A European Union law barring job discrimination against the disabled may apply to extremely obese people, an adviser to Europe’s top court said on Thursday.
The non-binding opinion concerns the dismissal of Karsten Kaltoft, a child-minder, by a Danish city council in 2010. Kaltoft argued that his obesity was part of the reason he lost his job and that it amounted to unfair discrimination, an allegation that Billund city council denies.
The Court of Justice of the European Union was asked to rule on whether EU law forbids discrimination on the grounds of obesity and if obesity can be considered a disability.
The advocate general, who advises the European court in Luxembourg, found that EU law does not prohibit discrimination specifically on the grounds of obesity, even if it does offer general protection against bias on the grounds of disability.
But Niilo Jaaskinen, the advocate general, did conclude that extreme obesity, classified as having a body mass index (BMI) of more than 40, could be considered a disability.
“If obesity has reached such a degree that it plainly hinders participation in professional life, then this can be a disability,” Jaaskinen said.
Extreme obesity can shorten people’s lives by 12 years
Extremely obese people - those who are 80 or more pounds over a normal weight - live three to 12 fewer years than their normal-weight peers, a new study shows.
Just being overweight or moderately obese, however, has little or no effect on life span, the research found. The finding adds to the growing body of evidence that being slightly overweight may have no influence on life expectancy, but being severely overweight trims years off people’s lives.
Overall, about 66% of adults in the USA are either overweight or obese. About one-third of people are in the obese category, meaning they have a body mass index of 30 or greater.
Body mass index, or BMI, is a measure based on height and weight. About 6% of people are extremely obese - that is, they have a BMI of 40 or greater.
Economists with RTI International, a non-profit research organization in Research Triangle Park, N.C., analyzed national data on 366,000 people. Among the findings being published online in the journal Obesity:
• Overall, excess weight was responsible for the loss of roughly 95 million years of life in the USA in 2008.
• Non-smokers who are obese - those who are about 30 or more pounds over a healthy weight - have a shorter life span by a year or less.
• Non-smokers who are overweight - about 29 pounds over a healthy weight - do not have shortened lives.
• Smoking takes a toll, too, and very heavy smokers are affected most. An 18-year-old white male who is normal weight and does not smoke can expect to live to age 81. If he’s extremely obese and a smoker, his life expectancy is 60, a difference of 21 years.
BMI is an indicator of obesity which takes into account a person’s weight and height. Kaltoft never weighed less than 160 kg (352 lbs) during his employment, meaning he had a BMI of 54, the advocate general said.
Recommendations from advocates general are usually followed by the court, which will consider the Kaltoft case over the next few months.
In his opinion, Jaaskinen said that even where the condition does not affect a person’s ability to carry out a specific job, it can still make it harder compared to other people, therefore making it a disability.
Furthermore, Jaaskinen threw out the notion that a “self-inflicted” disability could be any less worthy of protection, saying “the origin of the disability is irrelevant”.
“(It) does not depend on whether the applicant has contributed causally to the acquisition of his disability through “self-inflicted” excessive energy intake,” he added.
If the EU court upholds Jaaskinen’s view, it would be up to a Danish court to decide whether Kaltoft’s obesity met this definition.
By Julia Fioretti