Tuesday, February 05, 2008

following up: banning food for the obese

Yesterday I wrote about the Good Idea/Bad Idea legislation Mississippi was considering that would make it illegal to serve obese people food. Since I wrote about it, the news wires have been flooded with people picking up and reporting the story in wider circles, which means more details have come out (for example, it's a cosponsored bill, two Republicans and one Democrat). But most noticeable in the new coverage is the seemingly pervasive comment that I'd like to address here: that not serving an obese person food in a restaurant is the same thing as not serving a drunk person alcohol in a bar. It's apparently the analogy du jour.

Well, okay. First, let's take a look at the law itself:
Any food establishment to which this section applies shall not be allowed to serve food to any person who is obese, based on criteria prescribed by the State Department of Health after consultation with the Mississippi Council on Obesity Prevention and Management
The analogy to alcohol starts immediately. How do you know someone is obese? Well, how do you know someone is drunk? The bartender knows based on a series of signs, including slurred words, loose body movements, uncoordination, loudness, etc. It would appear that they'd like this same vague "knowing" to apply to judging someone's weight - except, weight isn't that easy to determine. Looking at me, you wouldn't guess I weigh what I do (it even surprises my doctor), and I certainly would never be a candidate for withholding a meal in a restaurant...based on my looks. But at one point in the recent past, my BMI certainly was in the category that qualified for obese.

So then, what - wait staff are supposed to take their average best guess on someone's weight, BMI, fat versus muscle mass, and etc? Can we say lawsuits based on discrimination? (I thought we might.)

The problem here, and the way that as much as it might be nice to draw parallels between drunkenness and obesity, is that drunkenness does typically have the same basic set of signs no matter who you are. It doesn't matter how tall or short you are, your genetic history, your medical history - nothing. Being drunk is the same thing, and therefore relatively easy to determine (and especially the ones who should be completely cut off).

Being obese is not the same thing. Your rate of obesity does vary on size, on body type, your genetic history, your medical history. Everything. Obesity is a matter of your physical body and its relationship to your environment and your culture, and therefore not at all easy to determine (and certainly not by inexperienced wait staff).

Finally, and perhaps the clearest distinction, and hole in the argument being made, is that if you don't cut off someone who's drunk, their potential for death goes up that night - as does their potential to kill someone else. Even if someone who's obese eats themselves to death, they're not going to kill another person as they do it. They're not going kill another person with them or through their mistaken judgment. Time is on the obese person's side, it's not on the side of the drunk person trying to drive.

Perhaps it's a rather strict utilitarian view, but it does seem to me that if you choose not to cut off someone who's drunk, and they go on to hurt or kill another person, you are at least to some degree at fault for not trying to stop the drinker. But the chances of someone who's obese not being cut off from their food and then going out to hurt or kill another person seems... unlikely, to say the least. This is not to say there are not consequences from being obese, but they are a different set of consequences, and primarily affect the obese individual rather than a person who's suffering at the hands of a drunk driver.


Laurie said...

Being obese does seem to offend a lot of people who have to look at me.

kiwihelen said...

What kind of IDIOT has the time to come up with a law like this?

Appart from the fact that no business person is going to stop someone from spending money in their establishment,there is a complete miss-understanding of the nature of obesity within society

70% of the obese population have between a BMI of 30 and 35, and many of those are not recognised as obese by others - just a bit heavy, well padded or tubby. It is not until we get into superobese categories who form less than 10% of the obese population that people are recognising this person as "obese".

From my experience as a clinician, by the time someone has a BMI of more than 40, there are either psychosocial, genetic or endocrine factors contributing to this person's obesity.

When are governments going to realise if we are going to deal with the obesity epidemic we need to move away from an individual blame culture, to a collective responsibilty culture?

Bea said...

What worries me is that, whilst no harm is done with a refusal to serve alcohol, harm could be done with a refusal to serve food.

There are medical conditions (as we all know, surely?) which make people unable to control their blood glucose - diabetes/hypoglycaemia - and sometimes they have to eat either urgently or at regular intervals. Do we expect these people to always pack their own lunch or to carry around an excuse note from their doctor to present to the waiter? Not to mention the number of hungry pregnant women who get mistaken for fat.

Seems to me the potential harms outweigh any theoretical benefits. Not like alcohol at all.