The scales have tipped and Michigan can no longer afford to ignore its costly weight problem. With nearly one in every three adults classified as obese, Michigan is one of the heaviest states in the nation. The primary cost of obesity is higher medical spending: research has shown that obesity accounts for roughly 10 percent of medical expenditures in the state. Other research shows that average annual medical costs for a severely obese individual are nearly twice that of a healthy weight individual. Obesity is especially costly to the state’s Medicaid program where obesity is more prevalent than among enrollees of other types of insurance.
Obesity also adds costs to employers through higher health, disability, and life insurance premiums, more employee absences, and reduced employee productivity when employees are present. A 2002 study calculated that physical inactivity, a risk factor for obesity, results in 20 days of lost work annually, costing Michigan employers $8.7 million. Obesity also limits the number of people who are physically able to serve in the military, police and fire positions, and jobs requiring manual labor.
Roughly 15 percent of Michigan’s children are classified as obese, putting them on target to add to the obesity problem when they reach adulthood. Childhood obesity comes with its own set of problems. Obese children miss more days of school, have higher dropout rates, and are more likely to complete fewer total grades in school. Obesity among children as young as two and three years old is associated with lower functioning in verbal, social, and motor skills.
While problems related to this excess weight are shared by all Michigan residents, the problem itself is not evenly distributed across the state. Some counties, namely Washtenaw and Ottawa, have below average rates of obesity; only one-quarter of their residents are obese. Conversely, nearly 40 percent of Saginaw County’s residents are obese.
What is driving obesity and what should be done to fix it are certainly interrelated but neither the cause nor the solution are clear. Starting in early childhood, child care facilities in Michigan are not required to provide physical activity opportunities to children in their care and only some child care facilities are subject to nutrition rules. When children enter school, they are required to receive health and physical education, but the content, frequency, and quality of these courses is not specified and therefore varies across the state. It isn’t until high school that state policymakers have set minimum time requirements for physical education, though the standards are below federal recommendations. Additionally, most schools, but not all, are required to adhere to federal nutrition standards for school meals, and those that do not contribute to varying access to nutritious foods.
In adulthood and for families, low access to grocery stores that carry a variety of fruits and vegetables is a problem in some of Michigan’s urban and rural areas. More children and adults are consuming excess calories from sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda and many of Michigan’s communities were not designed for active transportation such as biking and walking, reducing opportunities for residents to engage in physical activity.
In a recently released paper, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan has considered these risk factors and identified roughly a dozen potential policy actions that could be implemented at the school, state, and local levels of government to reverse this course. Instituting required comprehensive physical and health education programs that meet federal recommendations, increasing state-level public health funding, mandating nutrition and activity standards for all child care facilities, helping to make fruits and vegetables more accessible and affordable, and focusing resources on community-level programs that can better target specific obesity risk factors are all solutions that have proven to be effective in preventing and, in some cases, reducing obesity. Obesity is not a problem that only impacts 31 percent of the Michigan’s population; it impacts every child, family, and business, and is too costly to ignore.