"How did the fight against fat reach this point?" asks a hard-hitting Seattle Times article by reporter Susan Kelleher this week. The answer, as we've been detailing for some time, is that there is an ongoing campaign to make obesity a "disease" — an effort driven by the pharmaceutical industry, which will profit from increased public fears of fat by selling weight-loss pills. As Kelleher states in her must-read report that echoes concerns we've highlighted time and again, "Some of the world's most prominent obesity experts, with backing from the drug industry and medical societies, defined obesity as a stand-alone 'disease' that caused premature death and needed to be treated with drugs." One way for the pharmaceutical industry to fill its own prescriptions for profit was to push for a redefinition of who's too plump. That's just what happened when a government panel, populated by researchers with ties to the weight-loss industry, changed the government's standard of "overweight" from a Body Mass Index of more than 27 down to 25. That decision cast more than 35 million Americans into the fat camp overnight, without those individuals gaining so much as an ounce. Kelleher notes:
It started more than a decade ago as drug companies and their scientific consultants increasingly promoted using a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 as the trigger point for when someone should be treated for obesity, including being prescribed weight-loss drugs … In May 1995, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) asked 24 experts to write guidelines for diagnosing and treating obesity. The expert panel officially defined obesity as a BMI of 30 or higher, and overweight as a BMI above 25 and below 30. The panel, which included the pharmacologist who created the phen-fen combo, was criticized for its ties to the drug and weight-loss industries.
Why are these guidelines, which carry the government's imprimatur, so important? Kelleher explains:
Industry-sponsored obesity experts continued to support treatment guidelines for obesity that included prescribing drugs. Guidelines are essentially detailed steps for doctors in diagnosing and treating an ailment, including recommended drugs to prescribe. The doctors who write guidelines are a powerful force in health care because their opinions become the blueprints that drug companies and medical societies use to teach doctors in the trenches how to prescribe newly approved drugs. Many of the doctors who supported Redux, including [George] Bray of Louisiana State University and others, worked on the obesity guidelines for the NIH and the World Health Organization.
The case of Redux, half of the "fen-phen" appetite-suppressant combination that was banned after its deadly side effects were uncovered, is a perfect example of how dubious obesity statistics are used to promote profitable pills. Kelleher notes that during the FDA hearings on the drug, one company:
… presented data showing an obesity pandemic and said desperate measures were required to stop it from prematurely killing 300,000 Americans a year. That controversial figure came from weight-loss experts and researchers who used epidemiological data from decades-old health studies to build the case that excess body fat was a crisis more urgent than even AIDS …
One of the leading obesity experts supporting Redux and the effort to classify obesity as a disease was Dr. George Bray, a physician and medical researcher at Louisiana State University. A consultant for numerous drug companies for more than three decades, Bray holds patents for such things as low-fat potato chips, a cream to reduce fat thighs, and treatment for metabolic disorders. Also at the hearing was a newly formed group, the American Obesity Association, which built a case for treating obesity as a chronic disease. Funded largely by drug companies, including two involved with Redux, the association was headed by Dr. Richard Atkinson, an internist who advocated gastric bypass for severe obesity and who later founded a company to test for what he believed might be an "obesity virus." At the hearing, the association positioned itself as a patient-advocacy organization, though it offered no patients to testify for the drug … Judith Stern, vice president of the American Obesity Association and a nutritionist at the University of California, Davis, was disappointed the panel members had not voted to approve Redux. Stern told reporters, "If they recommend 'no,' these doctors ought to be shot."