Asthma Is an $80 Billion Drag on the US Economy

Photo: AP
Photo: AP

It’s no secret asthma is a problem in the United States. What might surprise some, though, is to hear how much it costs: $80 billion. Don’t expect it to go down under President Donald Trump, who doesn’t care much about air quality regulations.


This is according to a study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society Friday. For comparison, that’s how much the United States spends on science, energy, and the environment—combined. It’s also at least 10 times the amount the United States would have spent implementing the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama’s landmark climate policy that would have not only reduced U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but also reduced the amount of pollutants communities are breathing by better regulating (and even shutting down) toxic power plants.

The study analyzed data from a national health survey including more than 213,000 people, out of whom about 10,000 had visited a doctor’s office or emergency room, filled an asthma prescription, or claimed to have asthma between 2008 to 2013.

Most of asthma’s economic costs stem from medical bills—office visits and prescription costs. Together, these amount to $50.3 billion. Add to that the cost of asthma-related mortality and missed school and work days and, well, you end up with $81.9 billion.

The researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t even include people who live with asthma but didn’t visit the doctor. Nor did they examine non-medical costs like transportation, waiting for appointments, and slacking at work due to the illness. So that $80 billion? It could be much higher.

“The cost of asthma is one of the most important measures of the burden of the disease,” said Tursynbek Nurmagambetov, lead study author and health economist at the CDC, in a press release.

What stinks even more—though not surprising—is how hard these costs hit communities of color, low-income people, and urban centers. People who live in urban areas are especially impacted because they have “higher concentrations of environmental asthma triggers,” as the study put it. That includes city staples like cars, highways, and factories that emit pollutants like particulate matter or ozone, both of which can trigger asthma.


And while black and Latinos have lower medical costs than the average person, the study speculates that might be due to their lack of asthma prescriptions and outpatient visits. This can result from not having insurance or not having the money to pay out of pocket.

The study makes clear that asthma’s strain on the economy isn’t going anywhere—unless something’s done to reduce asthma triggers in communities and, in turn, the number of hospital visits and deaths. The hope is that this study can inform decision makers to take the illness more seriously and allocate resources to reduce its burden, said Nurmagambetov, in the release.


But with the way the federal government is rolling back environmental protection after environmental protection, this tab is likely to only go up.



Hasn’t air quality in the US improved dramatically over the last 50 years?