The Fraser Institute and the Obesity Myth

by Kapil Khatter on May 5, 2014

Apple and scaleOnce upon a time there was a little right wing think tank called the Fraser Institute with some pretty big donors. Although the think tank called itself independent, it got a lot of its money from corporate-friendly foundations, so sometimes, some people thought it was a little biased by that.

Anyway, one day the little think tank decided to do a little report on our supposed problem with obesity and its supposed health effects. Now the little think tank was not a big expert on obesity, but it was a big expert on using statistics in just the right way to make the case it wanted.

Statistics, the little think tank knew, could be as powerful as magic beans, as valuable as golden eggs, if used just right. So, the little think tank chose just the right statistics to convince people that obesity hasn’t really been on the rise and isn’t really the big bad wolf people are making it out to be.

The problem with their perfectly chosen statistics was that they didn’t fit with what everyone could see around them. It was like trying to convince people standing in a thunderstorm that it wasn’t raining.

The little think tank had a backup plan though. If they couldn’t blow down the obesity problem with that first huff and puff they had some other perfectly chosen statistics they were sure would. Even if there was an obesity epidemic, these other statistics said, obesity wasn’t really bad for you, it wasn’t the poison apple the “anti-obesity lobby” was making it out to be.

Unfortunately for the little think tank, obesity experts quickly pointed out these statistics were misleading as well. Cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure experts did too. The little think tank’s second argument, the experts said, had no clothes either.

So the little think tank tried one more time to find a fit for their glass slipper explanation. Choosing all the right studies, they claimed there was little evidence that public policies would solve the obesity problem (assuming there is a problem, which, they assured everyone, there isn’t).

Public policies, after all, have the basic problem of being “public” and not “private” like any good intervention should be. There was just no reason, the little think tank said, to think that taxes and warning labels and advertising restrictions would work the way they worked for, well, smoking. Oh ya, smoking.

Though the candy house idea that obesity isn’t a problem is attractive, unfortunately for the little think tank, almost no one was biting. Few were convinced there was nothing to be done about obesity. Sadly for the little think tank, their little obesity report was mostly rejected for what it was – a fairy tale.

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2 comments… read them below or add one

Jimmy May 21, 2014 at 2:49 pm

The statistics used in the Fraser Report were published by Statistics Canada (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-625-x/2012001/article/11664-eng.htm). Are you saying that the Statistics Canada report is wrong? Or are you saying that the Fraser Report is interpreting the Statistics Canada report incorrectly?

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Kapil Khatter May 21, 2014 at 5:14 pm

There are two problems with using the Statistics Canada numbers to come to the conclusion that the Fraser Institute did. The first is that the data only go from 2003 to 2011 and so they give a very different picture of the obesity problem than if you looked at how obesity has tripled since the 1970s. The other is that the numbers are self-reported and there is convincing evidence that self-reported weights and heights are biased and inaccurate.

It does appear that obesity rates are likely plateauing in the United States and Canada. But rather than that being a reason to do nothing, I would think it is a reason to keep doing something, to keep raising awareness of the problem and using public policy tools to fix it.

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