The Heavy Burden of Obesity: The Economics of Prevention

Resource type:
Reports and discussion papers

More than half the population is now overweight in 34 out of 36 OECD countries and almost one in four people is obese. Average rates of adult obesity in OECD countries have increased from 21% in 2010 to 24% in 2016, so an additional 50 million people are now living with obesity. Despite a drive in the last decade to deal with increased obesity, more needs to be done amid sedentary lifestyles and an almost 20% increase in calorie supply – i.e. calories available for consumption – in the OECD over the past 50 years.

From 2020 to 2050, overweight and related diseases will reduce life expectancy by about three years across the OECD, EU28 and G20 countries, according to the OECD analysis.

A rise in the number of people with high body-mass index (BMI) – a measure of whether someone is overweight or underweight based on their weight and height – is squeezing health budgets due to the high cost of chronic diseases linked to overweight, such as diabetes, cancers and heart disease. OECD countries will spend about 8.4% of their health budget to provide treatment for overweight-related diseases.

Virtually all the OECD countries have a national action plan on obesity and most countries have a specific action plan to tackle obesity in children, as well as national guidelines to promote healthy diets and active lifestyles. But the response needs to be stepped up.

Every dollar spent on preventing obesity generates up to a six-fold economic return, OECD analysis shows.

The OECD identifies four categories of policies to tackle the problem and gauges the effect of three promising “policy packages” to help countries achieve greater impact and coherence in tackling the obesity epidemic. Food and menu labelling, regulation of advertising of unhealthy foods to children and the promotion of exercise, including by doctors and schools, are among the measures analysed.


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