Obesity Takes a Toll on America

America is paying for its obese population.

Carmen Bowen, a nearly 800-lb. woman in Cleveland, got a customized living environment that cost more than $15,000 with larger than normal doors and room sizes. She needed it, she said, because her previous living situation in a subsidized housing unit was unsafe. Last summer, an emergency left her stranded in the building and about 25 firefighters were needed to help her out.

Her attorney said she's considered 'handicapped.' Her weight has made her bed-ridden for the better part of three years. Because she cannot walk, she meets the legal definition of the disabled.

"This disease overtook her, so it's really unfair. You wouldn't say this about someone with heart disease or cancer," said Avery Friedman, Bowen's attorney.

Critics have said that people like Bowen drain the nation of income and force others to change their lifestyles to accomodate the needs of the obese. Health-care costs alone exceeded more than $117 billion annually, while businesses forked over $12 billion in medical claim costs and lower productivity, according to the Washington Business Group on Health.

"Obese people are absent more often. And they're not as productive, even when they are on the job," said Helen Darling, president of the Washington Business Group on Health.

Signs abound that corporate America has made concessions to appeal to the growing population of obese customers. At restaurants nationwide, low-fat and low-carb items are now staples, while hospitals have installed larger beds and new equipment. Last year, the Internal Revenue Service recognized obesity as a disease, allowing deductions for weight-loss programs.

Critics have said the effects of obesity have gone too far.

"I find it hard to believe that someone gets to be 800 pounds without recongizing that it's happening to them and then all of a sudden it's the responsibility of the public," said Rick Berman of the Center for Consumer Freedom. "If they don't have enough intelligence to put themselves in a better situation, I don't know why it becomes a taxpayer problem."

Carmen Bowen disagrees. "Society is not doing enough for obese people," she said. Bowen said she spends her time reading poetry and watching TV. "It might not look like a good quality of life, but to me, this is all I'm going to have. And I'm going to make the best of it."