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New council studying obesity’s economic impact

Last month, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove signed into law House Bill 1053, an act to establish the Mississippi Council on Obesity Prevention and Management.

Effective July 1, the newly formed council will study and collect data to help create awareness and promote prevention regarding obesity and its related diseases. It will also study the economic impact of obesity on the state and look at implementing a comprehensive statewide obesity prevention and management model. The obesity council will use private and public funds for research, education and treatment.

“Mississippi is the most obese state in the Union, neck and neck with Louisiana,” said Dr. Stanford Owen, an internal medicine specialist on obesity known nationally as “Doctor Diet,” and medical director of The Center for Health Management in Gulfport.

Owen, who supported legislation that created a similar council in Louisiana, was instrumental in getting the bill pushed through in Mississippi and was present when the governor signed the bill into law. Owen is licensed to practice medicine in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida.

“In America, 61% of the population is overweight and 35% is obese. Mississippi and Louisiana have been the most obese states for over a decade,” he said. “The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has named obesity the most serious health issue in America today ahead of everything else, including tobacco. Yet there is very little effort to attack the problem. This bill is about getting the ball rolling.”

According to the CDC, obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. Measured by body mass index (BMI), or weight to height ratio, overweight is defined as having a BMI over 25. Obesity is classified as having a BMI above 30.

Obesity substantially increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and stroke, gall bladder disease, diabetes, arthritis, sleep apnea and respiratory problems and some forms of cancer, including cervical, ovarian, breast, uterine, gall bladder, colorectal and prostate.

From 1960 to 1994, the prevalence of obesity in the U.S. increased more than 50%, most recently in the past decade, as more adults became sedentary. In 1998, more than 60% of adults in Mississippi and Louisiana were overweight or obese.

“Up until the last 100 years, if we wanted to eat, we had to go out and either grow it or hunt it, clean it and cook it,” said Sen. Deborah Dawkins (D-Harrison), a sponsor of the bill. “It’s still hotwired into our brain to eat enough for all that energy even though we don’t have to do anything to eat now except drive-through McDonald’s. Our bodies don’t need all that we’re eating now.”

Last year, a bill to form an obesity council passed the Senate, but not the House. This year, Dawkins teamed up with Rep. May R. Whittington (D- Schlater) and the bill passed with little opposition.

“I think the Mississippi Manufacturers Association was opposed to it because of concerns on mandates, but nothing could be further from the truth,” Dawkins said. “We needed the council in place to access federal funds. We didn’t ask for state funds.”

Jerry McBride, president of the 1,800-member Mississippi Manufacturers Association, said, “We weren’t opposed so much to the obesity council as we were to the creation of another state agency. After we were assured that wasn’t the case, we changed our opposition after it changed to a ‘for your information’ status.”

Whittington became interested in the study of obesity after she developed gestational diabetes late in a pregnancy and was forced to make immediate, radical dietary changes so her baby would be born unharmed.

“A lot of people are overweight and don’t like the image problem, but that’s not what this council is about,” she said. “This council is about helping obese people when they become sick and unhealthy because of the extra weight. We need to distinguish between the two.”

George Dale, commissioner for the state department of insurance, said there’s a growing trend of insurance companies denying coverage because of obesity.

“I used to never get a call on a situation like that,” Dale said. “Now, in the last six to eight months, I’ve gotten two or three calls from people who said they couldn’t get health insurance. When I’d call the insurance companies that denied them and ask why, they’d say, ‘They’re too overweight. We don’t want them because obesity often leads to other health problems.’”

Dawkins said she hopes the obesity council may be able to facilitate a reduction in healthcare costs to businesses.

“Because of obesity, a huge amount of money is spent each year on medication, healthcare, disability and workers’ comp,” said Owen. “We can cut our health care costs by over half just by bringing people back to the CDC recommendations on weight.”

“In my practice, we can remit 90% of diabetics, get 83% of hypertensives off medication, a vast majority of sleep apnea patients off breathing machines, 63% of back and joint patients off medication, 87% of acid reflux patients off medication — with exercise and diet alone,” he said. “The solutions work, but getting people to do that is difficult, especially when bridging all the different cultures and demographics.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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