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Cassidy: Obesity Epidemic Requires All-Out Response

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Baton Rouge, La., area in 2005, I worked with others in our community to turn an abandoned Kmart store into an improvised hospital to care for the casualties. Politics did not matter. This was a natural disaster, and it demanded an all-out, all-hands-on-deck response.

The same is true of the national epidemic of obesity. This is why I co-hosted a briefing this week with Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat, to inform Congressional staff and the general public about the physical and financial toll of weight-related problems. The situation is so severe that we should spare no effort and ignore no innovation in order to help Americans avoid obesity and chronic conditions associated with excess weight.

Make no mistake: Obesity is a national crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of U.S. adults age 20 and older are currently affected by obesity. Obesity increases one’s risk for many life-
threatening and costly health problems, such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancers of all kinds and diseases of the liver.

My home state of Louisiana has one of the highest rates of obesity in the nation. Louisiana’s obesity rate is 31.2 percent, including 38.7 percent of adult African-Americans, 30.8 percent among adult Latinos and 20.7 percent among children from every background.

The obesity situation in Louisiana is not unique. If risk factors such as poverty and race are taken into account, the nationwide obesity statistics are equally staggering. While the number of smokers has dropped by almost 20 percent since the early 1990s, the number of Americans with obesity has increased by 85 percent. It is therefore not surprising that a recent CDC-sponsored study found that obesity will soon take the place of tobacco as the nation’s leading cause of preventable death.  

As a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Health, I am concerned that obesity affects our nation’s fiscal as well as physical well-being. According to a recent report released by the Institute of Medicine, obesity-related medical costs for all Americans amount to almost $190 billion annually.

Health care costs in the United States far exceed those in European countries. A 2009 Health Affairs report found that one reason for this disparity is the heightened occurrences of chronic disease and chronic disease risk factors (including obesity) among Americans. To illustrate, 33.1 percent of U.S. adults older than 50 are obese, compared with 17.1 percent in 10 selected European countries who participated in the Survey of Health, Aging, and Retirement in Europe.

Fighting obesity requires prevention and treatment. Recently, there has been a big push for prevention, particularly among young people — and rightly so. A 2009 report by the Clinics in Chest Medicine suggested that because obesity is an increasing problem in every segment of the population, today’s generations may be the first to experience a shorter lifespan than their parents.

However, we must not lose sight of the 93 million Americans who are already affected by obesity, including adults ages 45 to 64, among whom the problem is most prevalent. For these individuals, the most urgent challenge is avoiding the host of associated conditions that require medical intervention and are difficult and costly to treat.

Americans suffering from obesity today need a holistic approach that includes a wide range of treatment options, from diet and exercise to drug therapies and surgery. If there were a one-size-fits-all solution, we would have solved this problem long ago. Patients need individualized approaches to lose weight, avoid chronic conditions and begin to break the cycle of obesity.

Just as it took a nation of communities to effectively address the effect of Hurricane Katrina, overcoming the national obesity epidemic will require the collaboration and long-term dedication of individuals, physicians, support teams and communities. Solutions will not be easy or quick, but we must address this issue now for both the financial and physical well-being of present and future generations.

Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) is a physician specializing in the treatment of diseases of the liver.

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