Obesity rates in the US are driving up costs for employers that provide health insurance to workers, but few companies have introduced programs intended to curb the trend, the New York Times reports.

Nationwide costs related to employees' obesity for companies are $45 billion annually, according to a report by the Conference Board and RTI International. In addition, a team of Emory University researchers � led by public health professor Kenneth Thorpe - found that obesity accounted for 27% of the rise in medical costs from 1987 to 2001.

Obese employees are more likely to miss work than other workers and typically are less mobile on the job than thinner employees, according to the Times. In addition, research by Roland Sturm, a senior economist for the RAND Corporation, found that obesity is a greater generator of chronic health problems than smoking or heavy alcohol use.

However, some companies might believe that "obesity is not their problem to solve," especially in industries with high employee turnover rates, because costs do not rise immediately with weight gain, and employees who change jobs "tak[e] their health care costs with them," according to the Times. Eric Finkelstein, director of the Public Health Economics program at RTI, said, "For most companies, it's not a smart business move" to have obese employees. He added, "Putting on a public health hat, you might say it's unfortunate that companies don't do more for employees. But it doesn't make sense from an employer's point of view."

The Times reports that although business executives often speak out on issues that cost them billions of dollars annually, they might not see the connection between obesity and costs. LuAnn Heinen, director of the National Business Group on Health's Institute on the Costs and Health Effects of Obesity, said, "People in charge of benefits plans completely, 100% get it," but executives' "perception of obesity as a driver of costs - they may not understand that as well."

Studies have shown that incentives programs - such as those offering workers cash incentives to fill out health questionnaires, discounts at health clubs and reduced health insurance premiums - can encourage healthier lifestyles and help reduce the cost impact of obesity, the Times reports. In addition, when one employee loses a large amount of weight, the chances other employees also will lose weight improve, according to Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociology professor at Harvard University who has studied the effects of social networks on obesity.

Heinen also said some executives could be aware of the problem of obesity, as 14% of CEOs surveyed for the Conference Board/RTI study named it as a top health benefits concern. However, it is "a sensitive issue to address head-on," Heinen said (Holland, New York Times, 6/22).

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