Recent revelations showing that U.S. government scientists overestimated the number of deaths caused by obesity has left health officials struggling to convince the public that being overweight is still a major threat to their health.

"We are working very hard to send a clear message," Julie Gerberding, MD, director of the CDC, told reporters Wednesday.

Gerberding's comment reflects the fact that the message on the health risks of obesity has lately been anything but clear.

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Change of Heart?

It was just over a year ago, in March 2004, that Bush administration officials unveiled alarming figures showing that obesity played a key role in an estimated 365,000 deaths per year by elevating the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancers. At the time, Gerberding and other officials suggested that obesity could soon overtake smoking as the nation's leading cause of preventable death.

But a year later, officials were forced to admit that they had a mixture of flawed statistical methods and a lower death rate from illnesses, such as heart disease, had caused them to grossly overstate the number of deaths blamed on obesity. The agency now says that 112,000 Americans die from obesity annually, less than a third of last year's estimates.

The gaffe severely undermined the government's public health messages, which officials strive to keep simple and direct. It also diverted hard-won public attention away from obesity as a major contributor to chronic diseases and a driver of billions of dollars in annual health costs.

Interest groups under the gun for their role in fostering obesity were quick to jump on the controversy, using it to highlight and minimize the public health impact of excess body fat.

"Policymakers, public health groups, and the media should immediately cease using this data and stop the ridiculous claims that obesity-related deaths rival those of smoking," wrote Daniel Mindus, a senior analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, a group backed by the restaurant and food industry.

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Damage Control

The episode has in some ways sent officials scrambling to ensure that "people do not lose sight of the fact that obesity is a health issue," Gerberding says. Though estimates of obesity related-deaths are down, "the future does not suggest that we're moving in the right direction."

"The issue of the data being changed should not overshadow the fact that this is a very significant problem," U.S. Surgeon General Richard A. Carmona, MD, told reporters at a childhood obesity conference Wednesday.

The CDC's efforts to regain control of the obesity message will continue Thursday, when officials are scheduled to announce a series of new messages aimed at getting Americans to count their calories and keep track of their level of physical activity.

Experts emphasize that scientific debates over how to count obesity as a cause of death are not yet settled. But critics, including Mindus, stress that the government moved too quickly to hype data that were still a matter of significant arguments among scientists inside and outside of the CDC.

"As scientists, we expect these numbers to change," Gerberding says. At the same time, public health experts traditionally prize accurate and simple public communication almost as much as they value new study results. "I think that's where CDC needs to do a better job," she says.

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By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Julie M. Gerberding, MD, director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Richard H. Carmona, MD, U.S. Surgeon General. Dan Mindus, senior analyst, Center for Consumer Freedom.