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Heavy workers, hefty price

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Obese employees have much higher weight-related medical expenses and miss more work than their colleagues who maintain a healthy weight, a study shows. It places the annual cost at an additional $460 to $2,500 per obese person -- those who are 30 or more pounds over a healthy weight.

The higher expenses are absorbed by all employees who end up paying higher health-care premiums; by businesses if they have to hire replacement workers or pick up a larger share of insurance costs; and by obese employees if they aren't paid for their time off.

The price of obesity at a company with 1,000 people on staff is about $285,000 a year in medical costs and absenteeism. Roughly 30% of that cost comes from increased absences among heavyset employees, according to the study in the September/October issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

This adds to the growing body of research on the high cost of extra pounds. Another study, released this summer, showed that obesity has fueled a dramatic increase in the amount spent on treating medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol.

For the latest analysis, economists with RTI International, a non-profit think tank, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, examined two national surveys that track absences and medical information on more than 20,000 full-time employees, ages 18 to 64. Among the findings, adjusted for 2004 dollars:

*Normal-weight men miss an average of three work days a year, compared with five days for men who are 60 or more pounds over a healthy weight.

*Normal-weight women miss about 3.4 days a year vs. 5.2 days for women who are obese, that is 30 to 60 pounds overweight, and 8.2 days for extremely obese, 100 or more pounds over a healthy weight.

*The average medical expenditure for a normal-weight man is $1,351 a year. Men who are 30 to 60 pounds overweight cost $462 more based on added medical costs and absenteeism. Extremely obese men cost $2,027 a year more.

*Average medical expenditures for normal-weight women are $1,956. Women who are 30 to 60 pounds overweight cost $1,372 more when medical costs and missed work are included. Women who weigh 60 to 100 pounds too much cost $2,485 more.

*The most obese workers (those 100 or more pounds too heavy) make up 3% of the employed population but account for 21% of the costs of obesity.

One reason the medical costs for women are higher is they are more likely to seek treatment, says lead author Eric Finkelstein, a health economist for RTI International.

Overall, it's "going to take a concentrated effort to reduce these costs," he says.

Some companies are offering worksite wellness programs or incentives for maintaining a healthy weight or trying to lose weight, such as an extra day off work or paying a greater percentage of those employees' insurance premiums.

"Workplace wellness programs aren't going to have much effect on people who are already 100-plus pounds overweight," Finkelstein says. That may require more "aggressive disease management," he says.

Roland Sturm, a senior economist with Rand Corp, a research think tank, says, "This is more evidence that obesity is very costly."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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