While there are many researchers working in the field of obesity, the following weight-loss industry-funded individuals are among the most influential. They sway professional, public, and medical opinions about the issue while receiving compensation through research support or honoraria from companies that directly profit from their efforts.
Louis Aronne, an AOA advisory board member and NAASO's president in 2005, coauthored an article in CORE's premier issue of Obesity Management in which he examined the use of drugs to treat obesity. Along with discussing obesity drugs in the pipeline and the "off-label" use of several other drugs, Aronne described in detail the use of sibutramine, Orlistat, and phentermine.
It was not disclosed that Aronne was a principal investigator for Orlistat and that he has received financial support from the pill's maker. In December 2004, when The Wall Street Journal reported that there were significant problems with the CDC's exaggerated conclusion that excess weight causes 400,000 deaths per year, Aronne told the paper: "I would argue, gee, maybe they're underestimating it."
"[O]besity is the most prevalent, fatal, chronic disease of the 21st century," said AOA president and co-founder Richard Atkinson, after his group successfully lobbied the government to allow Medicare to cover weight-loss treatments. Atkinson isn't just the president of AOA. He's the founder of a company that hawks $100 kits that supposedly test for an "obesity virus."According to The Wall Street Journal, Atkinson "says drug companies 'love me' because of his strong support for diet pills." And the Center for Science in the Public Interest's "Integrity in Science" online database discloses that Atkinson has:
- Been a consultant to Boots Pharmaceuticals, Cambridge Plan International, Eli Lilly, Gates Pharmaceuticals, Glaxo, Glaxo-Wellcome, Interneuron, Knoll Pharma-ceutical, Lederle, Pfizer, Ross Laboratories, Slim-Fast, Thompson Medical, Wyeth-Ayerst.
- Been an industry-sponsored lecturer for Boots, Hoffman-LaRoche, Interneuron, Knoll, Ross Laboratories, Slim-Fast, Wyeth Ayerst.
- Received research support from AH Robins, Cambridge Plan International, DuPont Pharmaceuticals, Eli Lilly, Gates Pharmaceuticals, Mead Johnson, Natural Nutrition, Thompson Medical, and the Weight Watchers Foundation.
"I mean, obviously I like to get paid. I like to have money. They have the meetings sometimes in pretty nice places. I love that. That's great. But I really hope that I don't allow those relatively trivial and in many cases completely trivial material things to get in the way of science. That would just be awful. I think I've been pretty honest and uncorrupted by the money … But who knows, maybe it's so insidious that I don't notice it."Despite his industry funding and connections, Atkinson chaired a government panel on standards for weight management in the military. Atkinson has also spoken at FDA hearings in favor of the weight-loss drugs Xenical and Meridia.
George Blackburn is a perfect example of an obesity researcher who influences medical, governmental, and popular perceptions of obesity while working for companies—even receiving royalties from some—that profit from selling weight-loss products. Blackburn sits on the scientific advisory board of Shape Up America! He is a board member of AOA, a past president of NAASO, and director of a CORE facility.
Blackburn has received grants for clinical research from Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline, and R.W. Johnson Pharmaceuticals. He has served as an advisor or consultant to Ross, Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Roche, and Sanofi-Synthelabo. He has served in the speakers bureaus of Ross and Roche, and he has received royalties from Abbott and Novartis.
Blackburn has warned doctors of the consequences of obesity in several CME courses sponsored by Slim-Fast. While he discloses that he has been an advisor or consultant to the company, he is also a trustee of the Slim-Fast Institute. Upon completion of a long-term study of Slim-Fast users (located, appropriately, in Pound, Wisconsin), Blackburn appeared in a video news release sponsored by the company.
Blackburn doesn't just pitch products and teach classes. Along with fellow AOA leaders John Foreyt, Judith Stern, and Sachiko St. Jeor, Blackburn helped review obesity-treatment criteria for the Commission on Dietetic Registration, a credentialing service that has overseen the tests of more than 75,000 dietitians and dietetic technicians. Blackburn has also been a member of the National Institutes of Health's National Task Force on the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity.
Claude Bouchard is a board member of AOA and director of a CORE facility. In 1997 his university stated that he "has been awarded $1 million" as the recipient of a chair endowed by Roche Canada and a pharmaceutical trade group. According to a company spokesman, the "team effort" between Roche and Bouchard's university would help "shape the future of health research in Canada."
Bouchard, who has been an influential leader in and president of both IASO and NAASO, was among the financially conflicted researchers on the NIH panel that in 1998 lowered the government's official threshold for "overweight" to include an extra 35 million Americans. Bouchard serves on the scientific advisory board of Weight Watchers International.
George Bray is a leading obesity researcher and is the former director of a CORE facility. He is also Director Emeritus of AOA. Bray has been described by author Ellen Ruppel Shell as a "tireless proselytizer for obesity drugs." A July 2005 Seattle Times article noted:
"A consultant for numerous drug companies for more than three decades, Bray holds patents for such things as low-fat potato chips, a cream to reduce fat thighs, and treatment for metabolic disorders."Bray was a leading investigator of Roche's Xenical, along with Xavier Pi-Sunyer. The financial disclosure of one study on the drug's effects stated that Bray:
"...has received research grant support for the study of Orlistat from Hoffman-La Roche. He has also received research grants from Johnson & Johnson, Regeneron, Proctor and Gamble, and Novartis and has been a member of advisory boards and speaker bureaus for Johnson & Johnson and Takeda Pharmaceuticals."These are companies that benefit from the notion that obesity is a disease, rather than an issue of personal responsibility—as do the companies that produced the weight-loss thigh cream he researched. Bray has come under fire for testifying on behalf of fen-phen makers at FDA advisory panel hearings and for being paid for court testimony on behalf of a company whose ephedra product his center researched. In a 2005 interview with CORE's journal, Bray attempted to medicalize excess weight by claiming:
"Since we don't fully understand the causes of obesity, we should take the patient's responsibility out of it. Rather than focusing on the gluttony, sloth, and moral issues, it is far better to address the neurochemical imbalance and why it occurs."
The director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is William Dietz, who has been a consultant to Roche and Knoll. As recently as 2004, he lectured on a NAASO speaking tour supported by drug maker Sanofi-Aventis. Dietz chaired the CDC's obesity "Reimbursement Initiative"—supported by industry-funded groups such as NAASO—which successfully lobbied for a government rule change allowing Medicare to cover obesity treatments.
A former IOTF working-group chairman, past president of NAASO, and former advisory council member of the American Obesity Association, Dietz was also a member of the 1998 NIH panel that lowered the threshold for the government's definition of "overweight."
Arthur Frank, treasurer of the American Obesity Association and director of a George Washington University weight-loss clinic, helped publicize Xenical in 2000 at an "X Out The Fat X-Travaganza" shopping mall tour stop. Reminiscent of Wyeth-Ayerst's "Redux Road Tour," Roche sponsored the event, which included doctors in white lab coats and an image-morphing machine that allowed potential customers to see what they'd look like if they lost weight. Frank's participation in this road show is particularly amusing, given his past complaint:
"What we're saying is this [the diet industry] is a huge enterprise with $33 billion a year (in sales), and it's entirely unregulated. They may be good people, but there's no bounds on them … you just get a sign, a white coat, preferably, and you spend some money on advertising."In June 2005 Frank told The Washington Post:
"Shouldn't we take a lesson from what has worked with tobacco and other issues and examine how environmental factors have helped to create this public health problem? What about changes in public policies, such as advertising restrictions, banning vending machines in schools, putting a tax on unhealthy foods, etc. Shouldn't this angle be part of any discussion about obesity?"In November 2004, Dateline NBC aired a story titled "Is U.S. obesity epidemic a myth?" David Heber, who runs the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, was chosen by Dateline to make the case for obesity as a massive health problem. To its credit, Dateline asked Heber how he answers critics who say the risks of obesity are exaggerated because of funding from the weight-loss industry. Heber responded by attacking the critics.
Who is Heber? He sits on AOA's advisory council, and his outfit is one of eight highly influential CORE facilities funded by the weight-loss industry. His center hosts the S. Daniel Abraham/Slim-Fast Foods Nutrition Research Kitchen and the Pharmanex Phytochemical Laboratory. Heber wrote a journal article titled "Dietary supplement or drug? The case for Cholestin" (an anti-cholesterol product made by Pharmanex). In 2003 Forbes magazine reported:
"When David Heber appeared recently on ABC's Good Morning America, viewers believed the noted nutritionist was pitching his new book, The L.A. Shape Diet. That wasn't the only item on his agenda. In whipping up a soy-milk-and-blueberry shake from Herbalife's ShapeWorks protein powder, Heber was also promoting the controversial dietary supplement company. Heber sits on Herbalife's newly created scientific advisory board, a perch he accepted around the time the multilevel marketer made a $3 million donation to the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA, where he is the director. Herbalife's money was well spent. The name of Heber's weight-loss plan and his book promote the company's signature product."
"While issuing warnings that obesity has become an 'epidemic', he has been the leading researcher in trials of weight-loss drugs and has been paid fees by pharmaceutical firms that stand to make billions of pounds from slimming pills and potions."Great Britain's Daily Mail reported in March 2005: "The Government's anti-obesity guru was at the centre of a sleaze row last night after it was revealed he has been paid undisclosed consultancy fees by makers of weight-loss drugs." The paper was referring to International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) chairman Philip James, who has had significant influence in setting obesity policy in America and Europe. As the Daily Mail explained:
-The Daily Mail, 2005
"While issuing warnings that obesity has become an 'epidemic', he has been the leading researcher in trials of weight-loss drugs and has been paid fees by pharmaceutical firms that stand to make billions of pounds from slimming pills and potions ... Prof James's task force receives 75 per cent of its £626,000 annual income from drug companies, including international pharmaceutical giants F. Hoffman-La Roche and Abbott Laboratories, which are thanked in its annual report for their 'generous contributions.' The IOTF has also received contributions from Servier, the pharmaceutical company that produces the weight-loss drug Redux."James was a principal researcher of Knoll's weight-loss drug Meridia and Roche's weight-loss drug Xenical. Roche turned to James to present the Roche Gulf Journalism Awards for Obesity Reporting, awarded by the company to continue "its campaign to raise awareness of the disease by encouraging the media to tackle the topic in a responsible manner." According to one British watchdog organization, James "is regularly engaged in what can only be described as PR activities for Roche."
In June 2005 The Seattle Times reported of IOTF:
"An international group of obesity experts, with financial backing from drug companies, works to 'convince WHO [World Health Organization] that obesity had become a global issue that could be ignored no longer.' At WHO headquarters in Geneva, they lay the groundwork for an official definition of obesity based on BMI. Task-force members include doctors who are heading clinical trials of weight-loss drugs …WHO declares obesity a pandemic after an expert consultation funded by members of the International Obesity Task Force."In fact, as a key advisor to the World Health Organization regarding obesity, James's IOTF has encouraged "fat taxes" and marketing restrictions on some foods. The IOTF not only drafted the WHO's original report, but the group also funded the project with, according to James, a "substantial grant."
As a principal architect of Britain's Select Committee on Health, James had great sway in drumming up obesity fears. And at a 2004 conference intended to encourage obesity lawsuits,58 James took credit for helping industry-funded researcher Xavier Pi-Sunyer lower the American government's body mass index threshold for being "overweight." James has also advocated lowering the BMI threshold for Asian populations, a plan that would further increase the world's "overweight" population.
University of Pennsylvania professor Shiriki Kumanyika has been a committee chairperson for the International Obesity Task Force—a policy-pushing body of the pharmaceutical company-funded IASO. Kumanyika was a member of Xavier Pi-Sunyer's NIH panel that in 1998 lowered the government's threshold for "overweight." She also sits on the scientific advisory board of Weight Watchers International.
Along with IOTF's Philip James, Kumanyika co-authored an article for a conference encouraging obesity lawsuits. The article advocated "health impact assessments on trade arrangements" and the use of "powers so far reserved largely for acute food safety issues to restrict trade" for calorie-dense food. Kumanyika was Vice-Chair of the World Health Organization Expert Panel on Diet, Nutrition and Chronic Diseases. She also chaired a panel for the World Health Organization that recommended lowering the BMI threshold for being "overweight" in Asian populations.
A CORE unit director, Robert Kushner was tapped to author the American Medical Association's primer for physicians treating obesity. In the first issue of CORE's journal, Kushner authored an article reviewing the Weight Watchers program. He'd commented on the subject before, publicly pronouncing it an "excellent program." Not disclosed in either case was the fact that Kushner has received a grant from the Weight Watchers Foundation to train residents. Kushner sat on Knoll's grant-making Weight Risk Investigation Study Council and has received financial support from Abbott.
Harvard professor JoAnn Manson appeared at FDA hearings on behalf of the makers of fen-phen. As Laura Fraser notes in her book Losing It, one of the drug's makers "presented evidence to the FDA that the risks of obesity outweighed the potential harm of the drugs. Much of that evidence was based on a study by JoAnn Manson of the Harvard University School of Public Health, a paid consultant to Interneuron Pharmaceuticals, the company that developed the drug."
Manson's financial conflict was not noted in an ensuing New England Journal of Medicine editorial, in which she argued that the harm from obesity outweighed the risks of the drug. Upon discovering Manson's undisclosed interest, the editors of the respected journal conceded two months later:
"[Faich and Manson] concluded their editorial with the sentence, 'Although physicians and patients need to be informed, the possible risk of pulmonary hypertension associated with dexfenfluramine is small and appears to be outweighed by benefits when the drug is used appropriately.' When considered as the conclusion of people who were paid consultants for companies that sell dexfenfluramine, it raises troubling questions … Were they too quick to attribute the risks associated with obesity to obesity itself?"American Obesity Association vice president and co-founder Judith Stern is frequently presented as an impartial expert while her comments advance the agenda of her organization's pharmaceutical and weight-loss benefactors. Stern regularly uses hyperbole to describe obesity. In one case she said: "If we don't try something new, in about 10 years everyone in the country will be overweight or obese."
In 1997 the Newark Star-Ledger reported that eight of nine members of an influential government obesity panel were financially conflicted. One of those individuals was Stern, who sits on the scientific advisory board for Weight Watchers and has received "honoraria" from Knoll and Wyeth-Ayerst.
In 1995 Stern sat on the other side of the government table, showing up at FDA hearings on Redux to detail the health risks of obesity. That same year Stern chaired a government panel designed to set criteria for judging weight-management programs. Stern's group, AOA, is funded by Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and Slim-Fast. In other words, the co-founder of an organization funded by weight-loss companies was setting the government's standard by which her donors should be judged.
According to the owner of a fen-phen clinic in Florida, Wyeth-Ayerst encouraged him to send money to Stern. The St. Petersburg Times reported:
"A month after opening his clinics in February 1995, [John] Trevena sent Stern a $2,500 retainer. Stern testified several times before the FDA favoring approval of Redux, a second-generation version of fenfluramine. A few months later, Trevena made a $5,000 contribution to the legal defense fund of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians, composed of doctors who specialize in weight loss. These friends came in handy. When the FDA's advisory committee initially hesitated to approve Redux, Stern was quoted in an Associated Press story saying that doctors voting against the drug 'ought to be shot.'"George Washington University Center for Health Services Research and Policy fellow Thomas J. Moore describes in his book Lifespan how a 1985 NIH panel on obesity was a "pivotal event" because the imprimatur of the agency meant that "any judgments would be widely quoted as authoritative interpretation of the best scientific evidence now available." Moore explains: "The participants would barrel through 19 complex presentations in a mere one and a half days and issue an authoritative declaration." The result? According to Moore, the panel supplied an "unusually generous definition of the risk factor disease of obesity. It declared that 26 percent of the adult population was medically obese and required medical treatment." The organizer of this panel was Theodore VanItallie.
VanItallie co-founded United Weight Control Corporation, a liquid diet program, in 1986. In 1989 a business journal reported the company was aiming for $100 million in business within five years. As Laura Fraser notes in Losing It, VanItallie's company "provided a liquid diet to five hospital centers, including St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital," which now hosts the Theodore B. VanItallie Center for Nutrition and Weight Management.
In 1993 VanItallie again influenced the government's view of obesity, this time as a member of the NIH's National Task Force on the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity. That body determined physician guidelines for very-low-calorie diets.
Like most of his colleagues, VanItallie not only sits on government panels that shape the official view of obesity, but he also promotes weight-loss pills at FDA proceedings. In 1996, VanItallie offered a presentation on behalf of Redux maker Interneuron. There, according to The Wall Street Journal, VanItallie distributed unpublished figures that purported to demonstrate that 20 percent of all U.S. deaths were related to obesity.
University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Wadden has been a consultant to Novartis, and Abbott Laboratories, and has been in the speakers bureaus of, and consultant to, Knoll and Hoffman-LaRoche. In 2004 he was named NAASO's president-elect. Wadden was a member of the NIH's National Task Force on the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity, which determined physician guidelines for very-low-calorie diets. Author Laura Fraser has reported that Wadden conducted numerous studies funded by Sandoz Nutrition Corporation, which makes low-calorie diet products:
"Sandoz makes Optifast liquid diets, sponsors medical conferences, has paid for at least sixty published studies on liquid diets and countless others that didn't make it into the journals (often because they showed no success), and is one of the three hundred largest companies in the United States … Wadden, at one point, worked for Sandoz."Alert: The page you are looking for is no longer available.