TCS Daily

Big Fat Mistake

By Radley Balko - April 21, 2005 12:00 AM

"We misled you. And we plan to keep on misleading you."

That's essentially what the Centers for Disease Control announced this week. The agency said Tuesday that it has greatly over-exaggerated the number of lives lost each year to obesity. After years of putting the figure somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000, the agency now says the net number is just under 26,000, meaning the government has been telling us obesity is fourteen times the threat it actually is, leading policymakers at all levels of governance to prescribe all matter of intrusive, expensive, choice-restrictive public policies aimed at addressing it. A Lexis search for "400,000" and "obesity" returns just under 3,000 hits. A search on "300,000" and "obesity" returns more than 3,000.

Even worse, just as critics of the obesity hysteria have been saying all along, the CDC's latest data suggests there may be a mild protective effect associated with being modestly overweight, particularly among the elderly. That means the incessant calls from government officials and nutrition activists for us to "shape up" may bode ill-health for many Americans.

If all of that weren't bad enough, press reports indicate the CDC will still continue to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on anti-obesity programs, and will not be using the new data in those programs. According to the Associated Press:

        "CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said because of the uncertainty in calculating 
        the health effects of being overweight, the CDC is not going to use the 
        brand-new figure of 25,814 in its public awareness campaigns and is not 
        going to scale back its fight against obesity."

Oddly enough, after years of spouting the flimsy 300,000 and 400,000 figures, Dixie Snider, the CDC's chief science officer, told the New York Times that it's "too early in the science" for the agency to embrace the new study. Of course, when it comes to invasive, hands-on government programs aimed at curbing obesity, nutrition activists and government officials don't seem nearly as concerned with accuracy. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation President Risa Lavizzo-Mouro told the crowd at a Time-ABC News obesity summit last June that when it comes to public policy and obesity, "we need to act ahead of the science." Even, I guess, if it means acting in ways that are counterproductive.

This latest statistical malfeasance from the CDC brings up an important, more fundamental lesson: What we eat is simply no business of the government's. No matter how well-intentioned the researchers, government science and government science translated into policy is too prone to incentives, misplaced motivation, and the prodding and influence of special interest groups to be taken at face value, particularly on a matter so intimate and vital as nutrition. It's possible that even these numbers are wrong, which is exactly why basing policy decisions on them is such a bad idea.

The USDA, for example, has been trying for a quarter century to tell us what we should be eating every day -- the much-maligned "food pyramid." And not only has it still not gotten the thing right, many researchers say the advice we've been given over the last two decades may actually have contributed to our flabbier figures (just why the same agency in charge of promoting U.S. agriculture is also issuing allegedly objective, science-based proclamations on what our diets ought to be still puzzles me).

Even if the CDC's original numbers were correct, it's difficult to understand why it should be of concern to anyone other than those who are actually obese. Once we allow our waistlines and dinner plates to be a legitimate province of government, it's difficult to think of what might still be off-limits. We've let "public health" -- once a term used to describe legitimate public goods, such as protecting against communicable diseases and, more recently, bio or chemical terrorism -- come to encompass such ridiculous and obviously personal matters as whether or not we wear our seat belts, choose to have a cigarette, or how many trips we make to the buffet table.

There are several lessons to learn from the CDC's striking admission of error. First, government shouldn't "act ahead of the science." It shouldn't even act if and when the science becomes conclusive. Instead, we as individuals should make ourselves aware of the science, then make our own decisions accordingly, free from the reach of meddling busybodies. If you want to buy into the latest study, and abstain from whatever the latest headlines say will give you cancer or stroke, by all means, go for it. But let's leave that decision up to individuals.

Second, the media need to be much, much more skeptical about research announcing the latest health scare. Americans have been getting fatter for thirty years. Yet we're healthier than we've ever been before. Life expectancy last year was the highest it's ever been, across all demographic groups. Heart disease and cancer -- two diseases we've been told are closely linked to obesity -- are in rapid decline. Yet with just a few exceptions, the constant media drumbeat has been about how the obesity "epidemic" promises a looming healthcare catastrophe. Well, where is it?

Finally, we need to get over this obsession with longevity, and let people make their own decisions. Believe it or not, there are people out there who know they have bad habits, and know that those habits may very well shorten their lives. Yet they entertain those habits anyway. Some people simply value the taste of a greasy cheeseburger or the drag off an afternoon cigarette more than the extra six months in the nursing home quitting either habit may (or may not) give them. Even the most earnest of government numbers-crunching isn't going to change that. Nor should it.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute.


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