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By Eric Stirgus May 20, 2011

Deal uses wrong number to make case about childhood obesity

Georgia’s weight problem is making us lighter in the wallet.

And we’re not just talking about the adults.

Gov. Nathan Deal last week went to an intermediate school in White County to talk about his plans for a statewide initiative to battle childhood obesity. Not only did the governor speak to students about the health concerns that come with obesity, Deal also mentioned its financial impact.

"The health care price tag for childhood obesity in Georgia is $2.4 billion annually and rising," Deal said, according to the Gainesville Times.

Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, who is also involved in the effort, led by the SHAPE Partnership, used the same cost estimate for childhood obesity in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed. The SHAPE Partnership is a public-private partnership that includes several state agencies.

Considering these austere times for Georgia families and state government, we thought it worthwhile to dig deeper into the $2.4 billion estimate.

Deal’s office sent us a 2009 report on obesity in Georgia to back up the governor’s point. It mentioned that obesity costs the Peach State about $2.4 billion a year. However, that did not specify children. The report mentioned that the average cost in medical care for the obese is $250 a year.

We called the authors of that report. One of them, Justin Trogdon, said the average annual medical cost for children is $200. He did not have a specific total for how many obese children there are in Georgia. Trogdon said the $200 estimate comes from examining annual medical spending for obese people and comparing it with non-obese people. The estimate includes out-of-pocket costs and other expenses.

The annual cost for children is less than adults because they face fewer health problems, said Trogdon, a research economist at RTI International, an institute that does studies on topics that include health, education, the environment and technology for businesses and governments in more than 40 countries. Researchers are noticing more cases of high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes among children, Trogdon said.

"A lot of the expensive issues don’t manifest until later in life," Trogdon said.

Nearly 22 percent of Georgia’s children between the ages of 10 and 17 are obese, according to one study sent to us by Deal’s office. The U.S. Census Bureau does not keep specific data on how many children in Georgia are between 10 and 17, but it does mention that nearly 7.2 million of Georgia’s 9,687,653 residents are 18 or older. That leaves us with about 2.4 million Georgians younger than 18.

We did some more math using that census estimate to determine the percentage of children considered obese and the $200 annual medical cost estimate to see how close that came to what the governor told those students. The total was about $110 million. Not close to $2.4 billion.

Was our estimate wrong? We talked about it with Deal’s office. His communications director, Brian Robinson, said the governor misspoke.

"The figures he offered are for obesity overall," Robinson said, noting the $2.4 billion annual medical care estimate for all obese Georgians mentioned in the 2009 Georgia study.  

"His overall point is accurate," Robinson added. "Obesity comes at a high cost to our state and Governor Deal wants to give children a chance to learn about healthy living and engage in healthy living practices."

The $2.4 billion estimate was used by various Georgia news organizations and mentioned to students. We appreciate the efforts of the governor’s office to clarify the estimate. Still, it was the wrong estimate and rates the claim False.

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Our Sources

Gainesville Times, "Gov. visits White County to outline new obesity program,"  May 10, 2011

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "A new partnership to tackle obesity," May 9, 2011

2009 Georgia Data Summary: Obesity In Children And Youth

U.S. Census Bureau, Profile of General Population and Housing Characteristics

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future," June 2010

Telephone interview with Brian Robinson, communications director for Gov. Nathan Deal, May 12, 2011

Telephone interview with Justin Trogdon, research economist, RTI International, May 16, 2011

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