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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 29, 2004

Employers sweating high cost of obesity

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post

Fat is everywhere. And workplaces are trying to get it out of the office.

Some of the interest is driven by the The Centers for Disease Control announcement this month that obesity could become the nation's leading cause of preventable deaths by 2005.

The FDA launched an anti-obesity campaign soon after. The number of workplace wellness and weight-loss programs has risen in the past few years.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, for one, is challenging his department to cut out those greasy lunches and lose some weight.

According to a 2003 survey by the American Management Association, 71 percent of executives say corporations have a "responsibility to promote wellness among employees."

It's not just because corporate America cares about us. "Healthier people tend to lower insurance costs," said Manny Avramidis, AMA's senior vice president of global human resources.

The ballooning of America has caused a ballooning of healthcare costs. Almost two-thirds of adult Americans fell into the category of overweight or obese in 1999 and 2000, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Thirty percent of U.S. adults are obese, up from 23 percent in 1994.

The World Bank has estimated the cost of obesity at 12 percent of the national healthcare budget. The total cost of obesity to U.S. companies is estimated at $13 billion annually, and it accounts for 9.1 percent of annual medical care expenses, according to the National Business Group on Health, which lobbies on behalf of employers.

That's one reason Jenny Craig Inc. launched a corporate outreach program last month that helps companies start an employee weight-loss program.

"There has been a call to action from employers and health plans," said Tania Azar, director of corporate sales and head of the weight-loss company's new Corporate Partnership program.

Jenny Craig has worked with corporations in the past, but this is the first formal program it has created to sell to companies.

A few have signed on, Azar said. Some employers are offering a group discount; others will roll the program into a wellness package at reduced cost.

Richard Little, executive director of Cooper Ventures in Dallas, a workplace wellness consultancy, said companies are "starting to renew" interest in wellness programs.

"Quite often they want to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity and decrease healthcare costs," he said of his clients. "I like to see companies come forth with all those things in mind, but they do it because it's the right thing to do, and they want a healthier employee base."

According to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2003 benefits survey, 57 percent of employers offered some sort of wellness program, resource or information. Thirty-one percent offered a fitness-center subsidy, and 24 percent offered a weight-loss program.

Law firm Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson, based in New York, is launching its fourth annual Fitness Challenge, in which four-member teams compete, winning points for exercising, eating well and attending wellness seminars. People from pretty much every level take part.

For added incentive, the firm's Washington office challenged another law firm in the same building to take the Fitness Challenge. Participants will undergo a test to determine their "health age," as opposed to their real age. After the 10-week program, the average number of years lost will be calculated, and the firm that has lost more years wins.