In Box

Bulging Bottom Lines

In Asia, it isn’t simply the economies that are expanding rapidly; it’s the waistlines, too. The region is in the throes of an obesity epidemic. In China, the adult obesity rate has more than doubled since the mid-1990s. Four of the five countries with the world’s highest rates of diabetes are now in Asia. And ...

In Asia, it isn’t simply the economies that are expanding rapidly; it’s the waistlines, too. The region is in the throes of an obesity epidemic. In China, the adult obesity rate has more than doubled since the mid-1990s. Four of the five countries with the world’s highest rates of diabetes are now in Asia. And with governments across the region facing soaring healthcare costs thanks to citizens’ bulging bottoms, many are resorting to nanny-state measures to improve their own suffering bottom lines.

In Japan, where 27 million people suffer from or are at risk of obesity-related conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, healthcare costs are projected to double by 2020. In response, the government recently instituted a policy of mandatory "fat checks" for citizens older than 40. Japanese workers with waistlines greater than 34 inches are to be put on special exercise programs, and companies that fail to meet weight-loss targets will face stiff government fines. In China, where 15 percent of children are overweight, the Ministry of Education last year unveiled a series of specially designed weight-loss dances that students are required to perform in school. And in India, the call-center industry is experiencing a spike in conditions such as diabetes and heart disease due to lack of exercise, leading the health minister to pressure companies to enforce a set of health guidelines for their sedentary workers.

Despite the fact that fat is a relatively new problem for most Asian societies, governments there have been much quicker than their Western counterparts to react. "It’s surprising how quickly governments [here] have responded since they’ve seen a very rapid increase in healthcare costs," says Tim Gill, Asia-Pacific coordinator for the International Obesity Task Force. And it isn’t just doctor bills that have officials worried. Obesity-related conditions will cost India $200 billion in productivity during the next decade. But Gill is skeptical about the effectiveness of "name-and-shame" initiatives like Japan’s. "It says to the person, ‘Not only are you overweight, but you’re a failure,’" adding that Japanese women already have some of the world’s highest rates of eating disorders.

Nor does everyone think that governmental efforts will even work. "The evidence suggesting that these statewide interventions can materially alter public-health outcomes is just missing," says Stephen MacMahon, director of the Sydney-based George Institute for International Health. Their chances of success might be slim, but then again, that’s the goal they have in mind.

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