Critics Accuse CDC of Losing Focus

A much-publicized recent study touted findings that didn't seem like big news to many: Living together before marriage decreases a couple's chance of staying married.

What was surprising to some, however, was the organization that conducted the study: the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This is way out of the ballpark," said Steve Milloy, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and a columnist. "It's got nothing to do with public health. It's stupid. It's doubtful whether the federal government should be wasting money on this."

Milloy and other critics believe the CDC has no business doing research on lifestyle matters, and wonder when cohabiting couples, marriage and divorce became public health issues, especially in light of concerns like bioterrorism and anthrax.

But CDC experts at the public health agency's National Center for Health Statistics said the agency studies many issues and defended last month's report entitled "Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the United States" as related to its overall mission.

"The CDC is a larger and more diverse organization than some people might be aware of," said statistician William Mosher, who co-authored the study. "The National Center for Health Statistics collects birth and death data, and we also do surveys, including this one, that help shed light on births and family formation," he said.

"It's not just about infectious disease. Congress gave them a wider mission than that," he added.

Indeed, the CDC's mission, according to its own Web site, is to promote health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury and disability. It works with partners "to monitor health, detect and investigate health problems, conduct research to enhance prevention, develop and advocate sound public health policies, implement prevention strategies, promote healthy behaviors, foster safe and healthful environments, and provide leadership and training."

In the case of the marriage study, NCHS researchers interviewed nearly 11,000 women, aged 15-44, and found 40 percent of marriages between couples who lived together first ended after 10 years, compared to 31 percent of marriages in which the couples didn't live together beforehand. The report cites youth and lack of religious commitment among other factors that lead to cohabitation and perhaps misunderstanding about the gravity of a lifelong vow.

"Many people enter a cohabiting relationship where the deal is, 'If this doesn't work out we can split up and it's no big loss because we don't have a legal commitment,'" said Catherine Cohan, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University. "The commitment is tenuous and that tenuous commitment might carry over into marriage."

Mosher contends the study's findings deal directly with health issues because it contributes to the comparison of married people to unmarried people in terms of mortality rates, risky behavior, compliance with medical regimens and monitoring of one's health.

He said researchers found married people have lower mortality rates, engage in less risky behavior, comply more with medical regimens and monitor their health better than their unmarried counterparts.

But Milloy criticized the CDC for working more on lifestyle issues and less on what it was formed to study: health.

"They have too much money and they're not focused on what they're supposed to be doing," he charged. "It's bureaucracy out of control. They're involved in nonsense like this all the time."

The marriage study isn't the only project that has stirred controversy. The CDC has also studied subjects as varied as traveling by car over the Thanksgiving holiday, children trick-or-treating on Halloween and courtship violence.

"They really don't focus on communicable disease anymore," Milloy said. "That's why they were caught with their pants down on anthrax."

The CDC has successfully played a vital role in some public health issues, particularly AIDS, by getting out word about how the disease is contracted and who is most at risk, according to Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

But, he added, the agency has since resorted to more politically correct campaigns -- even in the case of AIDS -- by getting out messages warning no one is safe from the deadly disease.

"The public health establishment is notorious for trying to label absolutely anything they care about as a public health issue," Fumento said. "In this case [of the marriage-living together report], the data are really old. And people are asking, what does this have to do with disease?"

Fumento and Milloy agreed the credibility of the agency weakens when it spends time and money on studying things like marriage. Milloy thinks the agency should go back to focusing solely on diseases and health matters.

"One thing is for sure: This is not a public health issue and it doesn't belong in CDC at all," Milloy said. "Science does not belong in the federal government, because it gets corrupted."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.