NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 24, 2005

There's a conflict of interest brewing within the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and it's about one issue: how deadly is obesity?

In a March 2004 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), CDC scholar Julie Gerberding found that:

  • Nearly 400,000 people were estimated to die early from obesity, equaling 16.6 percent of all U.S. deaths.
  • Obesity was also predicted to pass smoking, which accounts for 18.1 percent of U.S. deaths (435,000 people), as the country's leading cause of preventable death.

But an April 2005 JAMA report by Katherine Flegal, a CDC epidemiologist, yielded different results:

  • Obesity-driven deaths were estimated at 112,000, a difference of 288,000 from the previous year.
  • The study showed that moderately overweight people gain some protection from the extra poundage, and the net death total is about 26,000.
  • These findings landed obesity in seventh place on the CDC's list of preventable causes, right behind gun-related incidents.

Additionally, Flegal found that the original report had major statistical errors that boosted the number of obesity deaths because of a population sampling problem. The original report used only one sample, from 1971-73, while the current report analyzed three samples, 1971-73, 1976-80 and 1988-94.

Of course, obesity deaths would be higher in 1971 because treatment levels were not as advanced as they are today, so the generalizations from that group can not be transferred to current groups. Flegal also found that obesity-caused deaths have actually declined by 63 percent.

Here lies the conflict: The CDC has the responsibility to sell people on healthy lifestyles and has framed obesity as a "symbol of unhealthy . . . immoral living," says Dan Seligman of Forbes. In an attempt to change public thinking and gain funding, overstating facts has become the standard method.

Source: Dan Seligman, "Flabby Math," Forbes, June 20, 2005; based upon: Julie Gerberding et al., "Actual Causes of Death in the United States," Journal of the American Medical Association, March 10, 2004; Katherine M. Flegal et al., "Excess Deaths Associated With Underweight, Overweight, and Obesity," Journal of the American Medical Association, April 20, 2005.

For March 2004 JAMA study text (subscription required):

For April 2005 JAMA study text (subscription required):


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