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Insurer gives incentives to customers with acceptable body mass index

    HARTFORD, Conn. — Amid a growing obesity epidemic in the United States, an insurance company has started giving customers another reason to slim down by being one of the first in the nation to offer discounts to customers who keep a low body-mass index.
    The program by Phoenix Cos. Inc. offers discounts up to 20 percent on life insurance policies to customers whose BMI is verified by a doctor to be 19 to 25.
    BMI is a ratio of body fat that takes height and weight into account. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines obesity as a BMI of 30 or more; people between 25 and 30 are considered overweight.
    ‘‘We tried to come up with a program that accounts for factors such as strokes, and help those who maintain healthy weight, lifestyle, what they eat and go to the gym,’’ said Joe Kelleher, senior vice president and chief operating officer of The Phoenix. ‘‘We thought we’d be able to reward those people.’’
    Customers who qualify for the program can start seeing reduced rates after five years if their BMI remains in the 19-to-25 range. Customers will see their premiums drop by 5 percent for every five years that they keep a healthy BMI ratio, up to a maximum of 20 percent after 20 years.
    The plan comes as U.S. obesity rates have risen to an all-time high. Nearly one-third, or 32 percent of adult Americans, are considered obese, the federal government says.
    Obesity can cause diabetes, heart disease and other health-related complications that shorten life spans. The proportion of obese adults has more than doubled, from 15 percent in the mid-1970s.
    Insurance companies prize healthy customers because they live longer. Insurers make more revenue from healthy customers who pay monthly premiums well into their 70s than from customers that die of natural causes years earlier. Although life insurers typically consider lifestyle, weight, age and family medical history when writing policies, Phoenix’s BMI discount is unique.
    More than 140 people have signed up for the program and about 30 have been approved, said the Hartford-based company said.
    One of them, 42-year-old David Rollins of Bloomington, Ill., was approved for the program this winter. Rollins, who has always kept fit with a regimen of running, bicycling and lifting weights, rolled his previous Phoenix policy into its BMI program to save money.
    ‘‘In the longer term, the way I look at it, I’m buying a product that’s going to reward my lifestyle,’’ he said.
    But the American Medical Association said there’s not necessarily a correlation between good health and BMI ratio. Muscular athletes in good condition would likely have a higher than recommended BMI, said Dr. Ron Davis, president-elect of the AMA.
    ‘‘The point is obesity is a medical condition and medical treatments are needed to address the problem,’’ said Davis, a Detroit-based physician specializing in preventative medicine.
    Obesity is a complicated issue, with a great deal related to behaviors such as poor diet and lack of physical activity or a family’s genetic makeup, he said.
    BMI ratio isn’t the only gauge of obesity, Davis said. ‘‘But it’s probably the best measure we have,’’ he said.
    Dr. Rob Kinney, vice president and medical director of The Phoenix, said BMI is a good measure of longevity, which is the first consideration for a life insurance company.
    Men and women who are in the BMI range of between 19 and 25 live longer, he said. ‘‘It’s a statistical fact.’’
    ‘‘We would agree it’s not a perfect measure,’’ Kinney said.
    Some people have a BMI higher than what’s acceptable yet are still healthy, while others who are within the range are not as healthy, he said. ‘‘From a statistical standpoint, it’s a very, very well measured test.’’

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