Press Release

New JAMA Study Challenges CDC’s 400,000 Obesity Deaths Figure

A new study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published in JAMA concludes that obesity kills 112,000 Americans each year—a dramatic decrease from an admittedly flawed study published last year by the CDC. That study suggested obesity killed 400,000 Americans a year. In a letter sent today to CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding, Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) Executive Director Richard Berman draws attention to the vast disparity between the two figures. The letter calls on the CDC to publicly explain the errors behind its 400,000 deaths statistic, give an accounting of its embattled report, and endorse the conclusions of today’s vastly improved study.

“Today’s scientifically superior study further demonstrates that the Center for Consumer Freedom’s long-standing criticism of the CDC’s obesity scaremongering was well-founded,” Rick Berman stated in his letter to Gerberding. “Since June, when we published ‘An Epidemic of Obesity Myths,’ the Center for Consumer Freedom has repeatedly called on the CDC to retract its false claim that obesity kills 400,000 Americans each year and that it would soon become the nation’s number one cause of preventable death. This false statistic from the CDC has become the rallying cry for trial lawyers pursuing obesity lawsuits against restaurants and for the self-appointed food police seeking regulations and taxes.”

Today’s study in JAMA indicates that being overweight, as opposed to obese, actually saves 86,000 lives. When the authors add their obesity and overweight deaths, they write: “Thus, for overweight and obesity combined, our estimate was 25,814 excess deaths.” Perhaps more importantly, the study employs more recent data that shows a much lower risk of obesity. This data was collected by the CDC itself, and could have been used in its 400,000 study.

“Today’s study uses the CDC’s own, more recent data, which shows a much lower risk of obesity. It’s a scandal that the CDC’s 400,000 deaths estimate didn’t use this information, which was readily available on the agency’s computers,” Berman wrote to Gerberding. “The American public deserves to know where the CDC stands on this greatly reduced number and whether obesity is truly worse than the Black Death, as you have stated.”

Though the CDC has admitted mathematical errors in its 400,000 study, its own internal investigation, while more revealing, has been alarmingly downplayed. A timeline of events reveals the unfolding politics of obesity-related deaths:

• March 2004 The CDC releases its report during a highly publicized news conference saying obesity kills 400,000 Americans a year and is poised to become America’s number one preventable death, resulting in alarming front page headlines across the nation.

• May 2004 Science magazine reports on the 400,000 deaths figure: “Some researchers, including a few at the CDC, dismiss this prediction, saying the underlying data are weak. They argue that the paper’s compatibility with a new anti-obesity theme in government public health pronouncements—rather than sound analysis—propelled it into print.”

• November 2004 The Wall Street Journal publishes a front-page story on errors in the 400,000-deaths study. The paper notes the study “inflated the impact of obesity on the annual death toll by tens of thousands due to statistical errors … Dr. Pechacek wrote to colleagues that he had warned two of the paper’s authors, as well as another senior scientist, ‘I would never clear this paper if I had been given the opportunity to provide a formal review.’”

• December 2004 A follow-up story in the Wall Street Journal reports that due to additional problems based on the “authors’ scientific approach”: “The number of obesity-related deaths could be less than half of the 400,000 estimated in the flawed CDC study, according to some scientists familiar with the debate.”

• January 2005 The CDC admits that its 400,000 deaths figure was exaggerated due to mathematical errors.

• February 2005 The CDC buries on its website a summary of its internal investigation into the 400,000 number. The summary reads in part: “The scientists expressed concerns and did meet with some of the authors but they were not convinced that their perspectives were listened to or that requests for data were acknowledged …”

• February 2005 Los Angeles Times report on the CDC’s internal investigation of the flawed report: “A controversial government study that may have sharply overstated America’s death toll from obesity was inappropriately released as a result of miscommunication, bureaucratic snafus and acquiescence from dissenting scientists.”

• April 2005 JAMA publishes a significantly revised estimate concluding that obesity kills 112,000 Americans each year—a far cry from the 400,000 figure claimed earlier by the CDC.

To read Berman’s letter and the report “An Epidemic of Obesity Myths,” visit The Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies, and consumers, working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.

Founded in 1996, the Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization devoted to promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices. For more information, visit


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