Obesity is now a bigger overall threat to people’s health than smoking, according to results of the longest ongoing health study of adults in the United States. Obesity is now a bigger overall threat to people’s health than smoking, according to results of the longest ongoing health study of adults in the United States.

Obesity causes as much or more disease than tobacco, says the study, conducted by researchers from Columbia University and the City College of New York. It adds that while smoking rates are starting to decline, obesity now shortens as many or even more healthy lifespans than tobacco use.

“Health impacts of obesity are, in many ways, much larger, than the health impacts of smoking,” said Dr. Arya Sharma, chairman for obesity research and management at the University of Alberta. “(Smoking) in the end, is limited to heart disease and cancer.”

The study, conducted over 15 years, was based on interviews with more than 3.5 million people and calculations of the number of “quality-adjusted life years” (QALYs) lost to obesity and smoking. Quality-adjusted life years are a measurement of the quality and quantity of a life lived, and assign higher scores to perfect or good health, and lower scores to illness, injury and death.

Between 1993 and 2008, smoking in American adults declined by 18.5 per cent, while the proportion of obese people increased by 85 per cent, the study says. Overall, smoking caused more deaths but obesity has a greater impact on illness, said the researchers. The results of the study support what doctors and researchers have been saying for many years in the U.S. and in Canada, said Sharma. There’s nothing to indicate the results of the study aren’t mirrored in the Canadian population, he said.

Obesity is a complex disease that can lead to diabetes, liver disease, heart disease, sleep apnea, joint replacement and other problems, said Sharma, who added that the effects of obesity are often treated, but not the obesity itself.

“It hits people at young ages now. We’re looking at an epidemic of childhood obesity,” Sharma said. “None of the prevention methods that are being implemented are showing any signs of working. To be effective, they would have to be pretty drastic.” A study presented in October at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Edmonton said obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are affecting Canadian teens at alarmingly high rates and are increasing over time.

Sharma said the study demonstrates that anti-smoking campaigns have been effective, but the same approach can’t necessarily be taken to combating obesity.

“The factors causing obesity are so entrenched in our Western lifestyle, from everything starting from how we build our cities and our food policies,” he said. “It’s not just about going out and eating healthy or exercising more. It is, in fact, very difficult for people to eat healthy and exercise more given the lifestyle that most of us currently have.”

Social stigma is no longer an excuse not to speak openly about the dangers of obesity, said Dr. David Lau, president of Obesity Canada and a medical professor at the University of Calgary.

“In 2004, the U.S. surgeon general already announced that obesity has overtaken tobacco as the No. 1 public health enemy, but now we have data to support it,” Lau said. “I think it’s very timely after the Christmas holiday, when we’ve all put on a few pounds, to be more alerted to the fact that obesity is not something to be dismissed.”

The diabetes epidemic in Canada has been fuelled by an obesity epidemic and children and young adults have become susceptible to diseases that normally afflict people in their 40s and 50s, Lau said. “Of course, we have to talk about genetic predisposition but, be that as it may, the major driver for Type 2 diabetes is not genetic. It has to do with our eating habits,” he said.

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BY ALLISON CROSS, CANWEST NEWS SERVICE