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A government study has concluded that obesity causes about 112,000 deaths each year in the United States, far fewer than a previous, highly publicized estimate by another part of the same agency.

The study concludes that being overweight ranks No. 7 instead of No. 2 among the nation's leading preventable causes of death, according to the startling new calculation from the Centers for Disease Control.

The new calculation was immediately seized upon by skeptics who argue that public health authorities have created undue alarm about obesity. Other experts and the researchers who conducted the new study, however, said obesity still clearly represents a major public health threat.

"This certainly shouldn't be interpreted to mean obesity isn't a problem anymore," said Katherine Flegal of the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md., who led the study in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Flegal attributed the difference in the estimates to the fact that her group used more recent and more complete data and was able to account better for more variables, such as smoking, age and alcohol consumption. Also, Flegal and her colleagues cited improved medical care and lifestyles.

"People have been changing their diets in response to some of the public health activities around obesity, which has been having a positive effect on such factors as cholesterol levels," she said.

About two-thirds of Americans are overweight, including about one-third who are obese.

The CDC last year estimated that being overweight was causing about 400,000 deaths each year, making it the second leading cause of preventable death.

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