A recently completed internal investigation has revealed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s calculation of 400,000 deaths caused each year by obesity was flawed to its core, and that the agency ran roughshod over its own scientists. The CDC has thus far failed to publicly acknowledge the extent of its colossal error.

Ever since the CDC made its faulty announcement last year that obesity would overtake smoking as the nation’s leading cause of preventable death, powerful special interests have made a rallying cry out of the 400,000 deaths figure. That includes trial lawyers who see obesity as their next cash cow, as well as pharmaceutical companies desperate to have government health-care programs cover their diet drugs.

Unbeknownst to these obesity-hyping weight loss gurus, lawyers and activists, a storm was brewing at the CDC’s Atlanta headquarters. Respected experts found their objections to the 400,000 figure ignored. As the agency’s new internal report puts it, these scientists “were not convinced that their perspectives were listened to or that requests for data were acknowledged.” One skeptical CDC researcher told Science magazine he feared that speaking out would cost him his job.

Months before the CDC’s well-publicized announcement, two studies that undermined the logic of the 400,000 statistic were submitted for publication in major medical journals. Written by a group of obesity experts at the CDC, these critiques suggested the death figure could be off by an order of magnitude.

“We urge caution in the use of current estimates of the number of deaths attributable to obesity,” one paper concluded diplomatically. A separate article in Harvard Health Policy Review was more blunt: “The major problem with the ‘obesity kills’ statistic is the lack of compelling evidence to substantiate it.”

While government officials insist America is suffering from an epidemic of obesity, it’s more like an epidemic of obesity myths. For instance, you may have heard that 65 percent of adults are overweight or obese. Just like the 400,000 number, this grossly overstated figure is the product of a researcher with uncomfortably close ties to drug companies.

One night in 1998, 30 million Americans went to bed a “normal” weight and woke up the next morning officially “overweight.” It wasn’t due to midnight snacking. It was the result of a grand redefinition, which vastly expanded the potential market for prescription diet pills and landed the likes of Will Smith, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant and President Bush in the “overweight” category.

The pharmaceutical industry’s strategy to exaggerate the problem of obesity paid off in July when federal regulators, citing the inflated statistics, announced that Medicare would consider covering anti-obesity drugs and treatments. Will they reconsider now that the CDC itself says the 400,000 deaths statistic suffers from a “fundamental scientific problem”?

Having given its imprimatur to what it surely knew was a big fat lie, the CDC must fully retract its fatally flawed study. That may upset every interest banking on misplaced hysteria about obesity. But it will help restore faith in what stood until recently as the nation’s most respected government institution.

The Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.