By Bruce Daggy
Recent studies have put a frightening economic price tag on our fast-growing waistlines. But there's another troubling risk that has so far gone largely unnoticed - the risk the nation's obesity epidemic poses to our national security and safety at home. Put simply, as obesity rates rise, it becomes harder for our military, police forces, first responders, and firefighters to find qualified candidates who can effectively protect us at home and abroad.
Twenty years ago, not one state had an adult obesity rate above 20 percent. Today, not one state has an obesity rate below 20 percent, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national average is 36 percent. Worse, 20 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are obese - up from 7 percent in 1980s - as are 18 percent of adolescents.
The health and economic cost of this national weight gain is mind-boggling. According to a recent study in the Journal of Health Economics, one dollar in every five the country spends on health care - or $190 billion - goes to treat obesity-related illnesses such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Then there are the economic costs from lost productivity, higher rates of disability, bigger health insurance premiums, and larger transportation costs that add up to tens of billions dollars more. Just moving around our excess pounds in cars, planes, and trains adds $4 billion to our nation's fuel costs.
If these were the only societal costs obesity imposed, it would be worth a national campaign to tackle this problem. But now we are coming to realize that, as we gain weight, we are also sacrificing our safety and security.
A report released this year by Mission: Readiness - a group of retired senior military leaders - found that more than one in four Americans can't join the military because they're "too fat to fight." It's worth noting that obesity rates are higher in states that tend to be fertile recruiting grounds. The 10 states that contributed the most military inductees have childhood obesity rates above 15 percent.
"Obesity rates among children and young adults have increased so dramatically that they threaten not only the overall health of America, but also the future fighting strength of our military," the report concluded.
Navy and Army recruiters I've talked to say they used to let overweight recruits in and try to bring them in line. But the success rate was too low; they are now more likely to ask them to try to lose weight and come back when they're in better shape.
The military spends $1 billion each year on obesity-related medical problems for active duty members, their dependents, and veterans. That's money it can't spend on weapons, planes, ships, intelligence, or training.
Obesity is starting to affect our safety at home as well. A 2009 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that more than 75 percent of firefighter and paramedic recruits in Massachusetts were overweight or obese. Studies of firefighters in Texas, Washington, and Memphis found similar results.
Kevin Spratlin, writing for Fire Engineering, noted that "unhealthy firefighters, particularly those who are overweight and obese, potentially place the public safety in jeopardy if they are unable to successfully perform their physically rigorous jobs."
A recent study of nearly 5,000 police officers by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than a third of police officers were obese. That, the study found, has contributed to high rates of sleep disorders, which is in turn affecting the "health, performance, and safety outcomes" of our police force.
Writing in Police Chief magazine, Arlington County, Va., Sgt. Adrienne Quigley noted that "in the law enforcement field, fitness has a direct impact on job performance."
Years ago, the public began to come to grips with the societal costs of smoking. But it took a decades-long campaign to change public behavior and cut smoking rates in half. Likewise, getting people to buckle up and to drive sober required sustained, large-scale efforts by the public and private sectors.
We're starting to see the beginnings of this when it comes to obesity, with efforts like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's restriction on soft-drink sizes and the recent changes to public school lunch menus. None of these efforts alone will make a measurable difference, but if we're ever going to stem the nation's fast-growing obesity epidemic - and the growing threat it's posing to our pocketbooks and our safety - it will take a series of small changes like these to turn the tide.
More than once, the U.S. military has led the way in changing attitudes and providing opportunities. Fighting obesity may be one of its great contributions in the years ahead.