Stateline Story

States Losing Fight Against Fat, Study Says

  • October 20, 2004
  • By Erin Madigan

Alabama weighed in as the heaviest state in 2003 because nearly one third of its residents are obese, while Colorado ranked thinnest, with only 16 percent of its population considered obese, according to an Oct. 20 report analyzing states' efforts to fight fat.

Mississippi and West Virginia placed second and third fattest, with obesity rates of 28.1 and 27.7 percent respectively. Along with Alabama, they reported high rates of weight-related diseases such as hypertension and diabetes, according to the report by Trust for America's Health, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that aims to make disease prevention a national priority.

The report predicted all states likely will fail to meet federal goals to reduce obesity rates to less than 15 percent of the population by 2010. An uncoordinated patchwork of state and federal health and exercise initiatives threaten to exacerbate existing problems and could lead, within a decade, to obesity eclipsing tobacco-related illness as the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, the report said.

The group's first report on state obesity trends, titled "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America," is available online and includes state-by-state information on physical education and school nutrition requirements as well as detailed data about state policies and rates of obesity.

Obesity is an extreme form of being overweight. It's commonly defined as individuals whose "body mass index," or ratio of weight-to-height, is greater than 30.

Forty-one states have adult obesity levels higher than 20 percent, the report said. Generally, obesity rates are higher in the Midwest and South. States are not required to track childhood obesity rates, but 33 states reported in a federal survey that more than 10 percent of low-income children in their state are overweight, according to the report.

Obesity-related medical problems also are busting states' budgets. States spend money on the aftereffects of an obese society through myriad outlets, most notably Medicaid, the state-federal public health safety net program. In fact, obesity-related medical problems cost states an estimated $75 billion in 2003, the report said.

To ease that burden, states have jump-started programs to encourage exercise, promote nutrition and stave off preventable diseases, but little is known about what the programs' long-term impacts or cost savings will be, according to Shelley Hearne, executive director of the Trust.

"What we've seen is that the policies are not enough, nor is the funding, nor is the evaluation ... or even the tracking so you know if you're getting the payoff you hope for," Hearne told Stateline.org. "How can states win if they don't have the game plan, the troops or the tools in place to do the job that's needed?"

Examples in the report of state policies aimed at obesity prevention and reduction include:

  • Eleven states have enacted "cheeseburger laws" that prevent people from suing fast-food restaurants, food manufacturers and marketers for contributing to unhealthy weight or related health problems. These states are: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Washington. 
  • Seventeen states have enacted a tax on snack foods or soda. Eighteen states established commissions on obesity, nutrition or physical activity between January 2002 and September 2004. However, only two governors Republicans Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky -- have created statewide initiatives. 
  • Four states require health insurance providers to cover surgery for morbid obesity: Georgia, Indiana, Maryland and Virginia. 
  • Due to a lack of resources, just 28 states have gotten funds from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for state-based nutrition and physical education programs targeting obesity. 
  • Twenty-three states received federal money from CDC for school-based health programs to encourage behaviors that reduce the risk of becoming obese. 

Tags: Health