Ellen Ruppel Shell, whose recent book The Hungry Gene has garnered, at best, mixed reviews since its release, writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that “each year, obesity claims about 300,000 lives.” This week the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reprinted Ruppel Shell’s rant about how “Big Food” promotes obesity. She dismisses claims that weight is a consequence of personal choices, instead referring to obesity as a “tragedy of the commons.”

You may remember that twinkie-tax advocate and Food Politics author Marion Nestle has also liberally tossed the “300,000” number around.

An Associated Press story printed in Monday’s Chicago Tribune echoes Ruppel Shell and Nestle, claiming that “about 300,000 deaths a year are associated with being overweight and obese.” Yesterday’s San Antonio Express-News shouts the same dire warning: “obesity is blamed for more than 300,000 deaths a year.”

From ABC to CBS, scores of media outlets have dutifully reported this year that 300,000 of us die annually from being too fat. But is it true? Here’s the rub: that number has been floating around for years, and even fooled Dr. David Satcher, then U.S. Surgeon General. But it just isn’t so.

Says who? The esteemed New England Journal of Medicine. In a 1998 commentary, the Journal wrote that “the data linking overweight and death…are limited, fragmented and often ambiguous.… [A]lthough some claim that every year 300,000 deaths in the United States are caused by obesity, that figure is by no means well established.” The magic number “300,000” (says the Journal) is “derived from weak [and] incomplete data.”

A modest question: why is the Center for Science in the Public Interest still claiming that “obesity causes an estimated 300,000 premature deaths each year”? That kind of bombast probably sells a lot of newsletter subscriptions, but it typifies CSPI’s often strained relationship with the truth.