As developments with health care reform continue to dominate the national debate, it is important to consider a development far less talked about: the epidemic of obesity nationwide.
America’s Health Rankings, an annual report that for the last 20 years has ranked states according to their health status, reports this year that obesity is growing faster than any previous public health issue and will be the greatest health issue for the next two decades. Today, almost 27 percent of Americans are obese- compared to just 12 percent in 1990. More alarming, if current trends continue, 43 percent of the population will be considered obese by 2018.
These are not merely statistical data points compiled to criticize the many Americans who suffer unnecessarily because they are obese. Obesity is linked with a number of potentially fatal conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and can also cause painful joint problems. What’s more, debilitating conditions, recovery, and treatment also burden those charged with looking after the health of loved ones.
The obesity epidemic comes with real financial costs. We already spend over $100 million on health care expenses related to the treatment of the obese and overweight. This number is expected to reach an astronomical $344 billion – that’s more than 20 percent of our entire expenditure on health care- and approximately $1,425 per American.
The crisis is particularly acute among our youth. According to the Center for Disease Prevention, the rate of obesity has more than doubled for children aged 2 to 11 years and more than tripled for adolescents aged 12 to 19 years. Current data shows that 32 percent of children are overweight, 16 percent are obese, and 11 percent are extremely obese.
Late last week, I introduced the Healthy Kids Act (H.R. 4053), which would provide the federal leadership necessary to address the crises threatening a generation of America’s children. H.R. 4053 would establish an Office of Childhood Overweight and Obesity Prevention and Treatment within the Department of Health and Human Services. The Director of this office will be the Federal government’s champion on this issue and will be charged with evaluating the effectiveness of existing Federal policies, programs, and research efforts and identifying future needs; implementing Federal support measures for State, tribal, and territorial programs; and carrying out a comprehensive, long-term, national campaign to prevent weight gain and obesity among our children and youth. The Director will also have an important role in promoting and supporting school wellness policies that monitor students’ body mass index, provide parents with information on health and nutrition, and implement age-appropriate physical activity programs.
According to a new report released by the Partnership for Prevention, taking steps to prevent obesity – especially among children – would come with significant budgetary rewards. For instance, if we were to freeze obesity at the current level, we could save up to $264 billion over the next 10 years on related health care costs.
Like the battle over health reform, fighting obesity will demand difficult decisions and hard work. But with the cost to taxpayers and future generations skyrocketing, it is time to include America’s obesity problem in the national debate.