Back in 2020, we profiled Donna Harris, an occupational therapist, personal trainer, and aspiring nutrition educator in IWF’s storytelling series, Chasing Work. We have an exciting update: In a stunning and well-deserved victory, Harris took on her state’s unfair occupational licensing rules, and won!
After being urged by her personal training clients to give them nutrition advice alongside their training, Harris wrote a program to help her clients lose weight and keep it off.
Harris used her background of a bachelor’s degree in nutrition to pull together publicly-available nutritional advice into a program for clients. She never claimed to be a dietician, and was clear in her materials that she was only offering general nutritional advice for healthy people, not those with medical issues.
Despite her caution, the Mississippi State Health Department came after Harris, claiming that she was working as an unlicensed dietician. They threatened her with a variety of punishments including six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines if she didn’t stop her program.
Frightened, Harris tried to understand the reason she was being targeted. She was told that state regulators allow anyone to give general nutrition advice. But those same regulators couldn’t explain exactly what that meant. Harris worked to update her website and materials to further reflect that she was not a licensed dietician but the state still shut her down. Harris closed her program and refunded her clients, losing nearly $7,000 in the process.
The Wall Street Journal explains that if Harris had sought a dietician’s license at the start of her program, “she would have had to undergo 1,200 hours of supervised practice and pay $300 for exams and fees.”
But Harris didn’t roll over. Instead, she partnered with the Mississippi Justice Institute and sued, claiming that their draconian rules amounted to “government censorship of speech in the age-old topic of weight loss.”
Now the Wall Street Journal reports that Harris has reached an agreement with the health department:
Effective May 16, the Mississippi State Department of Health will no longer require residents who don’t claim to be dieticians to get a dietician’s license before they can offer non-medical weight-control services.
Aaron Rice, the director of Mississippi Justice Institute said:
Allowing people to speak freely about general health and nutrition is a no-brainer, especially in a state like ours that struggles with obesity. The government should not be able to give any group a monopoly on speech about a common, everyday topic, like what food we should buy at the grocery store if we want to stay healthy or drop a few pounds. This new regulation will increase Mississippians’ access to important information about their health, while allowing more Mississippians to use their skills and knowledge to earn an honest living and provide for their families.
As for Harris, she is ready to restart her program and get back to helping her clients:
Being told I couldn’t [share my knowledge of nutrition], and made to feel like I was some sort of criminal for trying to, was terrible. I can’t wait to start my own weight-loss program again and to witness the results and joy that I can help my customers achieve.
Such a common-sense policy shouldn’t have to be forced out of a health department at court. As the Journal notes:
Occupational licensing laws are a form of guild protectionism that reduces competition and blocks millions from making a better living. Congrats to Ms. Harris on this victory over petty government tyranny.