistlines.

Porsche is responding to the needs of heavier passengers, says Gary Fong, the firm's productexperience manager. Porsche several years ago introduced "electrically powered steering columns"  that can be raised once the engine is turned off to provide more clearance when getting into and out of the car, says Fong. Porsche also now offers four seat types, including the wider "comfort" model designed for larger drivers, he says.

"Of course, we want to make our vehicles more comfortable for everyone," says Fong. "We want to be sensitive about this, but, of course, that includes overweight drivers and passengers."

Porsche, Mercedes, BMW and other manufacturers also have grab handles above the doors to help people enter and exit their cars. Most luxury brands, Fong says, have "back up" cameras so drivers of all sizes can easily see what's behind them when backing up.

It's not just luxury brands that appear to be accommodating more portly drivers. An analysis by Insurance.com shows that the Ford Explorer has increased by nearly 9 inches in width from 1999 to 2012. Here are the widths, by inches, for the Ford Explorer by year:

  • 1999, 2000, 2001:  70.2 inches wide
  • 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005:  72.1
  • 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010:   73.7
  • 2011, 2012, 2013:  78.9

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