Obesity Is a Disease, Says American Medical Association

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The American Medical Association voted on June 18 to categorize obesity as a disease, moving the condition above its past designations as a “major health concern,” “complex health condition,” and “complex disorder.” Obesity affects more than one-third of adults and 17% of children in the United States.

AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health said in a memo that more widespread recognition of obesity as a disease “could result in greater investments by government and the private sector to develop and reimburse obesity treatments.” The council also stated that labeling obesity as a disease might increase support for obesity-prevention programs such as physical education initiatives and reforms to school lunch. In addition, it suggested that “employers may be required to cover obesity treatments for their employees and may be less able to discriminate on the basis of body weight.”
According to AMA board member Patrice Harris: “Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans. The AMA is committed to improving health outcomes and is working to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, which are often linked to obesity.”

In a background memo for AMA members explaining the policy shift, the council also outlined some of the potential cons to reclassifying obesity as a disease, including “deepening the stigma” attached to being overweight and “shifting the nation’s focus too much toward expensive drug and surgical treatments and away from measures to encourage healthy diets and regular exercise.”

Richard Berman, JD, Executive Director of the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), said in a statement that “the pharmaceutical and weight loss industry have manufactured an ‘epidemic’ to have the cost of their weight loss drugs and treatments underwritten by taxpayers… Obesity is not a ‘disease’ if it can be cured by taking regular walks and eating less… We need to be careful not to dumb down the definition of the term disease at the expense of taxpayers.”


Treatment of obesity-related illnesses (such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes) increases US medical expenses by more than $150 billion a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization reports that the United States has an average national obesity rate of 33.9%, making it the ninth most obese country in the world and the most obese “industrialized country” with second place New Zealand (26.5%) and third place Canada (23.1%) several percentage points behind. The annual medical costs for people who are obese are $1,429 higher than those who are not obese.


American Medical Association, “AMA Adopts New Policies on Second Day of Voting at Annual Meeting,” www.ama-assn.org, June 18, 2013

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Adult Obesity Facts,” cdc.gov, Aug. 13, 2012

Melissa Healy and Anna Gorman, “AMA Declares Obesity a Disease,” latimes.com, June 18, 2013

Scott Hensley, “AMA Says It’s Time to Call Obesity a Disease,” npr.org, June 19, 2013

Andrew Pollack, “AMA Recognizes Obesity as a Disease,” nytimes.com, June 18, 2013

Trust for America’s Health, “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2011,” healthyamericans.org, July 2011

Trust for America’s Health, “Issue Brief: Analysis of Obesity Rates by State,” healthyamericans.org, Aug. 2012