Disputed Obesity Study Slipped Through CDC Filters

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Times Staff Writer

A controversial government study that may have sharply overstated America’s death toll from obesity was inappropriately released as a result of miscommunication, bureaucratic snafus and acquiescence from dissenting scientists, according to a newly released report.

The study, conducted by senior scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, calculated that about 400,000 people in the United States die each year from obesity caused by poor diet and physical inactivity.

The authors, including CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding, concluded that obesity would soon overtake tobacco as the nation’s top preventable killer.


Soon after the study was published in March in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., critics said that it exaggerated the obesity death toll as a result of poor methodology. U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) called on the Governmental Accountability Office to investigate.

The CDC conducted its own investigation after the research came under attack. The conclusions were posted Wednesday on the agency’s website.

The investigators confirmed that three of the CDC’s research centers had initially refused to clear the paper for publication. In addition, the authors incorrectly assumed that objections to their work had disappeared when they didn’t hear back from certain critics.

Some scientists who objected to the study told investigators they “did not push further because, given the prominence and reputation of the authors, they did not feel that it would make any difference.”

The investigators recommended that the CDC alter its policies and practices to encourage dissenters to speak up; improve its clearance procedures so papers weren’t released prematurely; and update the methods used to calculate causes of death.

CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said the report “led us to the realization that there are a number of steps we can take to improve our clearance process at the CDC, which is only going to strengthen and enhance our science.”