Dominic Lawson: Eat, drink and be merry – you can ignore this unhealthy obsession with obesity

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The Independent Online

The Grim Reaper does not believe in fairness. Every family will have stories which prove this point. My paternal grandmother lived into her tenth decade, subsisting almost entirely, or so it appeared, on cigarettes and whiskey. Her only form of exercise was shuffling decks of cards – she was to the end a lethally competitive bridge player. My sister, Thomasina, worked for the NHS in rural Wales and her great pleasure was to eat the vegetables she grew in her own garden. She died of cancer at the age of 32.

Such family stories, of course, have no scientific value – but they are particular examples of the general truth that all of us have subtly different metabolisms. Because of this, we instinctively and rightly distrust dogmatic advice about our own health, especially when it comes from politicians who could not know our individual circumstances. It was partly for this reason that three weeks ago this columnexpressed great scepticism about the Government-funded Foresight Project, portentously titled "Tackling Obesities". You might recall that the report gained great attention from the media by making the claim that "by 2050, 60 per cent of men, 50 per cent of women and 25 per cent of children could be obese" and that "obesity-related diseases will cost an extra £45.5bn a year."

I described these figures as "rubbish" since they were based entirely on so-called "modelling", a fancy word describing the process which feeds an arbitrary growth rate into a computer and assumes it will continue indefinitely: rubbish in, even bigger rubbish out. Doubtless if "Tackling Obesities" had kept the computer running, it could have declared that by the year 3000 every man, woman and child in Britain would have exploded like Monty Python's Mr Creosote.

However, there was an underlying error in that column, for which I must now apologise. While rejecting the report's hysterically doom-laden forecasts, I foolishly failed to criticise its assumption that obesity is already some kind of medical crisis. The front page of yesterday's Independent set out the truth of the matter with great clarity.

It reported the latest research published in the highly-respected Journal of the American Medical Association, the results of the analysis of decades of data by federal researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . The CDC concluded that being overweight "was associated with significantly decreased all-cause mortality overall." That's decreased, as in: the opposite of increased, later, not earlier, better, not worse, and pass the cream, please.

It is especially significant that the report emanated from the CDC. In early 2004, the then director of the CDC published a report in the self-same Journal of the American Medical Association which claimed that obesity was responsible for 400,000 deaths per year in the US. The report was rapidly adopted as fact by the US Health Secretary Tommy Thompson and also had a dramatic impact in other countries, including the United Kingdom. The book Diet Nation: Exposing The Obesity Crusade (one of whose authors is Dr Gio Gori, for 25 years the editor of Nutrition and Cancer and a former director of the National Cancer Institute) describes this earlier CDC report as "the crucial moment in the making of the obesity panic".

Diet Nation reveals how, following a series of furious letters from doctors questioning the report's basic methodology, in April 2005 the CDC published a new analysis of the data. It said the net number of obesity-related deaths in the US annually was not "400,000" but "25,814". This correction was, of course, much less widely reported than the original dodgy dossier and I would guess that when our own Health Secretary describes obesity as "a potential crisis on the scale of climate change", he is still acting under the illusion that he is merely reflecting the latest medical knowledge, rather than discredited data.

The very latest report from the CDC should make him reconsider the wisdom of such hyperbole. Somehow, I don't think he will. It is not just that Cabinet ministers have a vested interest in exaggerating the problems they face, thus making a greater claim both for departmental budgets and for their own political profile. In the field of healthcare, there is an almost sinister alliance between apparently disinterested campaigners in the public sector and the big pharmaceutical companies.

A couple of weeks ago, two of the authors of Diet Nation spoke at a debate on obesity organised by the Institute of Ideas. They were repeatedly accused of being in the pay of the big food companies – which happens to be completely untrue. The exquisite irony in that exchange was that Diet Nation contains a detailed exposure of the conflicts of interest at the heart of the anti-obesity campaign.

The International Obesity Taskforce, led by Professor Philip James, receives 75 per cent of its funding from the pharmaceutical giants Hoffman La Roche and Abbott. Professor James was the principal researcher in trials of the weight-loss drug Sibutramine, which Roche manufactures. The Taskforce also receives funding from Servier, which sells the weight-reduction drug Redux.

Professor James, author of The World Wide Obesity Epidemic (as if a non-communicable condition could be an epidemic) was used as a "specialist advisor" by the Commons health committee, which last year promoted distorted stories of"children choking on their own fat". Professor James was also chairman of the committee which in 1997 took the decision to alter the official definition of overweight under the body mass index. As a result, millions of Britons previously designated as normal suddenly discovered they were "overweight". A crisis!

We journalists must take some of the blame for this – it is the uncritical reporting of scare stories as fact which does as much as anything to send healthy people to doctors demanding pills to make them lose weight and thus live longer. A recent search of British newspaper archives showed that some titles had a hundred times as many stories about "childhood obesity" in 2004 as they did 10 years earlier. Yet, over the same period, the average weight gain among British girls aged 15 was 0.4kg and among boys of the same age it was 1.9kg.

It is true that what doctors describe as "morbid obesity" is associated with "greatly increased mortality" – that's why it's called morbid. Yet even in the super-sized USA, little more than 3 per cent of the population comes in to that unenviable category.

It is also no fun to be morbidly obese, a condition which suggests a range of psychological problems that no diet pill can address. For the rest of us, however, Isaiah had it about right: Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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