Filed Under: Big Fat Lies

Obesity Statistics Seriously Flawed

Testifying at a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hearing on obesity yesterday, the Center for Consumer Freedom discussed how the three most commonly used statistics associated with the so-called obesity epidemic are all seriously flawed. The three faulty statistics are: 1) that obesity causes 300,000 deaths per year; 2) that 61 percent of Americans are overweight or obese; and 3) that the economic cost of obesity is $117 billion a year. As our testimony pointed out, even the Federal Register notice of the FDA hearing cited two of these three numbers. We've told you before that the respected New England Journal of Medicine editorialized in 1998 that "although 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 300,000 statistic is] "derived from weak [and] incomplete data." Likewise, the assertion that 61 percent of Americans are overweight or obese ignores the 1998 redefinition that took the counterintuitive step of judging men and women by the same standard, and that made more than 30 million Americans overweight overnight, including the very fit President of the United States. And the "$117 billion" figure? Most food cops and nutrition zealots say it comes from the Surgeon General, but as CCF's testimony revealed, the original source is a study published in the March 1998 issue of the journal Obesity Research. Announcing the $117 billion figure, the Surgeon General cited this one article. The Obesity Research study has serious limitations, as the authors themselves admit: "We are still uncertain about the actual amount of health utilization associated with overweight and obesity," they explain. "Height and weight are not included in many of the primary data sources…" The authors also define obesity incorrectly, writing: "The current estimate of the cost of obesity defines obesity as a BMI greater than or equal to 29." Obesity is actually defined as a BMI greater than or equal to 30. Thus the authors erroneously included the economic cost of individuals with a BMI between 29 and 30, which is more than 10 million Americans. Finally, the authors acknowledge that even if other data flaws were corrected, their methodology resulted in double or triple counting the costs of obesity: "Our model assumes that coronary heart-disease, hypertension, and diabetes occur independently. However, we know that there is some interdependence among these disease states, especially in obese patients. Thus, calculating the cost of obesity as it related to these diseases independently would inflate the cost estimate." (emphasis added) We must also point out that Obesity Research is published by an organization with an interest in making the "obesity epidemic" seem as costly as possible. The North American Association for the Study of Obesity (NAASO) is funded primarily by pharmaceutical companies that would greatly benefit from official "disease" status being conferred on obesity so insurance plans will cover their anti-obesity drugs. Just before the $117 billion study was accepted for publication in the fall of 1997, the president of NAASO admitted: "most of our donations come from a number of pharmaceutical companies." Predictably, the group wants more federal funding for "obesity research." Our FDA presentation argued that the national debate on obesity has become "nothing short of hysterical. And around every corner is a hidden agenda." Our first example? A group we exposed earlier this month, which shares a great deal with NAASO. We noted: "Pharmaceutical interests, like the American Obesity Association — which we heard from earlier today — promote an alarmist view of the problem, in order to justify increased government support and promotion of new obesity drugs."

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