Obesity is not just about weight. It is associated with chronic conditions that are costly to treat, such as heart disease and diabetes. Since the 1980s, obesity has risen right across the OECD area, and has begun to emerge in poorer countries too. Preventive action is needed, but to be effective, policymakers have to understand the causes and characteristics of what, for many healthcare professionals, is nothing less than an epidemic. Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat, a new OECD report, examines the causes and costs of obesity, and highlights some of the social and cultural factors that must be taken into account.
Take education. There is a strong relationship between education and obesity, especially among women, the report points out. Over 28% of English women with 8 years of education are obese, but this ratio drops to less than 12% for those who stay in school for over 15 years. People with better education are better informed of the health consequences of their lifestyles and personal hygiene, the report explains, and as such are more likely to eat more healthily, to exercise more and so on. Obese children tend to finish school earlier, too, while their chances of continuing on in education are smaller. Such vicious circles must be broken if preventive action is to work against obesity.
Social status also counts. In developing countries, it is the affluent classes that are the most likely to be obese. But in the OECD area, lower-income groups suffer more from obesity than those with higher incomes. Gender is an additional factor. A girl born in a lower-class family in France is 2.4 times more likely to be obese than if she was born in an upper-class family, the OECD report says.
Being obese acts as a handicap on income too. Obese people have more difficulty finding work than people of normal weight, and those who work tend to earn less than their colleagues. A survey of 450000 men in Sweden found that obese people suffered an 18% wage penalty compared with those of normal weight. Weight discrimination in the workplace is also a factor to consider, and this affects women more than men.
- Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat, an OECD publication
- OECD work on health
- OECD upcoming ministerial level meeting on health: Health System Priorities in the Aftermath of the Crisis