By Tom Still

MADISON – Speaking to a home-state crowd last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson described how his agency touches Americans in unseen ways every day, from regulating the prescription drugs they take to administering their Medicare accounts to watching over the safety of the food they eat.

“We just want you to eat less of it (food),” joked Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor who has shed 15 pounds in his personal quest to lead a healthier lifestyle. “We’re just too darn fat.”

For Thompson and others behind the nationwide offensive against obesity, it’s not just a campaign to downsize Americans so they look better in their suits. It’s about confronting a problem that may overtake tobacco use as the leading cause of death in the United States, and put further strain on costly health care programs.

Much of what you may read or hear about obesity is contained in anecdotal news stories – the impending end of “supersizing” at McDonald’s, restaurants offering more diet meal choices, Kraft Foods announcing a slew of health-conscious products and doctors urging their patients to exercise more. Behind the headlines is a systemic problem that poses a threat to our nation’s health and treasury.

Consider the connections between obesity and Type 2 (sometimes called “adult onset”) diabetes, a condition that has reached almost epidemic proportions. And yet, much of the public and private health and economic burden of diabetes can be averted through known prevention measures – starting with healthier eating habits and exercise.

Diabetes is a costly, complex and devastating chronic illness. It is the fourth leading cause of death in Wisconsin, costing an estimated annual $2.1 billion in health care costs and lost productivity. Each year, more than 3,600 Wisconsin residents die from diabetes and many more suffer disabling complications, such as heart disease, kidney disease, blindness and amputations. About 222,000 Wisconsin adults were diagnosed with diabetes in 2000; experts believe another 112,000 were undiagnosed.

The costs of diabetes don’t stop there:
ユ Many other persons were at increased risk of undiagnosed diabetes because of the risk factors of age, obesity, and sedentary lifestyle. About 18 percent of Wisconsin residents 65 and older have diabetes.
ユ Members of Wisconsin’s African-American population are 1ᄑ times more likely to have diabetes as whites. Native Americans are more than twice as likely to have diabetes as whites.
ユ People with diabetes suffer from many diabetes-related complications or conditions. In 2000, this included 2,592 lower extremity amputations.
ユ There were 78,790 hospitalizations in 2000 that were diabetes-related. Hospital charges for these admissions totaled about $1.03 billion.
ユ About 13 percent of Wisconsin’s gross state product is devoted to health care. If national and world estimates hold, at least 5 percent of the total dollars spent on health care is due to diabetes. It is a major, yet often preventable and controllable, drag on the economy.
In its plan for utilizing the dollars created by the formation of the Wisconsin United for Health Foundation, the Medical College of Wisconsin re-emphasized that prevention and public health strategies are essential to combating diabetes. For example, moderate, sustained exercise can help regulate glucose on a day-to-day basis and may improve long-term metabolic control.
In fact, MCW identified a series of nine health risks – including Type 2 diabetes and obesity — that constituted serious statewide issues. The MCW noted that almost one of every five adults in the state is obese, and the percentage of children who are overweight also continues to increase. Obesity exacerbates the effects of many diseases, complicating treatment, and frequently triggering an early onset of symptoms.
Living a healthier lifestyle is something most of us can do if we choose. It starts with being smarter about the foods we eat and extends to getting some exercise, even if that’s only walking the stairs instead of riding the elevator. The fight against fat is not just about looking better; it’s about feeling better and living a longer, happier life.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.