Photo: flickr/Adam Rose

Last week I wrote about tobacco industry funding for Fraser Institute research that “proved” second-hand smoke doesn’t cause cancer.

You may think that’s ancient history. And in one sense you’re right. The tobacco industry has shifted its doubt-manufacturing operations to countries like Russia, Indonesia and China, where the incidence of smoking — and cancer — continues to rise. But other industries with deep pockets need to manufacture doubt about the health risks of their products.

On Monday, the Fraser Institute released a report “Obesity in Canada: overstated problems, misguided policy solutions” that casts doubt on the extent of obesity in Canada and questions whether obesity is even that much of a health risk. Call it obesity denial.

Obesity isn’t an epidemic so we don’t need more government regulation, the study concludes, and besides, the obese die younger, saving us precious health care dollars. Nothing to worry about.

If these findings are correct, they’re good news for food and beverage companies that pack their products with sugar’s empty calories.

The institute didn’t say who funded the study. And the news media didn’t bother to ask. Instead, Postmedia papers gave the report royal treatment, putting it on the front page of the National Post and Ottawa Citizen and giving it prominent coverage in the chain’s other papers.

What’s interesting about this publication is that, along with Nadeem Esmail, the Fraser Institute’s in-house health care researcher, the people who produced it, were also responsible for the Fraser Institute’s cancer-denial work 15 years earlier.

The letters the Fraser Institute wrote to the British-American Tobacco Co. in 2000 asking for funding reveal that the institute had set up a social affairs centre to promote market solutions to social policy problems like poverty, drug use, smoking and gun control. Anything but government regulation was the centre’s marching orders. Rothman’s International was providing $50,000 a year for this work and Philip Morris, “generous support.”

The social affairs centre was headed by one Patrick Basham back then. Fifteen years later he’s returned as an author of “Obesity in Canada.” Basham has come full circle, his journey guided by tobacco and other industry funding.

After he left the Fraser, he went to work at the Cato Institute, another right-wing think tank with substantial tobacco funding. He then set up his own think tank, the Democracy Institute with offices in London and Washington, where he specializes in turning back public health initiatives (like smoke-free zones or taxes on junk foods) that could interfere with the marketing activities of tobacco, alcohol and food companies.

To launch the Democracy Institute, Basham co-wrote a book titled Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade, which argues against any government legislation or programs, not only because they’d be too costly and ineffective, but more importantly, they would result “in the sacrifice of so many of our hard-won economic and political liberties on the altar of a misguided, unwinnable crusade.”

Libertarianism über alles. That’s the frame Basham brings to “Obesity in Canada.”

Basham’s Diet Nation co-author was tobacco industry consultant John Luik. Luik, who accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from Big Tobacco, would have been an author of the obesity study except that he died in 2012.

My evidence for this claim is that Luik wrote six obesity-denial articles with Basham that frame the argument in “Obesity in Canada.” Luik wasn’t an unfamiliar face to Fraser Institute staffers, since he co-authored the Fraser Institute’s 1999 book, Passive Smoke: The EPA Betrayal of Science and Policy. The book attacked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s study that found an irrefutable link between second-hand smoke and cancer. It was paid for by Rothman’s and Philip Morris. Luik joined Basham at the Democracy Institute and over the next half-dozen years, they wrote Diet Nation and dozens of articles attacking the “myth” of obesity.

Perhaps they switched from second-hand smoke to obesity-denial because tobacco industry funding for manufacturing doubt dried up.

Unlike the 80 million pages of secret Big Tobacco documents in the public domain, the sugar papers file is much thinner. Documents from the 1970s suggest the sugar companies used Big Tobacco tactics to deflect growing public concerns over the health effects of sugar. They describe industry efforts “to sponsor scientific research, silence media reports critical of sugar, and block dietary guidelines to limit sugar consumption,” as the CBC’s Kelly Crowe reported.

“Obesity in Canada” fits comfortably in this program.

A key claim in the study is that rates of obesity and overweight barely budged between 2003 and 2012 except among adult women. Why did Esmail and Basham pick 2003 as their starting point, one might ask. Perhaps because the dramatic increases in obesity and overweight among the Canadian population occurred before 2003.

Are they lying with statistics? A 2006 Statistics Canada study reviewed the studies on overweight and obesity among Canadian adults and found that “the percentage of Canadians who are overweight or obese has risen dramatically in recent years.” By recent years StatsCan means between 1979 and 2004. Obesity among adult males and females soared from 13.8 to 23.1 per cent during those years, an increase of two-thirds.

Somehow the Fraser Institute researchers missed this information. For the atypical time segment they selected they conclude that the rate of growth has been “observable, modest and clearly not exponential,” introducing a requirement that to be classified as an epidemic, growth in the disease or condition must be “exponential.”

This is a red herring — there’s no requirement that the spread of a disease must be exponential to qualify as an epidemic — that diverts us from the fact that if you survey the 30 year period, obesity is close to epidemic proportions.

Nonetheless this message was picked up by Postmedia papers: “‘There is no epidemic,’ obesity study finds,” “Obesity ‘epidemic’ among Canadians exaggerated: report,” ran the headlines of the two Postmedia front page stories.

Far better than paid advertising.

Having conveyed the message that obesity is not an epidemic, the next task is to demonstrate that the risks and costs associated with overweight and obesity “may be (perhaps significantly) overstated.” Here the authors use a different technique: misquote your sources. The mission is to demonstrate that their findings are “quite different from the often alarmist comments seen and heard in the popular press from those in favour of government intervention.”

But the very first study they cite, a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they claim “found that overweight Americans were less likely to experience premature death than normal weight Americans.” This would be a striking finding, to be sure, but the study reported a more significant result, that obesity was associated with a higher rate of premature death. The Fraser researchers omitted this finding.

Of course, “Obesity in Canada” cites many sources and this first one could be an honest mistake. Nonetheless, the media picked it up as a second key message, that the health consequences of excess weight are being exaggerated.

As the National Post concludes, “That makes the case weak for anti-obesity policies such as calorie counts on menus, tax hikes on sugary drinks and other policies that ‘vilify’ certain foods, given that a ‘sizable portion’ of the population ‘are neither overweight nor obese’ according to their BMI,’ Mr. Esmail said.”

Esmail must say “sizable” and not “a majority,” since 60 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women in Canada are overweight or obese. But it’s not an epidemic and the health risks are minimal.

There must be smiling faces tonight in Sugarland.

Interested in following more money? Check out all of Donald Gutstein’s Follow the Money series.

Photo: flickr/Adam Rose

Donald Gutstein

Donald Gutstein is an adjunct professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University and co-director of NewsWatch Canada. His book on Stephen Harper and think-tanks will be published