Technical Paper 1:
Obesity in Australia: a need for urgent action

2.1 - Health, social and economic impact of obesity

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According to the Burden of Disease and Injury in Australia (BoD) study, in 2003 high body mass2 was responsible for 7.5% of the total burden of disease and injury, ranked behind only tobacco (7.8%) and high blood pressure (7.6%).[10] High body mass caused approximately 55% of the burden associated with diabetes and 20% of cardiovascular disease.[10] Other major conditions for which obesity predicts higher mortality and/or morbidity are cardiovascular disease, some cancers and, increasingly, osteoarthritis. Obesity is also strongly associated with a wider range of conditions, including back, reproductive and mental health problems, and sleep apnoea. Overweight and obese children and adolescents face some of the same health conditions as adults, and may be particularly sensitive to the effects on their self-esteem and peer-group relationships.

Together, high body mass and physical inactivity are responsible for around 60% of the burden for type 2 diabetes.[10] Similarly, the combined effect of the cluster of associated risk factors – poor diet, physical inactivity, high body mass, high blood pressure and high cholesterol – is responsible for more than 50% of the total burden of cardiovascular disease.[10] The burden of disease attributable solely to high body mass (7.5% of total burden) is now very close to that of tobacco (7.8%). High body mass is likely to overtake tobacco as the leading modifiable cause of burden as smoking rates decline. This is already occurring for some age groups.[11, 12]

The most recent estimates of the impact of obesity in Australia2 show that obesity causes almost one-quarter of type 2 diabetes (23.8%) and osteoarthritis (24.5%), and around one-fifth of cardiovascular disease (21.3%) and colorectal, breast, uterine and kidney cancer (20.5%).[13]
Consequently, in 2008:[13]

  • 242,033 Australians had type 2 diabetes as a result of being obese
  • 644,843 Australians had CVD as a result of being obese
  • 422,274 Australians had osteoarthritis as a result of being obese
  • 30,127 Australians had colorectal, breast, uterine or kidney cancer as a result of being obese.
Health problems related to excess weight impose substantial economic burdens on individuals, families and communities. Society as a whole bears the economic brunt. It has been estimated that the overall cost of obesity to Australian society and governments was $58.2 billion in 2008 alone.3 [13] The total direct financial cost of obesity for the Australian community was estimated to be $8.3 billion in 2008.[13] Of these costs, the Australian Government bears over one-third (34.3% or $2.8 billion per annum), and state governments 5.1%. This estimate includes productivity costs of $3.6 billion (44%), including short- and long-term employment impacts, as well as direct financial costs to the Australian health system of $2 billion (24%) and carer costs of $1.9 billion (23%).[13] The net cost of lost wellbeing (the dollar value of the burden of disease, netting out financial costs borne by individuals) was valued at $49.9 billion.
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Obesity was associated with over four million days lost from Australian workplaces in 2001.[14] Obese employees tend to be absent from work due to illness significantly more often than non-obese workers, and for a longer time, and are more likely than non-obese people to be ‘not in the labour force’. As a potential indicator of productivity, absenteeism is an important factor when assessing the economic implications of an ageing Australia.[14]

2The standard definition of obesity is BMI >30. The health effects of ‘high body mass’ in the Burden of Disease study were estimated using new methods – please see references 10 and 11 for details.
3This includes an estimate of $49.9 billion for the impact of obesity on quality of life. Readers of companion technical papers in this series should note that equivalent estimates are not available for the burden of diseases caused by alcohol and tobacco.


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