It’s remarkable that Europe’s obesity challenge doesn’t get more policy attention. The share of the population that’s overweight or obese is already high and growing fast. By 2030, around 40 and 30 percent of Brits and Germans, respectively, will be obese. These are large numbers and should concentrate political minds on coming up with better policies addressing the scale and growth of obesity.
For sure, that’s important for those who suffer from obesity and type-2 diabetes, sleep apnea, musculoskeletal diseases, or other diagnoses linked to obesity. It is also important for Europe’s economy and fiscal health. Nutrition intake shapes the productive capacity of an individual, or indeed of a whole population. Hundred years ago, feeding people with more calories was a good way to boost the economy. Now the economic challenge is rather about finding ways for people to eat healthier and treat obesity at source.
Governments should respond by improving methods and choice of dietary counselling and boost the efficiency of programmes for lifestyle changes, but also recognize that access to treatment – among them surgery – is key for those patients that could no longer benefit from prevention measures. That should be part of an economic strategy for Europe because it’s far cheaper to treat overweight and obesity than to finance all the medical symptoms directly linked to weight problems. Obese people, shows the OECD, has 25 percent higher healthcare costs than the average. In the UK, the government’s Foresight study estimated that obesity will represent 13% of total healthcare costs by 2050.
A colleague and I did some calculations on the cost of obesity treatment compared to the cost of healthcare systems from obesity-caused type-2 diabetes, and what we found suggests that healthcare systems in Europe can save resources. We studied five countries (Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom) and if they had been able to substitute their historic (and low) expenditures on direct obesity treatments with cost-effective approaches, obesity rates would not have accelerated as much as they did. Germany, for example, would have 2 percentage units lower obesity rates; the equivalent figure for the UK is 4 percentage units. Furthermore, the healthcare expenditures associated with obesity would have been smaller. France and Sweden, for example, would have 12 percent lower healthcare expenditures on obesity after 25 years of substitution between actual programmes to treat obesity and the cost-effective approaches that exist today.
Innovation in medical technology is needed for Europe to stem the escalating healthcare and fiscal costs associated with obesity. But for innovators and scientists to put more efforts into developing better and cost-effective technology, they need to know that there is a market for new technology. For the time being, Europe’s healthcare systems are failing on that score. Far too few offer opportunities for obese patients to get adequate treatment – and far too many have yet to recognise the cost consequences for healthcare systems if obesity is left uncontrolled.