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Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found some disturbing trends when it comes to weight-based discrimination. (Image courtesy thefuntimesguide.com / February 27, 2013)

If you're obese (and chances of that are pretty good in America right now), your odds of being found guilty in a jury trial are higher than if you're skinny. If you're an obese woman, things in court can be even uglier.

And you do not want to be labeled as both a food addict and obese - that tends to create even more "irritation, anger and disgust" in the mind of the average person than just being either addicted to food or obese.

Those are some of the disturbing findings in recent studies by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity concerning public attitudes toward and discrimination against very fat people. It's a problem that seems to be growing as fast as our nation's waistlines.

"Weight discrimination has increased by 66 percent in the past decade," says Rebecca Puhl, the center's director of research and weight stigma initiatives. "There is certainly a need for remedies at both the state and federal levels."

The trouble at this state's level is that discrimination against the obese hasn't been very high on anyone's radar screen. "We haven't even thought about it," says Jim O'Neill, spokesman for the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

If you ask the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union, they'll refer you to a briefing paper put out in 1998 that had more to do with discrimination against smokers and people with medical problems than with obesity.

According to those Rudd Center studies and reports, weight discrimination is present in hiring and promotion in the workplace, in schools and colleges, and in the health care system.

The federal government does consider someone who is morbidly obese (usually translated as weighing more than 100 percent of that individual's ideal weight) to be disabled and protected by federal law prohibiting discrimination against the disabled. (Generally, a person is considered obese if he or she is more than 20 percent over ideal weight.)

Only one state in the nation (Michigan) now outlaws discrimination against people because of their weight, and just six cities (none in Connecticut) have weight bias bans.

But the issue of obesity discrimination is at least beginning to get a bit of attention from Connecticut officials.

There is one bill now before Connecticut's General Assembly that aims to "provide a standard of care for persons who are obese and in need of health care." The trigger for that legislation is reports that some hospitals have turned away extremely heavy people because they don't have beds or other equipment large enough or strong enough to support or accommodate them.

A Rudd Center policy brief issued last month cited a survey of 2,449 overweight and obese women in which 69 percent reported experiencing bias against them on the part of doctors. The paper also mentioned a study that found 31 percent of nurses interviewed said they'd prefer not to care for obese patients.

State Rep. Susan Johnson is a Democrat from Windham and the new cochair of the legislature's Public Health Committee. She says that hospital-related bill is the first time the subject of any type of discrimination against the obese has come before her committee, and it is also her own first experience with the issue.

"We believe this is something that should be explored," she adds.

Given the statistics about obesity in Connecticut, that might be a real good idea.

Last September, a new report warned that the obesity rate in Connecticut is expected to rise from the 24.5 percent level it hit in 2011 to an astonishing 46.5 percent by 2030. One area that's been getting more and more attention of late is the idea of "food addiction," that some people are reacting to certain foods in the way addicts react to cocaine or alcohol or the nicotine in cigarettes.

Many of the same addiction symptoms apparently apply to food addicts: an inability to control cravings (especially for high-sugar and junk foods); an inability to kick the habit (through diets or weight-loss programs); depression and even suicidal thoughts because of an inability to lose weight. And food addicts don't have to be obese - normal weight and thin people, especially those who purge through vomiting or laxatives, can also be food addicts, researchers say.

The increasing emphasis on food addiction is one reason why Rudd Center experts decided to look at people's attitudes toward that term and how it relates to obesity. More than 1,200 people were interviewed about their attitudes toward different types of addictions.

One bit of good news is that the study found less bias against people labeled as food addicts than against people addicted to alcohol, cocaine or nicotine. The bad news was that once researchers attached the "food addict" designation to an obese person, the reaction from those being surveyed got significantly worse.

"The obese food addict received significantly higher ratings of anger/disgust and social distance than either obese or food addict labels" separately, according to the center's findings.

A separate report on how a person's body weight influences jurors' perceptions of guilt found major differences in the way defendants were judged in simulated trials.

"Male participants (as jurors) judged the obese female defendant as significantly guiltier than the lean female defendant," the study found. There was also evidence that obese female defendants were likely to be judged more harshly by jurors than obese male defendants.

Puhl adds that the center's research indicates "women appear to be more vulnerable (to bias) at lower levels of body weight" than men. "It speaks to how stringently society views female weight," she says.

"Obesity is an extremely complex condition," says Puhl. "It's going to require many different solutions."

Including, in all likelihood, some tougher state laws banning discrimination against the obese.

 

ghladky@newhavenadvocate.com

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