Taxpayers foot the doctor's bill for more than half of obesity-related medical costs, which reached a total of $75 billion in 2003, according to a new study.

The public pays about $39 billion a year — or about $175 per person — for obesity through Medicare (search) and Medicaid (search) programs, which cover sicknesses caused by obesity including type 2 diabetes (search), cardiovascular disease, several types of cancer and gallbladder disease.

The study, to be published Friday in the journal Obesity Research, evaluates state-by-state expenditures related to weight problems. The research was done by the nonprofit group RTI International and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search).

"Obesity has become a crucial health problem for our nation, and these findings show that the medical costs alone reflect the significance of the challenge," said Tommy Thompson, secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services. "Of course, the ultimate cost to Americans is measured in chronic disease and early death."

States spend about one-twentieth of their medical costs on obesity — from a low of 4 percent in Arizona to a high of 6.7 percent in Alaska.

California spends the most on health care for the obese, $7.7 billion, and Wyoming spends the least, $87 million.

"We have a lot of taxpayers financing the costs of overweight and obesity for those in public sector health plans," said Eric Finkelstein, a health economist with RTI International who conducted the study. "That provides justification for governments to find cost-effective strategies to reduce the burdens of obesity."

About 64 percent of adults in the United States are either overweight or obese, according to the CDC's 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Physicians are seeing more and more people having health problems because they're overweight or obese, said Dr. Denise Bruner, chair of the board of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians.

"This is one of the major health epidemics we're looking at in America," she said. "I truly see this as a very grave problem for which we in the public need to certainly be pro-active in terms of taking charge of our health."

Obesity should be treated and prevented more aggressively through public health programs to encourage healthy diets and exercise, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group.

"It would certainly make for happier lives, and also save medical expenses," he said. "A healthy population would save taxpayers a huge amount of money."