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Study: Obesity will cost Utah billions in health care
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah is getting fatter and it's going to cost all of us in the long term.

A new analysis of medical data estimates that $485 million was spent on obesity-related health care for Utah adults in 2008, the most recent year data was available. That number could more than quadruple by 2018 ,when the number is projected to jump to $2.4 billion, if Utah waistlines continue to expand at the current rate.

"It's just staggering to even think about that," said Rebecca Fronberg, manager of Utah Department of Health's Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Program.

"I'm really hoping this will be a wake-up call to people to realize what they need to do to take action ... so we don't all end up with diabetes and strokes and heart disease."

Those are the chronic conditions — along with hypertension, arthritis, asthma and some cancers — that are linked to obesity and drive up the cost of care.

But the real driver in past obesity-related expenses — which doubled nationally from 1998 to 2006 to $86 billion — has been more people getting fatter. The dollar figure estimates include data from private insurance companies, Medicaid and Medicare.

Utah's report was issued to coincide with a push by the Centers for Disease Control and Institutes of Medicine (IOM) to focus the country's attention on obesity. Last week, the CDC held a "Weight of the Nation" conference, predicting that 42 percent of the U.S. will be obese by 2030.

The IOM also identified major policy changes necessary to combat the epidemic, from overhauling farm policies to reducing fast food outlets near schools and homes and curtailing marketing of junk food to youth.

As part of the campaign, HBO is releasing a four-part documentary series on the epidemic and its impact on the health care system. The films air Monday and Tuesday and will stream free of charge at http://theweightofthenation.hbo.com/ after the broadcast.

Fronberg, who attended the CDC conference, will show the documentary to health department employees and is giving copies to the state's local health departments, encouraging them to host screenings as well.

Recent surveys show that 9.7 percent of elementary school students in Utah are obese along with 8.6 percent of high school students. At 23.2 percent, an even greater number of adults are struggling with obesity.

While Utah's adult obesity rate appears to have stabilized since 2008, it's too early to say if that will continue, Fronberg said.

If the percentage of obese Utahns remained at about 24 percent, then the health care cost would shrink dramatically — costing only $946 million in 2018, saving $1.4 billion, the new report said.

That's why national and local health officials are emphasizing the ways individuals, families, elected leaders, employers, schools and health-care professionals can slow the obesity rate.

For example, Utah held a "screen-free" week at the beginning of May. Studies show that kids between the ages of 8 and 18 watch 4.5 hours per day of TV and 71 percent have a TV in their room.

The health department is also involved with helping schools, local governments and employers promote healthy lifestyles. It is urging health care providers to screen all adults and children for obesity, businesses to sub out fattening snacks in vending machines with healthier choices, and schools to have recess before lunch so children will be more likely to eat a nutritious meal instead of rushing out the lunchroom doors to get outside to play.

Principal William Geist rearranged recess time seven years ago at East Sandy Elementary. His primary interest is academics: Children are better prepared to learn coming from the lunchroom. He's also been pleased to see students waste less food.

As for whether or not the recess shift is preventing obesity, time will tell. "We hope that's the case."

jlyon@sltrib.com

hmay@sltrib.com

Obesity in Utah

More than 60 percent of Utah adults are considered overweight or obese, which is a slight improvement over 63.1 percent nationwide. In Utah, more of those who are obese are men, 67.5 percent, than women, 52.4 percent.

Go to the Utah Department of Health website to read more about the fight against obesity. http://health.utah.gov/obesity/

Stopping waistline expansion would bring major savings, especially if we can get kids onboard.
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