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OpenMarket: Health and Safety

  • BPA Research Funding Linked to Researcher Bias?

    October 9, 2014 5:18 PM

    The number of studies that have appeared in the news during recent years on the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is staggering. Few substances undergo such scrutiny. So why BPA? Mattie Duppler of American’s for Tax Reform’s Cost of Government project answers that question in an article for The Hill’s Congress Blog: Congress has poured millions of dollars ($170 million since 2000) into BPA research for what amounts to little more than a witch hunt.

    Follow the money and you may find a strong statistical association between government funding and the increased number of research studies that link BPA to various health ailments.

    Money goes out to researchers motivated to produce studies that report positive associations that easily get published and that gain more funding. And the more money politicians spend for research studies, the more likely some portion of studies will come up with positive associations between BPA and various health aliments, which is likely to happen by mere accident. In addition, many positive findings appear to be attributable to activist agendas among some researchers who make creative interpretations of largely meaningless data. And the studies that come up negative usually don’t get published or end up in the news either because negative findings as simply not interesting.

    Thus far, the allegedly most damning studies on BPA are extremely weak. Most don’t really find what the researchers claim they do, and they are often poorly designed. Consider the latest BPA study in the news. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics (JAMA Pediatrics), it claims that BPA is associated with wheezing and reduced lung function in children.

  • Journalists Called Out for Bad Reporting on Consumption Data

    October 3, 2014 2:20 PM

    Being a journalist is not an easy job; it demands fast paced and high volume production. For those “wonk” journalists tasked with analyzing data-heavy reports for laymen readers, the task is even more difficult. A new post from Forbes’s Trevor Butterworth scrutinizes some recent articles from The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, highlighting how some journos aren’t exactly rising to the challenge. And the consequences go beyond a misinformed public.

    On September 25, Wonkblog posted an article claiming that 24 million American adults are consuming a shocking average of 74 drinks per week. Butterworth delves into the source of those data and points out the numbers aren’t exactly accurate. The data were pulled from a 2007 report which used information from a survey of Americans’ consumption during 2001-2002. Of course, self-reporting surveys are notoriously flawed. Participants misremember what they ate, miscalculate how much, or outright lie about their consumption habits. Butterworth states that if people really consumed what they tell researchers in self-reporting surveys, “life for almost two thirds of Americans would be biologically implausible.”

    Cook, understanding these flaws, attempted to correct for underreporting by multiplying the reported number of drinks by 1.97 which, as Butterworth noted, “requires us to believe that every drinker misremembered by a factor of almost two. This might not much of a stretch for moderate drinkers; but did everyone who drank, say, four or eight drinks per week systematically forget that they actually had eight or sixteen? That seems like a stretch.”

    Furthermore, the study also requires us to believe that those reporting no consumption didn’t drink a drop and even more significantly problematic that those under 18 years old—who were not included in Cook’s study—never consumed alcohol. Plenty of data demonstrates that even though they aren’t legally supposed to drink, a fifth of 12th graders are consuming alcohol. Additionally, Cook’s study, which was trying to account for a discrepancy between how much people said they consumed versus how much alcohol was sold in America, did not account for waste. As Butterworth points out, “…waste is a huge issue with food, with estimates running from 30-40 percent of calories produced; we do not know how much alcohol is, if you’ll forgive the pun, wasted.” Lastly, he notes that other studies looking at consumption patterns “[a]ll converge on a similar proportion; none come remotely close to Cook’s estimate; none are mentioned in Wonkblog.”

  • Cyanide, Tylenol and How Free Markets Make You Safer

    September 29, 2014 4:43 PM

    Today is the anniversary of one of the most significant food and drug related events in recent memory. Often discussed in college business classes these days, the 1982 Tylenol poisonings is usually heralded as the prime example of how companies should handle a consumer relations disaster. However, it is also a shining example of how the market itself—acting to protect its customers and thus its profits—can improve public safety. The actions that Johnson & Johnson took in the wake of this tragedy, without a doubt, improved the safety of consumers of all over-the-counter (OTC) drugs for the next 30 years.

    Within three days, beginning on September 29, 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died after taking Extra-Strength Tylenol laced with cyanide. More than 30 years later, who committed this crime and why remains a mystery. After an investigation, it was determined that the cyanide was not introduced in the factory, which, according to Grey Hunter, author of True Crime Stories“left only one other possibility. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and law enforcement agencies realized that someone had methodically taken the Tylenol bottles off the shelves at the stores where they were sold, filled the capsules with cyanide and returned them back to the shelves at a later period.”

    The incident triggered nationwide panic and distrust of OTC medicine as well as numerous copycat attempts. Within the next month, the FDA counted 270 incidents of suspected product tampering. However, it was unlikely that any tampering following the Chicago deaths involved Johnson & Johnson products. That’s because the company immediately implemented a protocol to make sure that customers could rest assured that any OTC they purchased from Johnson & Johnson was tamper resistant.

    While advertising genius Jerry Della Femina declared that Johnson & Johnson wouldn’t “ever sell another product under that name,” the company managed to turn the crises into a public relations campaign that would promote Johnson & Johnson products as safer than all others. Tylenol, which had been 37 percent of the analgesic market, plummeted to just 7 percent after the scare, but within a year it bounced back to a 30-percent market share. That is all thanks entirely to Johnson & Johnson’s robust campaign to prove to its customers that its top priority was their safety.

  • Study on Artificial Sweeteners Interesting But Flawed

    September 26, 2014 1:29 PM

    ​A new study out of Israel on the possible effects of artificial sweeteners is making a lot of headlines this week. Unfortunately (and as usual) members of the media from Forbes to NPR’s Diane Rehm are reporting on the study without taking into consideration the growing criticism of its methodology, conclusions, and prior research on the topic. As Stephen O’Rahilly, endocrinologist and head of Cambridge’s metabolic research lab put it, “It would be unfortunate if this data were to influence public policy.” 

    Jotham Suez, a graduate student in the Department of Immunology at the Weizmann institute of Science, led the study. Suez et al. gave doses of water laced with saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame to mice and observed that the mice then developed a glucose intolerance. When they looked at the effects of artificial sweeteners on humans, four out of the seven subjects displayed “significantly poorer glycaemic responses” after consuming the maximum recommended daily limit of saccharin for a week. None of the subjects were regular users of artificial sweeteners prior to the study.

    While the results are certainly interesting, the researchers make quite a leap from their results to the assertion that artificial sweeteners “contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic that they themselves were intended to fight.” That is, they are suggesting a link between the consumption of non-caloric sweeteners, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Yet, this link is dubious. The study may be the start of a significant investigation into how human gut bacteria is affected by artificial sweeteners, but it is preliminary and just one study among a number on the topic—many of which come to wildly different conclusions. Of course, you would never know that from the media coverage.

  • In Memoriam: Elizabeth Whelan

    September 16, 2014 12:21 PM

    I was very sad to hear last week that Elizabeth Whelan, founder and president of the American Council on Science and Health, had passed away. Beth had a great scientific mind—always asking questions, and always seeking new knowledge—not just information, but understanding. And it was that innate desire to know, to better understand, and to share the truth that led her, in 1978, to found an organization dedicated to injecting solid scientific information into public debates and public policy on public health. Under Beth’s leadership, and with her aggressive, no nonsense activism, ACSH became a leading voice in science advocacy and “go to” source of information about a range of science and health issues.

    I came to know Beth many years ago after becoming interested in food and drug safety issues. As a young policy wonk with no formal scientific training, I sought out as many respected scientific advisors as I could find to guide me. It wasn’t long before several of the scientists I consulted directed me to ACSH, and to Beth Whelan in particular. She was a nutritionist by training—having completed an Sc.D. at Harvard and a M.P.H. at Yale—and a greatly respected one at that. But I found her to be both incredibly knowledgeable about a broad range of science and public health issues and eager to teach a budding young scholar like myself.

  • CDC Study: Kids Eat Same Amount of Sodium as Worldwide Average

    September 12, 2014 8:33 AM

    It’s not exactly a blood-pressure raising headline, which is probably why the new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is actually bears the alarming titled, High Sodium Intake in Children and Adolescents: Cause for Concern. The study will no doubt be hailed by public health advocates as proof that something must be done to bring America’s sodium intake in line with the recommendations of the CDC and other health originations. However, the report’s findings, when put into context of 50 years’ worth of research on global salt consumption aren’t alarming at all.

    High sodium intake is associated with all sorts of nasty health problems—as the CDC was careful to note in the opening paragraph of its report. As NBC News put it:

    Studies clearly show that eating a lot of salt can raise blood pressure — not in every single person, but in a significant percentage of the population. The latest survey of what kids eat shows that more than 90 percent of them are eating far too much salt...

  • Honeybee Population in Decline—Or Not?

    August 13, 2014 4:14 PM

    If you read the news about honeybee survival, it’s all very confusing. Some sources sound the alarm by pointing out that the number of honeybee hives has dropped significantly in recent decades. Others say just the opposite: There are more hives today than ever before.

    Which is it? Actually, both.  Some regions of the world have fewer hives, while globally there are more commercial hives now than there were in 1960. The key here is to understand which dataset is more important to the debate about sustaining these helpful creatures.

    The Hoover Institution’s Dr. Henry Miller notes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “The reality is that honeybee populations are not declining. According to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization statistics, the world's honeybee population rose to 80 million colonies in 2011 from 50 million in 1960.” Meanwhile Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council responds in a letter to the editor: “The number of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. has dropped from four million hives in 1970 to 2.5 million today, according to White House statistics.”

    Surprisingly, both of these claims are correct. Miller points to the “global” commercial honeybee-hive count, which has grown considerably. Sass points to domestic colony numbers only, which have in fact declined.

    Miller’s numbers are more relevant because if honeybee survival is really at stake, we would see declines on a global scale. Miller also points out that U.S. and European hive numbers are relatively stable, and Canadian numbers increased. Miller is certainly correct to point out that honeybees are not about to disappear.

  • Happy There’s-No-Such-Thing-as-Junk-Food Day!

    July 21, 2014 1:54 PM

    Whomever it is that decides the dates for the ever multiplying obscure holidays apparently designated today, July 21, as “Junk Food Day.” While the origin and intended purpose of the day is a mystery, it’s a good opportunity to address the myth of junk food. I say myth because junk food is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. There is food that is less nutritious or perhaps higher in calories than what people normally think of as “health foods,” but calling food “junk” implies that is without value. As Professors Stanley Feldman (of London University and the Imperial College School of Medicine) Vincent Marks of the University of Surrey, put it in their book Panic Nation,“[e]ither something is a food, in which case it is not junk, or it has no nutritional value, in which case it cannot be called a food.”

    Over the last year, the news about the so-called obesity epidemic in the US gives one reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Headlines have declared that abdominal obesity rates among kids are “levelling off” and studies show that folks with higher BMIs may not necessarily be at greater risk of dying from heart disease than those with “normal” BMIs. But that hasn’t stopped self-styled health advocates from declaring that we’re “losing the war” on obesity and calling for greater restrictions on what, where, and how food can be sold or advertised. 

    Whether it’s warning letters on sodajunk food taxes, pressuring food makers to reduce ingredients like salt or caffeine, or restricting sales and increasing prices on alcohol, proposals by public health advocates have one thing in common: people are not smart enough or strong enough to consume in moderation foods and ingredients that can make up an unhealthy diet when over-consumed. Which foods they consider “junk” are based on “accepted wisdom” about what constitutes an unhealthy food. However, the track record for these advocates as well as government agencies in implementing “accepted wisdom,” about nutrition is less than stellar.

  • Celebrate Food Freedom this 4th of July

    July 3, 2014 10:56 AM

    “If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” –Thomas Jefferson

    By 1939, most Americans realized that national alcohol prohibition was a complete disaster. The “noble experiment” intended to solve societal harms linked with alcohol consumption was an utter failure and would foster in Americans a permanent distrust of food or drink bans “for our own good.” Modern self-styled public health advocates have learned from prohibitionists' mistakes: if you eliminate food choices slowly, people are less likely to protest.

    By passing laws and implementing regulations, health advocates have been able to increase the cost, limit availability, and removed the choice of consuming certain foods or ingredients they deem “unhealthy.” While the methods may differ, the intent and the results are largely the same. Health advocates want to engineer a world in which we can only make the choices they have decided are the best for us. The result is a loss of freedom and independence by baby steps.

    Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration announced its plan to revoke the “Generally Recognized As Safe” designation for partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which would create a de facto ban on the additive commonly used in foods such as pie crust, pastries, shortening, and fried foods (among other things). Despite the fact that PHOs have been used by Americans for over a hundred years, the FDA asserts that artificial trans fats (contained in PHOs) can increase the risk of heart disease.

    As I wrote in November 2013, this is a sea change for the FDA. Rather than protecting people from unknowingly consuming foods that are likely to cause harm, the FDA has now turned to protecting consumers from the cumulative harms of poor dietary choices over the course of a lifetime—something they are already aware of (nobody believes a lifelong diet of fried chicken and cherry pies will allow them to live to 120 years old!).

    As the FDA itself admitted, Americans have already virtually eliminated trans fats from their diet, from an average of 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to about 1 gram per day in 2012. And as I noted in my comments to the FDA, while there are studies showing a slight increase in heart disease risk at the higher levels of consumption, there’s no scientific basis for assuming there are risks at the very low levels Americans are currently consuming trans fats and no reason to assume further reductions will result in any health benefits. Of course, the FDA’s decision is less about science than it is about politics.

  • Friday June 6th: Have a Doughnut for Freedom

    June 6, 2014 7:30 AM

    Do you know what today is? If you said D-Day, you’d be right. But this year, June 6 also marks another, less well known occasion.

    National Doughnut Day, celebrated the first Friday each June, may seem like a silly excuse to indulge, but it has serious roots in American history. The holiday was created in 1938 by the Salvation Army to honor those who distributed doughnuts to soldiers on the front lines during World War I. At the time, the doughnut was a novelty to most Americans, but it quickly became a breakfast staple. So when did this beloved ring of fried dough become public enemy number one?

    Today, we’ve got a full-time “food police”—an array of bureaucrats, lawmakers, and public health advocates—going after doughnuts with taxes, laws, and brute force, all in the name of fighting obesity. The ultimate goal of these self-appointed guardians of our health is to get us to make choices they deem “nutritionally correct.” The humble doughnut in all its fried, fatty, and sugar-sweetened glory, is the perfect symbol for the war on food freedom. That’s why this year we are asking you to eat two doughnuts—one for those in today’s armed forces and another as a show of patriotic defiance.

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