Lets talk about something non-political and uncontroversial for a change. Theres one topic that I believe everyone can agree onnamely, the obesity epidemic that has stricken this country. Theres general agreement that being fat is no good for you and being really fat is even worse. (And, for those of you who may be thinking that the expression “fat cats” is generally associated with one of the major political parties, please be assured there is no implication of that anywhere whatsoever in this column.)

So, why is it being called an epidemic? The answer is simple: Obesity is gobbling its way through billions of dollars like some crazy virus. A recent government report says obesity (and things related to it) cost the U.S. some $75 billion last year.

Two-thirds of all adults in this country are either overweight or obese. Nine million children also fall in to these 2 categories.

In 2000, obesity caused some 400,000 deaths, second only to tobacco as a killer in this country.

It is not politically correct to refer to peoples bigness, but lets face it, nearly everything in America is getting super-sized, not just the people. Have you noticed how big SUVs have gotten? Do we really need to be driving around in the equivalent of small buses, or is it just too darn difficult for many folks to fit in sedans (not to mention coupes) anymore?

There was also a recent report that passengers were complaining about seats in some new subway cars in New York City because they were too tight for comfort.

I also notice that McDonaldsposter child for the dangers of fast foodhas eliminated its largest upgrade (the super-duper size or whatever they called it). Of course, the now largest size of french fries and other menu items still supply enough fat, sodium, calories, etc. to bring down the Colossus of Rhodes. But its all relative.

And this relativity is something the life insurance business is going to have to come to terms with. What happens if, say, something like 80% or 90% of the population starts to look like offspring of the Michelin Man?

Will the preferred and super-preferred categories for life insurance start expanding along with the population? Or will the industry hold its current, stricter ground? Will the quickly diminishing mint-thin minority start demanding super-sized discounts on their life insurance?

Will the masses storm the citadels where those annoying and totally unrealistic ideal height-weight charts are created and stored, and toss them into a bonfire?

A recent study by Swiss Re said that life insurers cant afford to ignore obesity because of its links to things like hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer.

Theres been an overall decline in mortality rates in most developed nations in recent decades, according to the Swiss Re study, and this has been due to lower use of tobacco and medical advances, among other things. Obesity, however, has gone in the other direction.

But, the study goes on to say, if obesity levels had remained stable, the likelihood is that mortality would have improved even more.

The question that life insurers and reinsurers have to ask themselves now is how they intend to deal with the epidemic of overweightness. Theres a whole range of responses that the actuaries and underwriters can choose from.

But, in bowing to the probable reality that the public is simply going to keep getting fatter, perhaps the simplest solution is to utilize the relativity of the weight situation and make everyone feel better. This would call for scrapping the current standards and raising the ideal weight by 20 pounds (no, make it 30 so we dont have to do this again for a few years). This way, todays obesity can be tomorrows pleasant plumpness.

Its hard to think of an easier solution for a society that likes to have its cakes and eat them too.

Steve Piontek

Editor-in-Chief


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, April 9, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.