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CHILDHOOD OBESITY BILLS TO SINK STATE?

Byline: Lisa Mascaro and Annette Wells Staff Writers

California's childhood obesity epidemic threatens to saddle the state's taxpayers with astronomical medical bills from a generation that will spend more time in the hospital and less time at work than any before, health experts warn.

Already, California's overweight adults cost the state an estimated $28 billion, up an alarming 30 percent from 2000.

And with more than 25 percent of the state's students overweight, experts worry they'll grow into adults whose prime working years will be cut short by debilitating illness and burdened by costly medical care.

``California's going to fall apart,'' said Dr. Naomi Neufeld, a clinical professor of pediatrics at UCLA, and founder and executive director of Kidshape, a weight management program for youth and families in Los Angeles.

``The people who should be earning money won't be,'' Neufeld said. ``The people who should be working in the work force are going to be sitting in the hospital with their heart attacks, their strokes, their diabetes.''

Treatment for obesity-related conditions - primarily type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and hypertension - devours 6 percent of adult medical costs in the United States, just 1 percent less than smoking, experts say.

With some 9 million children and adolescents overweight and obese nationwide - and nearly half of them expected to become obese adults - that percentage will likely jump over the next decade.

Many experts said the costs are hidden because the medical problems caused by childhood obesity do not surface until the population reaches its 20s. From there, however, the costs mount quickly and extend over a long period of time.

``The truth is, the cost of obesity in kids is really small, but only if you're looking at annual costs. If you're looking at a lifetime, then that's where the numbers are off the charts,'' said Eric A. Finkelstein, who co-authored a 2004 report on the medical costs of obesity.

``The problem is obese kids are more likely to become obese adults, and the costs rise as people get older.''

Research has shown that:

--People who are overweight use nearly 40 percent more health care resources and twice as many pharmaceuticals than individuals without weight problems.

--Obese people experience 49 percent more inpatient hospital days, which results in 36 percent higher costs to their health plans.

--People who gain 20 pounds or more will increase their medical bills an average of $500 a year.

--The morbidly obese - those at least 50 percent heavier than their desirable body weight - have 78 percent higher medical costs than those who are normal weight.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates obesity-related medical costs totaled $117 billion in 2000 nationwide. Other health experts put the figure closer to $135 billion.

``This kind of expense is in no one's best interest,'' said Susan Foerster, chief of the California Department of Health Service's cancer prevention and nutrition section.

In April, California's health department issued a report showing that California's overweight and obese adults - more than half the state's population - cost $21.7 billion in 2000.

Those costs included $11.2 billion in lost productivity, $10.2 billion in direct and indirect medical costs and $338 million in workers' compensation, according to the report.

That number is expected to reach an annual $28 billion in 2005, a 29 percent increase in just five years.

Foerster said the costs for kids will start showing up as they enter adulthood - particularly from the many youngsters suffering from diabetes.

``The frightening part is, in just 15 years a young person who is overweight and gets type 2 diabetes will begin to experience these complications,'' she said.

``This will be as early as in their early to late 20s. This is a time when they're in the work force starting to be productive,'' she said. ``For girls they'd be going through very high-risk pregnancies.''

And Dr. Daniel L. Marks, an Oregon-based pediatrician, said a study that came out about five years ago showed that overweight employees take twice as many sick days a year than employees who are not overweight.

Marks said the amount of wages lost because of sick days was $6,822 versus $4,496 for people who were not overweight.

A report last fall documented the high costs of overweight kids, and found schools like those in California that are funded partly by pupils' attendance can lose up to $20 each day each student is absent.

The report also cited hidden costs associated with poor nutrition and weight problems, including:

--Extra staff time devoted to students with low academic performance or behavior problems caused by poor nutrition and physical inactivity.

--Staff costs to administer students' medications.

--Rising health-care costs, absenteeism and lower productivity due to the effects of poor nutrition, inactivity and weight problems among school employees.

But public health experts say that even slight reductions in the problem can lead to significant savings.

The California report said a 5 percent improvement in adults' physical activity and healthy weight could save $6 billion over five years. A 10 percent improvement could save nearly $13 billion.

That means if just one or two of every 20 overweight Californians improved their situation, significant savings could be reaped, the report said.

Experts say more available, affordable healthy food choices, nutrition education in schools and physical activity could all help stem the mounting costs.

``What's cheaper?'' asked UCLA's Neufeld. ``Teaching them home-ec so they know how to grill a chicken or paying for coronary heart disease?''

Staff writer Leigh Muzslay contributed to this report.

Lisa Mascaro, (818) 713-3761lisa.mascaro(at)dailynews.com

annette.wells(at)sbsun.com.

CAPTION(S):

box, chart

Box:

WEIGHTY COSTS

SOURCE: Daily News research

Chart:

MENTAL FITNESS

SOURCE: Pediatric Exercise Science

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:May 2, 2005
Words:956
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