Potential Policies and Laws to Prohibit Weight Discrimination: Public Views from 4 Countries

December 2015 | Rebecca M. Puhl, Janet D. Latner, Kerry S. O’Brien, Joerg Luedicke, Sigrun Danielsdottir, Ximena Ramos Salas | Original Investigation

Policy Points:

  • Policies and legal protections against weight-based discrimination have broad public support in 4 nations where this discrimination is widely documented.
  • Public support was strongest for policies and laws that would prohibit employers from denying employment, assigning lower wages, and refusing promotion to people based on their weight status. Women and individuals with higher weight expressed the greatest support.
  • Weight discrimination is common in numerous life settings, creating social and economic inequities and adverse health outcomes. Policies and legal measures protecting against such discrimination need to be developed and implemented in the United States and elsewhere and would have considerable public support.

Context: People viewed as “overweight” or “obese” are vulnerable to weight-based discrimination, creating inequities and adverse health outcomes. Given the high rates of obesity recorded globally, studies documenting weight discrimination in multiple countries, and an absence of legislation to address this form of discrimination, research examining policy remedies across different countries is needed. Our study provides the first multinational examination of public support for policies and legislation to prohibit weight discrimination.

Methods: Identical online surveys were completed by 2,866 adults in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Iceland. We assessed public support for potential laws to prohibit weight-based discrimination, such as adding body weight to existing civil rights statutes, extending disability protections to persons with obesity, and instituting legal measures to prohibit employers from discriminating against employees because of body weight. We examined sociodemographic and weight-related characteristics predicting support for antidiscrimination policies, and the differences in these patterns across countries.

Findings: The majority of participants in the United States, Canada, and Australia agreed that their government should have specific laws in place to prohibit weight discrimination. At least two-thirds of the participants in all 4 countries expressed support for policies that would make it illegal for employers to refuse to hire, assign lower wages, deny promotions, or terminate qualified employees because of body weight. Women and participants with higher body weight expressed more support for antidiscrimination measures. Beliefs about the causes of obesity were also related to support for these laws.

Conclusions: Public support for legal measures to prohibit weight discrimination can be found in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Iceland, especially for laws to remedy this discrimination in employment. Our findings provide important information for policymakers and interest groups both nationally and internationally and can help guide discussions about policy priorities to reduce inequities resulting from weight discrimination.

Author(s): Rebecca M. Puhl, Janet D. Latner, Kerry S. O’Brien, Joerg Luedicke, Sigrun Danielsdottir, and Ximena Ramos Salas

Keywords: discrimination, obesity, legislation, culture

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Volume 93, Issue 4 (pages 691–731)
DOI: 10.1111/1468-0009.12162
Published in 2015