South East Asia’s US$10bn obesity bombshell: New report reveals economic cost of health epidemic

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Southeast asia Obesity

The report was unveiled today in Singapore.
The report was unveiled today in Singapore.
The annual economic cost of obesity in South East Asia could be as high as US$10bn, a number that could rocket to $45bn if people who are currently overweight go on to become obese.

Furthermore, a report published today by The Economist Intelligence Unit, claims policymakers have a ‘blindspot’ when it comes to tackling obesity in low and middle-income ASEAN countries.

At a launch event held in Singapore, it was revealed that obesity prevalence rates increased on average by 28% between 2010-14.

According to the data, 5.7% of Indonesian’s were obese by 2014, a 33% increase on 2010’s figure. The proportion is 13.3% in Malaysia (a 27% increase), 5.1% in the Philippines (a 24% increase), 6.2% in Singapore (a 24% increase), 8.5% in Thailand (a 27% increase) and 3.6% in Vietnam (a 38% increase).

Dr Simon Baptist, chief economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said Malaysia and Indonesia were experiencing the highest overall costs of obesity as a percentage of national health care spending, with data showing a 10-19% burden in the former and 8-16% in the latter.

“Although developing countries in ASEAN have other challenges to overcome, the long-term economic cost of obesity and its connection to several non-communicable diseases suggest that acting early would be prudent,”​ the report states.

Financial hit

When also factoring indirect costs, such as reduced productivity, employee absenteeism and early retirements, the economic impact of obesity in 2016 was forecast to be US$2-4bn in Indonesia, $1-$2bn in Malaysia, $0.5bn-$1bn in the Philippines, $0.8bn-$2bn in Thailand, $0.4-$1bn in Singapore and $203-371m in Vietnam.

At the highest range level that equates to a $10bn annual total cost. But if the number of people obese jumped from 6% of the total population to 25% – the proportion of total population that is currently overweight – that cost would rocket to $45bn, clearly showing that concerted action is needed.

As the president of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia Dr Tee E-Siong pointed out at the event, while the historical prevalence of overweight and obese people in the region is low, the recent rapid rises are alarming.

“The problem is horrendous,”​ he said. “We also need to look at overweight not just obesity. One-in-two people in Malaysia are overweight or obese.”

Working years

According to the report, which was commissioned by the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN), it is leading to severe reductions in the productive years of the region’s workforce.

“Among obese males, obesity-linked diseases are reducing productive years by between eight and 12 years in the Philippines, between six and 11 years in Malaysia and between six and 10 years in Indonesia. In Singapore, between one and six years are lost, possibly reflecting the country’s stronger healthcare system.

“For obese women…Malaysia has the largest number of years lost due to obesity, between seven and 12 years, and Singapore has a higher loss among obese women than men, between five and 10 years.”

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