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Harvard Study: Childhood Obesity Cost Effective Interventions


By Marjorie Dwyer

A new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shed light on critical dietary issues facing Americans. The study, which analyzed interventions to reduce childhood obesity, found three that would save more in health care costs than they would cost to implement.

The study was published November 2, 2015 in the November issue of Health Affairs.

Cost-effective interventions       

For the study, led by Steven Gortmaker, professor of the practice of health sociology, researchers analyzed the cost-effectiveness of interventions for reducing childhood obesity in the U.S. They found three that would more than pay for themselves by reducing health care costs related to obesity: an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages; elimination of the tax subsidy for advertising unhealthy food to children; and nutrition standards for food and drinks sold in schools outside of school meals, such as those found in the current Smart Snacks in School federal regulation. If implemented nationally, the three interventions would prevent an estimated 576 thousand, 129 thousand, and 345 thousand cases of childhood obesity, respectively, in 2025. The net savings to society for every $1.00 spent were projected to be $30.78, $32.53, and $4.56, respectively.

This is the first study of its kind to estimate the cost-effectiveness of such a wide variety of nutrition interventions that are high on the obesity policy agenda—documenting their potential reach, comparative effectiveness, implementation cost, and cost-effectiveness.

In their analysis, which looked at the U.S. population over the 10-year period from 2015-25, researchers reviewed existing evidence and developed a detailed prediction model to calculate the costs and effectiveness of the interventions through their impact on body mass index, obesity prevalence, and obesity-related health care costs.

Noting that “the United States will not be able to treat its way out of the obesity epidemic,” the authors wrote that policy makers should focus on implementing cost-effective preventive interventions with broad population reach. The study’s results emphasize the importance of ongoing implementation of recent reforms to the school food environment included in both the Smart Snacks in School regulation and in improvements to school meal programs under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

“Our results highlight the importance of investing in prevention for policy makers aiming to reduce childhood obesity,” said Gortmaker. “Interventions early in the life course have the best chance of reducing long-term obesity prevalence and related mortality and health care costs.”

For the study on child obesity interventions, other Harvard Chan School authors included senior author Angie Cradock, senior research scientist; Stephen Resch, deputy director of the Center for Health Decision Science; Catherine Giles, project manager; Zachary Ward, programmer analyst; Jessica Barrett, research assistant; and Erica Kenney, postdoctoral research fellow.

Funding for the study came from grants from The JPB Foundation; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Grant No. 66284); the Donald and Sue Pritzker Nutrition and Fitness Initiative; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Grant No. U48/DP001946), including the Nutrition and Obesity Policy Research and Evaluation Network.

Three Interventions To Reduce Childhood Obesity Are Projected To Save More Than They Cost To Implement, Steven L. Gortmaker, Y. Claire Wang, Michael W. Long, Catherine M. Giles, Zachary J. Ward, Jessica L. Barrett, Erica L. Kenney, Kendrin R. Sonneville, Amna Sadaf Afzal, Stephen C. Resch, and Angie L. Cradock, Health Affairs, November 2, 2015, doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2015.0631