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An Epidemic of Obesity Myths
Centers for Obesity Research and Education

"Since we don't fully understand the causes of obesity, we should take the patient's responsibility out of it."
-George Bray
Many top obesity researchers whose opinions trickle down to family physicians and the media are affiliated with one of the Centers for Obesity Research and Education. The eight centers are designed to educate doctors on the dangers of obesity and ways to treat it. Who funds those centers? Abbott Laboratories, Aventis Pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline, Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceuticals, Procter & Gamble, Roche Laboratories, and Slim-Fast Foods—all of which also support AOA.

CORE has gone to great lengths to defend its industry sponsors. When there were calls to remove Abbot's weight-loss drug Meridia from the market, CORE issued a press release defending the pill. The release even cited a wildly bloated statistic: "A recent Harris Poll estimates that 85% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese" (the already-inflated number usually cited is 65 percent). The CORE release went on to attack the role of personal responsibility, claiming: "In the medical community, the old notion that obesity is due to lack of willpower has been displaced by scientific evidence that obesity is the result of complex interaction between genetics, physiology, environment, and behavior."

The Centers include the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (run by George Blackburn and Caroline Apovia); the Pennington Biomedical Research Center (run by Claude Bouchard, George Bray, and Eric Ravussin); UCLA's Center for Human Nutrition (run by David Heber); the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital, (run by Xavier Pi-Sunyer); and the Northwestern Memorial Wellness Institute (run by Robert Kushner).

These are among the most influential obesity researchers in the country. Kushner, who sat on Knoll's grant-making Weight Risk Investigation Study Council, was tapped to author the American Medical Association's "primer" for physicians treating obesity. That document was reviewed by other industry-funded researchers, such as the CDC's William Dietz and at least five CORE leaders, including Bray and Pi-Sunyer. Other expert reviewers of Kushner's AMA guidelines included Thomas Wadden and Samuel Klein of NAASO, and AOA advisory council member Denise Bruner.

CORE began publishing a journal in 2005. The first issue of its Obesity Management was chock-full of pro-industry tactics. In one interview, George 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."
In the same issue, Robert 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 had received a grant from the Weight Watchers Foundation to train residents.

CORE's New York Obesity Research Center, run by Xavier Pi-Sunyer, also hosts the Theodore VanItallie Center, named after the man who was the first to grab headlines in 1985 for labeling obesity a "killer disease." The Center has also employed David Allison and Kevin Fontaine, who, along with VanItallie, crafted the deeply flawed study that blamed obesity for 300,000 deaths each year.

The New York Obesity Research Center's website boasts a long history of conducting clinical trials on weight-loss products. It studied dexfenfluramine, a component of fen-phen, for the French company Servier. It investigated sibutramine (Meridia) for Boots, Orlistat for Roche, Ephedra for NutriSystem, and the Weight Watchers program. The Center's external advisory group includes industry-funded researchers such as Claude Bouchard and Albert Stunkard, as well as employees of Novartis and Jackson Laboratories. Jackson breeds mice for obesity and diabetes research.

AOA, NAASO, and CORE are so closely connected that they entered into merger talks in late 2003; NAASO eventually subsumed CORE as a "continuing medical education" program.