Feature

Why labeling obesity as a disease matters

The new designation could change how doctors, insurers, and the government treat obese people

Obesity is officially a disease, the American Medical Association decided on Tuesday. What does that mean for the 35.7 percent of American adults who are obese?

Nothing immediately. The AMA is a professional association, not a government agency, so its decision has no legal ramifications.

It is, however, the country's largest physicians group, giving it a lot of influence in the medical community.

"I think you will probably see from this physicians taking obesity more seriously, counseling their patients about it," Morgan Downey, publisher of the Downey Obesity Report, told The New York Times. "Companies marketing the products will be able to take this to physicians and point to it and say, 'Look, the mother ship has now recognized obesity as a disease.'"

Obesity is officially defined as having a body mass index of 30 or more, a condition associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and a host of other health problems.

More than half of obese patients have never been told by doctors that they have a weight problem, reported The Los Angeles Times. The AMA's decision could make doctors more willing to address obesity and ensure that physicians are compensated for consultations.

It could also affect how insurers and the government cover obesity. Currently, Medicare Part D doesn't cover weight-loss drugs, though it does cover drugs for hair growth and erectile dysfunction.

The AMA's decision that drugs might be needed for patients who suffer from "hormonal and metabolic abnormalities not reversible by lifestyle interventions" could sway legislators to change that in the future — which could be a boon for the pharmaceutical industry.

Dr. Virginia Hall, a physician from Pennsylvania, told Forbes that she supported the decision because it meant that "insurers can stop ducking their responsibility" to pay for treatments.

Not everyone is on board with the AMA's decision, including the association's very own Council on Science and Public Health, which criticized the use of BMI as a way of measuring obesity.

Labeling obesity as a disease could also do more harm than good, some critics claim. TIME's Maia Szalavitz argued that while labeling a condition a disease does help remove the stigma around it, the change can also increase "pessimism about recovery, probably because people assume that as diseases with biological and genetic bases, they are immutable."

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