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An Epidemic of Obesity Myths
The Myth Makers

"Many, if not most, high-profile obesity researchers are either consultants to the diet, food, or pharmaceutical industry, or conduct research for those industries. Many do both."
-Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of The Hungry Gene
In July 2004, the decades-long effort to have obesity declared a "disease" scored a major victory when a government rule change allowed Medicare to pay for prescription diet pills, bariatric surgery, and weight-loss plans such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. That decision followed a similar policy change by the Internal Revenue Service to allow certain weight-loss products to be tax deductible.

This shift to treat obesity as a "disease" was the result of a long-term lobbying and public relations campaign waged by the $46 billion-per-year weight-loss industry to hype the costs and risks of being overweight.

Since the 1980s, public opinion about obesity has been skillfully molded by the pronouncements of financially conflicted researchers and the companies that fund them. A small group of influential scientists—-shaping public and professional notions of obesity—continually exaggerate the consequences of overweight and obesity. At the same time, they receive substantial monetary gifts, honoraria, and research money from the companies that stand to profit directly from their activities.

As author Ellen Ruppel Shell notes in her book The Hungry Gene, "[m]any, if not most, high-profile obesity researchers are either consultants to the diet, food, or pharmaceutical industry, or conduct research for those industries. Many do both." She continues:
"It is no secret in the scientific community that purveyors of weight-loss drugs and diet plans feather the nests of the specialists who vouch for them. Nor is it news that corporate patrons expect to get what they pay for: that scientists who find benefit in weight-loss products are more likely to enjoy the continued support of the makers of those products."
A July 2005 report in the Seattle Times noted:
"Some of the world's most prominent obesity experts, with backing from the drug industry and medical societies, defined obesity as a stand-alone "disease" that caused premature death and needed to be treated with drugs. In making obesity a disease, these experts helped create a billion-dollar market for the drugs."
Former New England Journal of Medicine editor Jerome Kassirer fears the corrupting influence of such an arrangement:
"Physicians are involved in a major way with the pharmaceutical and diet industry with respect to the recent emphasis on obesity. There is reason to believe that some of the major figures in the obesity field are influenced by this involvement."
In his book, On the Take, Kassirer describes how opinion leaders become involved with pharmaceutical companies:
"Trinkets bloom into meals at fine restaurants; meals grow into speaking fees; speaking fees morph into ongoing consultations and memberships on drug company advisory boards—positions that command up to six figures a year."