Global Practices

F as in Fat

How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2012



F as in Fat: how can we learn from a state-by-state report on Obesity in America? [Photo Credit: The Noun Project]

Today the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released their ninth annual report looking at obesity rates in America state-by-state, an issue of concern to virtually all of Edelman’s clients, whether because of their markets, their products or their work force. This year the report was more dire than usual: For the first time the two non-profits used population modeling to project that if current trend lines don’t change, half of all adult Americans will be obese by 2030– up from 35.7 percent in 2012. In every state obesity rates will be at least 44 percent or higher, and in 13 states more than 60 percent of the population will be obese.

The report rocketed obesity into the top of the news, generating almost 500 news articles by midday. The issue is likely to receive even more attention during Obesity 2012, the annual scientific meeting of the Obesity Society, Sept 20-24 in San Antonio. And the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) is devoting its issue this week to research on obesity.

The F as in Fat report projects that the projected obesity rates will lead to 7.9 million new cases of diabetes per year, compared with 1.9 million new cases now, and 6.8 million new cases of chronic heart disease and stroke compared with 1.3 million now.  Obesity-related costs will increase to $210 billion annually, compared with $147 billion this year.

(Mississippi is and will continue to be fattest state – 34.9 percent obesity rate now vs. 60.7 percent in 2030. Colorado will continue to be the skinniest, though “skinny” may no longer apply – the state’s obesity rate is 20.7 percent now and will be 44.8 percent in 18 years).

At a press briefing, Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, and Michelle Larkin, assistant vice president for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Group, said there are actions that could change this trajectory. “We are looking at two futures,” said Larkin. If adults reduce their average body mass index by just 5% by 2030 –  the equivalent of a 200-pound, 6-foot-tall person losing 10 pounds – savings in health care costs could be between 6.5% and 7.9% in most states.

Larkin pointed to the payoff of Philadelphia’s 12-year-old effort to reduce obesity in schoolchildren. The city’s schools removed all sugar-sweetened drinks from school vending machines, got rid of fryers, developed a healthy lunch menu and partnered schools with local farms. The city has also worked to bring supermarkets to underserved neighborhoods and encourage food stamp use at farmer’s markets. Obesity has declined among city school children as a result, although only from 21.5 percent to 20.5 percent. Still, said Larkin, “the city is the first to succeed in reducing disparities in obesity rates.”

California, Mississippi and New York City are also starting to show declines in childhood obesity rates, she said. In New York City, obesity in grades K-8 dropped 5.5 percent from the 2006-07 school year to 2010-11, a change she attributed primarily to healthier school lunches.

Other preventive measures recommended:

  • Corporate wellness programs: Industry has played a leadership role in fighting obesity, Levi said. Currently, 65 percent of small businesses offer wellness programs and 90 percent of large businesses.
  • Programs that promote increased physical activity. Just 20 minutes of physical activity a day, particularly for children, can make a huge difference, the researchers said, particularly in children, by preventing them from gaining weight in the first place.
  • Reduction of sugary beverages. “If kids cut out one sugar beverage a day that could change the obesity trajectory.” However, Levi did not endorse mandatory actions such as a soda tax or NYC’s ban on 32 ounce serving sizes.

The 124-page report offers action points for every kind of organization – schools, local governments, businesses and non-profits such as YMCAs. The authors believe that change, if it comes, will bubble up at the community level rather than being imposed at a national level.

Read more: the report, the press release, and the state by state analysis.

Cathy Arnst is a Vice President of Content Development in Edelman’s New York Health Practice and a member of the National Health Media Team.

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