Junkfood Science: Economists weighing in... Round two

January 12, 2008

Economists weighing in... Round two

Another economist has weighed in with an obesity book and, once again, the media has credulously reported it as expert health information and recommended health policy. This time, however, the public doesn't appear to be buying it. Growing numbers of consumers are realizing that obesity is not a ‘lifestyle choice” or the result of an economy that forces people to eat too much and be inactive, as the media and this book reports. Nor are they convinced that it is a public health crisis. On the authors’ website, an informal and open poll asks people if they believe ‘obesity’ is a problem in the United States and, as of this morning, more than two-thirds had checked “No, not at all.”

JFS has previously examined the economists’ take on obesity. Economics — a social ‘science’ that looks at the supply and demand of goods and services — approaches body weight as it would balancing a checkbook. Without understanding the medical research and biology on the causes of obesity, it adopts popular beliefs of obesity and sees it as a society health crisis, then proceeds to apply what it knows (numbers) to propose solutions. Their initiatives are based on ‘energy accounting’ — calories in versus calories out.

The blog world has been abuzz over the misinformation in a just-released book, The Fattening of America — How The Economy Makes Us Fat, If It Matters and What To Do About It. The excerpt from Chapter One, alone, left many fearing for children should young parents follow its recommendations or politicians embrace its governmental policy solutions:

I have to admit that few things bother me more than seeing overweight kids. So when it comes to my own kids, as my wife repeatedly tells me, I'm a pain in the ass. I'm obsessed with what my five-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son eat. (My infant daughter is still strictly under her mother's domain, but she won't be for long.)... And if this isn't enough, I also make sure that my children get plenty of exercise. As most parents will tell you, this is no easy task these days. It's also a constant source of friction between my wife and me, as she is the one left to implement these draconian policies while I am at work or off writing this book.

And it's not just my own family who finds me so irritating. I coach my son's soccer team (largely because he wouldn't play if I did not). Although many teams drink Gatorade and eat Popsicles after practice and games, I limit our team's consumption to water and oranges. This, too, is a real challenge, as I have to constantly remind parents not to bring “rewards" for the team after practice and games. I once had to tell a mom to put the powdered donuts and Juicy Juice® back into her car. I told her what I tell the rest of the parents over and over...

As a result, I am willing to be the unpopular father and coach who deprives kids of their “reward" at the end of a hard practice. And if I think our friends are not feeding their kids a healthy diet, I let them know that, too. As I said, I'm obsessed.

Clearly, the stance and claims in this book go far beyond what the medical evidence supports. Those understanding the reality of the science, however, have been left puzzled as to the source of the growing popularity for the economic theories surrounding obesity.

The primary author, Eric A. Finkelstein, is the nationally recognized creator and key proponent of the “costs of obesity” claims. He is with RTI International in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. RTI International’s media service has also issued the press release promoting the book and provided media support.

RTI International’s corporate vision is: “To be the world's leading independent research organization, recognized for solving critical social and scientific problems.” It offers a range of research and technical services for a long list of clients, which currently includes 30 pharmaceutical companies and biotech research firms; groups such as Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Cancer Society; insurance companies, and multiple agencies and departments of the federal government. Perhaps, not surprising, Finkelstein says on his book’s blog that to curb the obesity epidemic: “In a nutshell, government should do the things that the private sector would not do on it’s own.”

Finkelstein and RTI International have played prominent roles with the National Business Group on Health and its creation of the Institute on the Costs and Health Effects of Obesity; and developed the RTI Obesity Cost Calculator™ used by insurers and employer groups [essentially, any cost incurred by an overweight and older person is attributed to their weight, costs for weight loss interventions and for any condition ever “associated” with obesity is added in]. Their names are associated with a multitude of employer wellness and weight loss and insurer ‘healthy lifestyle’ programs; and efforts to get Medicare coverage for weight loss treatments and bariatric surgery. RTI International hosted that February 10, 2005 summit, “Obesity Epidemic: Causes, Costs, and Policy Options,” held in Washington, DC. RTI’s name was on the RWJF-commissioned IOM panel, "Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance;" the RWJF-funded Project Health Design, creating computer monitoring of health behaviors; the RWHF-funded series “Facts of Life: Issue Briefings for Health Reporters Weighing the Data: Obesity Affects Elderly, Too;” a co-sponsor of the Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism; and conducts obesity research for its clients. RTI International also holds a number of patents, such as for addiction and smoking cessation products, and even holds the patent for the production and use of compounds with CB1-receptor binding selectivity (United States Patent 6,825,209) being developed for “obesity, schizophrenia, memory dysfunction and marijuana abuse.” [JFS readers will be familiar with one CB1 inhibitor, Acomplia.]

So, there might be a bit more going on than a father “obsessed” with overweight kids. Just a bit.

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