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Eating our future: the economic impact of obesity

I kill 1.2 million people every year, making me the fourth leading cause of death in Europe by contributing to 13% of all deaths. Who am I? Or actually what am I…? I am the obesity epidemic, and I have a huge negative impact on Europe both from a societal and an economic perspective. Analysis from Hype&Hyper.

It is complicated but essential to talk about non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes. According to the World Health Organization, they account for 90 percent of total global mortality. The WHO lists four main contributors to these diseases: smoking, physical inactivity, drinking alcohol, and an unhealthy diet. It is hard to talk about them since they are as accepted as dangerous in our culture. What is more, in a way, they are even romanticized. It is very common to drink a few beers with friends on Fridays and smoke a few cigarettes if we go out from the dance floor to chill a bit. A summer party is also unimaginable for many without fatty ribs, steaks, and sausages.

However, these habits should be discussed with a critical eye, especially in the context of obesity. More than half of the population is overweight in all European countries since their body mass index (BMI) exceeds 25 kg/m2. The UK has the second most overweight population; however, the rest of the leading countries are mainly Mediterranean or Eastern European. Malta is the most obese country in Europe, with 66.4% of its population considered overweight, followed by the UK with 63.7%, then Andorra (63.7%), Greece (62.3%), and the Czech Republic (62.3%). To reach a country that is not from the two regions mentioned above, we must go down to the 9th place, where Ireland stands with 60.6%., which is still a huge number.

Even in Moldova, the least obese European country, half of the population is overweight, with 51.8% obesity prevalence among adults. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the second with 53,3%, and Austria (54.3%) places third.

Central and Eastern Europe is probably the most polarized region on the continent in this context. Czechia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Lithuania are among the ten most obese countries, while Austria, Estonia, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Serbia are among the ten least obese.

Roland Molnár | Hype&Hyper

It is evident that obesity does not correlate with the countries’ income. Various factors may influence the prevalence of obesity in all countries. Most strikingly, in general, more men than women are obese. Furthermore, more overweight people are among those with lower incomes and less education in developed countries.

Being overweight in itself would not be an issue. Nonetheless, the accompanying diseases, such as diabetes or high cholesterol, are severe problems. Obese people are getting various infectious diseases and cancer more likely as well. So, although obesity is not contagious, i.e., it does not spread from one person to another, it still has to be addressed on a societal level. It costs a massive amount of money to the society if many people are overweight. Overweight people put an increasing strain on the public purse, and thus, obesity negatively affects the economic life of a country.

According to the World Bank, the most severe problems apart from diseases and mortality are the increased health spending and the declining productivity of overweight people. Obese people retire earlier, generally having less healthy and productive years. Therefore, on an aggregate level, obesity negatively influences society’s efficiency. It is complicated to calculate precisely how much obesity costs, but most estimations add the lost working hours and indirect expenditures to the direct health spending.

It might sound morbid, but it is priced how much society loses on an overweight person who is less productive at work and works fewer years because of premature death. Different studies have different figures, but a developed country loses roughly two percent of its annual GDP due to the obese population. This amount can be as high as $419 billion for the US, but even the most conservative American estimates indicate that the country loses between $89 billion and $212 billion a year to obesity. By comparison, roughly $45 billion a year would be enough to end world hunger. Not to mention that we are talking about humans, family members, and not just economic figures.

As poorer countries are catching up, there is a growing risk that obesity will become an even more significant problem in the world. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of overweight people increased. The home office and the less physically active life that globalization brings might worsen the plight even further. Moreover, aging societies cannot afford the efficiency of a large part of the society to be drastically reduced. Social structures should be changed, and public interventions are necessary to curb the rise in global obesity. This is one of the biggest challenges that Europe must face.

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