Taking a Long-Term View of Childhood Obesity Prevention | Commentary

Posted May 6, 2013 at 2:13pm

Rates of obesity among American children continue to be at pandemic levels, and according to a new study released by the Campaign to End Obesity this week, obesity costs our country not only its health but also some of its wealth, driving up health care and related costs by about $450 billion each year. The other costs of obesity are perhaps more obvious — children who struggle with their weight can be the subject of taunting and suffer emotional distress, and more often than not, they become obese adults and suffer one or more dangerous health side effects such as diabetes or heart disease.

The problem is particularly pronounced in America’s communities of color and among those who are economically disadvantaged.

In Congress, we must consider policies to reverse America’s obesity epidemic by taking steps to improve nutrition and physical activity for children as well as access to healthy lifestyle opportunities for all Americans, particularly those with limited resources. There is often strong bipartisan support for taking steps to eradicate our obesity epidemic generally and to prevent childhood obesity, but unfortunately, the Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimate for potential advances toward this end often fail to fully encompass the true benefits.

For example, the CBO traditionally provides only a 10-year economic analysis of the costs and savings of health programs. When programs promise real change — change that would help reduce costs such as the expense of caring for someone with obesity and the conditions obesity often triggers — Congress does not get the full picture of long-term savings. The prevention of obesity and other chronic diseases in our children yields long-term returns on our investments, and the total costs should be evaluated with these long-term effects in mind.

The campaign’s study, authored by economist Alex Brill of the American Enterprise Institute, demonstrates that there are literally billions of dollars in savings from effective obesity-prevention programs that are not captured in our current approach. Brill says the CBO has the capacity to produce estimates for as long as 75 years, as it does when it models Social Security solvency or as it did when the office assessed the long-term net costs of the tobacco tax. A 75-year score may not be possible to produce every time the CBO evaluates a health policy, but it seems like a good idea if we are trying to determine what it will cost relative to what we could gain long term.

When we look at our children and grandchildren, we envision their future, not just 10 years from today, but when they are adults, parents and grandparents in their own right. We need to take policy steps to help our children achieve the healthiest lives we can give them, especially for those who are not equipped to obtain crucial nutritional and physical activity resources on their own. If we enact effective policies that achieve those aims, the economics of those policies must be looked at from a long-term perspective. By failing to account for the very real savings that occur from helping our children avoid or reverse obesity, we are failing each and every one of them.

Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, represents the state’s 11th District. Jeffrey Poltawsky is vice president of the American Family Children’s Hospital at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison, Wis.