One would be forgiven for thinking CDC stands for Center for Damage Control. Just a year after its widely-publicized and exceedingly controversial announcement that excess weight kills 400,000 Americans annually, the agency is rumbling, bumbling, stumbling toward an explanation for a new study that says the real figure is just 26,000.

In the past few years, the federal government has waged an all out war to scare Americans about our so-called “obesity epidemic.” The Surgeon General says it’s just as dangerous as the threat of terrorism. A leading Harvard expert compares obesity to a massive tsunami heading toward American shores. The director of the CDC called it worse than the Black Death.

Unfortunately, trial lawyers who see dollar signs where the rest of us see dinner have seized on the CDC’s 400,000 deaths number to justify their frivolous crusades.

Now word comes from experts within the CDC that excess weight is about one-fifteenth as dangerous as previously thought, and has a lower death toll than diseases like septicemia and nephritis. Each death is of course tragic. But has anyone heard of the septicemia “epidemic” or the nephritis “tsunami”?

It turns out that the 70 million Americans who are technically “overweight” have no increased mortality risk. The real problems occur only among the small percentage of Americans with a Body Mass Index of 35 or more. To put that in perspective, “fat actress” Kirstie Alley and “fat adult actress” Anna Nicole Smith both had a BMI of 31 — before they lost weight.

Shortly after the 400,000 study was published, Science magazine reported on a storm within CDC’s headquarters. Many top researchers warned a political agenda to exaggerate the risk of obesity had trumped scientific concerns. Debate was suppressed, and at least one agency expert said he feared speaking out would cost him his job.

An internal investigation was launched soon thereafter. The CDC buried a summary of its findings on their website, and requests for the full report have gone unfulfilled. But the overview does acknowledge, “the fundamental scientific problem centers around the limitations in both the data and the methodology.”

In January the CDC disclosed that a small mathematical error had artificially raised their 400,000 estimate by 35,000 deaths. Some admission. If NASA operated this way, Neal Armstrong would be landing on Pluto about now.

What’s the difference between the original 400,000 statistic and the updated 26,000 figure? Primarily, it’s that the new study uses more recent data. The 400,000 number took data from as long ago as 1948 and didn’t adjust for improved medical care. Those who were able to complete high-school math and noted this problem months ago can claim some measure of vindication.

Unbelievably, the CDC had the more recent data readily available on its own computers. The CDC collects that data. Why didn’t they use it? No one is saying.

Now a CDC scientist who co-authored the original 400,000 deaths estimate admits the new number is “a step forward.” Yet the agency’s official position is that it will take no position. The CDC proclaims the science is too new, debates about methodology “detract from the real issue,” and we shouldn’t focus so much on obesity deaths anyway. Funny. It didn’t have any of these quibbles when it announced the 400,000 number and said obesity would soon become the number one cause of preventable death.

It’s said that a lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. Well, the truth about obesity is finally lacing up. And that’s bad news for trial lawyers pursuing obesity lawsuits against food and beverage companies as well as the self-appointed diet dictators seeking extra taxes on foods they don’t like.