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Economic group warns of costs of US obesity

Associated Press / September 24, 2010

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PARIS — Citizens of the world’s richest countries are getting fatter and the United States is leading the pack, an organization of top economies said yesterday in its first obesity forecast.

Three out of four Americans will be overweight or obese by 2020, and disease rates and health care spending will increase, unless governments, individuals, and industry cooperate on a comprehensive strategy to combat the epidemic, the study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said.

The Paris-based organization, which brings together 33 of the world’s leading economies, is better known for forecasting deficit and employment levels than for measuring waistlines. But the economic cost of excess weight — in health care, and in lives cut short and resources wasted — is a growing concern for many governments.

Franco Sassi, the OECD senior health economist who wrote the report, blamed the usual suspects for the increase.

“Food is much cheaper than in the past, in particular food that is not particularly healthy, and people are changing their lifestyles. They have less time to prepare meals and are eating out more in restaurants,’’ said Sassi, a former London School of Economics lecturer who worked on the report for three years.

Also, people are much less physically active. The combination of eating more and exercising less has increased the ranks of the overweight Americans to nearly 70 percent this year from well under 50 percent in 1980, according to the OECD.

In 10 years, a full 75 percent of Americans will be overweight, making it “the fattest country in the OECD,’’ the report said.

The same factors driving the epidemic in the United States are also at work in other wealthy and developing countries, Sassi said. “There is a frightening increase in the epidemic,’’ Sassi said, “We’ve not reached the plateau yet.’’

The lifespan of an obese person shorter than that of a normal-weight person by as much as eight to 10 years, the OECD said, the same loss of lifespan incurred by smoking.

In the United States the cost in dollars of obesity, including higher health care spending and lost production, is already equivalent to 1 percent of the country’s total gross domestic product, the report said. That compares with half a percent in other OECD countries, Sassi said.

These costs could triple in the coming years, the OECD said.

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