The Price We Pay for Obesity


Economics professor Rahi Abouk

Over the past 35 years, obesity rates in the United States have tripled, placing a strain not only on Americans’ health but also on their wallets. The cost of obesity in the United States recently hit a whopping $190 billion, or 20 percent of the country’s annual medical spending, according to a study published in the Journal of Health Economics.

Unfortunately, the financial burden on our country isn’t expected to decrease any time soon, says Rahi Abouk, assistant professor of economics.

Abouk is a health economist whose research has spanned such topics as the effect of homeschooling on students’ weight, the relationship between school lunch programs and childhood obesity, and how minors acquire and use tobacco and electronic cigarettes.

“If we didn’t have the problem of obesity in the United States, we could spend that almost $200 billion on providing better education to people, which itself is a determining factor in obesity. The rate of obesity goes down as education goes up, especially among women," Abouk says.

Surveys conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to analyze how the average American spends his/her time show a trend, over the past 30 to 40 years, of Americans spending more time on leisure, Abouk says. “However, when we look at the combination of the types of leisure, Americans spend the most time on sedentary leisure—like watching television and listening to the radio—and they are spending less time on physical activity,” he explains.

Per the most recent data (collected in 2000), the average American spends 130 minutes per day watching television, 10 minutes engaged in active sport, and five minutes hiking or walking.

The price of the country’s overall sedentary lifestyle extends beyond our collective economy. Obese people are subject to negative impact on their personal incomes and employment, Abouk says.

According to a study published in the Journal of Health Economics, data collected between 1989 and 2003 shows that employers who provide health insurance coverage to their staffs offer less salary to obese candidates than they do to non-obese candidates. “When a candidate has an interview with an employer, the employer naturally observes the physical condition of the candidate…and the data shows the employer automatically offers lower salaries to obese people to offset the added health insurance risk and cost,” the professor explains.

In 2001, per the study, obese Americans were offered an average of $17 per hour for jobs that included health insurance coverage; non-obese Americans were offered $22.50 per hour for those same jobs. In jobs that do not offer health insurance coverage, the differences in offered salaries were negligible, Abouk says.

Such information is among that offered in Abouk’s Healthcare Economics class on campus, in which students of various majors learn about the economic behavior of patients, physicians, and stakeholders in the healthcare market, in addition to how government policies and interventions influence health outcomes.

Understanding the underlying and determining factors of obesity, as well as its physical and economic harm, is a particularly important piece of his course, Abouk says. “With this knowledge, our students could promote healthy lifestyles among their families and communities,” he explains.

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