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U.S. hospitals are ripping out wall-mounted toilets and replacing them with floor models to better support obese patients. The Federal Transit Administration wants buses to be tested for the impact of heavier riders on steering and braking. Cars are burning nearly a billion gallons of gasoline more a year than if passengers weighed what they did in 1960.
The nation's rising rate of obesity has been well-chronicled. But businesses, governments and individuals are only now coming to grips with the costs of those extra pounds, many of which are even greater than believed only a few years ago: The additional medical spending due to obesity is double previous estimates and exceeds even those of smoking, a new study shows.
The percentage of Americans who are obese (with a BMI of 30 or higher) has tripled since 1960, to 34 percent, while the incidence of extreme or "morbid" obesity (BMI above 40) has risen sixfold, to 6 percent. The percentage of overweight Americans (BMI of 25 to 29.9) has held steady: It was 34 percent in 2008 and 32 percent in 1961. What seems to have happened is that for every healthy-weight person who "graduated" into overweight, an overweight person graduated into obesity.
Because obesity raises the risk of a host of medical conditions, from heart disease to chronic pain, the obese are absent from work more often than people of healthy weight. The most obese men take 5.9 more sick days a year; the most obese women, 9.4 days more. Obesity-related absenteeism costs employers as m u ch as $6.4 billion a year, health economists led by Eric Finkelstein of Duke University calculated.
The medical costs of obesity have long been the focus of health economists. A just-published analysis finds that it raises those costs more than thought.
Obese men rack up an additional $1,152 a year in medical spending, especially for hospitalizations and prescription drugs, Cawley and Chad Meyerhoefer of Lehigh University reported in January in the Journal of Health Economics. Obese women account for an extra $3,613 a year. Using data from 9,852 men (average BMI: 28) and 13,837 women (average BMI: 27) ages 20 to 64, among whom 28 percent were obese, the researchers found even higher costs among the uninsured: annual medical spending for an obese person was $3,271 compared with $512 for the non-obese.
Nationally, that comes to $190 billion a year in additional medical spending as a result of obesity, calculated Cawley, or 20.6 percent of U.S. health care expenditures.
That is double recent estimates, reflecting more precise methodology.
Contrary to the media's idealization of slimness, medical spending for men is about the same for BMIs of 26 to 35. For women, the uptick starts at a BMI of 25. In men more than women, high BMIs can reflect extra muscle as well as fat, so it is possible to be healthy even with an overweight BMI. "A man with a BMI of 28 might be very fit," said Cawley. "Where healthcare costs really take off is in the morbidly obese."
Those extra medical costs are partly born by the non-obese, in the form of higher taxes to support Medicaid and higher health insurance premiums. Obese women raise such "third party" expenditures $3,220 a year each; obese men, $967 a year, Cawley and Meyerhoefer found.
One recent surprise is the discovery that the costs of obesity exceed those of smoking. In a paper published in March, scientists at the Mayo Clinic toted up the exact medical costs of 30,529 Mayo employees, adult dependents, and retirees over several years.
"Smoking added about 20 percent a year to medical costs," said Mayo's James Naessens. "Obesity was similar, but morbid obesity increased those costs by 50 percent a year. There really is an economic justification for employers to offer programs to help the very obese lose weight."
Some costs of obesity reflect basic physics. It requires twice as much energy to move 250 pounds than 125 pounds. As a result, a vehicle burns more gasoline carrying heavier passengers than lighter ones.
"Growing obesity rates increase fuel consumption," said engineer Sheldon Jacobson of the University of Illinois. How much? An additional 938 million gallons of gasoline each year due to overweight and obesity in the United States, or 0.8 percent, he calculated. That's $4 billion extra.
Not all the changes spurred by the prevalence of obesity come with a price tag. Train cars New Jersey Transit ordered from Bombardier have seats 2.2 inches wider than current cars, at 19.75 inches, said spokesman John Durso, giving everyone a more comfortable commute. (There will also be more seats per car because the new ones are double-deckers.)
The built environment generally is changing to accommodate larger Americans. New York's commuter trains are considering new cars with seats able to hold 400 pounds. Blue Bird is widening the front doors on its school buses so wider kids can fit. And at both the new Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, seats are wider than their predecessors by 1 to 2 inches.
The new performance testing proposed by transit officials for buses, assuming an average passenger weight of 175 instead of 150 pounds, arise from concerns that heavier passengers might pose a safety threat. If too much weight is behind the rear axle, a bus can lose steering. And every additional pound increases a moving vehicle's momentum, requiring more force to stop and thereby putting greater demands on brakes. Manufacturers have told the FTA the proposal will require them to upgrade several components.
Hospitals, too, are adapting to larger patients. The University of Alabama at Birmingham's hospital, the nation's fourth largest, has widened doors, replaced wall-mounted toilets with floor models able to hold 250 pounds or more, and bought plus-size wheelchairs (twice the price of regulars) as well as mini-cranes to hoist obese patients out of bed.
I agree as kids the hubby and I roamed our city all day long and no one ever bothered us. By the time we were teenagers though our town had the highest murder rate in the nation, Gary, IN. So we got street wise real fast.
It's very hard to let your children go outside and play, even when you live in a small town, due to the possibility that they could be taken - without a clue - by the many sick perverts that are out there. I grew up where I was able to leave in the a.m. and play all day outside as an 8 year-old -- I find it impossible to let my 10 year old granddaughter leave the house, except to go around the block, due to the possibilty of her being stolen. I live in WI where a child was raped and killed while trick and treating in a small town. The Turner law was made due to this horrible crime.
By saying that an individual has no right to do anything that might increase his health care costs at some point in the future, you are taking a step that I can't agree with. And why isn't the corollary true, that an individual must do everything that might lower his health care costs in the future?
However, everyone's right to live how they wish only goes to a certain point, and that point in my opinion is when it starts directly effecting the lives of others or others are left to pick up the tab. At that point you are no longer simply living the way you choose to live but instead thinking your right to live the way you choose trumps the rights of others to live their lives without you taking their hard earned money.