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Overweight? Johnson & Johnson’s Dream Is Your Worst Nightmare

Do you know whether heartburn pills are safe for long-term use?

Every time I think wellness promoters can’t possibly match their previous shock-and-awe levels of egregious statements and proposals, they come through with another one.  This post is from the employee’s viewpoint. To see it from the employer’s viewpoint, view the posting on the Proposed Johnson & Johnson Fat Tax. That company wants corporate America to pay them to count the number of overweight employees a corporation has.

PS  Obviously we don’t have any money to oppose this with, so please share it on social media.

Suppose there were:  (1) a widely held but false perception that gays had lower productivity and higher healthcare costs than straights; (2) false literature that companies with gay conversion programs outperformed the stock market; and (3) a proposal that companies disclose to shareholders the percentage of gays they employ.

Obviously, many corporate CEOs would stop hiring gays, de facto require gay conversion among current employees, and fire gays who failed the program, in order to maximize stock price and hence their own net worth.

Preposterous? Of course, but if Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Vitality Group and a few pharmaceutical companies get their way, this exact same scenario will befall overweight employees.  Indeed, two-thirds of this dystopian scenario is already in place:

  1. Despite proof to the contrary, the popular misperception is that working-age thin people have higher productivity and spend less on healthcare than working-age overweight people;
  2. To help bring weight discrimination into the boardroom, some wellness apologists — led by Ron Goetzel, of course — published a facile and misleading study in a third-tier journal (that had already admitted poor peer review practices) showing companies with wellness programs (the obesity equivalent of gay conversion in ineffectiveness, and almost as likely to harm participants) outperformed the stock market. The opposite is actually true, if one uses sector indexes as benchmarks. (This is the correct methodology with small numbers of companies concentrated in a few industries.  And it’s the correct result given the fact that conventional “pry, poke and prod” wellness loses money, period.)

To complete this trifecta of weight discrimination, all that remains is to convince publicly traded corporations to disclose the weight of their employees…and that’s exactly what this cabal — led by J&J and Vitality —  proposed at Davos.  (They also want companies to disclose their stress levels. I have no idea how one measures stress. The one company that tried measuring stress, Keas, failed both miserably–and, this being the wellness industry, hilariously.)

Weight measures used by companies are also facile and misleading.  Typically — as with Vitality Group, an outspoken advocate of this proposed regulation — they use the Body Mass Index, or BMI. The BMI was invented by a mathematician 200 years ago, using a simplistic formula that he could never really justify…and yet has been the de facto standard for measuring overweight ever since. It’s misleading along many dimensions. Further, it now turns out that the whole workplace BMI obsession might be pointless, as people with normal BMIs are at higher risk than people with high BMIs, if their weight is distributed badly.  Most recently, it’s been shown to be just plain wrong, doing a horrible disservice to overweight people and, in some workplaces, costing them money,

While I can’t explain why PepsiCo would be signing on other than for corporate image reasons, the agendas of J&J and Vitality are quite clear: disclosing weight to shareholders would encourage publicly traded companies to use “pry, poke and prod” workplace wellness services, which they coincidentally happen to provide.  (The drug companies involved, such as Novo Nordisk, stand to benefit from selling more drugs.)

Unintended Ironies: A Hallmark of Wellness  

Ironically, though, during that same Davos meeting, Vitality also candidly admitted that their wellness services don’t work even in the best-case scenario of their own employees.  That admission undermines the entire fiction that this scheme would somehow benefit the employees being fat-shamed.

Here is another irony.  (One hallmark of the wellness industry is its obliviousness to its own many ironies.) This industry thrives on being totally unregulated — uniquely in healthcare, wellness companies and individuals face no licensing, education, training, oversight or certification requirements.  Consequently they can and do get away with whatever they want. And yet now they want every other company to make more disclosures in regulated filings, for no purpose other than enhancing their own bottom lines.

Still another irony: The prime schemer behind this initiative, David Yach of Vitality, assured STATNews that existing laws would prevent employees from bring fired due to weight. But “existing laws” don’t prevent anything in wellness now. A federal court says it’s fine to deny insurance to employees for failing to participate in wellness. And despite flouting federal health guidelines with impunity, no wellness vendor has ever been prosecuted for doing things to employees that would get doctors sent to jail.  And as Health Fitness Corporation learned, you can lie to states as much as you want about anything — including saving the lives of cancer victims who don’t have cancer — and not be prosecuted. Indeed, no wellness company or program has ever been successfully prosecuted or sued for anything under “existing laws.”

The Inevitable Result: Institutionalized Weight Discrimination

Many things in life have unforeseeable consequences. However, the consequence here is perfectly foreseeable:  If you are overweight or especially if you are obese, you should be able to keep your current job if your company likes your work. But your chances of getting hired anew by a publicly traded company — if you are competing for the job with an almost-but-not-quite-equally qualified thin person — would nosedive.

I rarely editorialize in this blog, because I don’t have to — facts are the wellness industry’s worst nightmare.  (See the Vitality example above.  I don’t need to come out and say they’re clueless. I merely highlight the data they themselves helpfully provided to make that conclusion self-evident.)  However, I’ll make an exception here: I find it appalling that J&J, Vitality, and Novo Nordisk advocate subjecting huge numbers of employees to institutionalized discrimination and to programs that they admit don’t work, simply to make a few bucks.




  1. Ryan says:

    Vitality is the vendor of choice for my current employer. I’ve seen first hand the weight cycling promoting initiatives as well as the lack of results. All this despite a new streamlined website they guaranteed would improve engagement. [note: this comment was added by me (Al) here — it originally appeared on the previous post but is equally applicable here and was added late enough to the other post that readers might not have seen it]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Marissa says:

    J&J and Vitality’s behavior is shocking on multiple levels–stupidity, arrogance, and insensitivity come to mind. Probably more levels but it’s late and I’m going to bed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mitch says:

    These programs have the added consequence of being highly discriminatory again non-whites and the less well off. A dream program for racists and classists.


  4. SamIam says:

    Al, as you know I am a security analyst and there is no way I would view having what you call a “pry,poke and prod” wellness program as a positive when evaluating purchase of shares. It shows complete disrespect for employees and a failure to understand arithmetic. we have one in our own organization and it is universally considered a joke.


  5. Tom Emerick says:

    J&J is nuts. What about all the skinny “frequent flyers”, “fat file patients”, “worried well”, and others who grossly overuse healthcare for frivolous reasons? All my career I saw categories of employees who were not obese and had no chronic conditions but were spending $20k or so a year on healthcare. Example: ER visits for common colds and sniffles.


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Hi Tom, thanks for this comment. Gross overuse is a far more costly line item than weight. But there’s no money in reducing overuse. Except at . That is part of our business model and there is so much of it that we can 100% guarantee savings.


  6. Mary says:

    I’d love to hear J&J and Vitality defend themselves.


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Good luck with that. Vitality’s own program doesn’t work on its own employees. And they want to rely on “existing laws” to protect against discrimination despite the fact that no law has ever protected an employee from discrimination or even harms in wellness programs.


  7. George D. Burns says:

    I think that I now know why these corporations are pushing Wellness programs. I had this epiphany when I read the court opinion in a recent case EEO vs Flambeau.

    Corporation have reaped as much as possible from their retirees through FAS 106 and 109 (now ASC 740). Reducing or canceling promised benefits have also been exhausted. The benefits from converting DB Pension Plans to Cash Balance Plans have been exhausted. Those wells are now dry.

    The shifting of healthcare coststo employees by promoting HDHP backfired after a few years. So a new way to shift the cost to the employees had to be found. Wellness or else provides the answer. They can now force the information out of the employees so as to get around HIPAA and any state privacy issues or insurer/TPA reluctance and then use this data to price their health plans in their favor.


  8. Robert Stone says:

    The fact that these kinds of nonsense programs, claims, and abuses exist is in significant part a reflection of the fact that the industry refuses to regulate itself. After all, Even Al believes there are some we’ll run and effective programs out there. But, they get buried in the homogenization that the industry allows to exist, despite the fact that they do so to their own detriment.

    It’s long past time for PHA to step up in this issue. It’s also long past time for me to win the lottery too 🤔


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Thanks for the comment. The only word I take issue with is “believe.” I look at and see some names that have statements accompanying them about their validity, statements that have never been challenged. Examples: US Preventive Medicine, Healthways, Evolent, Quantum. The statements are as valid as statements come.


  9. Eileen Peterson says:

    I am slightly underweight myself, but I am outraged by this proposal.


  10. Weight Discrimination or Sexual Preference Discrimination is wrong and these companies should know this. I’m trying to figure out how they are going to keep the shareholders advised on the weight of their employees…. are they weighing all of their employees monthly, quarterly or yearly to report this to shareholders??? Every time I think we have made some progress in Weight Discrimination than something awful like this comes up…. sad and frustrating.


  11. Michelle Raiford says:

    This seems both discriminatory and a violation of privacy. I would definitely boycott products from companies that adopt such policies.


  12. Krisna Hanks says:

    Shameful is the first word that comes to mind, and to think they use the word “wellness” in their offerings and promotions. Where is this train wreck heading? And as a previous individual mentioned, there will undoubtedly be more lower income and persons of minorities affected by this type of irrational behavior. Having personally experienced a Vitality program I can honestly say I was no more enlightened on a “healthier path” than if I had read the back of a cereal box.


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Thanks Krisna. The first word that comes to my mind (and the second and the third) probably can’t be shared in a family publication such as They Said What…


  13. […] January 24, 2016: Johnson & Johnson, Vitality Group, and some pharmaceutical companies are trying to use false data and shoddy studies to sell companies on a justification for even more job discrimination for fat people as a means to sell “wellness” programs. […]


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