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Weight study tainted?

By Kerri S. Smith
Denver Post Staff Writer

Nov. 22 - A controversial study concluding overweight people cost employers billions of dollars in sick time and insurance coverage has come under attack as being a tool of a diet-drug company.

Critics also fear that the study, released earlier this month, will boost workplace discrimination.

The study, paid for by diet-drug maker Knoll Pharmaceutical, calls obesity a disease and says overweight people are more likely to get heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and certain cancers.

But critics say the pharmaceutical company is using the study to create a market for its prescription diet drug, Meridia.

"This pseudo-science certainly will have a chilling effect on the employability of fat people," said Sally Smith, president of the Sacramento-based National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. "Already we often are denied employment and promotions, paid less and fired more often due to our size. This simply will exacerbate existing discrimination."

But Knoll spokeswoman Linda Mayer said the company does not advocate discrimination. She called the study results an "important call to action for health professionals, consumers and employers." The study concludes that obese workers cost U.S. employers $12.7 billion a year. It ends with a suggestion that employers offer onsite weight loss programs.

For technical writer JeanMarie Olivieri, who is overweight, that's a problem.

"This makes me feel a bit nervous for my position because past employers have denied me promotions due to fatness," said Olivieri, who works for an Englewood mutual-fund company. She also doesn't want her boss sending her to lunch-hour Weight Watchers meetings.

"I've lost more time on the job due to dental issues than anything related to my weight - and my teeth have absolutely nothing to do with my size," Olivieri said.

Senior economist David Thompson, who headed the Knoll study, described the study and Knoll's new television ads for Meridia as important parts of "an awareness campaign" designed to create a bigger market for its diet drug.

"They need to change people's minds, make them aware of the medical consequences of obesity," he said.

Television commercials touting Meridia began running nationwide late last month.

About a half-million Americans take Meridia as part of a weight-loss program, Mayer said. The drug, which became available eight months ago, costs about $3 a day.

Fat people take more sick days and drain dollars from employer-paid health, life and disability insurance programs, according to a study summary issued by Thompson's company, Policy Analysis Inc. of Massachusetts.

"Obesity in the workforce leads directly to excess costs of many standard employee benefits," Thompson said. "It is having a tremendous spillover effect into other diseases."

Being very fat does put people at risk for other chronic diseases, acknowledged Jim Merker, executive director of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians, based in Englewood. The organization, which represents doctors specializing in weight management, is lobbying the Social Security Administration to keep morbid obesity classified as a disability for ailing people who can't work.

But fatness may not be the cause of an obese person's health problems, countered Glenn Gaesser, an associate professor of physiology at the University of Virginia and author of "Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Health." "We've seen these announcements before, but I don't know that obesity is really the critical thing," Gaesser said, adding that it is unclear whether fatness causes - or simply appears with - diabetes and the other diseases. He worries that studies like Knoll's "continue to stigmatize fat people rather than encouraging all Americans to follow a healthy diet and become more fit."