Obesity Tied to America's Physical and Financial Health

06/25/2010 11:22 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

For many, if not most Americans, the economy is consistently rated as issue number one come election time. So it's hard to imagine that obesity -- a crisis so intimately tied to our financial well being that it threatens to account for $344 billion in medical-related expenses and 21% of health-care spending by 2018 -- could ever be dismissed as being beyond the bounds of social or government involvement.

This week I joined "Ideas in Action with Jim Glassman," and I had the opportunity to debate Justin Wilson with the Center for Consumer Freedom. He asked me "Should anything be allowed to be regulated if it has a so-called cost on our neighbor?" Answering his own question, Wilson quipped "You know, we can start with obesity. But we can move to padded sidewalks and speed limits of five miles an hour."

The remarks may have been a little tongue and cheek, but the reality is less than humorous. Reigning in the obesity epidemic is about more than sparing our neighbors a few dollars here and there. Each year, roughly 39 million work days are lost to obesity-related illnesses, costing employers $142 billion in 2005, including health expenses and diminished productivity. What's more, obesity accounts for the greatest single expense to our health care system, triggering $147 billion in health care costs each year, with half paid by Medicare and Medicaid. These are not minor sums-- they are figures that play a central and very dangerous role in our national spending, something that is a demonstrated priority for American voters.

As we stare down the hole of record national debt, eliminating costs is paramount, and that means preventative care and treatment for obesity must be a central focus for our leaders in Congress. We need to give doctors the tools they need to screen, diagnose and treat obesity before it yields related conditions like heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. We need to institute the Body Mass Index as a vital sign that can be tracked and monitored by physicians, before this next generation and the next are doomed to lead a shorter life than its parents. We need to improve the quality of school lunches and make sure food labels accurately reflect the nutritional composition of packaged foods. And as Congress continues about rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, we should be enabling physical activity -- creating safe places for children to play and safe routes for them to travel to school, before our increasingly sedentary lifestyles paralyze our physical and economic health.

Already we've seen progress this year. Just Wednesday, the Obama Administration instituted President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition a 25-member council that to help enhance physical activity, fitness, sports participation, and good nutrition at the Federal, state and local levels. And earlier this week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pledged to devote $250 million to support prevention activities -- including federal, state and community initiatives regarding obesity prevention and fitness.

But there's a lot more work to do. Congress needs to give top billing to proposals that are already on the table, including Rep. Ron Kind's (D-WI) Healthy CHOICES Act, Rep. George Miller's (D-CA) Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act and the Senate's Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, spearheaded by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). These legislative initiatives represent the kind of tangible change to set Americans --and our economy-- in motion.

Obesity is inextricably linked to our health --emotional, physical and financial. If we are going to fix our nation's economy, we literally cannot afford to ignore it.