The Death Toll Is Important, Except When It Isn't


While researching this week's column on obesity, I came across the CDC's list of "Frequently Asked Questions About Calculating Obesity-Related Risk," an amusing demonstration of how to back-pedal while pretending to move forward:

Why is CDC even involved in estimating how many people die of obesity?

As the nation's disease prevention agency, CDC is charged with protecting the nation's health. Seven of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States are chronic diseases, the top two being heart disease and cancer. So many chronic diseases are affected by obesity and mortality (deaths) is an important indicator of the severity of a public health problem….

Is CDC changing its estimate of obesity-related deaths?

Yes. We are no longer going to use the previous annual estimate of 365,000 deaths from poor nutrition and physical inactivity. Instead, CDC will state, "The latest study based on a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults estimates that about 112,000 deaths are associated with obesity each year in the United States."…

Does this study mean that obesity is less important than CDC once thought?

Not at all.

In short, obesity-related deaths are an important measure of how serious the problem is, but reducing the number by two-thirds does not make the problem any less serious.