Filed Under: Big Fat Lies

CCF Debunks Flawed North Carolina Obesity Study

A recent claim by state officials that sedentary and overweight North Carolinians cost $24 billion a year is itself bloated, according to a national organization dedicated to debunking what it says are exaggerated food-related warnings.

So begins a front-page article in this morning’s Durham (NC) Herald Sun. Of course, the paper is referring to the Center for Consumer Freedom.

That $24 billion claim comes from a study released by Be Active North Carolina at a press conference with the North Carolina Lieutenant Governor and State Treasurer, and the CEO of North Carolina Blue Cross Blue Shield. Naturally, this kind of scare story made big news in the state. It also caught our eye since, on a per-capita basis, the cost figure dwarfed the already overblown nationwide estimate of $117 billion. When we examined the study, we found numerous leaps in logic, unsubstantiated assertions, and outright errors. So we contacted the Herald Sun, which reports:

[A] senior analyst with the Center for Consumer Freedom said a little healthy skepticism can fault the study on several counts.

It appears out of proportion with similar studies in other states and nationally, [CCF] said. [CCF’s senior analyst] guesses that the “true figure” is less than one-fifth of the $24 billion sum.

“The reason we started looking into it was $24 billion was so implausibly high,” [CCF] said…

Furthermore, the study appears to duplicate some costs and doesn’t adequately distinguish between people who are obese and those who are a few pounds overweight, [CCF] said. The latter, [CCF] said, may not suffer any ill effects.

“It almost seems like everything that was done to come up with this $24 billion figure was done to make the figure look as big as possible for shock value,” [CCF] said.

To be fair, we contacted Be Active North Carolina’s executive director Shellie Pfohl and the study’s author, David Chenoweth, before going public with our findings. After discussing the study’s flaws for nearly an hour, neither produced a scientifically-justified response to our central criticisms.

Instead, Chenoweth acknowledged that his study double-, triple-, and quadruple-counted costs associated with obesity, physical inactivity, etc. And he couldn’t justify its outrageous estimates on non-medical costs (which accounted for about 90 percent of the total $24 billion figure). He did suggest that we contact University of Michigan professor Dee Edington, whose work, he insisted, justifies his claims about the $16 billion toll from lost productivity.

We took Chenoweth’s advice and called Edington. The professor, who said he’d reviewed Chenweth’s analysis before, scoffed at Chenoweth’s assertions, explaining that his own work had been misused and that Chenoweth’s method served to dramatically inflate the real costs. “I know what he’s trying to do,” Edington explained. “The trouble is that he is double and triple counting [the costs].”

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