Canada is in the midst of an election campaign which will see us voting-in our next Parliament and Prime Minister on May 2nd. That is 10 days away. And yet, during a 5-week campaign which has discussed the Canadian healthcare system with regularity (see here), to date no party has explained how they would deal with the obesity crisis, or said anything to suggest that they believe this is an important issue that requires a cohesive strategy for moving forward.
That’s pretty shocking, given that 60% of Canadian adults and 25% of Canadian children are overweight or obese. This is how our colleague Yoni Freedhoff framed the issue this morning on his blog Weighty Matters.
Let’s say there was a virus out there, and for arguments sake, let’s say it was killing 25,000 Canadians a year while afflicting millions. And if that’s not bad enough, lets say that this virus was a particularly nasty one, in that if it didn’t kill you, it markedly increased your risk of getting a whole slew of other medical conditions. Worse yet, this virus wasn’t silent. Infection with this virus was visible to the naked eye, and consequently sufferers became regular targets of societal bias. Infection also lead many to suffer with marked fatigue, and also made completing activities of daily living more challenging, with difficulty rising with degree of infection.
Let’s say too that while there was no vaccine or treatment that worked for everyone, there were both public health and medical interventions that might make a difference, if even just to combat the rising negative bias in society, as sufferers were ridiculed regularly, and even had their visible affliction leading them to lower salaries and fewer promotions. Let’s also say that amazingly and shockingly, medical schools and other health care professions weren’t being taught how to deal with this virus, and that the media had a bad habit of blaming those with it as being personally responsible for contracting it.
And let’s say that one quarter of all Canadians were infected.
This is a problem.
And Canadians seem to agree – in a recent survey more than 1/3 of Canadians, potentially more than will vote for any one federal party in this election, named obesity as the top health-issue facing the country. This shouldn’t be that surprising – a 2010 study found that the direct health care costs overweight and obesity in Canada in 2006 came to $6 billion dollars – more than 4% of the entire healthcare budget. And that’s just the direct costs – indirect costs such as lost productivity and psychosocial costs were not included in that analysis.
Other estimates suggest that even these high numbers are too conservative. A new study from Alberta Health Services suggests that obesity-related illnesses cost Alberta more than $ 1.25 billion in 2005. Given that Alberta only accounts for 11% of Canada’s population, it is likely that the healthcare costs for the country as a whole are over $10 billion. This is supported by a recent study from Australia (a country with very similar demographics and obesity rates) that puts the direct annual cost of overweight and obesity (including health-care and non health-care related expenses) at $21 billion, plus another $35.6 billion in subsidies (pension and unemployment benefits, etc). And as everyone worries about the healthcare costs associated with our aging demographics, don’t forget that obesity increases with age.
As we discuss the future health of our healthcare system, it only seems reasonable that the most prevalent disease in the country (one which is both preventable and treatable) should be discussed as well. Keep in mind that our two largest federal parties have spent weeks bickering over corporate tax cuts that are estimated to bring in somewhere between $1 and $6 billion – as opposed to overweight and obesity, which almost certainly costs double that if not more. And obesity (especially childhood obesity) is an issue that impacts people from all political persuasions and in all regions of the country.
Regardless of which party wins the election on May 2nd, we need the government to take this issue seriously. We need strategies that focus on both treatment and prevention (remember that roughly half of Canadians are already overweight or obese, so the prevention boat has largely sailed for many individuals), and that are evidence-based, as opposed to overly simplistic eat-less/move-more campaigns. As Dr Freedhoff said is a recent press release from the Canadian Obesity Network:
“There is still time to make obesity an issue in this election, and we encourage local and federal candidates of all parties to educate themselves on the complexities of this condition and incorporate evidence-based advice into their health platforms” .
They have 10 days, let’s hope they make the most of it.
For more on the importance of obesity as an election issue, be sure to check out the full press release from the Canadian Obesity Network, as well as accompanying posts by DrsYoni Freedhoff and Arya Sharma. And don’t forget to contact your local candidates.