IN A new report, Fit for the Future: A Fair Deal on Food for a Healthier Britain, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has found that the cost of obesity and being overweight has spiralled to £98 billion – equivalent to almost 4% of GDP.
The Institute has emphasised that without government action, growth will continue to be hampered by the rising cost of obesity and overweight for society.
The UK has one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe; almost three-quarters of people aged between 45 and 74 in England have overweight or obesity. Plus, prevalence of obesity has increased over time: in 1970 it was the case that one in ten British adults had obesity, compared with one in three today.
Obesity has several impacts on individuals, including an increase in the risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes and cancer. Understanding these costs is important, both to quantify the drag on the wider economy from inaction and to target policy interventions in the most cost-efficient way.
Previously the most comprehensive estimate of the economic cost of obesity in the UK, in 2020, put the annual figure at £58 billion, equivalent to about 3% of GDP.
However, updated estimates in 2021 indicate that the cost of obesity and overweight spiralled to £98 billion – equivalent to almost 4% of GDP.
This significant increase reflects three extensions to the previous analysis:
- The costs of being overweight (a body-mass index (BMI) of between 25 and 29.9) as well as obesity, which is a BMI of 30 or more.
- The losses from economic inactivity (as individuals with obesity and overweight are more likely to exit the labour force prematurely).
- Updated cost estimates to account for inflation between 2021 and 2023.
Katharine Jenner, the director of the Obesity Health Alliance, said, “The huge increase in costs to £98bn, which now takes into account the value of health lost through illness and disease, is particularly striking as it has risen during a time the government has had a plan to address obesity – and failed to enact it.
“Thirty years ago, half of us were living with overweight or obesity, and now it is two-thirds of the population. In those 30 years, our food environment has changed beyond recognition into an obesogenic environment. It is not that our genes have changed but that we are surrounded by unhealthy food at every turn – on TV, in the shops, on our high streets and in our workplaces.
“If we only attempt to treat people without changing the environment that made them ill in the first place, we will simply be spending huge amounts of extra money in the NHS for little to no long-term benefit.”
The Institute says that to tackle obesity, the government must act to:
- Create a commercial food environment that provides accessible and affordable healthy options for people.
- Embed healthier food across all government entities such as the National Health Service (NHS) and schools to promote long-term health – particularly for children and the vulnerable.
- Actively adopt new research, technologies and treatments to improve the prevention and treatment of obesity.
Of the £98 billion total cost to society, about two-thirds (£63 billion) falls on individuals with obesity (through fewer years of healthy life) and their families and friends (through additional informal caring responsibilities).
By contrast, about one-third of the cost of obesity and overweight (£35 billion) falls on the state and wider society through higher NHS treatment costs and lower productivity; these are the costs most relevant to policymakers.
Sue Pritchard, Chief Executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, said, “Let’s be completely clear. This is not a ‘broken’ food system. This is a system brilliantly designed to enable ‘some’ businesses to ‘financialise’ food so that they make enormous profits from it. And society picks up the true costs.”
The overall cost is set to rise further. The UK’s ageing population, plus expected increases in the incidences of obesity, suggest that costs could increase by at least 10% in real terms between now and 2040. Moreover, the UK’s high and rising rates of childhood obesity and overweight are a harbinger of future problems.
These spiralling costs will inevitably mean an ever-increasing tax burden, lower productivity and additional government expenditure just to maintain the status quo.
The Tony Blair Institute concludes that this is unsustainable. “To put the UK on a better path, the government must reimagine its approach to economic growth and recognise that early intervention to help address the UK’s obesity crisis will not only result in a healthier population but also support that growth.”