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The American Medical Association (AMA) yesterday said that it is officially recognizing obesity as a disease, suggesting that this move could affect how doctors treat the condition and illnesses that are linked to it, such as diabetes and heart disease. The shift could also prompt insurance companies to cover treatments not previously included in their policies.

The New York Times reports this morning that "to some extent, the question of whether obesity is a disease or not is a semantic one, since there is not even a universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes a disease. And the A.M.A.’s decision has no legal authority.

"Still, some doctors and obesity advocates said that having the nation’s largest physician group make the declaration would focus more attention on obesity. And it could help improve reimbursement for obesity drugs, surgery and counseling."

The distinction may be semantic, but the debate was contentious. According to the Times, "The vote of the A.M.A. House of Delegates went against the conclusions of the association’s Council on Science and Public Health, which had studied the issue over the last year. The council said that obesity should not be considered a disease mainly because the measure usually used to define obesity, the body mass index, is simplistic and flawed.

"Some people with a B.M.I. above the level that usually defines obesity are perfectly healthy while others below it can have dangerous levels of body fat and metabolic problems associated with obesity."
KC's View:
While this may carry no specific legal power, analysts say that the advantage of such a statement goes a long way toward recognizing that obesity is a disease, not just a lack of discipline. To me, that transcends the arguments about body mass and definitions - this is as much about psychology as physiology.

Where this matters, I believe, is in the way that society approaches the issue in terms of public policy. Food stamps ought not be used for products that can lead to obesity. School lunches ought to be made up of healthy products. Public schools ought to put new emphasis on gym classes that get kids out of their chairs and onto playgrounds and into gyms. And insurance companies ought to be encouraged to pay for preventive programs that actually can cut costs down the road because of decreasing rates of diabetes and heart disease.