IT WAS a big fat mistake that got past the top scientists in the country. The Centers for Disease Control made headlines last year with a report about obesity overtaking smoking as the leading cause of death in the United States. The accompanying obesity death figures were widely reported.
But those figures, it turns out, were overblown.
The CDC retracted its earlier conclusion published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and blamed the embarrassment on computation errors. The government health agency overestimated the number of deaths caused by obesity by about 35,000. In March, 2004, the CDC said obesity-related deaths climbed to 400,000 a year between 1990 and 2000 - an increase of 100,000.
That was a miscalculation, or, as the government put it, an overstatement of the nation's weight problem.
The increase was a more modest 65,000 deaths or so. The higher total, the CDC had noted, could push past the yearly 435,000 tobacco-related deaths if current health trends continued. That projection was left unchallenged.
After the statistical error was discovered by scientists inside and outside the agency, the CDC corrected itself but hastened to add its principal conclusions remained unchanged. "Tobacco use and poor diet and physical inactivity contributed to the largest number of deaths," said the government, "and the number of deaths related to poor diet and physical inactivity is increasing."
And regardless of the controversy, noted a defensive CDC official, it's clear a combination of diet, physical inactivity, and tobacco are all leading causes of death, "causing far more than a majority of total deaths in the country in the year 2000."
Indeed. Only not as many obesity-related ones as previously stated. The chagrined CDC director, Julie Gerberding, regretted the error was not discovered earlier.
Obviously some correction in protocol is imperative to ensure reliable findings.
Mistakes happen but exaggerated scientific claims can taint an entire research community. The CDC chief rightfully acknowledges integrity as the core value of the agency that needs to be strictly protected if future work is to be accepted without immediate skepticism.
This we still know: Smoking kills.