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Rising obesity strains Europe's shrinking health budgets

By Chris Wickham

LONDON (Reuters) - More than half of Europeans are obese or overweight, adding significant pressure to healthcare costs at a time when spending is being cut by governments, the OECD and European Commission said on Friday.

On average across the European Union, health spending per capita rose by 4.6 percent a year in real terms between 2000 and 2009, but fell 0.6 percent in 2010.

In a report on health across the 27-nation bloc, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Brussels-based Commission, said 52 percent of adults in the EU are now overweight or obese.

The report blamed physical inactivity and the widespread availability of energy-dense, sugary and fatty foods.

In 18 countries out of the 27 member states, the proportion of overweight and obese adults now exceeds 50 percent and the obesity rate, at 17 percent on average across the region, has doubled since 1990 in many countries.

"(The rise) is a major public health concern," the report said. "Because obesity is associated with higher risks of chronic illnesses, it is linked to significant additional healthcare costs."

The report noted that the growing cost burden coincided with governments around Europe cutting spending to reduce the debts left over from the 2008 financial crisis.

"Spending had already started to fall in 2009 in countries hardest hit by the economic crisis," it said. "But this was followed by deeper cuts in 2010 in response to growing budgetary pressures and rising debt-to-GDP ratios."

As a result, EU members spent an average of 9.0 percent of their GDP on health in 2010, up from 7.3 percent in 2000, but down from a peak of 9.2 percent in 2009.

The Netherlands was the highest, devoting 12 pct of its gross domestic product to health in 2010, followed by France and Germany, both at 11.6 percent.

The rate of obesity in France is close to twice what it was in 1990 but at 12.9 percent it is still less than half the rate in Britain of 26.1 percent.

The risk of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, asthma, arthritis and some forms of cancer is increased by obesity.

Although it was affecting all populations, obesity tended to be worse among the poor and less well educated, and was more prevalent in women than men.

People with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 30 are classed as overweight while those at 30 or higher are obese. BMI is formula of weight and height that differs slightly depending on whether it is done in kilograms and meters or pounds and inches.

Despite the fall in health spending, life expectancy in the EU continued to rise and stood at an average 79 years in 2010, up more than six years since 1980.

This was driven by improved living and working conditions as well as better access to higher quality healthcare.

But Yves Leterme, the OECD Deputy Secretary-General, and Paola Testori Coggi, head of the Commission's directorate for health, had a warning for EU governments.

"If the report does not yet show any worsening health outcomes due to the crisis, there is no cause for complacency - it takes time for poor social conditions or poor quality care to take its toll from people's health," they said in a joint foreword to the report.

(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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