Super-Sizing Statistics

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The accuracy
of the following statements is not only personally important to
your health, but it may be politically important to your freedom.

Which of the
statements you believe is also likely to affect such intimate issues
as your body image and how you choose to feed your family.

  1. Obesity
    and inactivity kill 400,000 Americans a year, making them the
    leading cause of preventable death
    in the U.S., next only
    to smoking.

  2. Obesity
    and inactivity kill
    26,000 Americans a year
    , making them less lethal than relatively
    unknown diseases such as nephritis
    and septicemia

The first statement
creates panic; the second, concern. Without diminishing the desirability
of a healthy diet and exercise, which reaction do the facts really
support: a public panic with calls for political intervention, or
a reason why individuals should reconsider reaching for that second

Don’t look
to the Centers for Disease Control for guidance. The CDC seems determined
to create confusion, not clarity on the statistics. Over the past
year, the CDC has provided numbers
that support both statements, contradictory though they be.

In March 2004,
a study co-authored by CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding claimed
that, in 2000, obesity and physical inactivity killed 400,000 Americans;
that is, obesity caused more than 16 percent of all deaths in the
U.S. The CBS headline, “Americans
Eat Themselves To Death,”
was typical of media coverage. Time/ABC
News convened a Summit
on Obesity

Political reaction
was equally alarmist. Surgeon General Richard Carmona declared,
“As we look to the future and where childhood obesity will be in
20 years…it is every bit as threatening to us as is the terrorist
threat we face today.”

Using words
like “epidemic,” policy makers rushed to debate on everything from
“fat taxes” on junk food to the regulation of fast-food advertising,
from Medicare covering obesity-related surgeries to banning
from schools.

Some voices
advised skepticism. Steve Milloy, in his FOX “Junk
Science” column
of March 12, 2004, pointed out that “the CDC
produced its estimates with a statistical ruse called ‘attributable
risk’ – the fearmongers’ method of choice for alarming the public
with large body counts. Attributable risk could be the poster child
for the saying, ‘garbage in, garbage out’.” In other words, science
accurately views obesity as a contributing factor in death – or,
even more loosely, as a correlation – not as a causative one.

the Center
for Consumer Freedom
– a self-described “nonprofit organization
dedicated to protecting consumer choices and promoting common sense”
– called attention to severe methodological and mathematical flaws
in the CDC study.

On Nov. 23
the Wall
Street Journal
reported that, according to an internal CDC
investigation, the “widely quoted” study on obesity contained “statistical
errors” that inflated the death toll by “tens of thousands” – specifically,
by 80,000 or 20 percent. In November, the CBS
(and others) changed to “Obesity Study Overstated Effects.”
But the 400,000 figure seemed cemented into government policy and
public awareness. It is difficult to unring an alarm bell.

Then, on April
19, the Houston
reported that the CDC “estimated today that packing
on too many pounds accounts for 25,814 deaths a year…As recently
as January, the CDC came up with an estimate 14 times higher.” No
wonder, the CCF
“CDC stands for Center for Damage Control."

CCF takes an
extreme view: it argues that CDC’s super-sized statistics were politically
motivated and self-consciously false. (Others boomerang the same
of dishonesty back at the CCF.)

If true, however,
the CCF’s accusations would place some CDC officials in the same
category as Eric T. Poehlman, a top obesity researcher who did work
at the University of Vermont. On March 18, the Boston
reported Poehlman had “fabricated data in 17 applications
for federal grants to make his work seem more promising, helping
him win nearly $3 million in government funding.” Poehlman acknowledged
making up “research results from 1992 to 2002, including findings
published in medical journals that overstated the effect of menopause
on women’s health.”

Apart from
the profit (or funding) motive, political bias may be playing a
role at the CDC and with other obesity research. In January 1998,
the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine cast a
skeptical eye on the “300,000 deaths” from obesity per year figure
and warned
a growing trend; namely, that “the medical campaign
against obesity may have to do with a tendency to medicalize behavior
we do not approve of.”

behavior is behavior that government deems proper to control. If
the food going into your mouth is an addiction or an epidemic, then
your diet ceases to be a personal choice and becomes an issue of
public safety. The lunch you pack for your children becomes a matter
of public policy.

which of the two opening statements you chose to believe is not
the only ‘weighty’ question. It is quickly followed by “what political
importance should be attached to statistics about fat?”

I believe people
are responsible for their own weight and their own food choices.
Government intervention is a wrong and a dangerous option, on several
grounds. Just one of them: individuals should be assuming, not relinquishing
personal control over their own health. We should down-size government’s
interest in what we eat and right-size the statistics it’s feeding

4, 2005

McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

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