Sunday, May 1, 2005

When did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention become more of a political than scientific agency? A good reference point could be when the CDC began creating “epidemics” like obesity that could only be “cured” with vast government resources. Last year the CDC captured headlines with a study that claimed 400,000 Americans die each year from obesity-related diseases, and CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding equated obesity with the Black Plague. Now, however, a new study conducted by researchers from the CDC and the National Institutes of Health places the estimated deaths at 26,000 — one-fifteenth the earlier estimate.

The far-less-apocalyptic numbers confirm many of the suspicions outside groups — and internal CDC researchers — had of the original study, which they criticized for its sloppy methodology. But the problem is not one of numbers. Health studies are notoriously fickle. Americans are bombarded with new studies telling them how to live a healthier life — and more often than not these new guidelines conflict with each other. For example, despite everything we’ve been hearing, the new study has found that being a little overweight is in fact good for you. Well, we’re not about to bust out the doughnuts or cancel our gym memberships. Likewise, the fact that a much lower number of Americans are dying every year from obesity doesn’t mean being obese isn’t a significant health risk.

The question, rather, is whether a government agency is justified in hyping a problem to achieve a political — and perhaps healthier — end. Back in March 2004, Dr. Gerberding warned that obesity would soon overtake smoking as the top preventable cause of death. Soon afterward nanny-state politicians demanded that government force Americans to lead healthier lives because obesity was an “epidemic.” Meanwhile, the CDC ignored mounting questions about the study’s methodology and dismissed reports that CDC researchers had been silenced for raising concerns. This comment from CDC chief science officer Dr. Dixie Snider in February is particularly revealing: “We cannot and should not let this discussion of scientific methodology detract from the real issue.”

It’s interesting to note how quickly things change. Dr. Snider has said the CDC won’t endorse the new study because “we’re still too early in the science.” Dr. Gerberding says that “because of the uncertainty in calculating the health effects of being overweight, the CDC is not going to use the brand new figure of 25,814 in its public-awareness campaigns” and will not scale back its fight against obesity. Suddenly, everyone is a responsible scientist again.

The CDC as a scientific organization cannot continue in this fashion. In its quest for political power, the agency threatens to seriously damage its credibility.

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