April 25, 2005

Big Fat Lies

Just because they've found that the obesity problem in the U.S. is only one fourteenth as bad as they have been saying it is for years, the Centers for Disease Control doesn't plan to change the way they provide information to the public on the issue. A couple of columns from TCS sum up the science at the heart of a new report, and the political and bureaucratic inertia that make it unlikely the CDC will change course significantly as a result of its findings. An excerpt from John Luik's piece:

...in a study released this week by the CDC and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association ("Excess Deaths Associated with Underweight, Overweight, and Obesity"), the public health community has finally owned up to their massive fib by acknowledging that the number of deaths due to obesity in the US is closer to 26,000 not 400,000 as previously reported.

Apart from this huge downward revision in the numbers of people supposedly dying from fat, there are several things in this study which signal the end of any legitimate linkage between obesity and premature death. First, for the merely overweight with BMI's from 25-30 there is no excess mortality. In fact, being overweight was "associated with a slight reduction in mortality relative to the normal weight category." Being overweight not only does not lead to premature death, something that dozens of other studies from around the world have been saying for the last 30 years, but it also carries less risk from premature death than being "normal" weight. In other words the overweight=early death "fact" proclaimed by the public health community is simply not true.

So are they correcting the record? Radley Balko says it seems the folks at CDC don't want to let science get in the way of their mission:

"We misled you. And we plan to keep on misleading you."

That's essentially what the Centers for Disease Control announced this week. The agency said Tuesday that it has greatly over-exaggerated the number of lives lost each year to obesity. After years of putting the figure somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000, the agency now says the net number is just under 26,000, meaning the government has been telling us obesity is fourteen times the threat it actually is, leading policymakers at all levels of governance to prescribe all matter of intrusive, expensive, choice-restrictive public policies aimed at addressing it...

...Even worse, just as critics of the obesity hysteria have been saying all along, the CDC's latest data suggests there may be a mild protective effect associated with being modestly overweight, particularly among the elderly. That means the incessant calls from government officials and nutrition activists for us to "shape up" may bode ill-health for many Americans.

If all of that weren't bad enough, press reports indicate the CDC will still continue to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on anti-obesity programs, and will not be using the new data in those programs...

...Oddly enough, after years of spouting the flimsy 300,000 and 400,000 figures, Dixie Snider, the CDC's chief science officer, told the New York Times that it's "too early in the science" for the agency to embrace the new study. Of course, when it comes to invasive, hands-on government programs aimed at curbing obesity, nutrition activists and government officials don't seem nearly as concerned with accuracy. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation President Risa Lavizzo-Mouro told the crowd at a Time-ABC News obesity summit last June that when it comes to public policy and obesity, "we need to act ahead of the science." Even, I guess, if it means acting in ways that are counterproductive.

And Balko then makes the common sense libertarian argument about intrusive, meddling government:

There are several lessons to learn from the CDC's striking admission of error. First, government shouldn't "act ahead of the science." It shouldn't even act if and when the science becomes conclusive. Instead, we as individuals should make ourselves aware of the science, then make our own decisions accordingly, free from the reach of meddling busybodies. If you want to buy into the latest study, and abstain from whatever the latest headlines say will give you cancer or stroke, by all means, go for it. But let's leave that decision up to individuals.

Second, the media need to be much, much more skeptical about research announcing the latest health scare. Americans have been getting fatter for thirty years. Yet we're healthier than we've ever been before. Life expectancy last year was the highest it's ever been, across all demographic groups. Heart disease and cancer -- two diseases we've been told are closely linked to obesity -- are in rapid decline. Yet with just a few exceptions, the constant media drumbeat has been about how the obesity "epidemic" promises a looming healthcare catastrophe. Well, where is it?

Michael Goldfarb wonders if "obesity epidemic" crusader Bill Maher will notice.

Posted by dan at April 25, 2005 2:32 AM