by Peggy Elam, Ph.D.
A press release issued by RTI International on Thursday has a headline clamoring that "Medical Expenses Related to Obesity Costs States Billions." No doubt media outlets practicing more churnalism than journalism will repeat the claim ad nauseam, as will countless Internet trolls and more than a few health professionals.
The study the press release trumpets has been published in the journal Obesity, formerly known as Obesity Research, the official journal of The Obesity Society. The Obesity Society, in case you're wondering, is not a genteel collection of avoirdupois-itive persons but a professional organization of bariatric physicians, surgeons & researchers whose careers focus on "curing" -- that is, eliminating -- "obesity." Or trying to. The study was actually published in the June 16, 2011 issue of the journal, so I'm not sure why the two-month delay in the press release.
The study's abstract is available here. I don't care to pay for access to the full article, so I'll let others critique its methodology if they wish. For starters, I suggest checking to see whether the investigators included the costs of weight loss drugs, surgeries and programs; whether they accounted for the negative health effects of weight cycling (yo-yo weight loss & regain), eating disorders, & factored in (or out) the harmful effects of fat hatred, "obesity" stigma & weight-related discrimination, including bias in medical treatment such as the tendency for fat women to receive fewer preventive health screening tests than thin women even when controlling for the number of health care visits.
I'm betting they didn't. Just like the researchers who study "mindless" eating & weight ignore (or are ignorant of) decades of research on restrictive eating showing that restrictive eating, a.k.a. chronic dieting, leads to bingeing/"over"eating.
For now, though, let's set aside the probable methodological problems with such research and do a little investigative journalism, shall we? Specifically, let's Follow The Money.
It's been a while, but I dusted off my B.A. in journalism (& English), which preceded the M.S. & Ph.D. in psychology, to look at the press release and study abstract.
The main player appears to be RTI International, which issued the press release and whose researchers collaborated with Duke University (home of The Rice Diet, a residential program founded in 1939 that has spawned a weight-loss-oriented culture in the area. No, I'm not going to link to anything about it -- but Wendy Shanker writes about her stint at Duke's Diet & Fitness Center in The Fat Girl's Guide to Life). The federal Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality also collaborated.
RTI International's website identifies it as "an independent, nonprofit research institute that provides research and technical services to government and commercial clients worldwide." (Emphases mine.) RTI stands for Research Triangle Institute, by the way; Research Triangle Park in North Carolina is associated with universities in the Triangle's 3 cities (Raleigh, Durham, & Chapel Hill), including, of course, Duke.
"Our activities both mirror and support national priorities and policies as well as diverse commercial, industrial, and academic endeavors," RTI International's website says. The nonprofit corporation's senior management includes individuals with prior careers at Monsanto Company (President & CEO Victoria F. Haynes), Glaxo, now known as GlaxoSmithKline (Executive VP of Operations Satinder K. Sethi & Executive VP RTI Health Solutions Allen W. Mangel), Salix Pharmaceuticals (Mangel), & DuPont Company (James Trainham, VP Strategic Energy Initiatives).
Per their 2010 Annual Report, the RTI International Board of Governors includes Robert A. Ingram, former CEO of Glaxo Wellcome. Their Private Sector Client list includes Abbott Laboratories, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly & Company, GE Healthcare, GlaxoSmithKline, The Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies, Medtronics, Merck & Co., Novartis, Pfizer, PhRMA, Roche, Sanofi-Aventis, Takeda Pharmaceuticals UK, Tioga Pharmaceuticals, & U.S. News & World Report.
U.S. News & World Report? Huh.
Their list of "Other Clients" includes the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation & the World Health Organization.
The RWJ Foundation was founded by -- you guessed it -- Robert Wood Johnson, scion of the Johnson & Johnson family (of the above-mentioned Johnson & Johnson & Johnson Family Companies). Johnson & Johnson's products include Splenda(R) No Calorie Sweetener, Sun Crystals (R) All-Natural Sweetener, and "Realize(TM) Adjustable Gastric Band--Personalized Solution for Weight Reduction." J & J's Medical Devices & Diagnostics Businesses include Ethicon Endo-Surgery, which "develops less invasive surgical equipment used in laparoscopic banding and gastric bypass procedures that can help people conquer life-threatening obesity."
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, you may remember, in 2007 "committed $500 million toward its goal of reversing the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015." According to the report "F as in Fat 2011" co-authored by RWJF & Trust for America's Health, however, they aren't doing too well in reaching their goal, since the report claims "obesity" rates are continuing to rise. (Gee, could there be any connection between the reported fattening of America & the increased pressure on fat Americans -- and the not-so-fat -- to diet? See research linking dieting to bingeing, weight cycling & weight gain; start with Linda Bacon & Lucy Aphramor's Nutrition Journal article here.)
RTI International's "U.S. Government Clients" include the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, which instigated the notion of "epidemic obesity" (see J. Eric Oliver's Fat Politics: The Real Story behind America's Obesity Epidemic for that story) & the World Health Organization, which is advised by the International Obesity Task Force, which was formed in 1996 & is the advocacy arm of the International Association for the Study of Obesity. Need I point out that the International Association for the Study of Obesity is focused on (per their website) "promoting the understanding of obesity and weight-related diseases through scientific research and dialogue, whilst encouraging the development of effective policies for their prevention and management." That is, diseasemongering & fearmongering fatness.
So --RTI International and its many associates and clients receive income from weight-loss-oriented products, devices, research, and public health campaigns. The more people fear and hate fat, the more money they will make.
Conflict of interest? You decide.
But if you're still in doubt, you might want to read the abstract to the Obesity study and pay particular attention to the second sentence:
"Quantifying current Medicare and Medicaid expenditures attributable to obesity is important because high public sector costs of obesity have been a primary motivation for publicly funded obesity prevention efforts at the state level." (Emphasis mine.)
Translation: If state officials believe "obesity" costs their states lots of money, they're more likely to pour money into weight-loss initiatives.
Wanna bet RTI International & several of its associates would also like Medicare & Medicard to fund obesity surgery?