by Marion Nestle
Jul 29 2009

Medical costs of obesity

The latest estimate from CDC on the annual cost of obesity: $147 billion.  Ordinarily, I don’t take such numbers too seriously because they are based on assumptions that may or may not  be correct.  But this number has been challenged by so personal an attack on the new head of the CDC, Tom Friedan, that I’m thinking it should be taken seriously.

The attacker is the supposedly independent – but thoroughly industry-sponsored –  American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).  Here’s the quote from its latest online newsletter:

Frieden’s Crusade Moves to Washington

A study presented on Monday at a CDC obesity meeting determined that obesity-related diseases account for nearly 10 percent of all medical spending in the United States – an estimated $147 billion per year. The study was sanctioned by CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, whose partiality to government-interventionist responses to public health concerns is epitomized by his quote: “Reversing obesity is not going to be done successfully with individual effort. It will be done successfully as a society.”

“The reason he hyped this study was to promote more proactive government interventions, including a three cent soda tax,” says ACSH’s Jeff Stier. Dr. Ross adds, “Whenever I see numbers like this – especially when they are being promoted by someone we know is a fan of big government – I suspect that they have been altered or manipulated. Obesity is definitely a health threat, and it will definitely be a burden on our health care system. How much of a burden, we don’t know. But I don’t trust these numbers.”

Well, I don’t trust ACSH.  For one thing, just try to figure out who funds them.  For another, note the way ACSH invokes science to make its political agenda seem authoritative.

Whatever the real cost of obesity, its consequences will place a considerable burden on our health care system.    And it will take societal responsibility as much as – or more than – individual responsibility to deal with the problem.

[Posted from London]

  • sid

    As Dr Nestle indicates and confirms the ACSH is an organization highly biased on the side of (a.k.a. in bed with) the food industry.

    When ACSH says “But I don’t trust these numbers.” I think that we can translate this to read “This whole fighting obesity thing makes our corporate masters very nervous, so we are attacking the messenger Dr. Thomas Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control.

    At least we can say that the CDC does have the health interests of Americans as it’s focus, unlike the ACSH whose main interest is protecting the profits and obscene practices of the food industry.

    The medical doctors of the ACSH are a disgrace to their profession.

  • susanne

    the ACSH is the organization that railed against the obamas’ installation of an organic garden at the white house, encourages the use of pesticides in gardening and farming, and claimed that if everyone only ate organic foods, there would be massive worldwide starvation because poor people can’t afford organic and lower yields would mean less food for everyone.

    there was a hilarious interview on The Daily Show with ACSH reps (which of course took their words out of context for the shock value).

    they also claim that the BPA and phthalate concerns are based on junk science.

    not people that i would want to take health advice from.

  • So typical to attack our credibility rather than the substance of our comments.

    Why not take a look at our work? For instance, we have a new book out that – instead of telling people “What To Eat,” actually warns them about the many negative consequences of obesity.

    Our funding profile is similar to that of the American Heart Association, or the Harvard School of Public Health– it includes donations from individuals, foundations and yes, no strings attached grants from corporations.

    If you want to disagree with us on policy or science, that is fine. But to suggest somehow that our funding impacts our conclusions (rather than the other way around), is absurd. That would be like saying President Obama is carrying water for the labor unions only because they donated to his campaigns.

    Some time ago, CSPI made the same criticism of us- here is how we responded:

    If you want to know more about ACSH and our founding, without the ad hominem attacks, see:
    “Where Did ACSH Come From?”

    Jeff Stier

    Associate Director
    American Council on Science and Health