CDC playing politics over obesity

Leaders at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were criticized by The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) today for playing politics over obesity.

The nation's leading research institution on disease is refusing to endorse a new study conducted by its own researchers on obesity-attributable deaths. The new data repudiates an earlier, highly publicized CDC report that turned out to be grossly exaggerated, riddled with errors, and the subject of much controversy and dissent among scientists within the agency.

In a March 2004 news conference, the CDC rushed to publish an alarming report suggesting that obesity killed 400,000 Americans each year and was poised to become the number one preventable killer in the U.S. CDC Director Julie Gerberding later compared obesity to the Black Death. The highly publicized 400,000 deaths figure resulted in alarming front page headlines across the country and has driven calls for frivolous obesity lawsuits and knee-jerk policymaking.

Two months later, Science magazine reported on the 400,000 deaths figure: "Some researchers, including a few at the CDC, dismiss this prediction, saying the underlying data are weak. They argue that the paper's compatibility with a new anti-obesity theme in government public health pronouncements -- rather than sound analysis -- propelled it into print."

As the controversy escalated and the threat of a General Accounting Office investigation was issued, the CDC later admitted it made serious errors in its 400,000 figure and revised it downward. But the story didn't end there. An internal CDC investigative report, buried on the agency's website, led the Los Angeles Times to report: "A controversial government study that may have sharply overstated America's death toll from obesity was inappropriately released as a result of miscommunication, bureaucratic snafus and acquiescence from dissenting scientists."

Yesterday, new scientifically superior data was released by researchers at the CDC and the National Institutes of Health concluding that the actual death toll from excess weight is 25,814, or about one-sixteenth that of the CDC's flawed 400,000 deaths figure. This effectively drops obesity from an aspiring number one to number seven as a cause of preventable death.

Dr. Donna Stroup, director of the Coordinating Center for Health Promotion at the CDC, said the new research was indeed more accurate: "From a scientific point of view, they are a step forward." Yet, while CDC leaders were quick to publish and widely promote its flawed 400,000 deaths figure, they remain reluctant to acknowledge any figure that contradicts it:

  • Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2/24/05: CDC Chief of Science Dixie Snider opined: "we cannot and should not let this discussion of scientific methodology detract from the real issue."

  • New York Times, 4/20/05: "For now, said Dr. Dixie Snider, the disease control centers' chief science officer, the agency will not take a position on what is the true number of deaths from obesity and overweight. 'We're too early in the science,' Dr. Snider said."

  • Associated Press, 4/19/05: "CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said because of the uncertainty in calculating the health effects of being overweight, the CDC is not going to use the brand-new figure of 25,814 in its public awareness campaigns and is not going to scale back its fight against obesity."

"When the numbers suited their agenda, leaders at the CDC ignored dissent from their own leading scientists and trumpeted its 400,000 deaths figure, comparing obesity to the Black Death," said CCF senior analyst Dan Mindus. "Now that more accurate data has been presented, CDC's leaders are stonewalling on publicly correcting their faulty warnings. The CDC should endorse the research released this week as a much more accurate picture of obesity in this country and it needs to explain its earlier major errors which led to unwarranted hysteria."



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