Influencers Opinion

Obesity costs California billions each year. What experts say we can do about it

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future.

Obesity has become a deadly epidemic – it kills roughly 300,000 Americans every year, about ten times the number of people who died from synthetic opioid overdose in 2018. It accounts for 18 percent of deaths for Americans 40-85 years old.

One in four California adults are considered obese. And even more alarmingly, a full one-third of our kids age 10-17 also are overweight. Former AARP President Jeannine English outlined our challenge bluntly.

“To successfully address this epidemic, we need to attack this problem with the same focus and determination we used to reduce tobacco use…” she said.

Dr. Joseph Alvarnas of the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center warned that obesity leads to more serious medical conditions when untreated.

“Obesity increases the risk of chronic health issues, including hypertension, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, asthma and sleep apnea,” Alvarnas said. “What many people don’t know is that obesity also markedly increases the risk for developing cancer, including breast, liver, kidney, ovarian, thyroid, and other cancer types.”

State Senate Health Committee Chair Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) emphasized both the financial and human cost of inaction.

“More than half of California adults have Type 2 diabetes or are pre-diabetic, conditions driven by obesity,” said Pan, who advocated for funding diabetes and other prevention programs through Medi-Cal, expanding access to fresh produce, and a range of aggressive public education and research programs. “This will result in billions in health care costs in the next five years and beyond, if we do not act to reduce obesity.”

Jodi Hicks, acting CEO for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, cited studies that estimate that obesity-related health problems cost the state more than $15 billion per year and specifically called for more aggressive measures to confront childhood obesity.

“Our policies to address obesity should reflect our values in California.” Hicks said. “… Our schools and communities must have equitable access to safe places to play, opportunities for physical activities both in and out of school and we must decrease access to unhealthy foods and beverages while making healthful options affordable and accessible.”

Pan and Hicks were among several California Influencers who called for the passage of a soda tax, both to encourage healthier drinking habits and to raise revenue to pay for sugar-related health problems.

“The rise in obesity matches the rise in sugar consumption. And the number one source of sugar in the American diet – nearly 50 percent – comes from sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, energy drinks and flavored fruit drinks,” said California Medical Association President Dustin Corcoran. “We should pass a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages that will reduce consumption, protect public health and raise money to increase customer awareness and offset the public health costs associated with these harmful products.”

Anthony Wright, Executive Director for Health Access California, also supports a soda tax as part of a broader package of reforms.

“We need more public policies to encourage healthy eating and behavior, starting at childhood. Nutritious eating choices in school, safe spaces for walking and exercise, opportunities for sports and physical activity, and more,” said Wright, who called for expanding Medi-Cal and increasing affordability assistance in Covered California. “California’s taken some actions, but more is needed.”

California Hospital Association President Carmela Coyle focused on today’s sedentary lifestyle.

“Kids and teens in 2019 spend an average of seven hours a day sitting in front of video screens. And many adults spend their working days at computers,” Coyle said, citing data from the American Heart Association. “When it comes to behaviors that affect our health, sitting has become the new smoking.”

Other Influencers emphasized community-based actions to encourage healthier eating and physical activity.

“Important steps could include ensuring walkable community design is a centerpiece of the state’s evolving master housing plan (and) providing incentives for healthy food markets to open in under-resourced neighborhoods…” said Sierra Health Foundation President Chet Hewitt. “And we must…ensure neighborhoods are safe places for families, seniors and children to engage in outdoor activity.”

Le Ondra Clark Harvey, Legislative Affairs and Policy Director for the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies, stressed the connection between physical and mental health in addressing the root causes of obesity.

“Research indicates that obesity and emotional disorders such as anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and alcohol use disorders are correlated,” she said, adding that such links are especially common among children and adolescents. “Legislation or regulations that require medical and behavioral health practitioners to routinely screen for risk factors for obesity should be pursued.”

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