How Much Does Obesity Cost?

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The latest estimate from CDC on the annual cost of obesity: $147 billion. Ordinarily, I don't take such numbers too seriously because they are based on assumptions that may or may not be correct. But this number has been challenged by so personal an attack on the new head of the CDC, Tom Frieden, that I'm thinking it should be taken seriously.

The attacker is the supposedly independent--but partially industry-sponsored--American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). Here's the quote from its latest online newsletter:

A study presented on Monday at a CDC obesity meeting determined that obesity-related diseases account for nearly 10 percent of all medical spending in the United States--an estimated $147 billion per year. The study was sanctioned by CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, whose partiality to government-interventionist responses to public health concerns is epitomized by his quote: "Reversing obesity is not going to be done successfully with individual effort. It will be done successfully as a society."

"The reason he hyped this study was to promote more proactive government interventions, including a three cent soda tax," says ACSH's Jeff Stier. Dr. Ross adds, "Whenever I see numbers like this--especially when they are being promoted by someone we know is a fan of big government--I suspect that they have been altered or manipulated. Obesity is definitely a health threat, and it will definitely be a burden on our health care system. How much of a burden, we don't know. But I don't trust these numbers."

Well, I don't trust ACSH. For one thing, just try to figure out who funds them. For another, note the way ACSH invokes science to make its political agenda seem authoritative.

Whatever the real cost of obesity, its consequences will place a considerable burden on our health care system. And it will take societal responsibility as much as--or more than--individual responsibility to deal with the problem.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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