Monday, May 9, 2005

Obesity hysteria recently collapsed under its own weight. But the public health establishment, media and politicians are doing their best to revive it.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study in the April 20 Journal of the American Medical Association that estimated the net death toll attributable to obesity at 25,814 per year.

This, of course, was quite a downward revision from CDC’s March 2004 claim obesity caused about 400,000 deaths yearly, approaching smoking’s estimated toll. Readers of this column learned then the 400,000-estimate was quite faulty and it’s rather refreshing to see the CDC admit it was wrong.

But don’t expect the 93.5 percent reduction in the size of the scare to have any measurable effect on the obesity industry’s momentum.

When the new study was published, CDC chief Dr. Julia Gerberding told the Associated Press the agency won’t scale back its anti-obesity campaign which, by the way, won’t mention the new reduced death toll estimate. “There’s absolutely no question that obesity is a major public health concern of this country,” Dr. Gerberding insisted. The translation, of course, is CDC gets plenty of taxpayer funding to promote the obesity scare and it’s not giving it back.

In the wake of the new study, the Center for Consumer Freedom, a group “promoting personal responsibility and consumer choice,” took out full-page ads in several major daily newspapers depicting the “Obesity Epidemic” as shrinking over the last year to a “Problem,” then to a “Threat,” then to an “Issue,” and finally to just “Hype.”

Though The Washington Post was happy to take $100,000 or so from the Center to run the ad, the newspaper apparently wasn’t too happy about the message. Several days after the ad ran, The Post published a long story on front-page of its Business section knocking the Center for Consumer Freedom as the tool of the restaurant industry.

Adding insult to injury a few days later, The Post in an editorial ridiculed the Center for Consumer Freedom’s ad as a “scandal.”

“A group actually calling itself the Center for Consumer Freedom did buy $600,000 worth of advertising in The Post and elsewhere last week calling the links between obesity and mortality ‘hype’ fostered by the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In principle, these advertisements are no less of a scandal: The high cost of diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses is not in dispute, any more than is the cost of tobacco-related illnesses. Obesity rates in the United States have more than doubled in the past 30 years and have tripled among children,” The Post said.

Note how The Post actually tried the old trick of changing the subject, shifting the focus from the CDC’s bogus estimate of 400,000 deaths to perhaps equally dubious “facts” about childhood obesity. What’s really scandalous, though, is how The Post kept the Center’s money while disparaging it.

Former President Clinton joined the obesity fray this week announcing a joint campaign with the American Heart Association to encourage children to have healthy diets and to be physically active — both worthy goals.

But Mr. Clinton stepped into obesity hype when he said, “The truth is that children born today could become part of the first generation in American history to live shorter lives than their parents because so many are eating too much of the wrong things and not exercising enough.” The reality is quite different.

First, there is little evidence to support the notion otherwise healthy adults have shorter lifespans simply because they may be overweight. In fact, the new CDC study reported adults merely “overweight” actually live longer on average than adults who are of “normal weight.”

Next, there is absolutely no evidence to support the notion that, for otherwise healthy children, childhood weight determines or affects longevity.

Perhaps worse than any weight problem that may or may not exist, is the obesity scare industry, consisting of government regulators, the media, politicians, and various nonprofit groups. Regardless of the facts, these groups have a vested interest — mainly at taxpayer expense — in maintaining the fiction Americans are eating themselves to death.

Perhaps many of us should eat less and exercise more. But we should also put the obesity industry on a steady diet of fewer taxpayer dollars and more truth-telling.

Steven Milloy publishes and, is adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and is the author of “Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams” (Cato Institute, 2001).

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