Health bill will be enormous burden without more preventative measures to check worsening epidemic, say experts
The cost of treating ill health caused by obesity around the world will top $1.2tn every year from 2025 unless more is done to check the rapidly worsening epidemic, according to new expert estimates.
Obesity and smoking are the two main drivers behind the soaring numbers of cancers, heart attacks, strokes and diabetes worldwide, grouped together officially as non-communicable diseases. They are the biggest killers of the modern world.
The United States faces by far the biggest treatment bill, with a rise from $325bn per year in 2014 to $555bn in just eight years’ time, partly because of the high cost of medical care in the US. But all countries are looking at a very steep rise in costs that will be unaffordable for most. In the UK, the bill is set to rise from $19bn to $31bn per year in 2025. The NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens, has already warned that obesity threatens to bankrupt the NHS.
Over the next eight years, the experts say, the US will spend $4.2tn on treating obesity-related disease, Germany will spend $390bn, Brazil $251bn and the UK $237bn if these countries do not do more to try to prevent it.
The new figures come from the World Obesity Federation (WOF), which says there will be 2.7 billion overweight and obese adults by 2025, many of whom are likely to end up needing medical care. That means a third of the global population will be overweight or obese.
The WOF’s estimates show adult obesity continuing its steady climb. In 2014, a third of men and women in the US were obese (34%). By 2025 that is predicted to be 41%. In the UK, more than a quarter of adults (27%) were obese in 2014 and that will rise to 34% by 2025. Egypt is predicted to go up from 31% to 37% of adults in the same period, while Australia and Mexico will rise from 28% to 34% if nothing changes.
“The annual medical costs of treating the consequences of obesity, such as diabetes and heart disease, is truly alarming,” said Prof Ian Caterson, the president of the federation. “Continual surveillance by WOF has shown how obesity prevalence has risen dramatically over the past 10 years and with an estimated 177 million adults suffering severe obesity by 2025, it is clear that governments need to act now to reduce this burden on their national economies.”
For its new analysis, ahead of World Obesity Day on Wednesday, the federation has for the first time costed in not just cancer, diabetes and heart disease but other harms, including damage to joints which may result in hip and knee replacements and back pain. “That’s why the figures are pretty astonishingly high,” said Tim Lobstein, its policy director. “Some poor countries are already swamped.”
Low income countries have healthcare systems that barely manage to cope with childbirth and infectious diseases, and have neither the money nor staff to deal with the epidemic of chronic illness such as cancer and heart disease that is being fuelled by obesity.
“For middle income countries we are going to see an enormous impact,” said Lobstein. “Countries in the Middle East and Latin America where health services are stretched are going to become highly stretched.” These are the regions where obesity among children and adults has soared in recent years.
But the increasing costs will be a problem for every country in the world. “This is going to be an enormous burden either on the state, the individual or the insurance services which simply won’t be able to cope. How high can an insurance premium go?” said Lobstein.
Sugary drink taxes are an important measure governments can take, said Johanna Ralston, the federation’s CEO. “Right now there is a big focus on sugar-sweetened beverages, which is fantastic. I think as with tobacco, you want to find something that is tangible that governments can do and is measurable. But it is not enough.”
The experts say spending more on treating and preventing obesity will save countries many millions in the long term. Bariatric surgery to reduce the size of the stomach is very effective in reducing appetite, and studies have shown it can reverse type 2 diabetes, dramatically improving people’s chances of a healthy life. But there is not enough treatment available, said Ralston.
“One of the reasons is that the consensus that obesity is a disease is only really emerging now,” she said. “That will also help with the stigma. Bariatric surgery is a fantastic intervention but realistically it will only be for a smallish proportion of the population. It has to be offered in concert with other forms of weight management. Every single individual has to be offered multiple interventions.”
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