The direct cost of treating people who are obese and overweight is almost €400 million annually, the report – to be launched by Minister for Health James Reilly – says. This is equivalent to the current overspend in Dr Reilly’s department. Indirect costs, in the form of illnesses, absenteeism and premature deaths, account for the remaining €700 million cost.
The report, commissioned by State-funded health promotion group Safefood, is critical of the fact that the taxpayer rather than the food industry pays these costs.
“The food sector is tightly regulated in terms of food safety, but not in terms of health,” said Ivan Perry of University College Cork, one of the principal authors of the study.
This is the first time researchers have put a price tag on the cost of obesity.
The report says the cost of dealing with obesity and weight issues in Northern Ireland is almost €500 million.
Dealing with the problem accounts for 2.8 per cent of total health spending, about the same as in many other developed economies, but short of the 5-6 per cent of health spending recorded in the US.
“When you look at today’s children, of whom one-quarter are obese or overweight, we’re projecting significant increases in rates over the next 20 to 30 years,” said Prof Perry.
He said the figures in the report were conservative, as they didn’t account for mental health costs and made conservative assumptions about the number of years of life lost due to weight-related problems.
In the light of the report findings, he said, it was clear there was much greater value for money to be had from infrastructural projects, such as the introduction of cycling routes or measures to promote walking, than had previously been thought.
Prof Perry said the report showed food choices weren’t just an issue between food producers and consumers, because the costs affected all taxpayers. “There’s a huge emphasis on personal choice in relation to what you eat, yet this report shows there are wider societal costs,” he said.
The report revisits the recommendations made by a previous government’s national taskforce on obesity, dating back to 2004.