Maine employers are already coping with rising costs related to overweight and obese workers.
But they are in for a lot more if youth obesity rates stay as high as they are now, according to new research by the University of New England.
The study of 17 Maine employers with a combined work force of 17,000 determined that the percentage of overweight and obese workers will increase from 62 percent now to 80 percent in nine years if current trends continue, according to William Perry, a data specialist at UNE’s Center for Health Policy Planning and Research. And a rise in health problems such as diabetes and heart disease will be close behind, he said.
The companies’ total annual costs — due to lost work time and health care — will climb from $6.1 million to $10.6 million. “The combined cost of overweight and obesity at these 17 companies,” Perry said, “is estimated to be $75 million” over the next nine years.
Perry’s estimates are based on employer records and a national study of weight trends and employer costs. He presented the estimates last week at a childhood obesity conference in Auburn, adding to a growing body of evidence that is worrying health care experts, teachers and business leaders.
“This should scare the pants off employers,” said Robert Ross, scientific director of the Maine-Harvard Prevention Research Center. “We have to go back into schools and do something about the next generation of workers.”
Childhood obesity rates have tripled in the last three decades, and overweight kids tend to become obese adults, according to Ross and other experts.
About one-third of Maine kids and two-thirds of Maine adults are overweight or obese, said Victoria Rogers, a pediatrician at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center. Roberts calls it the biggest threat to children’s health, more common than asthma, lead poisoning, autism, eating disorders or ADHD. “None of it rises to the level of this.”
There is some evidence that the 30-year increase in childhood obesity is slowing or leveling off, according to Rogers. But that still leaves one of three children at risk for a variety of health problems, as well as reduced success in school or at work, she said.
The Auburn conference took place as childhood obesity is getting unprecedented attention, nationally and in Maine. “When you have an epidemic, you mobilize people,” Rogers said.
Maine recently received a two-year $4.2 million federal grant to fight childhood obesity. A total of $1.8 million of that grant was given to the city of Portland, which has hired new staff to improve nutrition and promote physical activity, in part by expanding bike and walking paths around the city.
Some of the money has already been used to support three new weekly farmer’s markets in Portland, all supplied by refugees, as a way to expand access to fresh vegetables and improve the diets of residents. The grant money also paid for machines that allow customers to use food-stamp allowances at the markets.
Christine Lokoware of Portland, who learned to farm in her native Sudan, stood behind a table of beets, radishes and collard greens at the new Brackett Street market last Thursday. She said she tries to keep her children eating fresh produce despite all of the soda and processed foods available in stores here.
“If you don’t buy soda, they are not going to drink it,” she said.
Large employers in Maine are already paying attention to the growing weight problem among workers.
Cianbro Corp., which was one of the 17 companies in the UNE study, has an aggressive one-on-one health counseling program for workers, some of whom want help losing weight and becoming more physically active.
“We want people to be healthy and have quality of life,” said Rita Bubar, manager of Cianbro’s human resources department and wellness program. “The benefit for us is everything from just increased morale to increased productivity to lower medical coats. There aren’t any downsides.”
Now, Bubar said, she and others at the company are talking more about the shape of the future work force. The company hopes to find ways to expand the wellness program to the children of employees.
“That is the work force of tomorrow,” Bubar said. “We’ve been, this past year, talking about is there any way we can bring them more actively into the program.”
Childhood obesity may be undermining the future work force in more subtle ways, too. Studies are showing that overweight students generally do not perform as well in school, said Ross, the Maine-Harvard researcher.
Ross surveyed 41 Maine educators from around the state and found that most — 71 percent — said students who are overweight or obese do not perform as well as their peers. They also said students are not getting the recommended amount of daily activity.
“The grass-roots (educators) see it and experience it. It’s a validation of the research,” Ross said.
Joseph Thompson, surgeon general in Arkansas and a national authority on youth obesity, told attendees at last week’s conference that 30 years of changing diets and behavior has already created an obesity problem that is more costly than tobacco use.
“This is now. This is not a future issue,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out how to undo what we have unintentionally allowed to happen.”
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: