Taking the US and UK as examples, their respective governments are often implementing policies which seek to reduce obesity. A form of deterrence used is increased taxes on 'junk food' to promote healthier foods. This is often justified by the claim that obesity costs the taxpayer in terms of healthcare.

However, obesity on average reduces life expectancy. Therefore it cuts off the years of one's life in which they'd be a dependent upon the state, and much more likely to require healthcare. It also reduces long term pension costs, and the costs of other welfare provided by the state for the elderly. My question is, does the economic cost of obesity in terms of obesity-related medical conditions outweigh the costs savings induced by reduced life expectancy? I never really see this argument made in politics, and so I am curious if there has been any analysis done on it.

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    @mrnovice Obese people typically require health care their entire lives rather than just at the end.
    – JonK
    May 28, 2017 at 21:43
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    @mrnovice I can't say for the US but in the UK the government pays for all your healthcare, you may live for several years being obese and will require healthcare for the whole period, and may be too disabled to effectively contribute to the economy (need further disability benefits). Meanwhile if you are a healthy individual you can live the first 70 years of your life contributing to the economy, and may require some additional help in the last 10 years. Thus it costs a government a huge amount more to help the obese than to help the old. May 28, 2017 at 21:48
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    @SleepingGod But do you actually have numbers which back up that hypothesis?
    – Philipp
    May 28, 2017 at 21:50
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    This is a question for Skeptics.SE. As a data point - smokers are profitable to the state budget, despite what all the anti smoking ads say: economics.stackexchange.com/questions/12067/… May 28, 2017 at 22:42
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    As written, this is missing a notable claim and would thus be off-topic on Skeptics.SE.
    – Brythan
    May 29, 2017 at 0:11

3 Answers 3


I will try to (very) roughly estimate both the cost of obesity and the cost of extra pension paid due to not being obese, so there will be many assumptions and guesses.

Average life expectancy in US is now about 79 years. Average retirement age is about 63. => about 16 years for an average person

Average retirement age income supported by Social Security is about 1300$/month => 15600$/year

Estimated obesity cost is about 600$/year/person:

The medical care costs of obesity in the United States are high. In 2008 dollars, these costs were estimated to be $147 billion. => 460$

The annual nationwide productive costs of obesity obesity-related absenteeism range between $3.38 billion ($79 per obese individual) and $6.38 billion ($132 per obese individual)

=> ~600$ / year / individual

However, obesity related costs are much higher due to more expensive comorbidities:

Thompson and colleagues concluded that, over the course of a lifetime, per-person costs for obesity were similar to those for smoking. (10) In middle-age men, treatment of five common obesity-related conditions (stroke, coronary artery disease, diabetes, hypertension, and elevated cholesterol) resulted in roughly $9,000 to $17,000 higher costs compared to normal-weight adults.

=> ~13000$ / year / individual

We must also take into account that in the most cases obesity does not imply not getting a pension. Life expectancy is reduced based on obesity degree:

The Oxford University research found that moderate obesity, which is now common, reduces life expectancy by about 3 years, and that severe obesity, which is still uncommon, can shorten a person’s life by 10 years. This 10 year loss is equal to the effects of lifelong smoking.

Let's assume an average life expectancy reduction of about 5 years.

So, life expectancy reduction saves the Government about 5 * 15600 = 78000$ / person

On the other hand, there are great expenses related to obesity. Let's assume some 20 years of moderate obesity expenses and some 10 years of comorbidities expenses:

20 * 600 + 10 * 13000 = 142000$ / person

So, there is a clear difference between so called savings and obesity related expenses.

Of course, there are so many explicit and implicit assumptions in the computations above that the figures might not be so different after all. Even so, this is the financial dimension only.

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    There are other economic considerations not directly mentioned in the question as well even on a narrow government budget basis. Obesity increases disability rates rates which are government expenses for disability payments, and those periods of disability are also periods of reduced earned income and hence reduced tax revenues. Also government spends money that encourages obesity (by subsidizing sugar and grain production to support farmers economically) so anti-obesity spending partially merely counteracts other government spending since reducing farm subsidies is politically difficult.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 23, 2017 at 23:57

Well, it depends.

The issue is very complex, as obesity is not only a drain on health and healthcare (and that depends on the model that functions in any given country), but also on anything else you could think of, basically.

Obesity starts very early and causes very wide range of illnesses and conditions and is for the most part a lifestyle choice. Choice of diet, to be specific. There are very convincing arguments that this bad choice may account for 80% of all healthcare costs for population under 55. Is this a lot? I'd say yes. And yes, it's not all obesity, but, on the other hand, the cause of it is diet, for the most part. So one might say reducing obesity will have a number of substantive fringe benefits. One must also point out that obesity can be a factor in professional life. As in - lack of. Overweight people literally cannot perform some types of jobs, so one must also consider issues non-health related. ANd so on, and so forth.

Which brings us to second part of the answer. Reducing obesity at the source would also reduce costs of healthcare for seniors, obviously, while increasing life expectancy. SO it's rather hard to estimate if it would be more costly before fix or after.

While there were studies made on obesity itself - like this one from CDC - and a lot comparing it's healthcare costs vs retirees', i know of no studies on the exactly the question you pose. However, some of them come close, like this one from UK, or this from US. Methinks it would be quite un-PC one, thus very explosive politically these days.

My opinion is that obesity costs more, period, and my subjective feeling is that I'm better off since I got smaller. I mean, thinner. Definitely in the financial department and I can keep up longer after my 2 year old kid...


The government is a business, it wants to ensure that it does not incur costs from paying out disability and unemployment benefits and therefore chooses to make healthy strategies and policies which will ultimately save the government money.

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