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CDC Study Overestimated Deaths From Obesity

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2004; Page A11

Federal health officials said yesterday they had overestimated in a high-profile study the number of Americans dying from being overweight.

Officials at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they will submit a correction to the Journal of the American Medical Association, which published the paper March 10, to set the record straight.

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In the hope of producing more accurate estimates in the future, the agency is reviewing the methods it uses to calculate the health effects of being overweight.

Officials stressed, however, that the error did not change the fundamental conclusion that the increasing number of Americans who are overweight is a major and increasingly common public health problem.

"I want to make it clear that we really regret this error, and we really regret any confusion it has caused about the importance of obesity," said Dixie E. Snider, the CDC's chief scientist. "But obesity is still going to be a major public health problem and a major contributor to death."

Skeptics of the obesity epidemic, however, seized on the admission as evidence that concerns about obesity have been overblown.

"Their admission . . . is a good start. A full investigation into the obesity death tally will reveal multiple flaws that seriously overstate the obesity problem and is leading to knee-jerk policymaking and litigation," said Dan Mindus, an analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, which is funded in part by the restaurant industry.

In the March paper, the CDC calculated that poor diet and physical inactivity caused 400,000 deaths in 2000, up from 300,000 a decade earlier, making it the second leading cause of preventable death behind cigarette smoking. If current trends continued, obesity would overtake smoking and become the leading cause of preventable death by next year, with the toll surpassing 500,000 deaths annually, the CDC estimated.

But after the study was criticized as flawed, the agency determined that the estimate was too high because the researchers inadvertently failed to properly apply a statistical correction factor to the data used in the study.

Snider would not specify how much the estimate was inflated, saying the agency was still finalizing what it plans to submit to the medical journal and that the final number could change once the submission is reviewed by independent scientists.

But Snider confirmed an account in the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the error yesterday, that one analysis concluded that errors may have inflated the study's death toll by about 80,000 deaths, or 20 percent.

Regardless of the final number, Snider said being overweight would still be the second leading cause of preventable death behind tobacco.

"Tobacco and obesity are still the two major risk factors for death in this country, and that won't change," Snider said.

Beyond the correction, the agency had also asked the Institute of Medicine, which is an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, to bring together experts from around the country next month to try to develop a better way to determine the health effects of being overweight.

That move was welcomed by critics, who have been saying that the impact of obesity has been exaggerated.

"I wouldn't say obesity isn't a problem, but it's nowhere near the numbers they have been throwing around," said Glenn A. Gaesser, a University of Virginia physiologist who wrote "Big Fat Lies," which questions many of the assertions about obesity.

Many of the health problems blamed on being overweight are actually the result of people eating poorly and failing to exercise, Gaesser said.

"Most of the health problems associated with body fat are really caused by lifestyle," Gaesser said.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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