Filed Under: Big Fat Lies

CDC: Save Our Statistics, They’re Sinking Fast

For more than a year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has force-fed us a steady diet of myths about the dangers of obesity. In one case, CDC Director Julie Gerberding declared: “If you looked at any epidemic — whether it’s influenza or plague from the Middle Ages — they are not as serious as the epidemic of obesity in terms of the health impact on our country and our society.” Obesity more serious than the Black Death? Give us a break.

This week, JAMA published a new study critiquing the agency’s original estimate of 400,000 obesity-attributable deaths and bringing the estimate down to just 26,000. But like the captain of a sinking ship, Gerberding stands firm at the helm and refuses to change course on the agency’s estimate, even as her once-heralded study quickly slips into the depths of obsolescence. Now a growing number of voices have joined the Center for Consumer Freedom in calling on the CDC to come clean.

ABC News’ Dr. Tim Johnson told viewers:

I think it’s quite clear that the data and methods used in the study reported today are much better than in the study from last year. So the real question is why was last year’s study even published? There are cynics who suggest that there’s a vested interest among the weight-control industry and some public health officials to make the number of deaths from obesity as dramatic as possible. Unfortunately, I think these discrepancies undermine the government’s credibility on this subject.

An editorial in today’s New York Times takes the CDC to task for its silence on the subject:

The latest study of obese and overweight Americans upends much of what we thought we knew about the health dangers of excess poundage. After decades of dire warnings to slim down if we want to survive to a ripe old age, it now turns out that a modest amount of ”excess” weight may actually be good for you, while being too thin can be dangerous.

This perplexing message comes from a study that looks like the most authoritative analysis yet of the relationship between mortality and the ”body mass index,” a measure that correlates weight to height. The study was conducted by highly respected statisticians and epidemiologists with no visible axes to grind at two federal agencies…

The most striking finding was that people defined as overweight but not obese had a lower risk of death than people of normal weight. Indeed, their excess pounds may have prevented some 86,000 deaths annually. That estimate has exploded like a bombshell amid the health officials struggling to control the undeniable upsurge of obesity here and abroad. It leaves the C.D.C., in particular, with a lot of explaining to do…

The C.D.C. needs to say, loud and clear, whether it believes the estimates. The whole notion of what constitutes normal weight and overweight may have to be rethought.

Rocky Mountain News Editorial Page Editor Vincent Carroll asks an important question about Gerberding’s role in spreading the epidemic of obesity myths:

So why didn’t Gerberding resign Tuesday as head of the world’s most prestigious public health institution when her claims were exposed as grossly, fantastically exaggerated by scientists at her own agency and the National Cancer Institute?

Why aren’t there calls in Congress for her to quit?

Gerberding didn’t merely overhype a crisis, after all. She helped invent one. A net annual total of 26,000 premature deaths apparently occur among people the government classifies as overweight. She overshot by 375,000.

Many other opinion leaders have expressed their concerns over the CDC’s role in inflating fears of a few extra pounds:

The editors of the Baltimore Sun deemed the CDC’s 400,000 deaths estimate the “Chicken Little scare of 2004.

The editors of Newsday were more forgiving: “Our first instinct was to berate the federal scientists for failing basic arithmetic. But the new news is so good for so many Americans, including us, we’ll forgive them.

A humorous column by Scripps Howard’s Dale McFeatters read in part: “A little while ago, I did a flip piece that said that if you wait long enough a new study will show that what was bad for you is really good, and vice versa. It was based on, yes, a study that said drinking too much water can be dangerous to your health and even fatal. About a year ago, there was a government study that said obesity was causing 400,000 deaths a year in the United States and that it was on track to overtake smoking as the leading cause of premature death. Great. I quit smoking like they asked and then they wanted me to quit eating. Well, that’s out the window now … In any case, this study — one of the very few and maybe the only in which I do not feel that I, personally, am being admonished — gives me a new respect for the government.”

Finally, Jay Leno poked a little fun at the CDC, saying: “Three months ago, they calculated 365,000 Americans die of obesity every year. Turns out that was a mistake. Now it’s more like 26,000. Great, not only are we fat, we’re stupid. We can’t even do math. We’re fat and stupid.”

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