Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The skinny on the CDC obesity report

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:57 AM |  

CNN Photo Credit

This note from the Cato Institute's Randy Balko regarding the announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that its obesity report was flawed.

"The CDC's announcement that it will lower its estimate of deaths attributable to obesity is some welcome sanity in the obesity debate, but it's troubling that the original number of 400,00 deaths per year was ever published and touted to begin with. According to LexisNexis, that number was used in media reports over 1,500 times. It has been widely cited by anti-obesity activists to call for widespread and intrusive government programs that restrict consumer choice and punish the food industry. Now we learn that critics were right, and the number was grossly inflated, perhaps by as much as 400 percent. The lesson here for the media is to be more skeptical of hysterical obesity research. The lesson for policy-makers is to resist rash reactions to media frenzies. And the lesson to all of us is to be wary of researchers, government officials, and activists who attempt to use junk science to trespass on personal freedom."
The Associate Press is reporting that the widely circulated CDC study, which stated that obesity is about to overtake smoking as the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, contained statistical errors and may have overstated the problem, health officials acknowledged Tuesday. The government is working on a rare correction to the study. From the AP story --

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in March in a study co-authored by its director, Dr. Julie Gerberding, that poor diet and physical inactivity were responsible for 400,000 deaths in 2000, a 33 percent jump from 1990.

Although CDC officials declined to specify the corrected number of deaths, saying they are still determining the correct number, The Wall Street Journal reported that the agency may have overstated the figure by 80,000, representing an increase of less than 10 percent from 1990 to 2000. The errors were first reported by the Journal on Tuesday.
If that doesn't "reinstate your faith" in government management of health issues, perhaps this will (also from the AP) --

The agency also has asked the Institute of Medicine, a federal scientific advisory organization, to hold a two-day workshop next month in Washington to reach a consensus on the proper way to calculate the health effects of obesity. That is because the study also caused disagreement in scientific circles over how deaths can be labeled obesity-related.
They might also want to tackle the methodology for determining how deaths can be attributed to smoking and secondhand smoke while they are at it. The CDC put the number of obesity deaths at 400,000, compared with 435,000 from tobacco.

But the final "feel good about your government" item is this -- the Rathergate defense of the study ("the memos may not be authentic, but their content is accurate") --

But even when the errors are corrected, a [spokesperson] said, "it's not going to change the fact that obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death."
Unfortunately, we'll continue to see the original CDC figures tossed about as justification for more spending on federal and state obesity programs that aren't properly a function of government.