While obesity is a genuine national problem today, special interests and trial lawyers have promoted hysteria about the issue in order to advance their own political and financial interests. These efforts include frequent citation of inflated health care costs and obesity-related deaths, according to testimony today by The Center for Consumer Freedom at a public hearing of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Obesity Working Group.

The three most commonly-cited statistics associated with the obesity epidemic are 1) that obesity causes 300,000 American deaths per year; 2) that 61 percent of Americans are overweight or obese; and 3) that the economic cost of American obesity is $117 billion a year. The Federal Register notice of today’s FDA hearing cited two of these three numbers. All three are seriously flawed.

  • 300,000 U.S. deaths are attributable to excess weight. The truth is that “the data linking overweight and death … are limited, fragmented and often ambiguous.” That’s from an editorial published by the respected New England Journal of Medicine in January 1998, questioning the increasingly frantic rhetoric about obesity as a public health problem.
  • Obesity costs Americans $117 billion per year. The original source of this claim was a study published in the March 1998 issue of the journal Obesity Research, whose authors themselves admit: “We are still uncertain about the actual amount of health utilization associated with overweight and obesity,” explaining that “height and weight are not included in many of the primary data sources.” Furthermore, the authors defined 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 Obesity Research study erroneously included the economic cost of individuals with a BMI between 29 and 30. That’s more than ten million Americans.
  • 61 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. The definition of overweight used by the U.S. government was arbitrarily changed in 1998, following political pressure brought by the World Health Organization. The definition that we abandoned in 1998 had the virtue of distinguishing between men and women — something our current definition does not do. And the 1998 redefinition re-classified more than 30 million Americans as “overweight.” They literally went to sleep one night at a government-approved weight, and woke up “overweight.”