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Is Obesity a Disease? Debate Has Insurance Implications

A public policy debate has started recently that may ultimately have an affect on insurance. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCOIL) reports that so...
November 10, 2003

A public policy debate has started recently that may ultimately have an affect on insurance. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCOIL) reports that so far this year, 150 bills have been introduced in state legislatures - ten in the last six weeks alone - to address the problem of obesity. A rising number of Americans are seriously overweight, and that has triggered intense debate about whether obesity should be declared a disease, a move that could open up insurance coverage to millions who need treatment for weight problems, and it could speed the approval of new diet drugs.

Proponents say officially classifying obesity as a disease will help to remove the stigma from the condition, much as the classification of alcoholism as a disease made it easier for many alcoholics to get treatment. Opponents say obesity is more akin to high cholesterol or cigarette smoking - a risk factor that predisposes someone to illness, but is not an ailment in itself.

Public opinion on the issue seems divided. According to a poll by the Harvard School of Public Health in May, half of those surveyed feel that obesity is a "private matter," while half said it is a "public health issue that society needs to help solve." Seventy-seven percent said the government should promote exercise and eating right. Sixty-two percent supported requiring calorie and other nutritional information on menus, and 41 percent supported a special junk food tax.

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