Obesity Hype?

Monday, May 2, 2005

IF A GROUP calling itself the "Center for Consumer Freedom" were to take out $600,000 worth of newspaper advertising claiming that the link between smoking and mortality is nothing but "hype," it would be a national scandal or, perhaps, just a national joke. Even the tobacco companies no longer dispute the health dangers of smoking.

Nevertheless, a group actually calling itself the Center for Consumer Freedom did buy $600,000 worth of advertising in The Post and elsewhere last week calling the links between obesity and mortality "hype" fostered by the government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In principle, these advertisements are no less of a scandal: The high cost of diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses is not in dispute, any more than is the cost of tobacco-related illnesses. Obesity rates in the United States have more than doubled in the past 30 years and have tripled among children.

More to the point, the Center for Consumer Freedom is not an ordinary consumer advocacy group pushing neutral "facts." It is, by its spokesman's admission, funded by the restaurant and food industries. A Post story last week revealed that the group was started by Philip Morris USA Inc., the tobacco company that also owns Kraft -- maker of cookies, crackers, and macaroni and cheese.

Thanks to mistakes made by bureaucrats at CDC, the food and restaurant companies behind the "consumer freedom" label could make some headway. In seeking to push obesity into the forefront of public health concerns, CDC has indeed published, if not "hyped," incorrect information about the links between obesity and death. In a report that appeared last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a group of CDC authors -- including Julie L. Gerberding, the CDC director and formerly an infectious-disease specialist -- claimed that annual obesity-related deaths in this country topped 400,000, making obesity a greater cause of death than tobacco. But in a report last month, also co-authored by researchers at the CDC and making use of CDC data, the number was found to be closer to 100,000.

The same study questioned whether being slightly overweight -- as opposed to obese -- was unhealthy at all. CDC spokesmen explain that the disparities are explained by the fact that the study of obesity and its relationship to mortality is "evolving." Fair enough, but the original report, which was criticized even before its publication, also contained serious methodological and calculation errors, which CDC was slow to acknowledge and now tries to play down.

None of this should change the health advice that the government gives to schools and other institutions that serve and teach children about food: Maintain a balanced diet, eat less junk food, exercise regularly and don't smoke. CDC administrators would do better to leave science to the full-time scientists and to focus on repeating this simple message to the public. That would make the organization, and its statistics, less open to simple-minded attack.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company