McKinsey: Obesity costs UK society 73 billion per year

05 January 2015 5 min. read

Obesity is not only a global issue, also in the UK overweight comes with a hefty price tag. According to a study from McKinsey & Company, the burden on the wider economy amounts to $73 billion a year, making it after smoking the second largest health liability of the UK economy. If adequate measures are not taken, the cost to society will continue to increase.

Overweight or obese people is a major global problem. According a recently released research from McKinsey & Company, every year obesity costs the world economy $2 trillion in economic burden, through both direct medical cost and the indirect cost of decreased productivity. Only smoking ($2.1 trillion of damage) and armed violence, war and terrorism (also $2.1 trillion of damage) cost society more dearly. In the UK the impact of obesity and related costs is in relative terms even larger, as it represents the second most significant human generated drag on the economy. Falling slightly behind smoking, obesity brings along a burden of $73 billion, or around 3% of GDP.

Economic burden of obesity in UK

The medical costs
In the United Kingdom, the government currently spends about £6 billion a year on the direct medical costs of conditions related to being overweight or obese. That is 5% of the entire budget of the NHS. These costs are expected to rise, by 2030 the estimate is for obesity to cost the NHS between £10 billion and £12 billion. To break this down, the per capita spending on patients increases significantly between normal BMI and different overweight classes. Between normal and overweight there is a per capita cost increase of 31% or £247, this different becomes a whopping 80% or £642 increase for the second obese class, and 88% increase from normal BMI for the highest considered weight class.

The burden of obesity on healthcare systems also comes in a number of indirect forms, particularly metabolic disorders like type-2 diabetes create large costs for healthcare system. The chance of developing a metabolic disorder like type-2 diabetes is tied heavily to behaviour associated with becoming obese. A recent US study found that a 7% weight loss accompanied by moderate physical activity decreased the number of new diabetes cases by 58% among the high-risk population. As it stands treating diabetes costs the NHS £10 billion per year, 10% of its total budget.

Medical costs and BMI relationship

The social costs
The McKinsey report also finds that there is an inverse correlation in the UK between obesity and different measures of socioeconomic status, including household income, the occupational status of the parent, educational achievement, and a score of area deprivation. The prevalence of obesity is almost double among women with unskilled occupations (35.2%) than among professional women (18.2%). The most prevalent correlation for men is from education, with the more highly educated being generally less overweight. In the case of British children, the prevalence of obesity is almost 50% as high among boys in the lowest household income quintile as for those in the highest household income quintile; for girls, the prevalence is more than 50% as high. Children in the bottom decile of most deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese as children in the decile of least deprived areas.

Obesity among children

The negative effects of obesity on productivity and its prevalence in low socioeconomic groups, may make upward social mobility a greater challenge for those already disadvantaged by external factors. For example, in a study of 752,081 Swedish men, born between 1951 and 1965, men who were obese at age 18 years were more often downwardly mobile in the social hierarchy and less often upwardly mobile than normal weight men. BMI seems to be a determinant of the social mobility in Swedish men, possibly indicating that societal factors influence the social mobility of obese men.

Action needed
Based on the massive economic and societal costs coupled to obesity, and the grim outlook, McKinsey warns that fighting the disease should be a key strategic priority for public and private sector. The consultants identified a total of 74 possible interventions, which broadly can be categorised into 18 groups. Portion control – the reduction in the calorie intake by reducing portion size – is deemed the most cost effective and efficient way of reducing the burden, saving 2,126 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs*) with a cost of ‘only’ $400 per DALY saved. The second most effective method is reformulation, where the formula for high processed “pre-fabricated” foods has its calorie content reduced. Other sensible interventions include limiting the availability of high-calorie food/beverage, weight-management programs and better parental education.

Obesity interventions in UK

Overall, the authors believe that if 44 of the 74 interventions were to be deployed, the UK could return roughly 20% of overweight and obese individuals to the normal weight category, approximately equivalent to the entire population of Austria (8.5 million).

* The number of years that are lost or rendered economically unproductive due to disease.