Obesity continues to grab headlines in newspapers and online news site around the world. America is becoming a country of overweight and obese individuals: currently, 127 million adults are overweight in the US alone, and 60 million of them are considered clinically obese. These statistics probably aren't new to you, but a serious discussion of the long-term costs of obesity to states and the country as a whole has not appeared frequently in the popular press. I think it's time to give those a serious look.
Obesity is more than just a personal health problem. Certainly, it has dire consequences to an individual in terms of lost productivity, lower quality of life, encouraging the onset of secondary disease like diabetes and heart disease (and outrageous medical bills). But the costs of obesity go far beyond individual costs -- they extend to the nation as a whole. Why? Because many of the health care procedures performed in the United States are paid for by taxpayer dollars. Even when such medical costs are covered under private insurance, that insurance is paid for by other members of the public, making it a burden that must be carried by the general public, and not just the individual who is incurring these costs.
Furthermore, obesity reduces the lifespan (and especially the working life) of individuals, thereby robbing society of the productivity those people would otherwise normally contribute. In plain language, a person who is healthy and who is mentally and physically functioning at an optimum level of health can contribute more to society in terms of ideas, productivity, and creativity than a person who is confined to a hospital bed because they have undergone gastric bypass surgery or some other procedure that was ordered as a result of their obesity.
The long-term trend in all this is somewhat alarming: Both states and the federal government stand to be bankrupted by health care costs associated with obesity and the chronic diseases caused by obesity. This is becoming more obvious now that Medicare has officially announced that treatments for obesity will be paid for with taxpayer dollars. It threatens to drain public funds in the never-ending treatment of obese citizens.
The solution to all this is not to have cheaper drugs, nor to negotiate with health care providers for lower-cost surgical procedures; the solution is to make investments in prevention, so that citizens of the United States and other countries can avoid obesity from the very beginning. Prevention is by far the least expensive way to provide health care to the general public. With prevention, you avoid the costs associated with expensive pharmaceuticals, surgical procedures, hospitalization, and lost work productivity. With prevention, you also give the power back to the individual -- the power to take control over their life and choose a lifestyle that is consistent with the level of happiness and health that they desire. Disease prevention focuses on education and empowering patients with both the knowledge and the skills they need to make these healthy choices.
Unfortunately, prevention is not very popular in our modern system of medicine and healthcare. That's because prevention is unprofitable. Teaching prevention actually results in a financial loss for pharmaceutical companies, surgeons, hospitals and other health care providers who have expanded their businesses in anticipation of the coming wave of obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, cancer and other disorders that are now reaching epidemic proportions. Any health care strategy that makes the population at large healthier and prevents the onset of these chronic diseases will inevitably harm the profits and limit the growth of these companies. And that's the primary reason why prevention isn't taught. It isn't taught in public schools, it isn't taught to patients when they visit their doctors, and it most certainly is not taught to future physicians at med schools. In fact, it is accurate to say that modern medicine is engaged in the prevention of prevention.
And yet, disease prevention is the only answer that will give us lasting health without bankrupting our national economy -- and when I talk about bankruptcy, I don't mean this figuratively. This is a real financial issue, and it's on top of the ballooning national debt and out-of-control spending that has taken place under the Bush administration. At the pace we're going now as a country, there's little question that we are headed for a financial catastrophe caused by skyrocketing demand for health care services for treating a population that has become the most diseased group of people in the history of human civilization.
The United States has earned that designation, and it has demonstrated to the world that it can not only harbor a population of the most diseased people on the planet, but it can also export disease-causing products such as cigarettes, soft drinks and fast-food restaurants to other countries around the world, thereby propagating our own popular diseases around the world. And that, of course, leads to the growing problem of global obesity, which is why the World Health Organization has recently issued guidelines recommending that countries around the world tell their citizens to reduce their consumption of added sugars. The United States, of course, bitterly fought this advice thanks to pressure and influence from the sugar industry in the U.S. (which also has ties to the Bush administration). But the guidelines finally passed at the World Health Organization, despite the protestations of the United States, and now these guidelines have the potential of making a difference in the health of people around the world (except in the U.S., of course, where the government almost never spends money on health education or disease prevention).
The bottom line to all this is that obesity is a big problem, and it's far more than just a personal problem -- obesity is a global problem. It's more than a health issue -- it is a financial issue of great magnitude. If we don't start teaching prevention today and start guiding our populations into healthy lifestyles that avoid obesity, we stand to suffer a global financial crisis as result of out-of-control health care costs. As a result, it is in the interest of nations to educate their populations on how to avoid obesity, even if such education threatens the profits of various private corporations such as pharmaceutical companies, junk food manufacturers, hospitals, and healthcare providers. If you put the profits of those corporations first, then you will create a society where chronic disease is the only possible outcome. It's what is being rewarded, and it's what the shareholders of those private corporations are demanding. But if you put public health first, and put corporate profits second, then you can create a nation where people learn and follow healthy lifestyle choices that can not only save their own lives, but save the financial lives of entire nations.