Oliver blames ‘obesity mafia’ for American weight scare
By Linzi Sheldon, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, April 26, 2005
As American waistlines grow, so has the myth of an obesity epidemic sweeping the country, University of Chicago associate professor Eric Oliver claimed in his speech "Big Fat Politics" on Monday night. Oliver attempted to debunk the myth by exposing America's "obesity mafia," which he blames for pushing incorrect health standards and perpetuating weight-related health fears for its own financial gain.
According to Oliver, the "obesity mafia" consists of government health agencies such as the National Institute of Health, the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration. These agencies are linked in symbiotic relationships with drug companies and academic researchers, with the trio feeding off one another to perpetuate the myth of widespread obesity in America -- all for financial gain.
Last year, the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta released a report with inflated numbers of obesity-related deaths, attributing 400,000 deaths each year to corpulence. Later, the agency was forced to admit a statistical error and lowered its estimate by about 80,000 deaths. Still, a new government study has found that obesity actually causes approximately 112,000 deaths each year, far less than previously claimed.
As part of what Oliver calls "America's health-industrial complex," the World Health Organization has pronounced worldwide epidemics of obesity and spread the myth that obesity is imperiling the world, Oliver said. Meanwhile, the CDC has established that in order to be healthy, you need to lose weight. And in order to lose weight, Americans have turned to diet drugs promising weight loss.
Oliver singled out Xenical, a prescription diet drug which inhibits the body from absorbing fat. He accused pharmaceutical company Hoffman-LaRoche, the producers of Xenical, of underwriting the International Obesity Task Force, which funds the study of this supposed worldwide obesity epidemic. In the obesity mafia, these drug agencies also fund academic researchers, such as renowned Columbia University faculty member Dr. Xavier Pi-Sunyer, whom Oliver called "the high priest of the obesity mafia."
Pi-Sunyer's research, which has found direct links between obesity and disease, is bankrolled by organizations with a vested interest in reducing people's weight, such as Weight Watchers, Oliver said. He called the funding "financial incentive for creating the idea that weight is a problem."
According to Oliver, side effects from new diet drugs have proved so heinous that to validate these side effects, pharmaceutical companies need to demonstrate obesity is a major problem warranting truly drastic treatment.
In addition, the obesity mafia has pushed this myth by enforcing the Body Mass Index as the standard for measurements of overweight and obese conditions, Oliver said. BMI is calculated by dividing a person's weight in pounds divided by a person's height squared, multiplied by 703. Used by the first life insurance companies, the BMI assumed that based on somebody's weight, you could determine his or her physical health and physical fitness.
Oliver took a different stance, rejecting BMI as a measurement tool as well as questioning weight's link to general health problems.
"While we know being obese puts you at risk for these diseases, we don't know that having more adipose tissue actually causes these diseases," Oliver said.
According to Oliver, the problem with using an outdated measurement such as the BMI to determine weight problems is that it doesn't necessary measure fat, but overall weight. For example, following the weight recommendations of the BMI, both President Bush and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are considered overweight.
"The problem is that the BMI doesn't take into account diet, exercise, genetic predisposition and differences of sex," Oliver said. "Why is 60 percent of America overweight, but even more, why did overweight get defined at such low levels?"
If Oliver's claims are correct, Americans are being labeled overweight when they are not, and the obesity epidemic may not be as fatal as the 'obesity mafia' has portrayed it.
Oliver asked, if BMI does not matter, then why is America still so weight-focused as a matter of public health? According to the professor, scientists and academics have taken the easy way out by using BMI as a standard. Rather than recalibrating these standards for more accuracy, these so-called medical experts have coerced the population to fit into terms of measurements.
"We're basically imposing this very flawed standard on the American population," for the gain of the health-industrial complex and at the expense of American society, he said.
Oliver is currently working on a book based on his research titled "Obesity: The Making of an American Epidemic" set for release in August.