Is discrimination on the basis of Body Mass Index fair?

The term Body Mass Index (BMI) has quickly become the unofficial scientific measure for assessing obesity, some employers have been refusing applicants on the basis of BMI which measures weight according to height.

A study conducted recently by Yale University in the USA found that weight discrimination is more common than discrimination based on sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical disability and religious beliefs.

A recent case where a company has used BMI as recruiting criteria has caught the eye of the public in here in the United kingdom. A public transport company in Northern Island had been quite active in pushing for female bus driver applications in their marketing. Marie Parker had over 20 years experience of driving a bus in the Gloucestershire area, and was originally from Northern Ireland, she applied hoping to relocate back to her place of birth. Amazingly the bus company refused her application on the basis of her BMI. The company went on to suggest in writing that they would re-consider if she lost weight. Marie parker was stunned - she weighed 12 stone and naturally did not see this as a factor in her ability to do the job.

BBC five live hosted a live phone in to debate the issue, posting a picture of Marie Parker on its website. When confronted by presenter Stephen Nolan Marketing manager Ciaran Rogan said that the company was not being unreasonable. "When we recruit bus drivers we have to have some sort of medical assessment and there's cut off criteria for that," he told the show. He declined to comment if the company would dismiss bus drivers who became overweight once they were in post.

Is BMI an indicator of poor health? Some would argue not. If for example a person had a high body mass due to increased muscle, this would indicate the opposite of poor health, rendering the assumption unfair in particular cases.

Another grey area stems from the BMI test, what if in cases of severe obesity, are considered a disability. Currenty discrimination according to weight is not illegal, but under this definition it very well could be. There are other medical conditions that can interfere with someones ability to do a job, where do we draw the line between disability and inability?

Its not just employment discrimination that is the problem here, BMI is becoming a concern for the insurance industry. Insurance companies can refuse coverage, or charge a higher premium. Medical insurance companies almost universally use underwriting procedures that take BMI into account.

It remains to be seen if BMI led discrimination is legally challenged, or defined. However many would not begrudge Marie Parker for feeling hard done by.

Posted by, Asif Yusuf



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