Americans are paying billions for what experts call "treatable illnesses." But the exorbitant amount we're paying, a new report says, is growing exponentially.

Currently, the U.S. is spending more per capita on health care than any other nation. And much of this excess spending is going to treat preventable diseases linked to smoking and obesity.

As the health care reform debate wages on, the 20th anniversary edition of America's Health Rankings, a 20-year scorecard of our nation's health has been published in partnership by United Health Foundation, American Public Health Association and Partnership for Prevention.

Obesity is projected to be the biggest and most costly public health issue of the next generation. It's also the one that's the easier to prevent.

Today, 1 in 4, almost 27%, of Americans are obese -- up 15% since 1990. If the trend continues to gain momentum, 43% of the population will be obese by 2018.

The heaviest states: Kentucky, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi, where 1 in 3 residents is obese. Colorado is the "lightest" state with only 19.1% of the population tipping the scales.

The price tag for all this excess? The report says if we don't start shedding some pounds fast, the U.S. is expected to spend $344 billion on health care costs attributable to obesity by 2018. Additionally, obesity-related expenses are expected to account for more than 21% of health care costs in 2018.

Think one or two pounds won't make a difference? Lightening our collective load, or at least stopping America's waistline from expanding any further than it already is could save billions, literally. If the current obesity rates (which experts say are already dangerously too high) held, adults would save $1,100 in the next 9 years, a savings of more than $264 billion.

Getting better...butt...

Following obesity, tobacco continues to be one of the biggest preventable health risk factors. Although experts say many -- too many -- Americans continue to light up, the trend is heading in the right direction. Three million fewer people are smoking in 2009 than in 2008. But 1 in 5 Americans, the report says, are still puffing away.

The state with the least smoke: Utah. Only 9.3% of the population puffs, while Kentucky, Indiana and West Virgina came in above the national average, with 1 out of 4 residents in those states lighting up, and thus spending a lot on related health care costs.

A long way to go


Despite the billions we're shelling out for health care, the U.S. earned poor marks against its global counterparts. The most notable:
  • In addition to smoking and obesity, the report found the U.S. is falling behind when it comes to caring for our kids.
  • The U.S. has the highest mortality rate due to treatable conditions like smoking and obesity when compared to 18 other industrialized countries. We're also second to last for well-child care and earned dismal marks relating to infant deaths. Sweden, Japan, France, Norway, Portugal, and Czech Republic all boast 1/2 the infant mortality rate of the U.S.
  • Even though we spend twice as much per-capita, the U.S. health care system performance was ranked last when put up against Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and the UK.

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer specializing in consumer issues.


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