The implications of obesity s classification as a disease

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Last month's decision from the American Medical Association to label obesity as a disease has sparked much public criticism, and understandably so. A fresh perspective on the issue and one that shouldn t be ignored, comes from a Forbes op-ed by Dr. Geoffrey Kabat published today.

To better explain the magnitude of the obesity problem, Dr. Kabat offers the example of smoking as a societal concern: smoking, as he points out, is a personal choice and a major health risk, causing a wide range of diseases from lung cancer to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in addition to 1.6 million smoking deaths in the U.S. each year.

In the same breath, the decline in smoking is a direct result of public education, higher cigarette taxation, restricted ads, and warning labels on cigarette packs. The bad habit went from glam to gross in less than 50 years.

But the same cannot be expected when classifying obesity as a disease, Kabat says, and here's why: while smoking is optional, eating is not. Restricting what or how much we eat is a challenge. Telling people when and how much to exercise is a challenge. "The society-wide obesity problem is much more complex than smoking," Kabat adds. "It will not do to demonize the food industry or to stigmatize the obese. A concerted and persistent effort will be required to devise, test, and implement new strategies for affecting behavior, starting at an early age and in different environments, while incorporating insights from all relevant disciplines."

ACSH s Ariel Savransky agrees with Kabat s point of view. Obesity is an extremely complex problem and there is never going to be one cut and dry approach to solving the obesity epidemic. Classifying obesity as a disease really almost simplifies the problem and as we at ACSH have said previously, if people come to expect that they can just pop a pill and cure obesity, that is going to be a huge step in the wrong direction. Kabat is right when he highlights the fact that all relevant disciplines will have to work together to develop many interventions in different environments to fight obesity.