Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Weight Discrimination: Public Supports Disability and Civil Rights Legal Protection

Public support for policies that prohibit weight discrimination and even provide disability and civil rights protection for obese individuals has grown in the past few years, according to a new study by researchers from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. The study is published online in the journal Obesity.

Researchers surveyed more than 1,000 people in 2011, 2012, and 2013 to assess their support for proposed legislation that would prohibit weight discrimination, extend disability protection for individuals with obesity, and add body weight as a protected class under the federal civil rights statutes.

Support for laws prohibiting weight discrimination were consistent, with least 75% of those surveyed in favor of laws that would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees based on their weight.

Furthermore, support for extending disability protections for individuals with obesity grew from 62% in 2011 to 69% in 2013. And support for adding body weight as a protected class under the civil rights laws grew from 70% to 76% in the same time period.

“The trends we observed have important implications for existing and future policy initiatives,” said Rebecca Puhl, Rudd Center deputy director and co-author of the study. “Legislation could reduce inequities for millions of Americans who are vulnerable to unfair treatment because of their weight, and improve their quality of life.”

Currently, there are no federal laws making it illegal to discriminate against a person based on his or her weight. Michigan is the only state that has a law preventing discrimination on this basis. In 2013, Massachusetts also proposed a law to prohibit weight discrimination.

“Legal measures to prohibit weight discrimination could help rectify employment inequalities, facilitate public health efforts to improve the health and well-being of individuals with obesity, and reduce the social acceptability of weight prejudice,” Puhl explained.

Despite Conflicting Coverage of CDC Findings Evidence Suggests Policy Changes Having Positive Impact on Children’s Health

A CDC press release in February pointed to indications that obesity among young children is decreasing. The study, using nationally representative NHANES data, found that though obesity rates remained stable across most age groups, rates decreased from 14% to 8% among children aged 2 to 5 years, which translates to the 43% decrease that made headlines.

The CDC study was widely reported in the press, and many experts, including Rudd Center Director Marlene Schwartz, PhD, speculated that this change could be in part due to improvements in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC). 

A Reuters story released on March 16th dismissed the study, quoting a number of experts pointing to the sample size and the margin of error.  It is important to note however, that the authors of the CDC paper acknowledged these limitations and specifically warned that “these results should be interpreted with caution” (Ogden 2014 ).

The Reuters story also cited studies that indicated there is little to no improvement to children’s health due to improvements in the WIC food packages.  We examined these studies more closely, and found that the data suggest a number of positive effects of the WIC package changes.  In fact, the authors generally conclude that federal changes to the WIC policy have improved nutrition, and are showing signs of reducing obesity among young children.”  Read more.

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