Governor Mary Fallin’s “Oklahoma Now” Column
Headline: “Time to Get Healthy: The Costs of Obesity and Poor Health”
By Governor Mary Fallin
This September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, and it’s a good time for all Oklahomans to reflect on the importance of healthy living. As a mother, childhood obesity is an issue that speaks to my heart. No parent wants to see a child as young as seven developing chronic diseases, like type-2 diabetes, once only found in adults. It pains me to think of the health risks and emotional heart ache that these children face and may continue to face if they develop into overweight grownups.
As Oklahoma’s chief executive, however, it concerns me for another reason: the dangerous implications for our economy, our businesses and our state budget.
Most Oklahomans know our state has a problem with obesity. Few are aware, however, of the terrible financial toll that poor health is taking on our economy, workforce productivity and our businesses, not just here but all across the nation. A report recently released by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine offers a sobering look at the United States’ obesity epidemic and the financial bottom line that comes with it. Simply put, if left unchecked, that epidemic will cause enormous financial strain on families, taxpayers, government and businesses alike.
The new report examines the hidden costs of obesity for businesses, and the numbers are staggering. Loss of productivity due to obesity now costs U.S. businesses an estimated $73.1 billion per year. To put that number in perspective, that money could be used to hire 1.8 million new workers in the United States at an annual salary of $42,000. Instead it’s being used to pay medical bills of employees who are overweight and sick, and draining the coffers of the small businesses we count on to create jobs and invest in our communities.
The cost to taxpayers, state government and families is also enormous. In Oklahoma, it’s estimated that up to 11 percent of our total medical expenditures can be directly linked to the obesity epidemic. Oklahoma taxpayers shell out millions of dollars annually to treat the chronic illnesses related to overweight and obese Oklahomans on Medicare and Medicaid – money that could be spent instead on lowering the tax burden for our citizens or funding roads and schools.
Studies show that as many as 70 percent of overweight and obese children become overweight and obese adults. If that statistic does not change, we will have a serious workforce issue on our hands.
Recently, I was in New York City touting Oklahoma’s strong economy and economic development successes, something that few governors can do during this national recession. Oklahoma has made great strides in the past several years in becoming a business friendly state that supports the creation of new jobs. In the 2011 legislative session alone, we passed comprehensive lawsuit reform, a rewrite of the workers’ compensation laws, and worked to strengthen our public schools. All of these changes make Oklahoma a more attractive place to locate or expand a business.
Unfortunately, as a variety of reports continue to show, the health of our citizens continues to decline, with diseases related to obesity being the main culprit. Preventable illnesses cost Oklahoma businesses and taxpayers more than $800 million in health care costs and lost workforce productivity. Just as high taxes and overregulation are an impediment to business recruitment and job growth, so too is poor health.
To continue the Oklahoma economy’s forward momentum, we can and we must do better when it comes to the health of our citizens. To that end, the Oklahoma Health Department will continue its support of public health campaigns like “Shape Our Future” that focus on voluntary partnerships to promote healthy living, exercise and proper nutrition in our businesses, communities and schools.
The reality is, however, that healthy life choices are just what they sound like: choices. To tackle the obesity endemic in Oklahoma and start reversing course, all of us will have to make good choices about our health and our wellness. Just as important, we will have to teach our children about the importance of exercise and good nutrition.
As we begin Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, I would ask all our parents to talk to their children about the importance of being healthy. Let’s work together to make Oklahoma a healthier and more prosperous state and to make ourselves healthier people. We owe it to ourselves and to our children.