Looking to turn our flab into fortune, the pharmaceutical and weight-loss industry lobbying group, the American Obesity Association (AOA), hypes obesity fears at every opportunity. The group claims responsibility for Medicare's recent (and ridiculous) decision to begin paying for obesity treatments — the very products AOA members sell. AOA chief Richard Atkinson was featured on the front page of the health section in Tuesday's Washington Post. It seems that Atkinson is personally looking to cash in on obesity fears as he "starts assembling a new lab designed to test blood for a fat virus." (A virus?!?) Atkinson plans to hawk his tests for "about $125 to $150." Given that AOA makes sure to scare the public with the myth that 65 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, that's a lot of potential business. Atkinson has been a paid advisor to more than 15 companies that make weight-loss products, including Slim Fast, Pfizer, and Eli Lilly, according to the "Integrity in Science" online database run by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In addition, he's had research support from DuPont Pharmaceuticals, Gates Pharmaceuticals, and the Weight Watchers Foundation, among others. Atkinson's get-rich plan is far from unique in the obesity field. Dispelling just one of many common obesity myths, former New England Journal of Medicine editor-in-chief Jerome Kassirer describes how financial conflicts helps foster obesity hysteria:
On the question of obesity, physicians have been extensively involved with the pharmaceutical industry, especially opinion leaders and in the high ranks of academia. The involvement was in many instances quite deep. It involved consulting, service on speaker's bureaus, and service on advisory boards. And at the same time some of these financially conflicted individuals were producing biased obesity materials, biased obesity lectures, and biased obesity articles in major journals.
Atkinson certainly qualifies as an opinion leader — in fact, he edits the International Journal of Obesity. Paul Ernsberger, a professor of Medicine, Pharmacology, and Neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University, backs up Kassirer's position, saying:
Medical beliefs about obesity are shaped by expert panels that are highly selective in the data they consider. Experts included on government consensus panels have been disproportionately drawn from the ranks of diet clinic directors, which might explain the congruence between panel recommendations and the economic interests of the diet industry. In short, economic factors encourage a systematic exaggeration of the health risks of obesity.
Ernsberger has also noted that pharmaceutical companies Knoll and Wyeth-Ayerst "have sponsored continuing education programs across the country with the aim of promoting 'awareness' of the hazards of obesity." No surprise there — both companies have also supported AOA's Richard Atkinson.