By Andrew Dargie
Obesity is a hefty, costly issue for both public and private health care systems. It takes an enormous toll on many levels: personal, social, and economic. A significant proportion of health care spending is due to obesity and its primary consequences are late onset diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and arthritis. In 2000, the US Surgeon General estimated the costs, both direct and indirect, of obesity to be $117 billion per year. As the rates of obesity have continued to rise in North America, the current estimate for 2009 would only be higher.
As health care costs continue to escalate, policy makers are being forced to find new ways to reduce costs. Even in Canada where there is a public health care system, the federal and provincial governments can no longer afford to ignore the growing cost of obesity. One way to reduce costs is to reward healthy choices.
A new initiative by the Canadian federal government implemented in the 2007 taxation year is the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit. It is a non-refundable tax credit for parents who pay the expenses of the children being enrolled in a physical fitness program. This tax credit can be applied to children up to 16 years of age who participate in a supervised athletic program for at least 8 weeks per year. Approved athletic programs must have a significant amount of physical activity that contributes to cardio-respiratory endurance plus one or more of muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, or balance. Parents can claim up to $500 per child.
Rather than punishing obese people through some sort of increased health care premiums, this initiative rewards physical activity, wchich is an essential component of any healthy weight loss program and active lifestyle. Governments should go even further and provide funding for lower income families who cannot benefit from the tax break. This money could be paid directly to approved athletic organizations or associations and could have a minimum attendance policy attached. Part of this program could also be an educational component in the form of mandated nutritional and health sessions that could teach and encourage healthy lifestyle choices.
Over the past three decades, childhood obesity has escalated greatly in North America. In the United States, childhood obesity has doubled for preschool children aged 2-5 and adolescents aged 12-19. It has tripled for children aged 6-11. 9 million children over 6 years of age are considered to be obese with a body mass index greater than 30, according to a report of the Institute of Medicine in 2005. In 2007, estimates in Canada indicated that 26% of Canadian children between the ages of 2-17 are overweight or obese, a 15% increase from 1978. 55% of Canadian Aboriginal children are grossly overweight, which is not surprising considering the poverty in the Aboriginal people. Initiatives like the newly implemented Children’s Fitness Tax Credit are important steps towards addressing the obesity crisis that wastes billions of taxpayers’ dollars per year.