Home > Employee Benefits > The obesity problem just keeps getting worse – some of us don’t want to face up to it

The obesity problem just keeps getting worse – some of us don’t want to face up to it

fatmanAs we discuss health engagement issues with our clients, there is general agreement that smoking and tobacco is bad.  But for some reason, talking about our collective, societal weight problem has been tricky at times.

Let’s elaborate this point with two examples. First, take a look at this photo. We’ve used this picture in presentations to make a quick point about how many Americans have a weight issue and the costs of obesity (more on that later).  In the presentation, you can’t see the man’s face.  Most of us see at least one, if not more, people who look like this every day.  Yet some folks on our staff think  it could be offensive to some audiences. Do you find this picture offensive or does it make you uncomfortable?  If you knew that a third of Americans look like this, would your primary emotion be concern or worry or horror at how we got to this place and what it means for the future?

The second example relates to all of those conversations with clients, prospects, vendors and peers. I could make the same points, use the same tone and discuss the same solutions to multiple audiences, and yet receive wildly different responses. Some people don’t think I go far enough (one client, wanted cover to fire anyone that was obese. I wouldn’t give it to him.) Others think I go too far and have a litany of excuses for why so many Americans have a weight problem. In the majority of cases, the audience agrees that we have a problem but they hesitate on solutions.

Recently the Centers for Disease Control released and the numbers continue to be concerning. For this year, the CDC changed the methodology they use to collect data to include cell phone users, so they argue that the 2011 data should not be compared to past years. They feel their new data is more accurate. However, the statistical confidence level has been relatively high since they began collecting data in 1985. Many of us in the population health arena are familiar with the obesity maps of the U.S. that show the percentage of each state’s population that are obese. It’s scary to think that in 1992 – only 20 years ago! – that the worst states (generally Mississippi and Louisiana) had obesity rates lower than the healthiest states (Colorado, Hawaii and our home state, Massachusetts) do today at about 20% of the population.

The CDC estimates that 35.7% of adult Americans and 17% of children are obese today (plus or minus a percentage point or two). It’s estimated that obesity related expenses cost society $160 billion dollars a year (for comparison, that’s an amount greater than the GDP of all but 48 countries or more than the Federal government spends on transportation or education). Our problem is not getting better.

Massachusetts recently passed a 349 page health care bill that included 3 wellness related provisions, but dropped a provision to tax sodas. This recommendation is similar to the way that tax policy has been used to drive public health related to tobacco and alcohol use. It was too controversial.

Clients and prospects all want to talk wellness, but few truly want to make the investment of time, effort and money to make an impact.

So the question is, when will we confront obesity as a public health menace with the same tenacity that we confronted smoking? When will we be able to have a consistent conversation about this problem with all audiences? When will our clients recognize that rather than spending millions on health insurance, sick leave, disability and workers compensation, that spending 1 or 2 percent of that on addressing the weight problem we have can control if not reduce those expenses? And when will they realize that it can’t be lip service – a “check the box”, yes we have a wellness plan? It must be a real, concerted, relentless effort over several years.

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William Gallagher Associates is a leading provider of insurance brokerage, risk management and employee benefits services to firms with complex risks and dynamic needs, within industries that include technology, life sciences, financial risks, health care, renewable energy & clean technology, and environmental services. WGA has offices in Boston, MA; New York, NY; Hartford, CT; Princeton, NJ; Columbia, MD; and Atlanta, GA.

  1. September 4, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    Great question. Many organizations seek to gain a competitive human capital advantage through enhanced employee health – and yet they continue to replicate wellness strategies which have been shown to be only marginally effective.
    A great paper by Goetzel & Ozminkowski in 2009 showed 93% of US wellness programs were not comprehensive or as effective as they could be.
    Health (and obesity) is multifactoral, so it can’t be solved by single angled quick fixes. Research by industry experts such as Edington has shown repeatedly that more comprehensive programs require a higher investment to implement – but due to their vastly improved effectiveness across a population they produce a quicker and significantly higher economic advantage. We must learn that you can’t get something for nothing – and so to gain the most reach across a work population and the most sustainable health improvements or advantages, employers need to consider more comprehensive and strategic plans.

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