Obesity

Is Obesity a Disability?

If the European Court of Justice labels obesity a disability, it would be binding throughout the European Union.

|

Artem Marchenko/Flickr

Can employers legally discriminate against the obese? That's the question currently before the top court in the European Union. At the heart of the issue is whether obesity is to be considered a disability under the E.U.'s Employment Equality Directive, which protects people against employment discrimination based on religion, sexual orientation, age, or disability status.

The case comes to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) from Denmark, where 350-pound child caretaker Karsten Kaltoft says he was fired from his position for being too fat. Kaltoft's employer, Billund Kommune, said his dismissal had nothing to do with his weight and was the result of an overall decrease in childcare enrollments. 

But the case could reverberate far beyond the particular fates of Kaltoft and Billund. If the ECJ decides to label obesity a disability, it would be be binding throughout the European Union. 

"If obesity is classified as a disability, the effect for employers could be profound," said Audrey Williams, a partner at the London law firm Eversheds. "Obesity, however it will come to be defined, would need to be approached just like any other physical or mental impairment." In addition to affecting discrimination cases, the designation could change how employers are obligated to accommodate obese employees. 

In the E.U., a disability is currently defined as a "physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on (the) ability to carry out normal day to day activities." Last year, the E.U.'s Employment Appeals Tribunal ruled that a man's numerous medical problems qualified him as disabled, despite the fact that there was no identifiable cause for them other than obesity.

However, in that instance, the court stressed that obesity itself wasn't a disability. Rather, "obesity makes it more likely that someone would suffer from an impairment that could be a disability." UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage expressed a similar sentiment in a recent op-ed in The Independent

In the case of obesity some people may justifiably be able to claim they cannot help it: for example, those with eating disorders. But their disability doesn't come about from their size but the fact that they have a mental health condition which takes over from rational behaviour towards food. In a similar vein, many people who are limited in their mobility may put on excessive amounts of weight as a result of being limited in what exercise they can undertake.

In other words: While obesity can be caused by disability, it's not necessarily caused by disability. Farage opined that it would be "frightful nonsense" for the E.U. to define all obese individuals as disabled.  

But the opposing view may be gaining steam, both in Europe and on this side of the Atlantic. Back in 2010, Cato Institute legal scholar Walter Olson was noticing a "newly activist stance at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission" that included support for obesity as disability. In 2013 the American Medical Association (AMA) officially classified obesity as a disease, a change it said was designed to increase focus on obesity prevention and treatment. 

The AMA's shift could pave the way for health care coverage of weight loss surgeries and diet drugs, as Cato Senior Fellow Michael Tanner pointed out at the time. It can also be used to bolster calls for all sorts of "government mischief" when it comes to food.

"After all, if being fat is not our fault, the blame must lie with food companies, advertising, or other things that need to be regulated," wrote Tanner of this mindset.

And lo and behold, Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, has been citing the AMA's decision in his efforts to ban junk food and tax soft drinks. This month, Guardian writer Tanya Gold is using the EJC court case to call for efforts to ban advertising of sugary foods and beverages. 

According to World Health Organization estimates, between 10 and 30 percent of adults in E.U. countries were obese in 2008, based on body mass index. In the U.S., nearly 35 percent of adults are obese. 

NEXT: The New York Times, For One, Does Not Welcome Our New Robot Servants

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. If I cut my leg off with a chainsaw, I get to be called disabled. If a person eats himself into an immoveable object, he’s made himself just as disabled. In fact, less abled, as I would still be still be ambulatory. So the question you have to ask is, does Europe even have chainsaws?

    1. They do. They aren’t scary. Or original.

    2. Yeah, whether or not your condition is your own fault has nothing to do with whether you’re disabled. If you drive drunk into a brick wall and end up paralyzed, it’s definitely your own fault, but you’re definitely disabled.

  2. “In the U.S., nearly 35 percent of adults are obese.”

    This has to give the Dems a woody. Giving free shit to the fat demographic would eliminate every other party.

    1. Except for the fact that it’s cons who are fat pigs……that is, Bubba in MS or AL, etc.

      The South is the “obesity belt” – and I doubt the Dems are gonna pick up the Haley Barbour BBQ rib voting sector…to say nothing of Chris Christie, who is certainly a fine specimen of the “new republican” party.

      1. President Clinton.

      2. craiginmass

        I’ve lived in your state. You guys are almost as fat as Bubba and Bubba’s accent is somehow less re-tah-ded.

        1. I always get a chuckle from the “Masshole” bumper stickers I see up there–very true.

      3. craiginmass|6.17.14 @ 9:05PM|#
        “Except for the fact that it’s cons who are fat pigs……that is, Bubba in MS or AL, etc.”

        I’m pretty sure it’s proggies who are totally bereft of the ability to think…that is masshole in mass, etc.

      4. Visiting many parts of the Midwest will quickly dispel the notion that the cons have a lock on the obese demographic. In those places, it just goes by the term “union vote.”

        1. I live in MI. can conform.

      5. Craig is a racist. He knows that MS and AL has some of the largest populations of blacks in the US. Bubba is dog whistle for negro

        1. He hates poor people too. He has, in the past, accused people of living in trailer parks as in insult in an argument.

          I guess he can’t stand the thought of poor people using resources. Only smart elite like himself should use those resources.

  3. FFS

    1. For Fat’s Sake?

  4. I always loved that statue. It’s a great statement on public sector largesse.

  5. I’m a big (or as I say,normal) sized person. If being is not a disability because it is overwhelmingly voluntary. Just like alcoholism and drug addiction, it is done by choice.

    1. I think this is part of the point.

      When a society can remove any measurable reason to support or oppose any specific behaviors/actions/lifesytles/etc, then they can more easily define what is “good” by illogical things such as believing in the right ideas (climate change, IRS did nothing wrong, etc).

      IE – when it’s not to the smartest, the fastest, the strongest, or the ________ (whatever is needed), then it can be to the most well intentioned or some other such indefinable quality.

      Of course I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep recently, so…..

    2. Addiction by definition is the reduction of choice. Unless you actually want to be fat, it’s not quite a fully realized choice, is it?

  6. Computer on the fritz. That’s supposed to be “Being obese is not….”

  7. I am technically obese. I run 5ks.

    So do people who have artificial limbs, I suppose, but you see my point.

  8. 350-pound child caretaker Karsten Kaltoft says he was fired from his position for being too fat…

    Seriously, who was stupid enough to hire him to begin with? If a small child starts running toward a danger, such as a flight of stairs or a busy street, how in hell is Fatass McGreaseblob going to catch up to the child and prevent harm to it?

    So they could really screw themselves: can’t discriminate against a fatty, despite there being a good chance fatties would not be nearly as effective in the job.

    1. Well, here’s his exercise coach – what could go wrong?

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2f_BAUXteI

  9. Hiring Manager: Tell us why you would be a good fit for our company…part two of that question…how many cheeseburgers can you eat in a sitting?

    Fatty McGee: Are we talking backyard BBQ burgers or McDonald’s burgers?

    Hiring Manager: MickeyD’s…

    Fatty McGee: A baker’s dozen.

    *Two weeks later, Fatty McGee received a letter of rejection from the hiring manager:

    Dear Fatty,

    Thank you for your interest in our company; however, we’ve decided to go with someone more slim–err qualified.

    Good luck with your heart attack–err job search.

    You fat fuck–err fat bastard.

    Sincerely (with gravy),

    Hiring Manager

    P.S. Wakka Wakka Wakka

    1. *In tears, Rob Ford tears up the letter*

  10. Huh. Just makes me think of how when the governments started going after smoking, many smokers (and non-smokers too) believed that candy, alcohol, soda, and certain foods would be next. Was called paranoid. “They would never do that! Smoking is different!”

    Well, the rhetoric of the puritans (socialists?) is the same for all things that are not utility: ban it.

    Who was rightfully paranoid? Egh.

    This article is spot on. Use obesity as a way to regulate and ration the types of food people eat. Regulate regulate control. Puritans.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some bobble-headed academic vegans behind all this.

    1. I was born back in 1938 during an era where cigarette smoking was common among adults. There were very few fat people back then, and all the fat people were non-smokers. As for exercise, I never saw adults jogging, riding bicycles, and so forth. We didn’t have video games, but there were books, the radio, and in the late 1940’s, TV started coming on the scene. No doubt children had more physical activity then than now, but so far as adults were concerned, there was less physical activity than what you see today. Cigarettes were a great appetite reducer, and as a smoker, I had no trouble controlling my weight.

      It appears that by attempting to “outlaw smoking” we have simply switched the nature of addictions from nicotine to food. Given the relative costs of obesity compared to smoking, perhaps we made the wrong decision…

  11. So many useless eaters, so many laws against concentration camps…

  12. No doubt – it’s a disability just the same as if you smoked ciggies and therefore couldn’t walk and needed an oxygen tank to breathe.

    Or, if you got in a car accident while driving drunk and became paralyzed….

    Or, if you lived near a Koch Brothers dumping grounds and developed respiratory diseases….

    Disabled and Diseased are not terms which require “an act of God” as their cause….

    1. I would say to qualify as a disability it cannot be reversible.

      1. So if you are in a car accident and in a wheelchair for 2 years before you heal up, you are not disabled?

        Fantastic?

        What are you then? Temporarily inconvenienced with a possibility if improvement?

        Classifying something is not the same as approving of it. We classify people with many diseases of the mind and body – and, of course, many are reversible.

        Let’s use one example. Chris Christie uses MUCH more of everything, from helicopter fuel to air conditioning to food. Should taxpayers have to pick up the tab for this because of his disability?

        Or, should the payout be limited to a 200 LB or less healthy individual?

        If we didn’t plan for his disabilities, he’d be falling through the floor at certain places and planes would be crashing, etc.

        Therefore, it’s a “dis” (opposite of) “ability” (possession of the means or skill to do something.)

        What is it about our language that troubles you? Calling something what it is does not mean you are (or are not) approving of it.

    2. I used to smoke. I can walk and don’t require oxygen. I also don’t require a label as being disabled.

      Smoking and being obese aren’t disabilities. Both increase the risk of negative health effects that could lead to a disability. If just the increased risk were the case, then any member of a race that is more susceptible to say sickle cell anemia should automatically be determined to be disabled. Morbidly obese is a different argument.

      You left one off your list: or if you were drafted by Democratic President LBJ to fight a manufactured war by him and Macnamara. And you were doused with agent orange. And instead of getting the needed healthcare the VA is supposed to provide, the Obama appointed staff place you on a secret death errrr waiting list and your condition worsens, because you did not have prompt medical care, to the point where you can no longer adequately function.

      1. What if you were drafted by Nixon and sent over there? Are you immune then?

        You do know Nixon oversaw that war from 1969 to our loss in 1974-1975, don’t you?

        Is that different? Thanks for bringing up the crook. It’s always good to know the type of people you folks support!

        As to LBJ, yes – I was in DC protesting against the war when he was POTUS also. Were you?

        1. Thankfully, I was not alive for the LBJ Administration. If you were old enough to protest, I’m guessing you were old enough to vote. Who did you cast your vote for in the 1964 presidential election?

          As for Nixon, I’m not a fan of big government thus I’m not a fan of Nixon. But, in the interst if social justice, I think he should be given the same “he inherited that mess” free pass that many on the left have given to the current president. I like your implication here: because Nixon did bad AFTER LBJ, LBJ is somehow exempt. I think Karl Rove would kiss you if he could.

    3. craiginmass|6.17.14 @ 9:02PM|#
      “No doubt – it’s a disability just the same as if you smoked ciggies and therefore couldn’t walk and needed an oxygen tank to breathe.”

      Sorta like being a lefty asshole, asshole?

  13. Aren’t the obese already a special protected class in the USA?

    1. They are. You can receive disability payments under the ADA for obesity, or at least obesity related issues.

  14. In a similar vein, many people who are limited in their mobility may put on excessive amounts of weight as a result of being limited in what exercise they can undertake.

    If being inactive was the key to obesity, my elderly mother would probably break the hundred pound mark.

    Has anybody seen the new TIME magazine cover?

    1. Not much of a Time reader. What’s on the cover?

    2. Just looked it up online. You must be referring to the big wad of butter “we were wrong about fat” issue.

  15. Do you ever watch those shows on TV like “My 600lb Life”, and shit like that? It’s like a train-wreck; you know it’s going to be nasty but it’s hard to look away.

    Here’s what I don’t get: You’ve got this fat, disgusting blob of a person, who is so fucking fat that they can’t get out of bed. They can’t even get out of bed to shit out the 30lbs of food waste they generate every day, so they end up shitting the bed and themselves, and someone has to clean it up. WHY THE FUCK DO YOU KEEP BRINGING THIS PERSON FOOD? WHAT. THE. FUCK. Stop feeding it, and it will stop growing.

    1. Their caretaker is probably getting paid a nice government check to care for the disabled fat lump of shit. Keep feeding it and the govt dole keeps coming.

      1. That is exactly the case much of the time. If Mom turns herself into a fat blob-like shit generator, someone has to take care of her, so the taxpayer ends up supporting the Mom and the care-taker.

  16. The difference between obesity and things like getting in a car accident or cutting off your leg is clear. You can’t grow your leg back or magically cure your paralysis. You can lose weight, and if there’s some medical reason that you can’t, then that medical reason is the disability, not obesity.

    Obesity is a disability like me not having $10 billion is a disability.

    1. You can’t really lose weight once you’ve gained it. Most people don’t have the required long-term discipline and there are metabolic factors. Apart from policy questions, there is little point in distinguishing between medical conditions based on antiquated and incorrect notions of choice. Few people actually want to be fat: their environment makes them so.

      1. Stating that people lack the “long-term discipline” to lose weight indicates choices exist you moron. You’re implicitly claiming there are easy choices which allow individuals to remain obese and hard choices which lead to long-term sustainable weight loss.

        Environment can make some of those choices harder or easier, but there is still a choice between discipline and a lack thereof.

      2. It’s always someone or something else’s fault with you fuckers, isn’t it? In one comment you’ve listed lack of “discipline”, “metabolic factors”, “medical conditions”, and the “environment” without ever once considering that the simple, absolute reason for obesity is the consumption of more calories than one burns off.

        Just last week I was in a Sam’s, watching a woman on one of those handicapped scooters. She had to weigh 500lbs. She had was having trouble finding her EBT card, because she was trying to balance a whole fucking pizza on a paper plate, while continuously eating, while she was rooting through her purse. She literally would not stop eating long enough to focus on task. In her shopping cart was a case of frozen pizza, a case of Danish rolls, a case of chicken wings, a case of assorted potato chips, and about 5 gallons of assorted ice cream.

        I have a term I use for people like this. I call them “Oxygen Thieves”. This particular Oxygen Thief had eaten her way into a permanent government handout, on my dime. By her own choice, she continues to stuff her face with calories, and now performs no function other than to convert taxpayer money and oxygen into shit and CO2.

        1. It’s always anecdotal misanthropy with you fuckers isn’t it?

          I merely contend that if a whole country got really fat over a short period of time, perhaps there’s something environmental going on and not just a spontaneous mass decision to individually eat whole pizzas.

          1. I’m curious on what you think the cause of the dramatic rise of obesity amongst those in poverty is? I’m guessing you’d never admit that SNAP plays a role though.

      3. Thanks for proving my point Tony. Few people actually want to NOT have $10 billion dollars too.

        There’s this little thing called cause and effect. Obesity is a symptom, it cannot be, by definition, a disability. If you want to claim that lack of discipline is a disability then go ahead, but we’ll see how far that gets you.

  17. Before I would give a person one thin dime I would put them in a Barracks situation, like the military, for a month. There they would be required to get exercise and be fed a 2000 CAL a day diet. If they don’t loose weight they would be evaluated for a medical condition. If they do loose weight I would give them the opportunity to stay and fix themselves. BUT they would get no cash.

    1. ^THIS, and I’d move some of the handicapped parking spaces out to the farthest edge of parking lots. There should be two categories of handicapped parking spots: “If you’re missing limbs or are paralyzed, park here. If you’re a disgusting fat fuck that rides around on a Hoveround because hoisting your own enormous ass out of bed leaves you gasping for breath, park out there. You need to walk more”.

      It is absolutely ridiculous that we reward overindulgence with the opportunity to overindulge at someone else’s expense.

  18. Obesity may be a symptom of a mental disability or it may lead to future physical disabilities but obesity itself is not a disability. It’s like calling a bipolar schizophrenic person’s random mad outbursts a separate disability.

  19. We could consider the obese as being “addicted to food” in the same way as people become addicted to other substances. There is also a growing amount of evidence that some of today’s foods are in fact “addictive” because of substances used to cause faster growth along with greater weight. The use of antibiotics is commonplace in concentrated animal feeding operations along with the use of growth hormones and steroids to “encourage” the animals to grow faster, eat more, and become heavier. It is known by the medical profession that antibiotics do effect the intestinal bacteria. Growth hormones and steroids may linger in the flesh of our food animals and thus effect our own bodies. Could this be one of the factors in the present obesity problem? Additionally, people who quit smoking almost always gain weight, so is it possible that one addiction is switched for another?

  20. Start working at home with Google. It’s a great work at home opportunity. Just work for few hours. I earn up to $100 a day. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out http://www.Fox81.com

  21. Seems to me the only problem here is forcing some people to pay for other people. Who cares if I am fat or cut my leg off with a chainsaw or whatever, if I’m the one that has to deal with it?

    Even if it turns out the government is to blame, as is the case with Agent Orange, it’s still the taxpayer who ultimately pays.

    Many years ago I wound up stranded with a friend for four months in an abandoned man-camp just above the arctic circle. We had little to eat… some Ramen and a bit of other cheap pasta-in-a-box crap we’d brought with us, some Ol’ Roy dry dog food we found in the camp, and the occasional rabbit or ptarmigan we managed to trap. We’d eat one small, watery meal a day. Somehow we both managed to gain weight, or at least we looked fatter. I have no idea if we actually weighed more. There seems to be more to it than ‘calories in vs calories out’ though; dried pasta and/or dog food seems to promote fatness beyond that.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.