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Drinking, smoking, obesity cost South Korea W23tr: report

Problems and damages resulting from excessive drinking, smoking and obesity cost South Korea 23.3 trillion won ($19.7 billion) in 2013, which was equivalent to nearly half of the spending on medical costs covered by the national health insurance, a report showed Monday.

The report, written and released by the Health Insurance Policy Research Institute under Korea’s National Health Insurance Service, said problems resulting from drinking cost Korea 9.4 trillion won, smoking 7.1 trillion won and obesity 6.7 trillion won.

The total cost of 23.3 trillion won was equal to 45.8 percent of total medical costs covered by the national health insurance that year.

Among the costs, the biggest portion, 39.1 percent, was spent on medical bills, 35.9 percent was lost future income due to early death and 13.9 percent was down to the loss of productivity, such as for lost workdays due to illness.

The cost for the problematic lifestyle choices and health conditions has increased significantly in Korea since 2005, according to the report. Health risks cost the nation 13.5 trillion won in 2005, 17.6 trillion won in 2007, 20 trillion won in 2008 and 21.6 trillion won in 2011.

Among the three health risks, the cost for obesity increased the most, by 222 percent from 2005 to 2013, while the cost for smoking increased by 162 percent and drinking 156 percent.

The report also showed that 71.7 percent of the cost in 2013 was spent on those in their 40s to 60s. Only 3.2 percent of the cost was spent on those aged 20 or under.

In terms of gender, a significantly bigger portion of the cost -- 17.2 trillion won -- was for Korean men.

Early deaths were the biggest cost for drinking and smoking complications, accounting for 42.3 percent of drinking-related problems and 47.7 percent of smoking-related problems. The costs for medical bills for the two risks accounted for 25 percent for drinking and 34.1 percent for smoking.

Yet for obesity, the cost from early deaths accounted for 13.5 percent, but the cost for medical bills accounted for 64.2 percent, which was significantly higher than the proportion for drinking and smoking.

The report suggested that the Health Ministry come up with stricter measures to prevent excessive drinking, as the largest sum of money was spent for problems and damage resulting from alcohol consumption in 2013. Researchers also stressed the importance of preventing obesity to maintain the stability of the nation’s national health insurance system.

Obesity has emerged as a major health threat in South Korea in recent years. According to a study released by NHIS last year, the number of obese Koreans -- those with a body mass index of 30 or above -- accounted for 4.2 percent of the population in 2012, up from 2.5 percent in 2002.

One in 17 South Koreans will be obese in 2025, and some 7 trillion won would be needed to treat them medically if the current trend continues, the report said.

Excessive alcohol intake is in fact considered as one of the key contributing factors for obesity, along with job-related stress and physical inactivity. In a 2014 report released by Euromonitor, a London-based market intelligence firm, Koreans were said to drink 13.7 shots of liquor per week on average. This makes them the heaviest drinkers in the world, beating Russians and Thais, according to the study.

Among the three risks, South Korea has been making conscious and consistent efforts to curb smoking since 2014, including an 80 percent increase in cigarette prices that went into effect last year. 

By Claire Lee (