Fighting obesity and the role of an actuary

by Ronora Stryker, SOA Research Actuary

RonoraStryker In January, the SOA published the study “Obesity and its Relation to Mortality and Morbidity Costs” by a team led by FSAs Don Behan and Sam Cox. According to the study, the total economic cost of overweight and obesity is about $300 billion per year in the United States and Canada with 90 percent of the total being attributed to the United States.

The figure breaks down into the following economic costs per year:

  • Total cost of excess medical care caused by overweight and obesity: $127 billion
  • Economic loss of productivity caused by excess mortality: $49 billion
  • Economic loss of productivity caused by disability for active workers: $43 billion
  • Economic loss of productivity caused by overweight or obesity for totally disabled workers: $72 billion

When the study first came out, it garnered much attention from mainstream media. It is great to see

that after five months the media is continuing to cite the study. In a recent article by Joe Mont at The Street.com, “Healthy” Can Hurt State Finances”, the economic cost findings were mentioned to illustrate the financial impact of this public health issue. The article went on to identify steps governments are taking to address the problem such as imposing additional taxes on food items like soda and candy. It also pointed out that this could be a “Catch 22” situation. While the taxes may be effective in fighting the obesity epidemic, municipalities will likely lose revenues from the loss of food sales.

To me this article illustrates one of the needs actuaries can fill in addressing this societal problem. Actuaries can help policymakers quantify the additional economic costs as well as losses as a result of the obesity problem.

In addition, another way actuaries are involved in addressing obesity is through the design and measurement of the effectiveness of health care products and programs focusing on wellness and weight reduction.

What are your thoughts on other ways actuaries can help address this societal issue?

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