Mar 23, 2023 - Podcasts

America's struggle with obesity

Nearly half of Americans are living with obesity, according to a new analysis from NORC at the University of Chicago. States in the South and Midwest are showing some of the highest obesity numbers.

  • Plus, Moderna's CEO gets grilled by Congress.
  • And, Muslim Americans lend a helping hand this Ramadan.

Guests: Axios' Arielle Dreher and Zakat Foundation of America's Halil Demir.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Robin Linn, Naomi Shavin, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected] You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, March 23rd.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re covering today: Moderna’s CEO gets grilled by Congress. Plus, Muslim Americans lend a helping hand this Ramadan.

But first, our One Big Thing: America’s struggle with obesity.

NIALA: A newly published statistic caught my eye this week. According to analysis from the nonpartisan and objective research organization at the University of Chicago, 42% of American adults nationwide are living with obesity.

Axios’ Health Care Reporter Arielle Dreher is here to help us understand this number, and what it tells us about obesity in the U.S. right now.

Hi Arielle!


NIALA: Is this number that just came out, what doctors and experts expected?

ARIELLE: I believe it is. I think the working percentage is at least a third or one in three Americans are living with obesity, so this might be a little bit higher. But as you can tell, looking at the analysis, it kind of depends on what state you're living in.

NIALA: Yeah. Where are we seeing the highest and lowest rates of obesity across the country?

ARIELLE: So West Virginia and Mississippi have about a tie for the highest state obesity rate at 51% of their populations experiencing or living with obesity. Washington, D.C. as well as Colorado have the lowest rates. Washington, D.C. had the lowest at 33%.

NIALA: What do we know about that geographic disbursement when it comes to obesity? What are the biggest factors for obesity across America?

ARIELLE: When we talk about obesity, equity is really important to think about and look at because obesity rates are higher and disproportionately so among poorer and Black and Hispanic populations. And I think that that's something that recent reporting around sort of the crossroads right now with weight loss drugs and weight loss drug treatments, have really been focusing on, is when it comes to some of these newer treatments and ability to fight obesity, we really need to be looking at the areas of the country and the populations most impacted by obesity in order to really cut through and make some of those changes.

Niala Boodhoo: Right. And we recently did talk about Ozempic on the podcast. How do weight loss drugs like that fit into this very complicated picture?

ARIELLE: They fit in many ways. Obesity is a disease and it can be treated and I think a part of that shift when it comes to culturally understanding what that means and what that looks like, will really be at the heart of some of these discussions around coverage and treatments and how it works. And we are seeing more research and sort of physicians gravitating towards these treatments as a game changer for obesity. On the other hand, these drugs are really new. There are a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to how these treatments work in the long term. And if a patient stops taking a drug, what happens?

The other important part of this treatment puzzle piece right now is that some of the same drugs that are being used and prescribed to patients for weight loss are also used for patients with diabetes. And the FDA has reported shortages of these drugs recently, and there's concern that patients with diabetes aren't going to have access to these drugs when people are needing them or trying to get them for weight loss. Inequity there, at least for the time being, lies in the cost and availability and access.

NIALA: Arielle Dreher is a health care reporter for Axios. Thanks, Arielle.

ARIELLE: Thanks so much.

NIALA: After the break, the Moderna CEO defends quadrupling the price of its Covid-19 vaccine.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here are some headlines we’ve been following…

First up, everyone is mad at Moderna.

Stéphane Bancel, the CEO of the pharmaceutical company, faced criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle after he refused to reconsider quadrupling the price of its COVID-19 vaccine from about $26 to $130. Here’s Bernie Sanders questioning Bancel about the price increase during a Senate hearing yesterday.

BERNIE SANDERS: Quadrupling the price is huge and I will hope, I would hope very much that you will reconsider that decision. It's gonna cost the taxpayers of this country billions of dollars. Is that something you can do?

STÉPHANE BANCEL: The volume we had during the pandemic gave us economies of scale we won't have anymore. That is what is different.

NIALA: The price hikes are slated to take effect once the government’s current stockpile runs out.

Yesterday - the federal reserve DID raise interest rates by another quarter of a percentage point. What this means: rising rates signal the Fed is staying its course on fighting inflation - but Chair Jay Powell did indicate officials were reserving the right to halt its interest rate hikes if the banking crisis causes the economy to slow down too much.

And in Los Angeles, classes are canceled for a third day for nearly half a million students after around 30,000 union workers began a strike on Tuesday. Custodians, bus drivers and teaching aides at public schools are among the workers on a three day strike, hoping for higher pay. Union leaders are asking for a 30% pay increase for public school workers – who currently make an average of about $25,000 a year.

NIALA: Last night, Muslims around the world began celebrating the Holy Month of Ramadan. Many of us know that this means for about thirty days, many Muslims will fast from sunup to sundown, but there's much more to Ramadan than just not eating or drinking. It's also an important time for charitable giving, including a specific form of charity called Zakat.

Muslim Americans gave $1.8 billion in religious Zakat funding in 2021, that’s according to the Muslim Philanthropy Initiative at Indiana University. That means the average household donated $2,070 to charity.

Halil Demir hopes this year will prove to be even more successful. He’s the Executive Director of the Zakat Foundation of America.

Halil, welcome to Axios Today

HALIL DEMIR: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

NIALA: Halil, can you explain why charity is an important part of Ramadan observance?

HALIL: Zakat means the third pillar of Islam and every Muslims have to give 2.5% of their excess wealth to the poor and needy to create the economical and social justice. So Ramadan, according to tradition, when you do a good deed, 70 fold returns to you. So Muslims, not necessarily that you have to give Zakat during Ramadan, but because of these blessings, uh, majority of Muslims prefer to give theirs zakat to the poor and needy during Ramadan.

NIALA: Halil, you're originally from Southeastern Turkey. How have your family and friends been faring since the earthquake?

HALIL: Thank you for asking. It's, to be honest with you, it is not good. After the earthquake, the earthquake hit and passed, then we have a very strong rain. So from the earthquake we went to the storm, and from there we went to wind. And then we went to hail. Unfortunately, some of these tent villages did not recover.

NIALA: How much of a focus this year do you hope Zakat charity will be on helping earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria?

HALIL: I think most of the people, because of the impact of these devastating earthquake was so strong, was so powerful, so heartbreaking, the life of millions of people shattered. Humanity has heart, Muslim or not Muslim, I have to say, but during, during Ramadan, probably Muslims going to give most of their charitable giving toward these communities.

NIALA: And can you share with me a little bit more about what Zakat Foundation of America is doing for earthquake victims?

HALIL: So this is this what we do. During Ramadan we going to regularly have a food for dinner because people fast all day. Because many families that are there, they lost their families, and these are holy nights for the Muslims. So we are going to have also spiritual gathering, religious gathering and we are going to accommodate all these needs of the communities. We have identified locations where public people can come and pick up some warm food in three different cities.

NIALA: How connected do you think Muslims in America feel to what's going on in Turkey and Syria?

HALIL: I have to say that proudly American people very generous. This nation has donated in 2021, $1.85 billion to the charitable causes. So, I'm thinking, they will be very generous during these, very challenging times. Remember we have flood in Pakistan where, you know, one third of the country was under the water and still most communities didn't recover from these. And now earthquake in, in these two countries. Also drought in Africa. Remember, please, drought in Africa. So I'm hoping that American people and particularly Muslim community will be very generous because the challenges in the world right now are very serious.

NIALA: How much money was given last year to Zakat Foundation of America?

HALIL: Around $20 million.

NIALA: So you're hoping to have even more this year?


NIALA: Halil Damir is the Executive Director of the Zakat Foundation of America. Halil, thank you for joining us. Ramadan Mubarak.

HALIL: Thank you. Have a blessed day. Have a good day, bye.

NIALA: That’s it for us today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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