Europe is confronted by an obesity challenge. Rates of obesity have climbed fast over the past decades and estimates suggest that obesity rates will continue to grow over the next decades. Obesity is a complex disease and a source for many other medical problems like diabetes type 2 and cardiovascular diseases. Therefore, the growing prevalence of obesity also affects healthcare expenditures and labour supply in the economy. On current trend, obesity will in future have a significant impact on healthcare spending and the productivity of Europe’s economies.
There is a strong case to be made for policy leaders to give greater attention to obesity. The growth of obesity needs to be addressed and European countries need better prevention policies for that to happen. Furthermore, there also has to better policies to treat people that already suffer from obesity and associated diseases. As the medical science has rapidly advanced its understanding of obesity, and now agreed on clinical guidelines for surgeries of obese patients with type-2 diabetes, it is time for political leaders to respond to the opportunities created by new innovation.
The EU does not take a leading role in devising healthcare policies in Europe. Still, it has increased its ambitions in helping governments to reduce the growth of obesity. However, the EU can do more – and there is a natural role for it in helping governments to learn from best practices and to evaluate how well, or bad, they are responding to the obesity challenge.
Europe is facing an obesity crisis of epidemic proportions, one that threatens to overwhelm the EU’s already struggling economies and place a tremendous burden on its healthcare systems. Data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicate that the proportion of those who are overweight or obese will rise substantially in the EU over the next decade if the issue is not tackled.
It is time for both governments and European Union institutions to take comprehensive action. Obesity is a big fiscal challenge for governments because the growth of obesity in Europe has reached such proportions that it inevitably will drive up healthcare costs in the future. Furthermore, when a high proportion of working-age population is obese, there are also economy-wide consequences because of the productivity losses. Obese people are more often away from work than others because they require more medical care, and they are ending their working life at an earlier age than others.
What adds more significance to the challenge is that past and current policies to reduce the incidence of obesity have not been very effective – and that few governments have new ideas for how to tackle it. It is remarkable that governments take a lax attitude. McKinsey Global Institute estimates the effects on GDP from obesity to be similar as the effect of smoking. It is well established that obesity causes several non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Population ageing will exacerbate the issue as elderly people with obesity demand far more healthcare than those without the condition. The exact healthcare costs of obesity today can only be estimated, but governments know that costs are growing. The OECD estimates that average healthcare expenditure for an obese person is 25% higher than for someone of normal weight. In the UK, the government’s Foresight study from 2007 estimated that obesity will represent 13% of total healthcare costs by 2050. Obesity is already estimated to cost Europe 70 billion euro annually in healthcare costs and lost productivity.
Few governments in Europe have a comprehensive strategy to reduce the obesity burden and the rapidly rising associated healthcare costs. As highlighted in recent studies by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s, policy-makers have focused on preventing healthy people from becoming obese. And indeed, lifestyle-focused programmes have an important role to play in preventing obesity in people with a healthy weight. However, a policy focusing only on prevention will neglect those who are already severely obese and the costs associated with already existing obesity.
A change in the default setting is crucial as the big expected increases in future healthcare expenditures will predominantly come from such patients—people that have already developed obesity or are serious overweight. More co-ordinated intervention is needed for those struggling with the problem. This means comprehensive treatment that addresses the complexity of obesity and creates a more targeted and supportive environment for those who are already obese and unlikely to benefit from behavioural change alone. A combination of interventions, along with broader changes in societal attitudes to how we eat and exercise, are likely to have the best effect.
This Policy Brief will take a closer look at the growth of obesity in Europe and discuss what policy actions can be taken at the EU level. It starts with a chapter that analyses data on obesity and considers estimates on future rates of obesity. Then follows a chapter that examines existing policies at the EU level and that outlines some fresh workstreams for what more can be done. The Policy Brief ends with a conclusion.
 McKinsey Global Institute, 2014.
 OECD, 2010.
 Government Office for Science, 2007.
 Eatwell Project, 2012.
 EIU (2015) and country studies.