Because obesity raises the risk of a host of medical conditions, from heart disease to chronic pain, the obese are absent from work more often than people of healthy weight. The most obese men take 5.9 more sick days a year; the most obese women, 9.4 days more. Obesity-related absenteeism costs employers as much as US$6.4 billion a year, health economists led by Eric Finkelstein of Duke University calculated.
Even when poor health doesn’t keep obese workers home, it can cut into productivity, as they grapple with pain or shortness of breath or other obstacles to working all-out. Such obesity-related “presenteeism,” said Finkelstein, is also expensive. The very obese lose one month of productive work per year, costing employers an average of US$3,792 per very obese male worker and US$3,037 per female. Total annual cost of presenteeism due to obesity: US$30 billion.
Decreased productivity can reduce wages, as employers penalize less productive workers. Obesity hits workers’ pocketbooks indirectly, too: Numerous studies have shown that the obese are less likely to be hired and promoted than their svelte peers are. Women in particular bear the brunt of that, earning about 11 percent less than women of healthy weight, health economist John Cawley of Cornell University found. At the average weekly US wage of US$669 in 2010, that’s a US$76 weekly obesity tax.
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The medical costs of obesity have long been the focus of health economists. A just-published analysis finds that it raises those costs more than thought.
Obese men rack up an additional US$1,152 a year in medical spending, especially for hospitalizations and prescription drugs, Cawley and Chad Meyerhoefer of Lehigh University reported in January in the Journal of Health Economics. Obese women account for an extra US$3,613 a year. Using data from 9,852 men (average BMI: 28) and 13,837 women (average BMI: 27) ages 20 to 64, among whom 28 percent were obese, the researchers found even higher costs among the uninsured: annual medical spending for an obese person was US$3,271 compared with US$512 for the non-obese.
Nationally, that comes to US$190 billion a year in additional medical spending as a result of obesity, calculated Cawley, or 20.6 percent of US health care expenditures.
That is double recent estimates, reflecting more precise methodology. The new analysis corrected for people’s tendency to low-ball their weight, for instance, and compared obesity with non-obesity (healthy weight and overweight) rather than just to healthy weight. Because the merely overweight do not incur many additional medical costs, grouping the overweight with the obese underestimates the costs of obesity.
Contrary to the media’s idealization of slimness, medical spending for men is about the same for BMIs of 26 to 35. For women, the uptick starts at a BMI of 25. In men more than women, high BMIs can reflect extra muscle as well as fat, so it is possible to be healthy even with an overweight BMI. “A man with a BMI of 28 might be very fit,” said Cawley. “Where healthcare costs really take off is in the morbidly obese.”