Researcher: Costs show obesity has become U.S. crisis

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The ballooning cost of obesity-related ailments may help to shift the country's focus from personal struggles of overweight individuals to what has become a nationwide medical crisis, a UPMC researcher said.

Dana Rofey, an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, said she is optimistic a study released last week by RTI International will draw much-needed attention to the challenges of curbing an obesity epidemic. The RTI study estimated the cost of obesity at $147 billion annually, nearly double what it was 10 years ago.

"I think that several years and several decades ago, we would see obesity being viewed as an individual problem of people who were eating incorrectly," Dr. Rofey said. "That individual aspect of the problem is still important, but now we need to put a lot more focus on larger-scale policy changes."

Dr. Rofey, who specializes in pediatric obesity research, said she and her colleagues at the UPMC Weight Management Center have been discussing the study and its possible consequences since its release last Monday. Other experts in the world of health care reform and those involved in the fat-acceptance movement also have been abuzz over the potential repercussions of the study's findings.

Dr. Rofey said she hopes the RTI study's jarring findings will highlight the need for comprehensive improvements. Policy changes should include projects aimed at children, such as boosting the nutritional quality of public school lunches and providing parents with Body Mass Index report cards several times a year, she said.

"We have to become better at learning how to treat obesity," she said. "We need to start at the base level and make treatment much more accessible to thousands more people."

Other organizations, however, are not so optimistic about the potential impact of the study.

Among them is Peggy Howell, a spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a 40-year-old nonprofit advocacy group that aims to end discrimination against obese individuals.

Ms. Howell, who joined more than 11,000 NAAFA members this weekend for their annual convention in Washington, D.C., said she is frustrated.

She said she fears the study results will prompt many people to place undue blame on obesity as the cause of the nation's health care troubles, while other problems -- such as stress, smoking or drinking -- will not be given as much scrutiny.

"The highest cost of health care in employment is stress, but no one is really addressing the need for a reduction of stress nationwide when it comes to lowering health care costs," said Ms. Howell, of Las Vegas.

"I don't understand why there is no attention being put on any of these other major contributing factors."


Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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