Is Adult Obesity in America A Disease or A Disability?


It has finally happened; the beginning of a debate to define obesity. Is it a disease, a self-inflicted quality that can be avoided and therefore penalized, or a disability to be discriminated against or fined?

A recent Gallop survey of absenteeism among unhealthy American workers found chronic disease tied heavily with obesity. Chronic diseases are responsible for 75% of all healthcare dollars. Overweight workers have 13 times more days lost from work due to work-related injuries and their medical claims cost 7 times more than those of their fit co-workers.

So now what? We’ve called it an epidemic. Are the overweight ill? Is adult obesity a self-inflicted injury that costs businesses more money? If so, do businesses have an obligation to “get them into treatment?”

The issues could be very important to both the individuals and the economy. For instance, if airlines make us pay more for our luggage when it exceeds a certain weight, will we now have to go on a scale before a flight? Or fit into a frame the way our suitcases do? After all, increased weight does cost the airlines more on fuel and some people really don’t fit into the narrow seats on most domestic flights. Ever sit next to one? Will they be at risk for purchasing a second ticket?

Obesity is a condition that predisposes to chronic diseases that could interfere with one’s ability to work. So does smoking and age. But only age is protected under anti-discrimination federal law.

So now the battle will begin. First define obesity. Is it a disease, a disability, a liability? What is should be is a health concern. What it has become is a financial concern.

One good possible outcome is that businesses will not discriminate but instead see an opportunity to offer programs and incentives to overweight workers for weight control and thereby save themselves money.  Some of that has already begun to attack the causes of obesity with competition to lose the most weight, healthier cafeteria food and exercise classes at work. Studies show that businesses that invest in chronic disease prevention actually save up to $5 for every $1 invested. Overweight workers benefit by reducing their risk of chronic illness. And society will lower the costs of healthcare, which will be spared a huge financial burden by industry doing a large part of the preventive care that needs to be done.


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