St. Charles Herald-Guide

The real cost of being unhealthy

Special to the Herald-Guide - October 28, 2011

By Jim Brown, JimBrownLa.com

Americans continue to become less healthy and less productive, mainly because of lifestyle.  That’s the conclusion of a new Gallup study released this week. More than 30 percent of American workers are overweight and have one or more chronic health problems. And the economic cost is staggering. The American economy now suffers annual lost productivity costs of more than $153 billion. In addition, the Gallup survey says that U.S. workers with weight and health issues miss more than 450 million days of work each year. So is there a national outcry? Not really.


With such staggering and detrimental figures continuing to grow, one would think that this current campaign season would offer ample opportunities for a robust debate for encouraging  a healthier work force that would lead to a healthier economy.  My home state of Louisiana just had statewide elections. Health issues haven’t even scratched in the local rhetoric. Nor have health related economic concerns been mentioned in the current presidential debates.


Republican presidential candidates flocked to Sin City last week, for another debate at the lush Venetian Hotel. Las Vegas was the site for the Western Republican Leadership Conference, and all presidential aspirants were in attendance with the exception of former Utah Governor John Huntsman. Finding a fix to make workers healthier would seem to be a good step towards greater American productivity, and a way to strengthen the current lagging economy. But there was nary a mention of the issue by any Republican presidential wanna be.


Not only is the health of American workers a major drag on the economy, but there is also a direct correlation to the increase costs of Medicare.  Yes, we are living longer. In the past, someone obese just didn’t live as long. But new technologies and drugs allow even the less healthy to live a much longer life. Yet the medical costs of  those more obese is 42 percent greater than for the average Medicare recipient because of their greater susceptibility to a number of life threatening diseases, including cancer, dementia, diabetes and heart disease. As columnist David Stipp recently wrote:  “From the economist’s point of view, tens of millions of pot-bellied boomers entering their Medicare years is not a pretty sight. If our society is serious about trimming future budget deficits, we’ll first have to trim our swelling waistlines.”


It appears that the U.S is on a direct path to being a country that is inactive, overweight, over-stimulated and sallow-skinned. The dramatic increase in the number of obese Americans is, or should be, alarming. A new study just out by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports that Colorado has the lowest obesity percentage at 19.8. But get this — just 16 years ago, with this same percentage, Colorado would have been the most obese state in America! In my home state of Louisiana, one third of the population is now obese and the numbers continue to grow.


According to a study, French fries, alone, on any regular basis, led to an average weight gain of 3.4 pounds in each four year period. Yogurt and nuts lead the top weight loss list, and the study reinforced the age old adage of eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains. My basic rule is stay away from anything white –  white rice, white bread, sugar, etc.


Recent proposals to deal with the growing obesity problem include a “fat tax” on foods with questionable nutritional value. Some have also suggested that those who are obese, yet make no effort to deal with their problem, should pay higher Medicare costs. But the naysayers to such ideas say government should have no such invasive role, and any taxes on unhealthy food products is an invasion of one’s personal freedom of choice.


The counter argument is that when you and I have to pay the medical costs of others who are irresponsible in their eating choices, are they not infringing on our freedoms to be left alone and not have to foot their bill? The public cost of obesity continues to rise and is projected to hit $344 billion by 2018. And 60 percent of this cost is born by taxpayers. Make no mistake - that’s you and me.


Obesity in America is not a new problem, but its continuing increase makes it a more urgent problem by the day. A major disappointment is that here is no focus or leadership on this critical issue coming from either political party or any presidential candidate.  And when the campaigns are over and gone, you and I will be the losers — we’ll be stuck with the bill.