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Obese Scouts Not Welcome

According to the Boy Scouts of America, “The basic premise of Scouting for youth with disabilities and special needs is that they want most to participate like other youth—and Scouting gives them that opportunity.” Not if a scout is obese.

This week, in July 2013, scouts (and their leaders) with a BMI of 40 or higher (about 100 lbs overweight) have been barred from attending the ten-day National Jamboree in West Virginia. The Jamboree is one of the biggest events in scouting, held only every four years. Per the Scouting.org website, it’s “Over 10 days, there are exhibits, stadium shows with entertainment, opportunities to work on merit badges—there’s something for everybody,” but not if a scout is obese.

According to the CDC, approximately 17% (~12.5 million) of U.S. children aged 2-19 years are obese. Since 1980, the prevalence of obesity among American children and adolescents has almost tripled. With the AMA recently designating obesity as a disease, we now have a medically sanctioned responsibility to work toward curing that disease. We are charged with improving the health of our youth; yet, for some reason, it remains acceptable to discriminate against a certain population of that youth.

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) states that 656,100 children from age 4-20 in the U.S. had a visual disability in 2011. That means that there are almost 20 times more obese children than visually impaired children in America.

Would the Scouts allow a visually impaired child in a wheelchair to participate in the Jamboree? What if that child were disabled AND obese? The CDC states that obesity rates for children with disabilities are 38% higher than for children without disabilities. Where does one make the distinction between obesity and other impairments? Why is it socially acceptable to alienate obese children, when society deems it anathema to exclude children with other classified disabilities?

The idea that obesity is an entirely preventable condition, and can be eradicated with simple discipline is an outright falsehood. In 1992, the NIH consensus study on weight loss stated, “Increasing physiologic, biochemical, and genetic evidence suggests that overweight is not a simple problem of will power, as is sometimes implied, but is a complex disorder of appetite regulation and energy metabolism.”

We do not fully understand the intricate physiology and genetics that contribute to obesity, but that does not change the fact that we continue to discriminate against obese individuals.

As our national obesity rates continue to climb across all age and socio-economic populations, we must reevaluate how we treat obesity. Giving obesity the status of a disease is definitely a step in the right direction, but shaming and excluding people based on weight merely perpetuates loneliness, disaffectedness, and, inevitably, the disease process itself.

Matt Metz, MD, FACS, Eagle Scout