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May 4: Carnegie Mellon Researchers Unveil New Study That Finds Obesity Is Eating Away at Allegheny County's Economy and Health


Chriss Swaney 

Carnegie Mellon Researchers Unveil New Study That Finds
Obesity Is Eating Away at Allegheny County's Economy and Health

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University researchers and students unveiled a new study that found obesity is costing Allegheny County residents more than $500 million a year in medical expenses and lost work time.

The study was compiled by a team of 21 Carnegie Mellon students from the departments of Engineering and Public Policy (EPP) and Social and Decision Sciences (SDS), under the supervision of EPP professors Ed Rubin and Marvin Sirbu. They used a lifestyle analysis approach that looked at a variety of ways to reduce obesity countywide. Researchers targeted five different areas for detailed study, including food shopping, school programs, workplace activities, restaurant menus and recreational facilities.

One key result of the study is a proposed countywide soda tax to discourage consumption of soft drinks that contribute to obesity.

"A small tax of just one cent per ounce would reduce the enormous amount of soda that kids and adults consume daily," said Sharon Wagner, an EPP graduate student at Carnegie Mellon who helped manage the study.

Co-manager Kate Ricke, also an EPP graduate student, estimates the soda tax would initially raise about $54 million a year, which could help fund many other obesity prevention efforts throughout the county.

"Obesity rates in Allegheny County are even higher than the country as a whole," said Rubin, the Alumni Chair Professor of Environmental Engineering and Science. "That directly affects people's health and drives up the cost of medical care for heart disease, diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses."

Nationwide, the annual health care costs of obesity have risen from $74 billion in 1998 to $147 billion in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

"What is especially troubling is the high rate of obesity we found in school-age children in Allegheny County. That puts them at increased risk of poor health as they grow older, and it is something we need to be concerned about," said Sirbu, a professor in the departments of Engineering and Public Policy and Electrical and Computer Engineering, as well as at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon.

Some of the additional study recommendations include:

  • Require Allegheny County restaurants to include key nutritional information on menus — a measure already mandated for large restaurant chains in recent federal health care reform legislation;
  • Improve public school programs in physical activity, health education and food services;
  • Improve and extend weight management and wellness programs in the workplace, including both nutrition and physical fitness programs;
  • Build more public parks in areas that currently lack recreational facilities and conduct public service marketing campaigns to encourage physical activity; and
  • Encourage local supermarkets to adopt information programs, food promotions and price incentives to increase consumer accessibility and purchases of healthier foods.

Additional copies of the complete study, "Reducing Obesity in Allegheny County," may be obtained from the Department of Engineering and Public Policy, 5000 Forbes Ave., Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15213 or by calling 412-268-1085.