Focus on Obesity Essential to Tackle Chronic Disease, Health Strategy Group Reports

March 25, 2019

The Aspen Health Strategy Group examined chronic diseases, which are the leading cause of death and disability in the United States

Contact: Jon Purves
Senior Media Relations Associate
The Aspen Institute

Washington, DC, March 25, 2019 – A new report released by the Aspen Health Strategy Group (AHSG), an Aspen Institute initiative, calls for the rapid growth of chronic disease in the US to be treated as a national crisis that is inherently associated with obesity. The report, titled “Reducing the Burden of Chronic Disease”, is the result of a year-long study involving 24 nationally recognized leaders and experts from the health care sector with input from the general public. The group is co-chaired by Kathleen Sebelius and Tommy G. Thompson, both former governors and former US Secretaries of Health and Human Services.

“Based on the evidence presented to us, we conclude that the single most consequential step the nation could take to reduce the burden of chronic diseases is to reduce the incidence of obesity,” the group said in a joint statement.

The report includes “5 Big Ideas” to address chronic disease, accompanied by four background papers prepared by experts on the subject matter that informed the group’s decisions. Among its key recommendations, the AHSG report calls for:

  • A sustained, multi-sector national initiative against obesity, comparable to previous efforts to reduce tobacco use and increase seat belt usage.
  • The promotion of healthy eating through the use of government tools such as taxes on sugar products, agricultural subsidies, education, and public food programs.
  • Collaboration among multiple sectors whose policies and behaviors impact obesity-related choices people make, including (in addition to health care sector), planning and housing communities, agriculture, private employers, and the media.
  • Reorientation of health system financing to promote prevention, especially the health insurance industry with its risk pooling function.
  • A national commitment to support community-based efforts, particularly in historically disadvantaged communities.

Chronic diseases include hypertension, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Underscoring the extent of the crisis, six in ten adults in the US have a chronic disease, and 90% of the nation’s $3.3 trillion annual health care expenditures in 2016 were on behalf of people with chronic diseases and mental health conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A consistent theme in the report is that while obesity is often perceived as an individual behavior, there are many social and economic factors that must be properly addressed.

“Our nation must change the way it approaches chronic disease,” said co-chair Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “The Aspen Health Strategy Group report offers five big ideas on how to do that. Systems from health to housing to agriculture can and must play a role in addressing this pressing issue.”

“Chronic diseases are the top causes of death and disability in our nation,” added co-chair Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. “Growing obesity and chronic disease rates will have a devastating effect on our nation’s health if we do not act. We must move forward now.”

This is the third AHSG publication, following annual reports on end-of life-care and the opioid epidemic. It was edited by Alan R. Weil, Editor-in-Chief of Health Affairs, and his Special Assistant Rachel Dolan. The report will be widely distributed to policymakers in the health and related fields. AHSG members also commit to examining steps that can be taken in their own institutions and organizations.


The mission of the Aspen Health Strategy Group is to promote improvements in policy and practice by providing leadership on important and complex health issues. The group is comprised of 24 senior leaders across influential sectors including health,business, media, and technology, and is part of the Health, Medicine and Society Program at the Aspen Institute.

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. The Institute is based in Washington, DC; Aspen, Colorado; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It also has offices in New York City and an international network of partners. For more information, visit



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