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Obesity Epidemic Sweeping Across North American Society

Despite the lure of the ocean, mountains and forests to be active and fit, obesity has reached epidemic levels in the Northwest, just as it has across most of North America.
Glen Hodgson
Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist
Forecasting and Analysis

Economists usually produce their research and do their writing while sitting at a computer in their office, but occasionally we venture into the real world and let our eyes guide the analysis. On a recent trip to the U.S. Pacific Northwest, one of the most physically beautiful corners of the continent, I was reminded again of the epidemic of obesity that is sweeping across North America. Despite the lure of the ocean, mountains and forests to be active and fit, obesity has reached epidemic levels in the Northwest, just as it has across most of North America.

A huge number of Americans are not just "overweight"; they are plainly obese, and therefore at greater risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension that will: impair their ability to work and engage in physical activities; shorten their lifespan; and add many billions annually to the cost of providing medical care.

The U.S. obesity data are shocking. Various data sources on obesity all tell the same basic story of rapidly rising obesity rates, with no region, race or gender, socio-economic group, or age group being spared. At the national level, U.S. obesity rates have leaped from an already-high 20 per cent in 1997, to 34 per cent in 2009. Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from the mid-2000s showed that no US state had an adult obesity rate below 20 per cent, and only three states—Colorado, Utah and Wyoming—had an obesity rate for children below 10 per cent. When combined with people deemed to be "overweight", no less than 70 per cent of the U.S. population is now judged to be obese or overweight.

This is truly an epidemic. If it were like past epidemics involving influenza, polio or SARS, with quickly identifiable new victims and sudden deaths or mass hospitalizations, the obesity epidemic would probably be in the news every evening. But it is not, since the obesity epidemic is silent and slow-moving, sneaking up on its victims over many years.

Chart showing obesity rates in Canada and the U.S.Canada is not that different. A recent joint study by CDC and Statistics Canada indicated that Canadian obesity rates had climbed to 24 per cent in 2009, below the U.S. rate but still shockingly high. Youth obesity in Canada is approaching 10 per cent of the youth population. Obesity rates are highest in Atlantic Canada and in Saskatchewan, exceeding 20 per cent, and lowest in British Columbia—where they actually fell marginally, to 12 per cent between 2005 and 2007. The Canadian Aboriginal population is severely exposed to the risks and reality of obesity, with obesity rates now exceeding 35 per cent for many age groups, especially on the reserve.

Particularly troubling are obesity trends among children and their likely long-term impact. Diseases traditionally seen among adults, such as type 2 diabetes, are now becoming common among youth, which will lead to increased incidence of chronic diseases later in life. Due to rising obesity and related diseases, many children born today are likely to die younger than their parents, a first in human history.

The public health literature indicates that the causes of obesity are complex. Obesity is related to everything from a bad diet, to an inactive lifestyle and insufficient physical activity, to poverty, to sub-standard housing, even to the design of our cities and towns and the dominance of the automobile in North American society. And because the causes are so complex, the possible steps to stop and then reverse the obesity epidemic will be equally complex. There is going to be no quick or easy fix.

As part of its research program on population health and health care in Canada under the Canadian Alliance for Sustainable Health Care, or CASHC, the Conference Board of Canada will be undertaking research in the coming months on the economic costs of rising obesity rates in Canada. There are personal costs in terms of lost opportunity and the risk of a shortened lifespan. There are significant costs to the health care system related to treating chronic diseases that are caused by obesity, like diabetes, hypertension and other heart diseases.

But there are also material economic costs to obesity that can be estimated through detailed analysis, notably the inability of obese people to continue to participate actively in the labour force, either through recurring absenteeism or dropping out prematurely. Obesity thus has an impact on the capacity of the Canadian economy to create long-term wealth, and ironically to pay for the health care system that of course is needed to treat obesity-related chronic diseases.

Through our research, we will aim to build the case for bold and comprehensive action to address the rising obesity epidemic in this country. We will examine best practices in public policy, and consider possible action by employers and organizations of all types to promote healthy lifestyles that reduce the risk of obesity. In short, we will do what CASHC's member organizations expect us to do: use evidence-based research to guide the implementation of improved policies and practices in population health and health care in Canada.


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