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Columns

February 23, 2008

Cost is but one worry of obesity

So now there's a new study that says obesity doesn't really cost society as much as we've been led to believe.

The Dutch study, published online Feb. 5 in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal, found that it actually costs more in the long run to care for healthy people than people who smoke or are obese _ because the healthy people live longer.

Using a simulation model to estimate lifetime health-care costs for the three groups, researchers found that the smokers and obese people had more heart disease than the "healthy-living" group (people who had never smoked and were not overweight), and the obese people racked up the highest health-care bills until age 56.

However, the healthy people lived 41/2 years longer than the obese people (and seven years longer than the smokers), and the health-care costs they incurred during those extra years, including nursing and home care, made their lifetime health-care expenditure the highest.

The study raises some interesting questions: Is giving up a Big Mac addiction worth an extra 41/2 years of life? Why should governments invest in obesity-prevention programs if a healthier population will end up costing them more? The issues are complex, but there is one simple common denominator: quality of life.

We should encourage people to eat well and exercise because it's the right thing to do, not because it might save society money. We should create a culture that is supportive of healthy habits, because healthier people are happier and more productive. (Even the study authors admit that their research doesn't account for the indirect costs of obesity, such as lower productivity).

We should also combat the behaviors that lead to obesity because they have other negative consequences besides their effect on our health. Our national addiction to processed junk food isn't good for our environment or our local businesses and farmers.

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