Last night, NBC's Dateline tackled the topic of pharmaceutical and weight-loss companies pumping obesity hysteria so they can cash in with pills, plans, and diet books. On one side was The Obesity Myth author Paul Campos, who hammered away at the financial conflicts of interest behind overblown rhetoric about the health consequences of love handles. When NBC needed to dole out equal time to an anti-obesity warrior, it called up David Heber, who "champions many" of Twinkie-tax father Kelly Brownell's ideas — which include obesity lawsuits, zoning restrictions on restaurants, and a "militant" attitude toward attacking food choices. Heber told Dateline: "I've been spending the past twenty years trying to increase the profile of obesity as a medical problem." But Heber, who typifies too many obesity researchers, has a lot more than time to spend, given the funding he's received hawking weight-loss plans and treatments. Heber has plenty to gain from hyping obesity. In a 2003 story titled "Supplemental Income," Forbes magazine reported:
When David Heber appeared recently on ABC's Good Morning America, viewers believed the noted nutritionist was pitching his new book, The L.A. Shape Diet. That wasn't the only item on his agenda. In whipping up a soy-milk-and-blueberry shake from Herbalife's ShapeWorks protein powder, Heber was also promoting the controversial dietary supplement company. Heber sits on Herbalife's newly created scientific advisory board, a perch he accepted around the time the multilevel marketer made a $3 million donation to the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA, where he is the director. Herbalife's money was well spent. The name of Heber's weight-loss plan and his book promote the company's signature product.
It's no surprise that Heber also sits on the scientific advisory board of the American Obesity Association (AOA), the pharmaceutical and weight-loss industry's influential lobbying arm. And Heber's outfit is one of eight Centers for Obesity Research and Education (CORE) funded by companies that benefit from obesity hysteria: Abbott Laboratories, Aventis Pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline, Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceuticals, Roche Laboratories, and Slim-Fast Foods — all of which are major AOA contributors. When there were calls to remove Abbot's weight-loss drug Meridia from the market, CORE issued a press release defending the pill — and its own financial sponsor. The release even cited a wildly bloated statistic: "A recent Harris Poll estimates that 85% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese" (for reference, anti-obesity zealots usually only exaggerate that figure to 65 percent). CORE went on to attack the role of personal responsibility, claiming: "In the medical community, the old notion that obesity is due to lack of willpower has been displaced by scientific evidence." Heber's obesity center has weight-loss-industry support beyond CORE and Herbalife. The Center hosts The S. Daniel Abraham/Slim Fast Foods Nutrition Research Kitchen and the Pharmanex Phytochemical Laboratory. Heber wrote a journal article titled "Dietary supplement or drug? The case for Cholestin" — an anti-cholesterol product made by Pharmanex. No wonder Heber dodged the question when Dateline asked him whether he and other presumed obesity experts are shills for the weight loss industry. Watch out for other directors of CORE centers known for hyping obesity. They include:
AOA advisory board member Xavier Pi-Sunyer, the well-funded obesity researcher who led the effort to re-classify 30 million Americans from "normal" to "overweight" without gaining an ounce — making them perfect marketing targets for the weight-loss industry.
AOA board member George Bray, whose ridiculous efforts to hawk anti-fat cream haven't prevented him from launching a scientifically groundless attack on high fructose corn syrup.
Caroline Apovian, who according to the Boston Globe said "only half-joking" that "to deal with our world today, we need Lipitor and an antiobesity drug and Prozac in our water." Apovian authored an anti-soda editorial in JAMA, which disclosed that she has receieved "honoraria or grants" from AOA sponsors Abbott and GlaxoSmithKline.