OECD on the financial gains of health: ‘Every dollar spent on preventing obesity generates up to a six-fold economic return’

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Obesity Policy

Obesity prevention is an ‘excellent investment’, claims the OECD, which lists potential financial gains of national obesity programmes – including reformulation – in its latest report.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has observed an increase in overweight and obesity rates. Today, 58% of the adult population across its 36 member countries fall in these two categories.  

While almost all members have implemented a national action plan on obesity, ‘the response needs to be stepped up’, argues the OECD in its latest report The Heavy Burden of Obesity: The Economics of Prevention​’.

And there could be significant financial gain to be made in doing so. According to an OECD analysis, every dollar spent on preventing obesity generates an economic return of US$6 – “making prevention investments an excellent investment”.

Food labels and mass media campaigns

A variety of health-promoting regulations, put together in a ‘policy package’, could simultaneously reduce obesity and overweight levels and produce economic advantages, argues the intergovernmental organisation.

Implementing food and menu labelling regulations, to ensure they display nutritional information, together with mass media campaigns promoting fruit and vegetable consumption, would produce the ‘largest health gains’, according to the OECD’s analysis.

While 17 OECD countries voluntarily support front-of-pack labelling, just four – Chile, Finland, Israel and Mexico – either currently mandate or are in the process of implementing legislation to mandate this practice. Thirty-four OECD countries endorse mandatory back-of-pack labelling, which is regarded less effective.

“From 51,000 to 115,000 life years could be gained in the 36 countries included in the analysis [by adopting these measures]. This is equivalent to preventing all road deaths in EU28 and OECD countries respectively.

“Economic savings would also be significant, with menu labelling alone saving up to US$13bn between 2020 and 2050,” ​notes the OECD.

OECD on obesity

  • In the next three decades, overweight will claim as many as 92 million lives in the OECD with obesity and overweight-related diseases reducing life expectancy by nearly 3 years by 2050.
  • More than half the population is now overweight in 34 out of 36 OECD countries and almost one in four people are obese.
  • Average rates of adult obesity in OECD countries have increased from 21% in 2010 to 24% in 2016, so an additional 50 million people are now obese.


Health and financial gains could also be significant if a 20% reduction in calorie content in energy-dense food was achieved, suggests the organisation.

The reformulation of finished food products has attracted significant attention in a number of OECD governments of late. One of the most ambitious is a voluntary reformulation scheme​ put together by Public Health England (PHE) in the UK. The agency has challenged industry to reduce calories from foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) by 20% by 2024.  

If a global deal to reduce calorie content in ‘relevant food’ by 20% were adopted, the OECD predicts that across 42 countries, GDP would sit approximately 0.51% above the average every year. Health expenditure would be decreased by about 0.21%, calculates the organisation, and up to 1.1 million cases of chronic diseases could be avoided annually.

“Food reformulation to reduce calorie content may also produce savings in health expenditure of up to $US13.2bn per year in these countries,” ​the OECD noted.

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