News

The bulging cost of obesity

  • Weighty problem: obesity and weight-related disease will cost nearly $16 million in healthcare costs alone over ten years (File photograph)

Campaigners fear the public are “turned off” by obesity risks despite its crippling impact on Bermuda’s health and economy.

More than 8,000 people suffer from lifestyle and diet-linked type 2 diabetes, with 157 patients on dialysis at the hospital, and experts estimate the island’s obesity epidemic will cost $15.8 million in health insurance alone over ten years.

Debbie Jones, chairwoman of the Bermuda Diabetes Association, said she worried that calls to change to a healthier lifestyle were being ignored. Ms Jones added: “Meanwhile, the more added sugar that people take in, the sicker they get and the worse they feel.

“Sugary drinks are the first place to start. They are empty calories that give you nothing — it just isn’t good for you.”

Ms Jones said she had even heard of water-only policies in some places being called a breach of human rights.

She added: “But a basic human right is to be healthy.”

Her remarks came after a spokeswoman for the Department of Health branded Bermuda’s obesity epidemic “the number one public health challenge” and a “major driver for chronic ill health”.

The spokeswoman said: “Adult obesity has well-known health and economic consequences, both for the individual and society as a whole.

“The last four years of insurance-claims data indicate an expected ten-year cost of obesity estimated at $15.8 million.

“This is just the direct cost of medical care and does not include indirect costs of things such as wages and work hours lost.

“Those indirect costs are part of the larger health economic impact.”

World Obesity Day, designed to highlight the grim health toll caused by excess weight, was marked last Wednesday, as the Government prepares to launch a national health plan to tackle diabetes and obesity early next year.

A survey three years ago said that more than a third of adults in Bermuda were clinically obese.

The spokeswoman said that the island had a lifestyle and working environment “where unhealthy diets are the norm, facilitating weight gain and obesity”.

She added: “This level of obesity puts Bermuda’s population’s health in danger, raising the risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, fatty liver disease, sleep and musculoskeletal disorders, as well as reducing performance, harming mental health and putting future health and prosperity at risk.

“Changes in food availability and type, and a decline in physical activity for transport or play, have resulted in an energy imbalance.

“Ultra-processed, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods are cheaper and readily available.

“Opportunities for physical activity have been reduced and more time is spent on screen-based and sedentary leisure activities.”

Annabel Fountain, director of endocrinology for the Bermuda Hospitals Board, said that half the patients she saw had diabetes.

She added: “It’s not just cosmetic or about being fat. There’s a social acceptance of obesity in the western world. I don’t think we were prepared for the diseases that come with that.

“Part of it is the huge social divide in Bermuda. It’s not just genetics — it’s socio-economic.

“We can’t tell people to eat salads when they can’t afford it. We have to make our environment more supportive.”

Dr Fountain said that life in Bermuda was “stressful” for many people.

She explained: “So many people have multiple jobs, and when someone has an amputation or goes blind or is on dialysis three times a week, they may no longer be employable — so the consequences of diseases associated with obesity are devastating.”

Dr Fountain also appealed to the public to change the way they looked at chronic disease.

She said: “We have sympathy for people with cancer, and less for people with diabetes, but cancer is just as much linked to obesity.”

The Health Department spokeswoman said the island’s problem required as a multi-pronged attack, including not only governments, but schools, families, local communities and businesses.

She added that Government’s healthy schools programme, a joint effort by the Ministries of Health and Education, and the Premier’s youth fitness programme were designed to get young people to think about their health at an early age.

The spokeswoman said: “People spend their time at work, school, home or in a recreational setting. Those settings can have a great influence on lifestyle and habits.

“The proposed plan is not prescriptive but is intended to engage every part of the health system as well as greater society to prevent obesity and non-communicable chronic disease.”

How we rank

Percentage of obese adults, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2015 statistics

• United States 38.2%

• Bermuda 34.4%*

• Mexico 32.4%

• New Zealand 30.7%

• United Kingdom 26.9%

• Ireland 23.0%

• Portugal 16.6%

• Italy 9.8%

*Health ministry statistic, 2017