• 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
      second
      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
    doughnut?

    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
    sodas
    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.

    Meanwhile,
    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
    headline
    (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
    Chronicle
    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
    concluded
    “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
    charges
    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
    Globe
    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
    against
    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.”

    Medicalized
    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.

    Accordingly,
    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
    us.

    May
    4, 2005

    Wendy
    McElroy [send her mail]
    is the editor of ifeminists.com
    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).

    Wendy
    McElroy Archives

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