When the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released the results of a major study on obesity last year, some in the federal government — including the office of first lady Michelle Obama — saw a political opportunity.
Sure, sample sizes in the study released Feb. 25, 2014 were small and results were mixed, showing that obesity rates for children between two and 19 years old hovered around 17 percent over the past decade. Other groups, such as elderly woman, have seen obesity rates increase according to the research conducted by Cynthia Ogden, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But the White House seized on one slight glimmer of hope — the finding that obesity rates for children between two and five years old fell from 13.9 percent in 2003-2004 to 8.4 percent in 2011-2012. And as emails obtained by The Daily Caller through a Freedom of Information Act request show, the White House wanted the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to highlight that news while ignoring the rest in order to lend credence to Michelle’s pet childhood obesity project — “Let’s Move.”
Nevermind that scientists both inside and outside the CDC thought that even the positive news in the study was tenuous and needed more investigation and that “Let’s Move” — which only kicked off in 2010 — likely had nothing to do with the decline in obesity for small children.
“Well our press release is skewed to highlight the good news per HHS request,” a CDC senior press officer, Karen Hunter, admitted in a Feb. 26, 2014 email to three others at the agency.
“This release will have a first lady quote and they are mainly wanting to focus on the decline among 2 to 5 year olds during the current administration,” she wrote in another email.
The full extent of the White House’s pressure on HHS and CDC to spin the study in favor of “Let’s Move” is not clear. Many of the 713 pages of emails are withheld, citing executive privilege invoked by the White House.
But the government’s footprint is evident in the differences between JAMA’s press release and the CDC’s.
“Obesity Prevalence Remains High in U.S.; No Significant Change in Recent Years,” was JAMA’s subdued headline.
“New CDC data show encouraging development in obesity rates among 2 to 5 year olds,” the CDC’s reads.
“I am thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years in obesity rates among our youngest Americans,” Michelle said in the statement tailored for the CDC release. “With the participation of kids, parents, and communities in Let’s Move! these last four years, healthier habits are beginning to become the new norm.”
Numerous news outlets picked up on the CDC’s glowing language. “Obesity Rate for Young Children Plummets 43% in a Decade,” was the headline for a New York Times article which also quoted Michelle, thus leaving the impression that “Let’s Move” had something to do with the fall in obesity rates for small kids.
But the adulatory coverage rubbed some scientists the wrong way.
The CDC and The Times “shined a bright light on a tenuous and likely spurious finding that the prevalence of obesity in children ages, 2-5, ‘plummeted 43% in a decade,” Lawrence Appel, the director of the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology, and Clinical Research at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, wrote to an editor at The Times. The email was forwarded to the CDC’s press office and was included in the email release.
“It is really unfortunate that the CDC highlighted such a tenuous finding,” Appel told TheDC last year. (RELATED: CDC Official ‘Gets Very Worked Up’ By Interview Requests From Conservatives)
That sentiment was felt within the CDC as well.
In one email, Katherine Flegal, a highly respected senior CDC scientist, said she agreed with Appel.
“I must say I pretty much agree with Larry Appel on this,” she wrote. “The finding is exaggerated and questionable in a variety of ways, and the HHS press release made far too much of it. I have gotten a number of personal emails from various researchers also saying ‘What is going on here?'”
What was going on there is made clear in the emails, which TheDC received earlier this month, 17 months after requesting them through FOIA.
“HHS is asking for some language they can use for Let’s Move regarding the upcoming JAMA obesity study — specifically the decline in obesity among the nation’s 2 to 5 year olds,” CDC’s Hunter wrote Feb. 21, 2014 in an email providing talking points to the White House.
“I don’t think we want to put language in attributing this decline to Let’s Move unless we have some actual science to back that up,” Hunter continued.
“If FLOTUS wants to do that than [sic] we can let them make that call,” she added, referring to Obama.
Llewyn Grant, another CDC spokesman, gave additional insight into why the White House was “very interested in the study findings.”
“Karen [Hunter] just reminded me that next week is the 4th anniversary of the Let’s Move campaign,” he wrote in a Feb. 21, 2014 email to others at the CDC.
Grant also noted that Michelle was scheduled to host an event at the Department of Agriculture the week of the study’s release, “so this is driving the [White House] interest.”
CDC press officials were not entirely surprised by the criticism that the cheery press release generated, the emails show.
“This reflects what we were concerned about,” wrote CDC spokesman Jeffrey Lancashire in an email responding to Appel’s letter.
“I knew our press release would confuse the crap out of someone,” Hunter wrote in another message.