Obesity gobbles up health dollars

By Martin Johnston

Researchers say lost productivity from overweight workers is costing the country $98 million to $225 million.

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

New Zealand's weight problem is gobbling up more than 4 per cent of what we spend on health care, according to a study out today.

That was $624 million, estimated to have been spent on health care for the obese and overweight in 2006. The sum includes both private and government spending.

Two-thirds of New Zealand adults are overweight or obese.

The researchers' paper, in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, says studies in other countries, using different methods from the New Zealand analysis, have estimated the costs of obesity at between 2 per cent (Sweden) and 7.6 per cent (Australia) of national health spending.

The New Zealand study estimated lost productivity associated with being overweight and obese was worth between $98 million and $225 million.

The health care costs included spending on GP visits, drugs, hospital care, laboratory tests, allied health care (such as podiatrists) and aged residential care.

At 38 per cent, type 2 diabetes accounted for the greatest share of the health care costs followed by high blood pressure at 27 per cent. Of the cancers, bowel cancer had the highest level of expenditure at $7 million, or 1 per cent of the total.

The researchers said: "Policies and interventions are urgently needed to reduce the prevalence of obesity, thereby decreasing these substantial costs." One researcher, Professor Boyd Swinburn, of Auckland University, urged the Government to act on his six-point prescription to deal with New Zealand's "obesity epidemic".

"There are policies and regulations that most Governments, including New Zealand's, are not taking up. They have been shown to be cost effective and have a big impact, but they are not doing it because the food industry doesn't like it and puts pressure on the Government.

"It was short-sighted to remove the guidelines [ virtually banning schools from selling unhealthy foods]."

Health Minister Tony Ryall said the Government was considering extending Project Energize to all primary schools. Project Enegize is funded by the Waikato DHB and aims to improve nutrition and physical activity levels among school children.

TV food advertising during "children's television time" had been restricted but there was no plan to bring back Labour's rule limiting unhealthy food sales at schools to once a term, Mr Ryall said.

What the Govt could do

1. Reduce junk-food ads aimed at children.
2. Traffic-light labelling to identify healthy and unhealthy foods.
3. Remove GST from healthy foods.
4. Require government departments and hospitals to have healthy-food policies.
5. Prevent schools from selling unhealthy foods.
6. Extend Waikato's Project Energize to all primary schools.

Source: Professor Boyd Swinburn

- NZ Herald

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