For Immediate Release
January 21, 2010

KDHE Office of Communications, 785-296-0461

Tackling the Burden of Diabetes at its Root Causes

Jason Eberhart-Phillips, MD
Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health, KDHE

“You have diabetes.”

Three words that a doctor never wants to say, and a patient never wants to hear. But every day of every year, someone in Kansas is hearing these words for the first time.

About 170,000 Kansas adults are currently living with a diagnosis of diabetes, of whom about 35,000 have heard the news in just the past five years. Another 113,000 Kansans also have diabetes but don’t know it yet, because they haven’t been tested.

All told, about one Kansan in 10 now suffers from diabetes, and the numbers are growing fast. In fact, the population with diabetes is now increasing by a million people a year across the United States.

For our friends, neighbors and coworkers being diagnosed with this disease, diabetes presents challenging new responsibilities and sobering new risks. They will discover that on a daily basis diabetes can be a difficult disease to live with and manage. They will also come to realize that by having diabetes they have much higher chances of developing heart disease, kidney failure, foot problems and loss of sight.

As hard as it is for patients, diabetes is also a difficult problem for society. Lifelong treatment costs for the ever-growing number of people with diabetes are helping to drive America’s healthcare spending to unsustainable levels. Medical bills for the treatment of diabetes in this country now surpass $174,000,000,000 a year.

Think about that colossal cost. If the American diabetes treatment industry were its own country, it would be the 45th largest economy in the world. We Americans spend more on drugs and medical care for diabetes alone than all the people in countries like Pakistan, New Zealand, Kuwait and the Philippines spend on everything else in their lives.

The economic burden of diabetes in Kansas amounts to a tax on every woman, man and child in the state of about $566 per year, a tax that has been increasing by 32 percent in the past six years.

All of us are paying this tax, whether we have diabetes or not, through our health insurance premiums and income taxes. Even if our health insurance is paid by our employer, this “diabetes tax” is coming out of our own pockets through wage increases that we aren’t getting because of escalating insurance premiums.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

About 95 percent of new diabetes cases are Type 2, the type that typically appears in adulthood and is largely preventable. We can slow down the rising epidemic of Type 2 diabetes – and reign in its associated costs – if we can get people to eat right and remain physically active to avoid overweight and obesity.

Diabetes incidence in America has been rising in lockstep with our uncontrolled obesity epidemic during the past 20 years. About 86 percent of Kansans with diabetes are overweight, and more than half are clinically obese.

But if we can help every overweight Kansan to lose just 10 to 20 pounds, and keep the weight off permanently, we can slash the increase in new cases of diabetes by 60 percent.

We can reverse the rising toll of diabetes if we make it easier for people to include healthy eating and routine physical activity in their daily lives. We can do this if together we build obesity prevention into the everyday environments where people live, work, play and attend school.

At the moment KDHE is exploring policy options for consideration by the Kansas Legislature to help Kansans reduce their caloric intake by making nutrition information more available at the point of sale. We are also examining ways to reduce our children’s exposure to junk foods available in the school environment.

The policies being explored will not carry significant cost, but if they can help people avoid unnecessary weight gain – as scientific evidence suggests they would – we will begin to cut the “diabetes tax” in Kansas in future years. And that’s a tax cut we can all support.

Dr. Eberhart-Phillips is the Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.