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An Epidemic of Obesity Myths
Who Was Behind the Redefinition of "Obese"

In 1997 a front-page exposé in the Newark Star-Ledger noted:
"Eight of the nine members of the National Institutes of Health task force on prevention and treatment of obesity have ties to the weight-loss industry, either as consultants to pharmaceutical companies, recipients of research money from them, or advisers to for-profit groups such as Weight Watchers."
Case Western Reserve University professor Paul Ernsberger describes how financially conflicted researchers control the government’s pronouncements on obesity:
"Medical beliefs about obesity are shaped by expert panels that are highly selective in the data they consider. Experts included on government consensus panels have been disproportionately drawn from the ranks of diet clinic directors, which might explain the congruence between panel recommendations and the economic interests of the diet industry. In short, economic factors encourage a systematic exaggeration of the health risks of obesity."
Many of America’s most influential obesity experts receive significant financial support from the $46 billion weight-loss industry. These experts help drive obesity hype by churning out a steady stream of studies, alarmist public pronouncements, and treatment guidelines.

The notion that 65 percent of Americans are overweight or obese derives in part from a 1998 decision to redefine "overweight," which cast more than 35 million Americans into that category. This decision was made by a National Institutes of Health obesity panel chaired by Xavier Pi-Sunyer, one of the most influential obesity researchers in the country.

Over the years, Pi-Sunyer has received support from virtually every leading weight-loss company, including Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis, Ortho-McNeil, Wyeth-Ayerst, Knoll, Weight Watchers, and Roche. He has served on the advisory boards of Wyeth-Ayerst, Knoll, Abbott, Johnson & Johnson, and McNeil Nutritionals. He once headed up the Weight Watchers Foundation and is currently a board member of that organization. Pi-Sunyer gave the "obesity overview" presentation on behalf of Knoll, maker of the weight-loss drug Meridia, at a 1996 FDA advisory panel hearing on the drug. He has also been paid to sign his name to ghost-written journal articles used to promote the dangerous weight-loss combination known as "fen-phen."

Xavier Pi-Sunyer is an advisory council member of the American Obesity Association, which is best described as the lobbying arm of the weight-loss industry and is examined in greater detail later in this report. He is the former president of the pharmaceutical industry–funded North American Association for the Study of Obesity (NAASO is also examined later in this report) and heads a NAASO-affiliated research institute that is also supported by the weight-loss industry. He has influenced international obesity policy through his membership in the pharmaceutical industry– funded International Obesity Task Force, which plays a key role in determining policy for the World Health Organization.

Pi-Sunyer has chaired the National Institutes of Health Task Force on the Treatment of Obesity since 1995, when he also led the industry-funded NAASO. In 1998, when his NIH panel redefined the official standard for "overweight," he served as editor of NAASO’s journal, Obesity Research.

In addition to Pi-Sunyer, the 1998 NIH panel included a number of other financially conflicted researchers, such as Claude Bouchard, Graham Colditz, and Shiriki Kumanyika, each of whom is profiled later in this report.

The decision to redefine "overweight" was a big boost to the diet drug industry. In April 2005 The New York Times reported: "[M]any drug industry analysts see a potentially even bigger market if such a drug also catches on among the more than 60 percent of adults in this country who are statistically overweight, those with a body mass index of 25 or more."

The weight-loss industry appears to appreciate the flawed BMI standard. In 2001, Roche, maker of the weight-loss pill Xenical, promised a donation to NAASO for every individual screened during "BMI Awareness Week." In 2005, the American Cancer Society ran an event called the "Great American Weigh In" at Weight Watchers.