22nd Feb 2024

Obesity epidemic costs EU €59 billion a year

  • Eleven million EU children are already overweight and a further 3 million are obese (Photo: European Community, 2005)

Obesity is draining around €59 billion a year from EU member states' pockets in direct health care costs, but the overall economic impact could be as high as €118 to €236 billion, with rising childhood obesity auguring badly for the future.

The startling €59 billion figure - three times the size of Bulgaria's GDP and well over Brussels' €43 billion a year Common Agricultural Policy budget - is based on a May 2006 European Commission estimate that obesity costs the EU an average of 7 percent of its total health care spend.

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The condition - defined as having a weight to height ratio of 30 or more on the so-called BMI scale - aggravates chances of getting diabetes, heart disease, cancer, angina, tooth decay and osteoporosis as well as suffering from breathing, liver and gallbladder problems.

It can also cause depression, a short attention span, sick days at work, earlier retirement, lower life expectancy and infertility. As Cambridge University biochemist Steven O'Rahilly recently put it "Severe obesity can make you dead. It can make you sick. It can make you sad. It can make you alone. It can make you poor."

The overall economic damage of the EU's fat "epidemic" is hard to calculate, the European Commission says. But recent studies by the US, Canadian, UK and Swedish governments estimate the total impact is between two times and four times the size of the direct health care cost.

"The wider costs to the economy - working days lost, early retirement - are even more worrying," health commissioner Marios Kyprianou stated in May. "The percentage of disability-adjusted life years lost due to obesity, poor nutrition and physical inactivity is even higher than that due to smoking [which costs the EU up to €130 billion a year overall]."

European economies already groaning under the burdens of an ageing population and Asian competition "cannot afford to lose potential labour resources due to avoidable disease and disability," a major commission study warned last year.

EU follows US lead

Lithe and sophisticated Europeans laughing at American fatties across the Atlantic is becoming a thing of the past, with EU fat rates catching up and in some cases exceeding those of the US.

Between 25 percent and 43 percent of EU citizens are clinically overweight - defined as a BMI ratio of 25 to 30 - with clinical obesity rates reaching 23 percent in some member states. In the US, 28 percent of men and 39 percent of women are overweight while 28 percent of men and 34 percent of women are obese.

The number of overweight people in the west is comparable with world benchmarks. But our obesity rates are not normal: in China and India - two of the EU's fastest-growing economic competitors - fewer than 6 percent are clinically obese.

Looking at the EU in more detail, the figures also defy old stereotypes of lardy Mediterranean grandmothers and sculptural Nordic types.

France and Latvia have the fewest overweight people with less than 30 percent. Portugal, Slovenia, Finland, the Czech republic and Spain have 35 percent or more, while two out every five adults in Greece, the UK and Germany are too fat.

The picture is more diverse in obesity terms. Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, France and Denmark lead the way on less than 10 percent. Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech republic, Slovakia, Portugal and Finland have 14 percent or more. But at least one in five of all adults in Malta, the UK and Germany are exposed to the most severe health risks.

Gluttony and sloth

Experts agree that genetics plays a part in the problem, with some tiny Polynesian communities facing massive obesity rates of over 75 percent. But the combination of increasingly sedentary lifestyles and rich diets is a major factor in the European fat explosion, giving it a sinful feel similar to alcoholism or smoking.

In a recent Eurobarometer survey, 41 percent admitted they had not done any moderate exercise, such as cycling slowly, in the past seven days, while 17 percent said they had not even walked for ten minutes or more at any given time. Twenty two percent spent over six hours a day sitting down.

Europeans consume about 148 grammes of fat and oil per person per day compared to 143 grammes in North America and a world average of 73. We eat around 100 kg of meat each per year compared to world norms of 36 kg and, in several member states, each drink over 100 kg a year of milk compared to a global average of 78 kg.

In terms of sugar consumption, the EU eats 10 percent of the world's sugar output (15 million tonnes a year) while representing less than 7 percent of the world's population.

The future is fat

The bad news is that, on present trends, the EU's future looks fatter and more expensive than ever, dealing yet another blow to the battered Lisbon Agenda goals on EU competitiveness.

Daily consumption of calories in the industrialised world has climbed by 30 percent in the past 30 years and adult obesity rates in the UK - among the EU's worst - have more than tripled since 1980. Even in France - among the EU's best - obesity rates grew 3 percent in 1997 to 2003.

The next generation is growing up fatter still.

Eleven million EU children are already overweight and a further 3 million are obese, with 1.27 million overweight and 300,000 obese children joining the ranks each year, the London-based International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO) indicated in March.

"This reinforces the need for immediate and urgent action to protect our children," IASO's Tim Lobstein said.

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