The decision by Europe's highest court that obesity can be a disability will only make a bad problem worse. Too many people in rich countries are already overweight. Giving them legal grounds to feel righteous about their condition, regardless of its causes, will almost certainly expand their ranks.
The case brought to the European Court of Justice involved Danish child-minder Karsten Kaltoft, fired by the municipality of Billund in 2010 after 15 years of service. The town attributed the firing to redundancy, but Kaltoft, who is 5'8'' tall and weighs 352 pounds, claimed his employer got rid of him because he was overweight: his weight was mentioned in the conversations that preceded his dismissal. The court was asked to decide whether that would have violated a 14-year-old European Union directive banning discrimination against people with disabilities.
The matter turned on whether obesity qualifies as a disability. It's not expressly described as such in any Danish or European statutes. But the Court ultimately sided with an opinion filed by Advocate General Niilo Jaaskinen. He argued:
In cases where the condition of obesity has reached a degree that it, in interaction with attitudinal and environmental barriers, as mentioned in the UN Convention, plainly hinders full participation in professional life on an equal footing with other employees due to the physical and/or psychological limitations that it entails, then it can be considered to be a disability.
In other words, if one gets to be so overweight that it hampers one's work, the employer should find ways to accommodate the obese worker, rather than seek to replace him or her. That might mean buying her an extra large chair or even installing an elevator so she doesn't have to use the stairs to get to her workplace. It doesn't matter, Jaaskinen wrote, "whether the person concerned became obese due to simple excessive energy intake, in relation to energy expended, or whether it can be explained by reference to a psychological or metabolic problem, or as a side-effect of medication." Even if the disability is self-inflicted, Jaaskinen (and the Court) determined that discriminating on that basis shouldn't be permitted.
So people who eat too much junk food are not responsible for their own weight?
With rare exceptions in developed countries, of course they are. You are what you eat. We are responsible for our actions.
Temptation is another matter and so is corporate responsibility. I approve of the pressure governments, the medical profession, health industries and responsible individuals put on firms to provide healthier meals and accurately list all ingredients, not least including sugars, fats and preservatives. This is sound commercial good sense, judging from the queues I encounter in Waitrose and Marks & Spencer food stores.Back to top