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An Epidemic of Obesity Myths
American Obesity Association

"[Our] fundamental mission is to have obesity regarded as a disease of epidemic proportions."
-American Obesity Association website
"Drug companies make no secret of trading on the good name—and the goodwill—of the academics whose research they support. For example, many of the members of the respected International Obesity Task Force and National Task Force on the Prevention of Obesity also serve on the advisory council of the American Obesity Association (AOA). The main function of the AOA council is to lobby for legislation mandating insurance coverage for weight loss drugs. Its main support comes from drug makers, including Interneuron, American Home Products, Roche Laboratories, Servier, and, of course, Knoll Pharmaceuticals Ltd."
-Ellen Ruppel Shell, The Hungry Gene
Is the American Obesity Association the lobbying arm of the weight-loss industry? It claimed credit for convincing the Internal Revenue Service to allow tax deductions for weight-loss programs such as those provided by Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig—two of the organization's sponsors. It also led the charge to win Medicare coverage of obesity treatments. AOA co-founder Judith Stern has even advocated having the government pay for Weight Watchers fees incurred by food-stamp recipients.

When the government announced in 2003 that it would reconsider the language for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidance on obesity treatments, AOA convened meetings of pharmaceutical companies to craft language that was later suggested for government adoption. Among the participating companies were Abbott Laboratories, Amylin Pharmaceuticals, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Millennium, Novartis, Pfizer, Regeneron, Roche Laboratories, and Sanofi-Synthelabo. They described themselves, appropriately enough, as "the AOA-industry group."

The group wanted the BMI threshold for weight-loss treatment shifted from 27 (with one or more comorbidities) to 25 (with one or more comorbidities). In other words, they recommended that a 5 foot 10 inch man who weighs 171 pounds and has hypertension should be given weight-loss pills. "The AOA-industry group" also called for obesity to be termed a "disease."

AOA's board includes the chief scientific officer of Weight Watchers, a former senior medical director of Knoll, and the vice president of Novartis.11 The group's Secretary is the Executive Medical Director of a chain of weight-loss centers in California.

AOA's donors have included the following companies, all involved in the weight-loss industry:

  • Abbott Laboratories
  • American Home Products
  • Eli Lilly and Company
  • Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Inc.
  • GlaxoSmithKline
  • Health Management Resources
  • Hoffman LaRoche
  • Interneuron Pharmaceuticals
  • Jenny Craig International
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Knoll
  • Medeva Pharmaceuticals
  • Merck
  • Novartis Nutrition Corporation
  • Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical
  • Pfizer
  • Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
  • Roche
  • Sanofi-Aventis
  • Slim-Fast Foods Company
  • Tanita
  • Weight Watchers International
  • Wyeth-Ayerst

AOA proclaims "it is organized as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization for the purpose of advocating on behalf of persons with obesity." According to a 1998 report in the Wall Street Journal:
"At the advisory panel hearing on Meridia, [AOA president Richard] Atkinson, the first speaker, described the association as 'a lay advocacy group representing the interests of the 70 to 80 million obese American women and children and adults afflicted with the disease of obesity.'

"The association charges individuals $25 for membership. [AOA co-founder Judith] Stern says she and Dr. Atkinson belong but she has 'absolutely no idea' how many others are members. Asked for a member count, Morgan Downey, the group's executive director, produced a single, completed application and check and said it was from the only paid member he had seen.

"Dr. Atkinson says the group receives most of its funding-several hundred thousand dollars in all—from the pharmaceuticals industry, including Interneuron, American Home Products, Roche Laboratories, Knoll Pharmaceuticals Ltd. and Servier—all of which market or develop diet pills."
AOA says its "fundamental mission is to have obesity regarded as a disease of epidemic proportions." To achieve this goal, the group regularly engages in rhetorical excess. AOA's Executive Director, Morgan Downey, repeatedly states that obesity is the "most prevalent, fatal, chronic disease of the 21st century." Stern once claimed: "If we don't try something new, in about 10 years everyone in the country will be overweight or obese." Atkinson has even made the absurd assertion that "medicine has never seen an epidemic of this proportion."

Another AOA strategy is to trumpet questionable statistics about the risks and costs of obesity. The group greatly surpassed other existing estimates of obesity's annual price tag, concluding in a 1999 report that it costs the United States $238 billion each year. That's more than double the $117 billion figure produced by Graham Colditz's study, which admitted to a "double-counting of costs" that would "inflate the cost estimate."

AOA has also defended flawed figures on obesity-related mortality. Downey wrote a 2002 essay attempting to rebut now-confirmed doubts about whether obesity kills 300,000 Americans every year. He argued for the flawed figure because it meant millions of dollars for obesity researchers and perhaps billions in profits for AOA's corporate sponsors:
"If it is true, obesity must be taken seriously as an important public health issue. If false, then obesity can continue to be trivialized or ignored. One way dictates millions of dollars for research, prevention and treatment and carries implications for regulation of the causes. The second approach can leave the present allocation of health care dollars intact …"

If obesity = disease then diet drugs = insurance $$