Obesity rates rise at least 90% in 17 states since ’95, study says

Increases have impact on US health spending

By Drew Armstrong
Bloomberg News / July 8, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Obesity rates climbed at least 90 percent in 17 states from 1995 to last year, gains that have a direct bearing on US health spending, according to a report released yesterday.

Nine of the 10 states with the highest obesity rates are in the South, led by Mississippi at 34.4 percent, followed by Alabama and West Virginia, according to the report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Those states also lead the nation in diabetes and high blood pressure, the report found. Michigan was listed as 10th at 30.5 percent.

Massachusetts ranked fourth best at 22.3 percent.

Medicare and Medicaid, the public health plans, each spend more than 20 percent of their budget to treat illnesses related to obesity and smoking, which are avoidable medical risks. The report’s authors called on lawmakers to refrain from cutting programs to fight the condition.

“We can’t afford to ignore the impact obesity has on our health and corresponding health care spending,’’ Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, said in a statement accompanying the report.

The survey’s authors dubbed a swath of 644 counties in 15 mostly southern states the “diabetes belt,’’ as reported in the Journal of Preventive Diseases. Colorado, the slimmest state with a 19.8 percent obesity rate, had the second-smallest rise since 1995, though its rate is still higher than Mississippi’s was at that time, according to the study.

Obesity is defined as having a body mass index above 30. A 6-foot-tall adult man weighing 221 pounds or more is considered obese, as is an adult woman standing 5 feet, 6 inches tall weighing 186 pounds or more, according to the National Institutes of Health. People with obesity are at higher risk for diabetes and hypertension, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bigger servings and food consumed on the go are not helping, said Steven Gortmaker, a professor at Harvard University School of Public Health.

“It’s gotten easier and easier to consume lots of foods at more times of the day,’’ he said in a telephone interview. “That’s been the biggest shift in the last 20 years.’’

Lawmakers have considered using tax policy to influence eating habits. A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages was discussed and eventually rejected during debate on the 2010 health care law.

Colorado’s director of Prevention Services, Chris Lindley, said that while his state is the slimmest, it has still lost ground. “Just like the rest of the country, we’re continuing to grow,’’ he said in a telephone interview. Obesity-related health conditions cost the state more than $1 billion a year, he said.