"Rights" of the Obese

 Posted by on 2 January 2009 at 12:22 am  Health, Politics
Jan 022009

Since NoodleFood has been blogging a lot lately on the subject of health, nutrition, and achieving a healthy body weight, I thought I’d weigh in (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) with some updates on laws concerning obesity.

That’s right — laws.

The City Council of Binghamton, New York, has passed a new ordinance called The Binghamton Human Rights Law. It aims to protect two classes of individuals from discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public accommodation: the transgendered and the overweight. Recently, Canadian airlines were forced to give obese people two seats for the price of one, on the theory that being overweight is a disability. And in 2004 Medicare removed language from the Medicare Coverage Issues Manual declaring obesity is not an illness, which was widely interpreted as allowing Medicare claims on the basis that obesity is a disease.

“Discrimination” against the overweight is a hot topic. Those who see and decry such discrimination claim that many overweight people aren’t responsible for their condition. They claim that obesity is a disease, the result of environmental factors, genetic factors, and food addiction. You can find discussion of all these claims at the American Obesity Association, which lobbied for the Medicare change and proclaims on its home page that

Obesity is not a simple condition of eating too much. It is now recognized that obesity is a serious, chronic disease. No human condition — not race, religion, gender, ethnicity or disease state — compares to obesity in prevalence and prejudice, mortality and morbidity, sickness and stigma.

The American Obesity Association doesn’t seem to be very active lately, but the Obesity Action Coalition is very active. Their “Advocacy” page declares that “[o]besity is a complex disease” and complains that “some [insurance] payors and employers still do not recognize obesity and morbid obesity as a disease.”

The notion of “rights” concerning employment, housing, education and public accommodation turn the concept of individual rights on its head. Individual rights protect freedom of action and prohibit the initiation of force. A legal claim to anything that must be produced by another human being — like a place to work, a house, tutelage and a seat on an airplane — requires the initiation of force against the producers and violates individual rights.

But all that is Rights 101. What I think is particularly astounding about calls to treat the overweight as involuntarily disabled is that they apparently ignore that Americans have been getting fatter for decades. That is — the further back you look, the thinner Americans appeared to be. There’s little valuable data on nutrition at the Center for Disease control, but they do have a great little graphic which shows how much fatter Americans have become since 1985. Below are some sample images:

I haven’t looked very hard for data on American obesity before 1985, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Americans were thinner in the decades prior to 1985. But let’s say 1985 is a good baseline. What has changed since 1985? One candidate is the explosion in technology that allows us to feed and entertain ourselves with very little effort — microwave ovens, videos, electronic games, cable television and the like. But the primary problem is how our diet has changed in the last few decades — more grains, sweeteners and vegetable oils. On top of that, many who tried to lose weight followed the advice of the government or of misinformed experts and went on a low-fat, low-calorie, high-carbohydrate diet. That is not a long-term solution.

So there’s a lot of bad information out there, but there’s a lot of good information available, too. But do the advocacy groups focus on making getting better information available? No, that would require acknowledging that obese people are responsible for getting themselves into shape. What the advocacy groups concentrate on is getting other people to expend the effort they don’t think their constituents should have to expend.

The U.S. government is on the horns of a dilemma. The CDC website focuses on diet and exercise, taking the position that people can control their weight and in large part because the government is paying for ever-growing medical costs attributable to obesity. On the other hand, advocates of obesity “rights” are having success pushing legislation treating obesity as a disease for which the obese have no responsibility. So where is the government going to come down on this issue?

You’d think that with socialized medicine on the horizon in the U.S. we’d see increasing government emphasis on preventing obesity. But on the other hand, look at the demographics — the percent of the voter base that is obese is increasing. I think we’ll see more legislation like The Binghamton Human Rights Law. In a country dominated by pressure-group warfare, might is right — and might is also “rights.”

(Thanks to Diana for her suggestions on this post!)

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