Despite reaching epidemic proportions, obesity has been wandering in the wilderness of medical lexicon. In recent years, it has routinely been described as a “health risk factor,” or a public health “problem,” “challenge” or “threat.” With so many factors playing into it and so many debates as to which factors play the greatest role in putting on the pounds, obesity up to now has escaped a defining description of what it is: A disease.
Last week, the American Medical Association officially classified obesity as disease, and the designation will do more than clarify the wording of medical textbooks: It will encourage doctors to have conversations with patients at risk of obesity, and provide impetus for health insurers to cover both those conversations and subsequent weight-loss interventions. This need not add costs to the health care system, since obesity is highly implicated in so many other chronic and fatal diseases, from diabetes to cancer to heart disease.
The AMA wants to end the common perception — even among many doctors — that the condition is merely “a consequence of a chosen lifestyle.” In its resolution, the organization said blaming the victim for this complex disease has become the equivalent of “suggesting that lung cancer is not a disease because it was brought about by individual choice to smoke cigarettes.” The AMA’s resolution has no legal authority, but the declaration by one of the nation’s most authoritative medical groups casts the nation’s health woes in vivid and stark terms. Suddenly, by the AMA’s new standards, a third of America is officially ill. Any other disease that widespread would surely receive the medical attention it deserves.