The Legalization of Fat: Law, Science, and the Construction of a Moral Panic


Over the past decade, American public health authorities have made increasingly alarming claims regarding how obesity is becoming the nation’s leading public health problem. These warnings have inspired a flurry of legislative, administrative, and judicial responses, and calls for further legal intervention are issuing constantly from obesity researchers and public health officials. This article surveys and critiques the sudden wave of attempts to use the American legal system to shrink the nation’s waistline The article demonstrates that the health risks associated with the populace’s fairly modest increasing average weight have been greatly exaggerated; that the causal links, if any, between body fat and disease are not well understood; and that attempts to make heavier than average people thinner almost always fail. One consequence of this failure is that the claim that significant long-term weight loss is medically beneficial remains an untested hypothesis. Therefore, attempts to use the legal system to make the population thinner are striving to achieve a presently unachievable goal of unknown medical efficacy. The article analyzes the sources of the nation’s obsession with thinness, and concludes that the current legalization of fat has little to do with science, and much more to do with the economic motivations of the weight loss industry, a culture beset by eating disordered thinking, and widespread anxieties about over-consumption in general. It recommends that scarce public health dollars be spent on interventions that actually benefit public health, rather than on futile and potentially dangerous attempts to use the legal system to make Americans thinner


Health Law and Policy

Date of this Version

March 2006