by Katelyn DeRuyter, UMN Law Student, MJLST Note and Comment Editor
The fact that many Americans are obese is hardly news. Obesity in America has been a source of news reports, social commentaries and literature for well over a decade. In her book review of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” by Michael Pollan, published in Issue 8.1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Morgan Holcomb discusses how obesity rates in America were part of Pollan’s motivation to write “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” More recently, American obesity has been described as an epidemic, and the health risks associated with obesity are gradually becoming common knowledge. Obesity is even compared, by some, to smoking and alcoholism. A recent LawSci blog post, “Is Food the New Tobacco: Science, Advertising, and the War against Obesity?” looks at Roseann Termini’s article, “Food Advertising and Childhood Obesity: A Call for Action for Proactive Solutions,” and draws parallels between the role of advertising in the rise of cigarette addiction and the current obesity epidemic.
A question that is overlooked in this dialogue is whether obesity is, in fact, a disease. Whether obesity is considered a disease has real consequences including altering social stigmas, increasing funds allocated for research and expanding treatment accessibility. The debate over whether obesity should be considered a disease is not new. However, new life has been breathed into the debate following the American Medical Association’s (AMA) official recognition of obesity as a disease. The New York Times quoted Dr. Harris, a member of the AMA’s board, as stating that “[r]ecognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans.” A recent Forbes article, “Declaring Obesity a Disease: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly,” provides a closer look at how the AMA reached its decision.
In reaching the conclusion that obesity is a disease, the AMA overruled its own council’s recommendation. The AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health (Counsel on Science) had been tasked with studying this issue over the past year. The Council on Science’s recommendation against categorizing obesity as a disease rested, in part, on the concern that body mass index (BMI) is a simplistic and inaccurate tool; BMI is the tool generally used to define obesity. The Council on Science was also concerned that recognizing obesity as a disease might increase reliance on drugs and procedures and decrease the emphasis on lifestyle changes.
From a legal perspective, this classification raises interesting questions regarding future interpretation of Congressional intent when “disease” is used without a specific definition. While only time will be able to tell the actual effects of this classification, this is certainly a “must watch” area for health law attorneys.