22 March 2004

Be Afraid. Be Very, Very Afraid.

The Sunday edition of The Detroit News of Michigan yesterday featured a headline story that equated obesity incidence with the expenses of the state government. Located in the central US, Michigan is the state next to Illinois. It is a state known for its lakes, cars, and music.

Among the facts reported were:

- The medical costs alone are about $300 for every man, woman and child in Michigan, or more than enough to wipe out the budget deficit of the state for the past two years. This means that the obesity problem has shifted from an issue of vanity to economics.

- The overweight problem is a drag on the economy of Michigan. The state is a less attractive place to do business because of higher health insurance costs, absenteeism at work and lower productivity.

- Obesity is the costliest preventable public health killer in Michigan, and will soon surpass smoking as the deadliest killer. In the whole US, both obesity and smoking kill about 400,000 Americans a year.

As a physician, I think obesity is scarier than Osama Bin Laden. With Osama, it is likely you will get killed instantly, while with obesity and its various complications, death comes slowly and painfully. Obesity has been implicated in heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, several cancers like the colon, prostate, gallbladder, and kidney, sleep apnea, arthritis, incontinence, and depression.

According to the International Obesity Task Force, some 300 million people worldwide are obese and 750 million more are overweight, including 22 million children under age 5. Based on current trends, obesity will become the No. 1 killer by 2005, with the toll surpassing 500,000 deaths a year, rivaling the annual deaths from cancer, according to researchers. The problem is no longer limited to industrialized nations. Developing countries like the Philippines are also getting famous for their expanding waistlines.

Locally, our Food and Nutrition Research Institute reported in 2001 an incidence of overweight and obesity cases in the Philippines at 17.9 percent. I recommend that the government undertake a study relating this to economic losses (just like the Michigan case), if only to emphasize the significance and urgency to address this problem.

I also think the primary culprits for obesity (and being overweight) are bad eating habits as influenced by a culture of commercialism and a food industry that seems deaf and blind to this growing problem.

Why are people still debating which between corporate benefit and public good is more important? Isn't the answer obvious? My Strategy teacher used to tell me that the term "public good" is misleading because he thinks there is no such thing. For food corporations, public good is higher profits for higher worker compensation. And for consumers like us? You know the answer. We all would like a smaller waistline, normal body mass index (BMI), and a longer lifespan.

While we debate and argue, obesity rages on. People will die of obesity complications. Will we be part of the problem or the solution?

Photo and clipping courtesy of The Detroit News

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