More Expensive to be Obese than to Smoke?

smoking obesity costThe results of a new cost-analysis, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that obese workers’ health care costs now top those of smokers.  Using data from 30,000 Mayo Clinic employees and retirees from 2001 to 2007, researchers found that higher health care costs were associated with both obesity and smoking:  annual costs were $1,850 more for obese people than those of normal weight, on average, and $1,275 more for smokers than non-smokers.  Additionally, morbidly obese people were found to be spending $5,500 more per year compared with people of normal weight. After adjusting for other health conditions, the cost of obesity appeared to be lower; however, experts caution that adjusting for these conditions may result in underestimating the true incremental costs, since obesity is a risk factor for developing several chronic conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea and reproductive issues.

The research demonstrates that both smoking and obesity lead to substantially higher health care costs, and with employers looking for ways of reducing health care costs, the findings support programs designed to help smoking cessation and encourage weight loss. Another recent report assessing the cost of obesity found that obesity now accounts for 21 percent of all health care spending in the United States. The report estimates that an obese person’s medical costs are even higher than what the Mayo Clinic study found, with obese people spending $2,741 more annually than someone who is not obese.

Dr. Vafa Shayani, expert bariatric surgeon in Chicago, commented on the study. He said “Many of us perceive obesity and smoking as variations of substance abuse.  Accordingly, to overcome each condition, patients might benefit from life-long behavioral modification strategies.  Thanks to the abundant support for adverse effects of second-hand smoke, smoking at public places, including places of employment, has long been banned.  It is hard to imagine that we will ever impose similar restrictions for food intake.  However, studies like this one clearly demonstrate the significant economic impact of obesity, not just for the obese individual, but the society in general.  At the very least, employers might consider incentivising their employees for healthier life-styles, which should include better eating habits,” Dr. Shayani concluded.

For severely obese people, bariatric surgery is often an effective weight loss treatment. A 2011 study found that not only is bariatric surgery cost-effective, but it ultimately saves money in healthcare costs for the most severely obese patients that suffer from diseases related to their weight, including heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. You can read more about that study here.

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