AT WIDTHS END: It’s telling you something if you cannot see the scales.
AT WIDTHS END: It’s telling you something if you cannot see the scales. Moodboard

Heavy Cost: The weighty toll of our obesity epidemic

FORGET the GST and putting more speed cameras on our roads.

Cutting our bulging waistlines should be top priority if Australia is serious about injecting billions of dollars into the economy.

Even the most conservative estimates place the issue as one of the country's biggest financial drains, with Obesity Australia approximating the annual cost at $8.6 billion.

And that was just the direct, easily quantifiable costs - medical expenses, missed work, government intervention campaigns and the like.

How much? Overweight patients cost Australia $4 billion

Obesity Australia executive director Stephen Simpson said the real price tag sat at $60 billion a year and was ballooning along with our midsection measurements.

Research carried out for the organisation by PwC found if no further action was taken to curb the growth in obesity, Australia would be forking out an extra $87.7 billion over the 10 years to 2025.

The true figure would be much higher, the Weighing the Cost report warned.

"We figured in this case, the best way was to focus only on the really direct things we know and can put a value on," Professor Simpson said.

"If you look beyond that to what I call the 'wellbeing' costs - the indirect costs that are harder to quantify - that probably takes the whole cost of obesity to $60 billion or thereabouts a year."

With almost two-thirds of Australians already obese, doing nothing is obviously not an option.

The researchers measured what would happen if the Federal Government invested $1.3 billion into proven effective options for getting people into shape.

They included weight-loss programs; GP intervention; parental and school education; reformulating, labelling and taxing unhealthy foods; bariatric surgery; and pharmaceutical methods of weight control.

"Compared to what will happen if we do nothing, for an investment of about $1.3 billion we will get a benefit of $2.1 billion over 10 years," Prof Simpson said.

Prof Simpson said the option would slow Australia's growing obesity, but still fall well short of meeting the World Health Organisation's target of returning to the 2010 level of about 26% obesity.

To reach that goal would require a $6 billion investment, translating into a $10.3 billion payday for Australia over the next 10 years.

It would mean spending more on established and innovative approaches for obesity prevention, more effective obesity interventions and a lower rate of weight regain after successful losses.

Prof Simpson said Australia needed its politicians to look beyond their next election campaign and commit to something that would not give them instant political gratification.

"One of the problems is that political timelines are short," he said.

"The electoral cycle is only three years and pretty well nothing would happen within three years that could politically justify doing it.

"But things that do actually yield quick returns, like growth in some of the fast food sectors, are only going to cause our problems to get worse."

He related the conundrum to the coal industry: it was difficult for politicians to overcome the temptation of huge short-term financial gains when potentially disastrous environmental impacts would come after they had retired.

The attitude to obesity also needed to shift, Prof Simpson said.

"There's an interesting dynamic here because obesity is very much seen as a failure of willpower," he said.

"That's the sloth and gluttony view - that it's not a government matter to be involved with, that it would make it become a nanny state."

Prof Simpson argued such a view was a cop-out.

"Given that 63% of our adult population is now overweight or obese, that would be a massive failure of willpower," he said.

"Clearly, we need to take control of our own health."



Bare minimum direct extra obesity costs for Australian adults in 2014-15

GP services - $255 million

Allied health services - $125 million

Specialist services - $297 million

Hospital care - $1.165 billion

Pharmaceuticals - $1.445 billion

Weight loss interventions - $368 million

Public interventions - $154 million

Absenteeism - $477 million

Presenteeism - $544 million

Government subsidies - $323 million

Foregone tax - $3.448 billion

And other costs bring the total to $8.6 billion


Source: Weighing the cost of obesity: A case for action

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