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An Epidemic of Obesity Myths
Myth: Obesity Costs Americans $117 Billion Annually

$117 Billion for obesity costs

In 2004, the major media reported in more than 450 stories that obesity costs the U.S. economy $117 billion every year. Where did this figure come from? In March 1998, the journal Obesity Research published a study that arrived at this estimate for the costs of both direct medical expenses and indirect losses, including diminished productivity. In December 2001, "The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity" cited that figure, and the myth was born.

The study that originated the $117 billion figure had serious limitations, as the authors themselves admitted. "We are still uncertain about the actual amount of health utilization associated with overweight and obesity," they wrote. "Height and weight are not included in many of the primary data sources."

The authors also acknowledged that their methodology allowed for the "double-counting of costs," which "would inflate the cost estimate." If, for example, an obese man were hospitalized with hypertension, cancer, and diabetes, his expenses would have been counted three times.

Finally, the authors used an incorrect definition of obesity. A BMI of 30 or higher makes you obese, but the authors decided to set their threshold at 29. A small error? Not at all. They wrongly included the healthcare costs of more than 10 million non-obese Americans, including Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, and George Clooney, each of whom has a BMI of 29.4.

In 2000, a team of CDC experts concluded that increased rates of moderate exercise "among the more than 88 million inactive Americans over the age of 15" could reduce medical costs by more than $75 billion annually. When they included indirect expenses, these researchers concluded that physical inactivity alone costs $150 billion each year. That's nearly 30 percent more than the (exaggerated) $117 billion estimate of direct and indirect costs of obesity.

Commenting on papers describing the mortality, morbidity, and cost of obesity in Switzerland, the CDC's Dr. Katherine Flegal describes some common pitfalls. These same comments can apply to nearly all estimates of the costs of obesity:
"These two papers continue several unfortunate trends in the obesity literature ... Using the incorrect formula and calculating attributable fractions without adjusting for confounding could give rise to an overestimation of the impact of obesity ... Assuming that age-adjusted relative risks are the same for all ages can lead to additional overestimation if the true relative risks are lower in the elderly."

Graham Colditz's Costly Study

Graham Colditz—co-author of the study that mistakenly blamed obesity for an annual $117 billion hit to the U.S. economy—has received funding from Roche, maker of the weight-loss pill Xenical. He also co-authored a 1999 study on the economic benefits of weight loss among obese people. That study was funded by Knoll, maker of the weight-loss pill Meridia.