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Category: Health/Fitness

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Unhealthy, overweight Americans cost $153 billion in lost work

Full-time workers in the U.S. who are overweight or obese and have chronic health problems such as high blood pressure or asthma cause $153 billion in lost productivity each year, according to a new Gallup poll.

That’s nearly four times the amount reported in Britain, according to the report, which found that such Americans have 450 million more days of of absenteeism than their healthy colleagues.

More than 68% of all U.S. workers, regardless of weight, have at least one chronic condition such as diabetes or depression, according to Gallup. Healthy Americans of normal weight make up less than 14% of the population and take about four sick days a year.

The rest of the 109,875 workers surveyed from Jan. 2 to Oct. 2 were overweight, obese and/or suffering from an ongoing health issue.

About 18% of U.S. workers are overweight or obese and saddled with three or more health conditions -- costing $81 billion in lost work over the 42 sick days each takes on average every year, according to Gallup.


Lawsuit: 'Biggest Loser' salad dressing not as healthy as advertised

Consumer Confidential: Vacations in peril, Verizon data caps, obesity crisis solved

 -- Tiffany Hsu

Photo credit: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times

Cost of employer health coverage climbs, survey finds


The cost of health insurance provided by employers for families jumped 9% this year over 2010 as rising healthcare expenses and other factors contributed to the largest premium increases in six years, a national survey shows.

Annual insurance premiums for families reached $15,073 on average this year, up from an average $13,770 last year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust, nonprofit groups that conducted the survey.

Employers are picking up the bulk of the costs as they have in the past. This year, they are paying $10,944 on average to cover workers and their families, while employees are paying $4,129.

Even so, workers’ insurance bills have risen at a much fast rate than their earnings, the survey found.

Employee contributions to their health benefits have grown 168% since 1999, more than three times the rate of earnings and more than four times the rate of overall inflation, the data show.

That’s significant because employer-sponsored health insurance is the leading source of health coverage in the United States, providing about 150 million people with benefits.

“A big premium jump is especially tough for workers and employers when they’re facing a faltering recovery, but it’s really tough for workers when wages are declining in real terms,” said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Foundation. “The pain factor is pretty high right now.”

The survey of 3,184 public and private employers comes as insurance companies report lower-than-expected use of healthcare services in the wavering economy, driving up profits while cutting into healthcare providers’ revenues.

Insurers say that even people with company-sponsored health insurance are staying away from doctors and hospitals to avoid medical bills.

To cut costs, workers are embracing an increasingly popular approach: enrolling in high-deductible policies that cut their annual premiums but require them to pay more out of their pockets if they require medical care.

This year, 31% of workers enrolled in plans with deductibles of at least $1,000. That’s up from 10% in 2006.

The high-deductible plans are most common among relatively small companies, those with three to 199 employees. Fifty percent of workers at these firms have the high-deductible plans, up from 16% in 2006, the survey found.

The high-deductible plans often allow workers to set aside pre-tax dollars to pay for healthcare expenses. Healthcare experts say that approach allows companies to shift more healthcare costs to employees.

The survey did not project future insurance costs, but a separate report recently predicted that expenses for U.S. employers will slow next year.

Firms are forecasting a 5.4% increase on average in 2012, according to preliminary results from the survey of nearly 1,600 employers by benefits consulting firm Mercer.

The figure reflects cost-cutting measures by employers, as many move employees into lower-cost health plans or raise deductibles.


Graphic: Rising health coverage costs

Medical bills steep challenge for seniors on Medicare

Census: Nearly 1 in 5 Californians lack health insurance

Good news for Californians with preexisting medical conditions

-- Duke Helfand

Photo: Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images

Federal agency seeks to ban electronic cigarettes on airplanes


The U.S. Department of Transportation wants to make it clear that the ban on smoking on commercial planes includes electronic cigarettes.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Wednesday that the agency is proposing a new law that explicitly bans the smoking of electronic cigarettes on all domestic and international commercial flights in the U.S.

The current law bans the smoking of tobacco on planes but does not single out the use of electronic cigarettes. Most e-cigarettes do not burn tobacco but use a lithium battery to heat up a liquid nicotine solution, creating a vapor that can be inhaled to deliver the nicotine directly to the lungs.

For years, flight attendants have spoken out against electronic cigarettes, saying passengers and attendants have had confrontations because some passengers argue that the federal tobacco ban does not apply to electronic cigarettes.

“Airline passengers have rights, and this new rule would enhance passenger comfort and reduce any confusion surrounding the use of electronic cigarettes in flight,” LaHood said.

Under the federal rule-making process, the public has until Nov. 14 to submit comments on the proposed ban at the Federal Docket Management System. Federal officials said they could not estimate how long it will take to review the comments and prepare a final rule for adoption.

Related items:

The electronic cigarette: A photo gallery

E-Cigarettes will get FDA oversight as tobacco products

Two online studies try to clear air around e-cigarettes

-- Hugo Martin

Photo: The inventor of an electronic cigarette, Hon Lik, smokes his invention in Beiijng. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Consumer Confidential: Soda warning; free Chick-fil-A meals

Soda warning
Here's your jumpin'-jack-flash Friday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Public-health advocates are calling on Americans to go easy on the soda. A coalition of health and consumer groups would like to see Americans reduce their consumption to three cans per week. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the American Heart Assn., the American Diabetes Assn. and more than 100 other groups are mounting a campaign to educate Americans about the risks of consuming too much sugar. Sugary drinks are the single largest source of calories in the American diet and account for half of all added sugars consumed. And unlike any other food or beverage, only sugary drinks have been shown to have a causal role in promoting obesity. The American Heart Assn. recommends that people limit their intake of sugary drinks to about 450 calories per week, or about three 12-ounce cans. Average consumption is now more than twice that.

--Speaking of calories, our friends at fast-food chain Chick-fil-A are giving away breakfasts to customers who make an online reservation. To participate in the promotion, which runs from Sept. 6 to Sept. 10, customers should go to to find a participating restaurant near them and reserve the menu item of their choice, as well as the time they plan to pick it up (between 6:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.). Available dishes include: Chick-fil-A Chicken Biscuit; Chick-fil-A Spicy Chicken Biscuit; Sausage Biscuit; Chick-fil-A Chick-n-Minis; Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit; Chicken, Egg & Cheese on Sunflower Multigrain Bagel; Chicken Breakfast Burrito; Sausage Breakfast Burrito; and Multigrain Oatmeal.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Those sugary drinks may not be your friend. Credit: Daniel Barry / Bloomberg News


Hospitals not immune to rising insurance costs for their staffs


Here’s an irony: California’s hospitals, the very places that care for the sick, are struggling to afford healthcare for their own employees.

Like other types of employers, the state’s hospitals are confronting soaring health insurance bills.

A new statewide survey shows that hospitals face average insurance costs this year of $10,992 per employee, an 11% increase over last year.

Because a majority of hospitals pick up the entire cost of insurance for their workers, the financial burden falls entirely on them, according to the healthcare benefits survey by Keenan HealthCare, the state’s largest independent insurance brokerage.

California’s troubled budget outlook and new requirements under national healthcare reform could drive up the costs even more, the survey of 231 hospitals found.

“Like every other enterprise, hospitals are facing increased health insurance costs and are actively looking for ways to stop or at least slow that trend,” Steve Richter, senior vice president of Keenan HealthCare, said in statement accompanying the survey. “Just because you are a healthcare provider doesn’t mean you get a break on your insurance.”


U.S. employers expand health benefits coverage under reform

Good news for Californians with preexisting medical conditions

Paying medical bills a steep challenge for senior citizens on Medicare

-- Duke Helfand

Photo credit: Indiana Public Media via Flickr

Smoking rate reaches historic low in California




Californians are kicking the habit.

The rate of adult smoking has dropped sharply over the last two decades, reaching its lowest level on record, largely because of aggressive tobacco control campaigns by state and local governments, officials said.

Last year, 11.9% of Californians said they smoked, down from 25.9% in 1984, the earliest data available, according to the California Department of Public Health. Only one other state had a lower smoking rate last year: Utah with 9.1%.

Smoking rates also have dropped nationally, but California still remains far below U.S. levels, saving lives and billions of dollars in avoided healthcare costs, state health officials say.

The officials point out that middle school and high school students are smoking less, but say that much of California’s drop is because of declining cigarette use among young adults ages 18 to 24 –- people such as 21-year-old Elise Irvine.

Smoke “People who smoke don’t have it together,” said the USC student as she ate lunch at the campus center recently. “It’s a poor life decision.”

Experts credit California’s 22-year-old tobacco control program, the longest running in the country, for shaping that type of attitude.

With money from a 1988 voter-approved tobacco tax, the program has run media and school campaigns and funded other efforts to spotlight the dangers of smoking.

Over the last two decades, meanwhile, California has moved to ban smoking in bars, restaurants, in-state flights and most enclosed workplaces.

The combined efforts, state officials say, have prompted smokers to quit or cut back, reducing the prevalence among youth.

And that, experts say, is good news for those attempting to stem the spread of tobacco in a country where deaths attributed to smoking total an estimated 443,000 Americans annually, accounting for nearly 1 in 5 U.S. deaths.

“We have changed the social norms,” said Colleen Stevens, chief of the state health department’s tobacco control branch. “Younger people are growing up in an environment where there is very little smoking.”


Consumer Confidential: Menthol smokes probed, Cheerios rule, cool new stamps

Consumer Confidential: New limit on food ads, 'cramming' is costly, Spotify arrives

Healthier fast food for kids?

-- Duke Helfand

Photo credit: Michael Reynolds / EPA

Consumer Confidential: New limit on food ads, 'cramming' is costly, Spotify arrives

Charmspic Here's your throw-me-a-bone Thursday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--The country's biggest food companies are trying to head off stricter regulation of their activities by voluntarily cutting back on marketing unhealthy foods to children. A coalition of companies -- including General Mills, ConAgra Foods and Kellogg -- say their effort will vastly change what is promoted, curbing advertising on one out of three products currently marketed to children. The new standards, which will allow companies to advertise food and beverage products to children if they meet certain nutritional criteria, could force some brands to change recipes to include less sodium, fat, sugars and calories. While many companies have trumpeted their own efforts to market healthier foods to kids, the agreement would apply the same standards to all of the participating companies. However, proposed federal rules would be even tougher, which shouldn't surprise anyone.

--Those unexpected charges that can appear on phone bills are costing us a bundle. A Senate Commerce Committee report says the practice, known as "cramming," could be costing Americans $2 billion a year. Moreover, it says the nation’s largest telephone companies are profiting from it, and that third-party landline telephone billing has largely failed as a legitimate method of payment. Among other things, the report finds that third-party billing is a billion-dollar industry. On a yearly basis, telephone companies place approximately 300 million third-party charges on their customers’ bills, which amount to more than $2 billion worth of third-party charges on telephone bills every year. Over the last five years, telephone companies have placed more than $10 billion worth of third-party charges on their customers’ landline telephone bills.

--Europe's hottest music service is now up and running here as well -- at least for a select group of initial users. Spotify has launched its much-hyped U.S. version of its service after delays and years of negotiation. At first, Spotify will only accept new members to its free service who receive invitations from the company, one of its sponsors or a current user. It plans to welcome everyone for free within a few weeks. The Spotify computer program lets people choose from any of 15 million songs to hear for free -- up to 20 hours per month, with each track listenable up to five times. For the first six months, however, people who enter during the invitation period are exempt from the monthly limit. After that, users can lift the restrictions by paying $5 a month or buying songs individually, like iTunes. The smartphone app can be accessed for $10 a month, which includes unlimited streaming and the ability to save copy-protected music for listening offline.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Food companies say they'll cut back on marketing to kids. Credit: Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press


Healthier fast food for kids?

Pollo loco pic Since our report Wednesday morning that a group of 19 restaurants -- Burger King being the biggest among them -- had pledged to offer healthier kids' meals, the response has ranged from highly supportive to highly skeptical.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has weighed in to say that the campaign is little more than a public relations stunt because restaurants will only have to offer one healthy meal and one healthy side dish in order to participate.

But a mom wrote to thank the restaurants, saying that her child suffers from Type 1 Diabetes, and would benefit from kids' meals with fruit, vegetables and lean meats, as the program requires. Another reader wrote to say that she has struggled with obesity all her life, and says finances play a big part because fast food is so cheap.

"I think that the number one problem that is causing childhood obesity is that it costs so much more to eat healthy," she wrote. "It is cheaper to buy a huge bag of frozen French fries to feed your family than it is to buy them each a nice apple. Us lower and middle class people are stuck between a rock and a hard spot."

Missing from the group of restaurants promising to do more: McDonald's. A spokeswoman said that the company already offers healthful options for adults and children. 

So...P.R. stunt, or important first step? What do you think?

Sharon Bernstein


Restaurants to offer more healthful fare for kids

Jack in the Box stops including toys in kids' meals 

Calorie counts on menus lead consumers to think twice

Photo credit: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times


Consumer Confidential: Outsourced meds, Social Security tool, Casey Anthony hoax

Pillpic Here's your to-thine-own-self-be-true Tuesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Where does our medicine come from? Increasingly, the answer is overseas, where safety standards can be lower. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that about 40% of finished drugs and 80% of active ingredients and bulk chemicals come from abroad. The Pew Health Group says in a new report that increased outsourcing of manufacturing, a complex and globalized supply chain, and occasionally criminal businesses create the potential for counterfeit or substandard medicines to enter the supply chain and reach patients. Industry and government agencies have failed to adapt to the changing environment, the report finds. Substandard or adulterated pharmaceutical materials from abroad have entered the U.S. on multiple occasions. In addition, the risks of domestic counterfeiting and diversion of stolen drugs are well documented.

--When should you start collecting your Social Security benefits? AARP has a new online tool to help you make that call -- and to encourage you to wait as long as possible. "It illustrates the benefits to claiming later," said Jean Setzfand, vice president of financial security for AARP. "The longer you are able to wait, the higher your monthly benefits will be." Users can customize their benefits, their economic expectations and their personal data to get clear, detailed estimates of their own monthly and lifelong benefits under different scenarios. The calculator allows planning for government workers, and those who are married, divorced, widowed or single. Definitely worth checking out.

--This didn't take long: A marketing ploy involving Casey Anthony is popping up on Facebook screens. "Breaking News!" it says. "Leaked Video of Casey Anthony Confessing to Lawyer!" Needless to say, there's no such video. If you click on the link, you'll be asked to take a survey that may (or may not) result in a $500 Toys R Us gift card. These sorts of surveys are everywhere online, offering a free iPad or other bait to get you to sign up for a slew of marketing pitches. Your best response? Walk away.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Do you know where your meds come from? Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times


Consumer Confidential: Groupon is watching, diet-product warning, free Slurpees

Slurppic Here's your monster-mash Monday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Groupon is watching you. The deal site is changing its privacy policies to allow it to collect more information as it offers more deals targeted to users based on their locations. The company announced the changes in an email to its 83 million subscribers, saying the new policies are part of an effort to provide greater transparency about the way it handles private information about users. The announcement comes as the company seeks to go public and on the heels of its launch of Groupon Now, a mobile service that provides instant deals based on a user's location. "In short, if you use a Groupon mobile app and you allow sharing through your device, Groupon may collect geo-location information from the device and use it for marketing deals to you," the company said. The company also broadened its definition of "personal information" to include "interests and habits," and said a partnership that provides travel deals with Expedia means that personal information can be shared with the travel site if users subscribe to receive travel deals.

--Heads up: The Food and Drug Administration is advising consumers not to purchase or use "Slim Forte Slimming Capsules," "Slim Forte Slimming Coffee" and "Botanical Slimming Soft Gel," products for weight loss sold on various websites and distributed by InterCharm Inc. FDA laboratory analysis found that the products contain sibutramine, a controlled substance that was removed from the U.S. market in October 2010 for safety reasons. Sibutramine is known to substantially increase blood pressure and pulse rates in some patients, and may present a significant risk for patients with a history of coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, arrhythmia or stroke. The products may also interact in life-threatening ways with other medications a consumer may be taking. The FDA says you should throw these things away immediately.

--Whoo-hoo! It's Free Slurpee Day! Our friends at 7-Eleven plan to give away 5 million free Slurpees to customers. Each free drink will come in a 7.11-oz. cup (get it?). The 9th annual "7-Eleven Day" marks the chain's 84th birthday. The first 7-Eleven opened in 1927 when an employee of an ice company near Dallas started selling bread, milk, and eggs on an ice dock. Other Slurpee milestones listed on the chain's website include the coining of the name "Slurpee" in 1967, introduction of a Slurpee lip balm in 1998 and the invention of an edible Slurpee straw in 2004. And for those who experience brain freeze, 7-Eleven says all you have to do is press your tongue against the roof of your mouth.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Get 'em while they're cold -- it's Free Slurpee Day. Credit: Larry Crowe / Associated Press


Consumer Confidential: Gen Y favors foreign cars; hair straighteners in spotlight

Scionpic Here's your faster-than-a-speeding-bullet Friday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- The U.S. auto industry may be showing signs of life again, but there's new trouble on the horizon. The auto pricing site tracked the brands and individual models bought in 2009 and 2010 by shoppers aged 18 to 27, and not a single brand from a domestic automaker made the Top 10 list. Scion, a brand set up by Toyota Motor specifically aimed at young buyers, was No. 1. Mitsubishi, a name that barely registers with older shoppers, came in second. Some other brands among the top 10, such as Honda and Volkswagen, have a long record of youth appeal. But even the Korean corporate twins Hyundai and Kia, which have recorded surging sales in recent years, appear to have extended their appeal to young buyers as well as older ones. If Detroit can't appeal to Gen Y, it's going to face some serious speed bumps down the road.

-- Heads up, frizzy-haired women: Lawmakers in Congress are asking the Food and Drug Administration to look into whether women who undergo keratin-based hair-straightening treatments, including the popular Brazilian Blowout, are jeopardizing their health. Lawmakers are seeking better regulation and labeling of hair-smoothing products that contain formaldehyde, which is classified as a possible carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. Formaldehyde can irritate the eyes, skin and lungs, and cause breathing problems. The FDA is still evaluating the data on such hair straighteners, a spokeswoman for the agency says. If you're using such a treatment, or having one applied at a salon, be careful.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Gen Y prefers Toyota's Scion over domestic vehicles. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times



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