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Wake-up call to get smart about health

This isn't one of those lists that tells us whether our city is cool or how our fashion sense is out of whack.

This one actually matters, and the results aren't pretty.

We weigh more than we should. We have too many fast-food restaurants, and we're not living as long as we could be.

And that's just a glimpse of what a new county-by-county ranking of health tells us about Erie and Niagara counties.

It gets worse: We're just about hitting bottom when it comes to length and quality of life. Out of the state's 62 counties, Erie is the sixth-unhealthiest, based on rankings released last week by the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute. Niagara is fourth from the bottom.

You might not be surprised. Long winters spent inside and menus loaded with chicken finger subs don't exactly add up to great health.

You might even think, so what?

Here's why you should care: money.

Take, for example, obesity. A recent study by two economics professors found that health care costs associated with obesity are more than twice what was previously thought.

The study, published in the Journal of Health Economics, pegs the extra health care costs for obese men and women at $2,741 a year. That's more than $190 billion a year spent treating obesity-related illness -- or more than 20 percent of our national health care spending, the professors found.

"Obesity has more than doubled in just the last two decades," said John Cawley, a Cornell University professor who co-authored the study with Chad Meyerhoefer of Lehigh University. "And it's a very expensive condition."

Need another reason to care? Medicaid and employers are picking up a chunk of that tab.

Here in Erie and Niagara counties, we should be paying even more attention. Our obesity rates are higher than national and statewide averages, according to the county rankings released last week. If obesity rates continue to rise, and the cost of treating illness caused by obesity is more than twice what we previously thought, alarm bells should be sounding.

It's even clearer now that there are economic reasons for encouraging those who can lose weight to do so.

Money is a powerful motivator, and insurance companies, employers and governments desperately need to reduce health care costs.

"They can't predict when the swine flu epidemic is going to happen or they can't control how many car crashes people get in," Cawley said. "But they can create incentives for people to stop smoking and lose weight."

That could mean offering rewards to employees who exercise. Or it could mean reducing health care premiums for those who participate in wellness programs -- an often overlooked provision of the 2010 health care law.

"Coming down the pike," Cawley said, "there are going to be enormous financial incentives to engage in healthier behaviors."

Forward-looking companies and leaders have plenty of reasons to find innovative ways to encourage better health.

It's not just an embarrassment that local counties rank near the bottom in health. It's an economic problem.