DISPATCH: Environmentalists, Budget-Planners, and Candidates
Quote of the day:
Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, said, "But I later learned that the environmental movement is not always guided by science. As we celebrate Earth Day, this is a good lesson to keep in mind." --the _Wall Street Journal_, April 22, 2008.
Happy Earth Day! There are many stories in the news about the environment and what impact we have on it and vice versa.
An opinion piece( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120882720657033391.html?mod=opinion_main... ) in today's WSJ by Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, tells why he left the organization after fifteen years. In the beginning, he says, the causes were noble -- protecting the whales and opposing nuclear testing -- rather than opposing scientists. Slowly, the tone started to shift, and the directors did, too: Instead of being scientists, they were political activists or environmental entrepreneurs. Moore said, "We all have a responsibility to be environmental stewards. But that stewardship requires science, not political agendas, to drive our public policy." At ACSH, we recognize the importance of maintaining the Earth, but when extreme environmental groups want, for instance, to ban all phthalates or chlorine, they undermine the very goals they seek to accomplish.
On another eco-note, just last week in the _New York Post_, ACSH's Jeff Stier challenged Whole Foods' decision to remove all plastic bags, only offering paper or reusable canvas bags. Stier said, "Too many mindlessly follow green initiatives and bask in how good it feels -- without recognizing the unintended consequences."
Tobacco to plug budget holes
It is difficult to believe the government wants us to quit smoking, when they have already built the cigarette taxes into their budgets. To make matters worse, they think that by raising taxes on cigarette packs -- to fill budget gaps( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/21/us/21tobacco.html?hp ) -- that they are "looking out" for us, because they are making cigarettes less affordable, thus forcing people to quit. When the cigarette taxes were first instituted, a portion of the money taken in was supposed to go towards "Stop Smoking" campaigns; however, you will find very few states that actually use that extra revenue for smoking cessation. The sole consolation is that the revenues are used for health insurance plans, but you cannot rely on a small group of cigarette addicts to fix budgetary inadequacies. How can you pretend to care about insuring someone's health if you rely on the deterioration of other people's health?
An op-ed in the _Wall Street Journal_ today called "Cynicism and Big Tobacco"( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120882121714933013.html?mod=opinion_main... ) says it all: "The FDA tobacco gambit is explainable only because the politicians have dumped public health for public revenue." It goes on to say, "The 1998 litigation settlement between forty-six states and the industry was supposed to recoup the Medicaid costs of treating sick smokers, but the $150 billion payout was promptly redirected to other political priorities. The feds joined in the shakedown, building a $280 billion racketeering case that resulted in a mere $10 billion in 2006. Government has also bought a stake in lucrative tobacco profits by using cigarette taxes as the first-resort fundraiser for new domestic programs, most recently last fall's abortive SCHIP expansion."
However, the FDA partnership could be very beneficial -- at least to cigarette makers. First off, the industry would also be relieved of further lawsuits, since it could claim compliance with FDA product-safety scrutiny. Philip Morris, maker of the No. 1 brand, Marlboro, and the world's largest tobacco company, is understandably thrilled by the proposal. The FDA, which is barely capable of managing its existing workload, would now have to tackle a whole new issue. FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach told Congress in October that the $5 billion in "user fees" over the next decade wasn't enough to kick-start a tobacco division and that the FDA "may have to divert funds from its other programs."
Clearly, you can see who the winners of this co-operation will be. To quote the editorial, "Congressional priorities are rarely so grotesque." We couldn't agree more.
Presidential nominee's health
Jeff Stier may have gotten a bit of flack( http://wonkette.com/381589/obama-to-die-of-stroke-if-president ) for his Obama-and-smoking article in the Huffington Post last week, but he raised a legitimate question about the nominee's health. Stier wasn't the only one to bring up this issue: An article in _New York_ magazine posed the question, Would the U.S. elect a smoker as president? Lewis Lapham says, "An American politician has to express his or her faith in God and can't smoke."
Another article raises questions about the candidates' health, and points out( http://www.medpagetoday.com/Campaign08/Campaign08/tb/9186 ) that none of the three leading presidential candidates has chosen to be transparent about the state of their own health -- about the likelihood that they would live to serve for the next four years in the White House. To be sure, presidential candidates are not required to release detailed medical records, but it has been common practice since 1976, when all hopefuls did so even before the first primary. Jeff may be getting both negative and positive responses to his piece, but he raised the question no else has: What health risks are associated with past and present smoking?( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.377/pub_detail.asp )
The public deserves full disclosure on all candidates' health status -- including details such as McCain's skin cancer. And speaking of skin cancer...
Melanoma on neck and scalp could be most dangerous
Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, is much deadlier when it appears on the scalp or neck than somewhere else on the body, according to a study published on Monday( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080421/hl_nm/cancer_melanoma_dc;_ylt=Aq4QxP... ). Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found people with scalp or neck melanomas died at nearly twice the rate of those with melanoma elsewhere on the body. Part of the reason for the deadliness of melanoma on the scalp and neck may be that diagnosis is sometimes delayed because melanoma can be obscured by hair on the scalp and may not always be picked up during a yearly doctor's visit. ACSH's Dr. Whelan has suggested to her dermatologist that one way to spot melanoma would be to teach barbers and hairdressers how to recognize signs of melanoma on the scalp when the hair is wet. An educational course for barbers and hair stylists could save lives.
DISPATCH: On Air, Accepted, Aged, Alzheimer's-Afflicted, and Ad-Addled
Quote of the Day:
The chairman of the European Parliament's agriculture committee, Neil Parish, said that as prices rise, Europeans "may be more realistic" about genetically modified crops: "Their hearts may be on the left, but their pockets are on the right." --_New York Times_, April 21, 2008.
ACSH on Today Show
ACSH's Dr. Ross appeared on Sunday's _Today_ show to talk about the new calorie posting on menu boards required in New York. Dr. Ross debated the new rule with Dr. Gary Foster, Professor of Nutrition at Temple University and the president of the Obesity Society of America. Dr. Foster was of course in favor of the calorie posting and thinks it will be very beneficial. Our stance at ACSH is well known: We don't believe there is any real evidence that calorie posting will reduce obesity -- and that it is just another tactic of the food police.
A Possible Long-term Benefit of Soaring Food Prices: Accelerated Acceptance of GE Crops.
With rapidly rising food prices and global grain shortages, governments, food companies, and consumers can no longer afford to be picky about genetically engineered crops. In the United States, wheat growers and marketers, once hesitant about adopting biotechnology because they feared losing export sales, are now warming to it as a way to bolster supplies. Europe too is starting to embrace genetically engineered foods. Opposition to what Europeans nicknamed "Frankenfoods" has been fierce, but some prominent government officials and business executives are calling for faster approvals for imports of genetically modified crops. They are responding in part to complaints from livestock producers, who say they might suffer a critical shortage of feed if imports are not accelerated.
With food riots occurring in some countries, there is a global increased sense of urgency to settle the question, How will the world feed itself? This may be biotechnology's big chance to shine. Genetic engineering might have been deemed unnecessary when food was abundant, but it will be essential for helping the world cope with the demand for food and biofuels in the decades ahead.
The pressure to re-evaluate biotech comes as prices of some staples like rice and wheat have doubled in the last few months, provoking violent protests in several countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, and Thailand( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/21/business/21crop.html?hp ). Factors behind the price spikes include the diversion of crops to make biofuel, rising energy prices, growing prosperity in India and China, and droughts in some regions.
Woman Lives to Be 115 Years Old
Edna Parker from Indiana just celebrated her 115th birthday yesterday( http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,351781,00.html ). Scientists who study longevity hope Parker and others who live to 110 or beyond -- they're called supercentenarians -- can help solve the mystery of extreme longevity. Two years ago, researchers from Boston University took blood samples from Parker to add to their DNA database collected from other supercentenarians. Her DNA -- added to the collections of the genetic fingerprints of 100 other people who reached 110 years of age -- will be analyzed to try and discover the secret of longevity. Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's Institute for Aging Research in New York, and other scientists have found several genetic mutations in centenarians that may play a role in either slowing the aging process or boosting resistance to age-related diseases.
Smoking, Drinking, Alzheimer's?
A new study conducted at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach may have found a link between drinking, smoking, and being diagnosed with Alzehimer's at a younger age( http://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/story?id=4673019&page=1 ). The researchers suggest that heavy drinking and smoking might be accelerating damage to the brain, which could lead to Alzheimer's.
Ranjan Duara and his colleagues examined 938 people ages sixty and older with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's and asked family members to provide patients' histories of drinking and smoking. Then the team identified patients who had APOE4, a gene that increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's late in life. The researchers found that patients who had a history of heavy drinking (more than two alcoholic drinks a day) developed Alzheimer's nearly five years earlier than people who didn't drink that much. Patients who smoked a pack a day or more developed the disease 2.3 years sooner. We think that the findings of the study are encouraging -- while you may not be able to do anything about your family history, you can modify your drinking behavior and quit smoking.
The Top Three "Bogus" Health Priorities
We recently came across an ad about how to protect the health of your children. The ad stressed three risks to kids: diesel exhaust from school buses, "toxic" cleaning supplies at schools, and pesticide sprays in school yards. ACSH's Dr. Whelan noted that "this is a distraction from real health priorities such as vaccines, helmets, and seatbelts." Strangely enough -- yet not surprisingly -- when we checked to see who was on the board of directors of this alarmist group( http://www.grassrootsinfo.org/csawelcome.html ), we found Dr. Leonardo Trasande, the Assistant Director for the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He is the same scaremongering doctor who was on the _Today_ show just a few weeks ago (the same show ACSH's Dr. Ross appeared on) who said that there was no safe level of bisphenol-A. Why are we not surprised to find him on board with another scare campaign?
DISPATCH: Praise, Plastics, Passover, Posting, and Prices
ACSH is giving two honorary seats at the table today to Carol Tavris of the _Los Angeles Times_ and Brian Williams, NBC anchor, for their smart and sensible commentaries (read below for both).
Influenza vaccine -- don't give up
Well, this year the influenza vaccine wasn't a perfect fit, but that's no reason to doubt its ability to save lives. Preliminary findings from Wisconsin suggest that this year's flu vaccine lowered one's risk of catching the flu by 44%, even though two of the three strains used in the vaccine didn't match well with the viruses in circulation, federal health officials announced today( http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/cidrap/content/influenza/general/news/apr1708c... ). Forty-four percent is well below the 70% to 90% protection that a flu vaccine well-matched to circulating strains is expected to provide for healthy adults, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hailed the findings as good news in a year of "suboptimal" matches.
Dr. Whelan noted, "Influenza vaccine production is still quite primitive; we definitely need to see some more funding in this area of research." At ACSH, we are concerned that people will interpret the lower effectiveness of the vaccine as reason to not get the new vaccine next year. But this would be unwise, since one cannot tell in advance how well a vaccine will match the latest strains of influenza virus.
Taking the scare out of breast cancer
Carol Tavris was given an honorary seat at the ACSH table for her sensible report( http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/opinionla/la-oe-tavris17apr17,0,5124... ) co-written with Avrum Bluming on interpreting breast cancer statistics.
The media has perfected its scare tactics when it comes to breast cancer. According to most studies, American women fear breast cancer more than heart disease, even though heart disease is responsible for ten times as many female deaths every year -- and heart disease deaths exceed breast cancer deaths in every decade of a woman's life. Tavris points out that every study that seems to find a link between some new risk factor and the disease makes headlines everywhere, captures public attention and stimulates the blogosphere into overdrive. The public often lacks the ability to assess these studies for their real-life implications, let alone to make decisions about whether to alter their own behavior.
To understand the difference between absolute risk and relative risk, take the following example: Let's say the relative risk of breast cancer is increased by 300% in women who eat a bagel every morning -- that sounds alarming, but it is not informative. You would need to know the absolute numbers of bagel-eating breast cancer patients. If the number shifted from one in 1,000 women to three in 1,000 women, that is a 300% increase, but it's effectively meaningless. If the risk had jumped from 100 women in 1,000 to 300 in 1,000, on the other hand, we might reasonably be concerned that a real connection exists.
Tavris noted, "We now have a fat file folder of all the studies we could find that have reported an association between some purported risk factor and breast cancer...We all want to understand the risk factors in breast cancer that are 'really so,' but to do that, we have to give up entrenched beliefs when the data do not support them, and look elsewhere."
Careful in the kitchen this Passover
We always talk about distinguishing real threats such as smoking cigarettes from non-threats such as trace levels of chemicals in consumer products so that you can focus on things that could actually harm you. Well, today we are forewarning you about a real threat to your safety: Passover. We are not joking.
An article in the _New York Post_ today( http://www.nypost.com/seven/04182008/news/regionalnews/oy__that_passover... ) says that doctors have noticed a surge in emergency room visits over "Pesach" as people feel the effects of the heavy eating, cooking, and cleaning that comes with the holidays. Plastic surgeon Gary Kimmel said he's seen Passover injuries such as knife wounds from cutting food, burns from stovetops, and fingers chopped up in blenders. The ritualistic cleaning of the home before Passover -- to rid it of leavened products -- leads to chemical injuries, not to mention slips on freshly buffed or washed floors.
So we ask that if you are celebrating Passover, you be careful in the kitchen, and remember that you should not partake of both chopped liver and charoses, since this combination, according to ACSH's Jeff Stier, can lead to "charoses of the liver."
Nalgene, the maker of nearly unbreakable polycarbonate water bottles, will stop using bisphenol-A in its plastic( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/18/business/18plastic.html?_r=1&ref=busin... ) because of growing concern over the alleged health effects of BPA. The announcement came after reports that the Canadian government would declare the chemical toxic. Some animal studies have linked the chemical to changes in the hormonal system.
Even though Nalgene's Steven Silverman, the general manager of one unit, believes their bottles are safe, it didn't stop the company from taking action. Silverman said, "Based on all available scientific evidence, we continue to believe that Nalgene products containing BPA are safe for their intended use...However, our customers indicated they preferred BPA-free alternatives, and we acted in response to those concerns."
Dr. Whelan said, "This is a tremendous concern. We represent consumers, and it is not in anyone's best interest to replace BPA, since the cost of replacement is passed on to consumers -- especially when there is no real health concern to begin with." We wonder, what would a professor of the Harvard Business School say about this decision to cave? Is it a good business decision, as in "Give the lady what she wants"? Or a myopic decision that sets the stage for future cave-ins -- with prices rising and profits falling for the company. How long will it be before there is a campaign against the replacement chemical tritan copolyester? It seems like this snowball is rapidly growing, so let's hope that some businesses wake up instead of following Nalgene's lead.
Distaste for calorie posting
Calorie posting is akin to Mom watching over you while you eat, or at least that is how we feel at ACSH. We are not alone and have found a kindred spirit in Brian Williams, NBC anchor, who also dislikes the new calorie posting on menus( http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/booster_shots/2008/04/distasteful-rea.html ). Williams said, as if "the food and dietary police haven't done enough already, today they moved a step closer to ruining the experience of going to a restaurant for a meal." ACSH couldn't agree more. Sure, have the calorie information available, just don't stick it in everyone's face.
Organic worth the cost?
An article appeared in the _New York Times_ today( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/18/business/18organic.html?_r=1&oref=slogin ) about rising prices for organic groceries, which are prompting some consumers to question their devotion to food produced without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or antibiotics. In some parts of the country, a loaf of organic bread can cost $4.50, a pound of pasta has hit $3, and organic milk is closing in on $7 a gallon. Organic prices are rising for many of the same reasons affecting conventional food prices: higher fuel costs, rising demand, and a tight supply of the grains needed for animal feed and bakery items. In fact, demand for organic wheat, soybeans, and corn is so great that farmers are receiving unheard-of prices. But many organic farmers are moving back to conventional methods because of high costs of organic inputs.
Organic food is typically 20% to 100% more expensive than conventional counterparts; the gap had narrowed in recent years as discount retailers like Wal-Mart offered organics and more private-label organic products became available, according to the industry. To give you an example of cost difference, a loaf of bread from C-Town in Brooklyn costs $3.79 for regular and $4.19 for organic. With prices rising for a lot of commodities, those extra forty cents here and there add up quickly. ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava noted, "Since there are no proven health benefits to consuming organic foods, it's a shame that consumers are having to spend so much more for these products."
DISPATCH: Retorted, Schooled, Calorie-Counted, Gengineered, and Gawkered
Dr. Whelan gets final word over CSPI
On Monday, Michael Jacobson from the Center on Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wrote a letter to the editor( http://www.washingtontimes.com/article/20080414/EDITORIAL/287522326/1013 ) of the _Washington Times lambasting_ Dr. Whelan and ACSH, and today she had the opportunity to respond( http://www.washingtontimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080417/EDITO... ) to the letter. Jacobson said, "Defending corporate influence over science isn't just a talking point for the so-called American Council on Science and Health, it's the business model." Dr. Whelan emphasized once again, as she did in her April 8th Commentary column, "'Conflict' Chills Research," that cooperation between corporations and individual scientists has been extremely beneficial to scientific research. The quality of a study is evaluated in the peer-review processes, and if the quality is deemed to be good enough to publish, what does it matter who funded the research?
For nearly thirty years, ACSH, using a strict peer-review system, has defended sound science frequently in opposition to Jacobson and CSPI, who specialize in hype and scares about everything from food additives and pesticides to products such as olestra.
Dr. Whelan ends her letter thusly: "Given CSPI's belief that funding influences ACSH, we at ACSH have a modest proposal: that CSPI become a generous ACSH funder in an attempt to influence our work and see how successful it is in getting ACSH to support CSPI's scare-mongering agenda."
School nutrition policy
In an attempt to curb the growing childhood obesity epidemic, a new study looked at the results of using multiple measures to attack weight problems in schools( http://www.reuters.com/article/healthNews/idUSHAR66265820080416?feedType... ). Dr. Gary D. Foster of Temple University and colleagues evaluated a program developed by Food Trust. The program instituted changes such as replacing soda with water, low-fat milk, and 100%fruit juice and ridding vending machines and cafeterias of snacks that did not meet certain nutrition criteria. Dr. Whelan noted, "I wonder why they decided to replace soda with 100% fruit juice?...[T]here are absolutely no caloric savings there -- so if reducing obesity is your goal, this makes no sense. What about adding some diet sodas?" They also educated students on how diet and exercise affect their health, gave raffle prizes for choosing healthy snacks, and got parents involved through meetings and nutrition workshops. Dr. Kava noted that "it's very important to get parents involved with health and nutrition."
Among the 1,349 students Foster's team followed from fourth to sixth grade, there was about a 50% reduction in the new cases of being overweight at the end of two years among the children enrolled in the program and no change seen among children in schools not enrolled in the health program. While the results seem initially promising, 7.5% of children in the program still became overweight, which means more work still needs to be done.
Judge upholds calorie posting on menus
Yesterday, a federal judge upheld a New York City regulation requiring calories to be posted on the menu boards of some chain restaurants, calling the rule a reasonable approach to health officials' goal of reducing obesity( http://money.cnn.com/news/newsfeeds/articles/djf500/200804161336DOWJONES... ). The regulation will go into effect this Monday, April 21 and applies to restaurants in the city that are part of chains with at least fifteen outlets across the country. That includes fast-food places like McDonald's and such sit-down chains such as Olive Garden and T.G.I. Friday's.
Although there is some minor debate amongst ACSH staffers about whether calories posting on menus will be useful, we agree that there is no hard evidence that calorie posting will reduce obesity. Many chains already provide nutritional information online and elsewhere. The only way we'll know whether the additional postings mandated by the new rule is to weigh New Yorkers in a year.
Genetically-engineered sugar beets: Not In My Candy Bar!
A group calling itself Citizens for Health urges consumers to send their concerns about the use of genetically-engineered sugar beets to sugar companies( http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/news/ng.asp?n=84688-citizens-for-health... ). According to Citizens for Health, Hershey's, M&M Mars, and American Crystal Sugar pledged back in 2001 not to use sugar from genetically-engineered sugar beets in their products. However, with Monsanto's Roundup-Ready sugar beet now allegedly ready for planting, these companies have not renewed the pledge, said the advocacy group. The group fears that the use of sugar beet seeds that have built-in resistance to the Monsanto's Roundup herbicide could create new and unpredictable health and environmental risks.
However, the normally hypercautious European Food Safety Authority on December 20, 2006, gave a favorable opinion and concluded that "it is unlikely that the placing of the products produced from sugar beet H7-1 on the market...will have any adverse effects on human or animal health or the environment in the context of their intended uses." If only the American public could come to such a sensible understanding as well.
Our Jeff Stier strikes a nerve: Was it the cockroaches or the plastic?
ACSH's Jeff Stier's op-ed in the _New York Post_ yesterday struck( http://www.salon.com/politics/war_room/2008/04/16/paper_cockroaches/inde... ) a few nerves( http://www.fastcompany.com/blog-post/whole-foods-takes-stand ), but that didn't stop him from posting a reply to critics on Gawker( http://gawker.com/380888/science-group-asks-us-to-correct-accurate-descr... ). Stier said, "I believe Gawker owes ACSH a correction with regard to their post yesterday( http://gawker.com/380338/whole-foods-environmentalists-support-cockroach... )."
Very much like the Harvard School of Public Health, ACSH is funded by a diverse mix of corporations, foundations and individuals. We have individual donors around the country who believe that the Ralph Nader-inspired activist groups do not have a monopoly on deciding what is in our best interest. We are very up-front about accept no-strings-attached donations from a wide range of corporations. Our scientific advisory board, nearly 400 strong, serve as volunteers. Together with our board of trustees, we are led by an impressive group of scientists, physicians, and policy advisors. Our reports go through two peer-reviews -- internally (by advisors) and outside, where they are published in independent scientific journals. We have a thirty-year history of going where the science takes us -- even when that science runs counter to the interest of our funders. Interestingly, in the cases when we say something "anti-business" -- they never ask who funds us!
DISPATCH: Plastic Bags, Plastic Bottles, and Sin
Plastic gone for good?
Anyone reading the news coverage this morning( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/15/AR200804... ) about plastic bottles would conclude that the government has determined plastic bottles cause cancer and negative reproductive effects -- and we should get rid of them. But no such conclusion has been reached.
The agency involved -- the National Toxicology Program -- does not specialize in human health. The "data" getting the publicity is based almost exclusively on the results of high-dose laboratory rodent studies. As we at ACSH have long said, while animal testing is essential in biomedical research, there is now evidence that high-dose rodent tests cannot reliably predict human risk. If we were to take regulatory action against any substance that causes health problems in rodents, we would literally have nothing left.
For good measure, the National Toxicology Program threw in references to "biomonitoring" studies -- that is, studies that looked for trace levels of various chemicals in human tissue. And they cited studies that concluded BPA can be found in blood, urine, and breast milk.
But as ACSH has long pointed out, the mere ability to detect something in tissues does not mean that there is a public health hazard. ACSH's Dr. Whelan noted, "The public does not realize that these studies are done on rats and not on humans; some states will now rush, willy-nilly, to ban BPA without taking the time to actually read the report or learn the science."
When asked in an interview whether exposure to BPA can be eliminated, Mike Shelby, director of the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, said, "It's everywhere...it's not clear that we know what all the sources of BPA exposure are. The vast majority of exposure is through food and drink -- cans and bottles. But there could be trace amounts in water, dust. Your cellphone is probably made out of it."
With these scary headlines, will there be more calls to ban plastic bottles as a health hazard? Just add them to the recent list -- toys, cosmetics, food -- of things that allegedly cause disease. We are scaring ourselves to death over bogus issues( http://www.acsh.org/news/newsID.1525/news_detail.asp ).
People call on Holy See to tackle tobacco
Today, a full page ad was taken out in the _New York Post_ by the Physicians and Nurses Against Tobacco group asking the Pope to intervene in the war against tobacco( http://www.bustedhalo.com/features/ChurchandTobacco.htm ). The ad mentions that tobacco causes the early deaths of 1,200 Americans each day, and the World Health Organization has predicted 1 billion tobacco-related deaths this century. Religious, political, and education leaders must address the moral and ethical problems of nicotine addiction. We found the ad very interesting, and we only wish that we had done it first.
Paper bags bad for your health?
ACSH's Jeff Stier's op-ed appeared in the _New York Post_ today( http://www.nypost.com/seven/04162008/postopinion/opedcolumnists/paper_ba... ). The controversial topic: paper vs. plastic bags. By Earth Day, the national chain Whole Foods Market will no longer offer shoppers plastic bags -- leaving consumers who don't want reusable canvas bags one choice: paper. Stier noted that "Unfortunately, paper has its own drawbacks, such as: it's preferred by cockroaches -- like those contributing to New York City's asthma epidemic." Whole Foods insists that the decision to take away the plastic option is wildly popular with consumers. When pressed on why consumers would be happy about having fewer choices, Whole Foods spokeswoman Kate Lowery insists that the "emphasis is on reusable canvas bags."
Entomologists, including Coby Schal of North Carolina State University, have observed that cockroaches prefer paper to plastic. "They really like to live in the creases found in paper bags," said Schal, the nation's top expert on cockroaches. Many cockroach species chew into paper bags to lay their eggs -- something they don't do with plastic. I think the idea behind Whole Foods initiative is to encourage people to use reusable canvas bags, which don't pile up in landfills or breed cockroaches. But if you love plastic bags so much, you'll have to have a ton at home and take them with you to the grocery store.
DISPATCH: Docs, Brains, Drugs, Blood, and Rumors
Doctors reject industry pay
Some prominent academic scientists have decided to stop accepting payments from food, drug, and medical device companies( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/15/health/15conf.html?8dpc=&_r=2&adxnnl=1... ).
In some cases these "noble" people who decide to stop accepting money from industry will still help companies draw up and interpret studies, but the work will be pro bono. They claim that the financial sacrifice is well worth the effort, since they will remove the dreaded asterisks next to their names that label them tainted with industry money. ACSH's Dr. Whelan said, "These people are giving in to the critics...you will not find that many people willing to consult with industry for free, so the end result will be less collaboration of science and industry -- and that is bad for everyone." Last year, the Food and Drug Administration decided that it could not altogether ban researchers from its advisory boards who took industry consulting fees, and anti-industry critics are complaining bitterly about this.
At ACSH, we think we are witnessing something akin to a witch hunt. People are obsessed with the idea that research should be funded by "clean" money. But what exactly is clean money? Only money provided by the Tooth Fairy? As Dr. Whelan pointed out in her recent op-ed( http://www.washingtontimes.com/article/20080408/COMMENTARY/817871714 ), there are many potential sources of bias, including funding from private foundations that have ideological agendas hostile to industry and free enterprise. No one seems to care about the many other sources of conflict of interest. Agenda, ideology, careerism, personal and family interests are a few that come to mind -- see our recently published paper on Industry-Funded Science( http://www.acsh.org/news/newsID.1689/news_detail.asp ).
Tip of the Tongue
We came across an interesting _Washington Post_ article( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/03/10/ST20080310... ) yesterday. It appeared in March but was reprinted in the Dana Foundation's publication _Brain in the News_ (we have an eclectic array of reading material here at ACSH).
The author focused on what he refers to as TOT moments (TOT meaning Tip of the Tongue) where you know you know someone's name -- but you cannot quite bring it up on your mental screen. The article gives a fascinating overview of why these TOT moments occur -- and offers both good news and bad: TOTs are indeed a sign of aging (and have been shown to correlate with specific brain changes), but they are not a sign of impending dementia.
Meredith Shafto, a research associate at Britain's University of Cambridge, has been studying normal cognitive aging for five years. TOTs, she says, are "part of what we call normal or healthy aging...With normal aging there are changes that are noticeable and distressing and irritating, but they are not pathological."
What makes TOTs interesting, then, is not that they may not be the first step in evolving dementia, but that they tell us something about how our brain functions normally to produce vocabulary on a daily basis.
Drugs disguised as supplements
U.S. Marshals seized 14,000 doses of Shangai Regular, Shangai Ultra, Super Shangai, Naturale Super Plus, and Lady Shangai dietary supplements. These drugs were marketed under the pretense of being a "natural supplement," but they actually contained undeclared active ingredients found in FDA-approved prescription drugs used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED). The "natural supplements" were all marketed to treat ED and/or to provide sexual enhancement, which means they fall into the category of drugs under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act( http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2008/NEW01817.html ). ACSH's Dr. Kava noted, "Congress needs to change the way supplements are regulated." The whole problem with unregulated supplements is that the use of those products could result in serious side effects and dangerous interactions with prescription medication( http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.1135/news_detail.asp ).
The undeclared ingredients may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs (such as nitroglycerin) and can lower blood pressure to dangerous levels. Consumers with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease often take nitrates, and ED is a common problem in men with these medical conditions. So the people most likely to turn to these supplements are the ones with the greatest risk of being harmed.
High blood pressure gives headache relief
This morning we did a doubletake at the headline "Hypertension Prevents Migraines."( http://www.efluxmedia.com/news_Study_Hypertension_Prevents_Migraines_163... ) Did someone really take the time to write this nonsense? It should be a well-known fact that hypertension is a leading risk factor in heart disease, whereas the last time we checked the ACSH Riskometer( http://Riskometer.org ), deaths from migraines weren't included. Dr. Eling Tronvik of the Norwegian National Headache Center at Trondheim University Hospital in Norway and his colleagues found that high blood pressure seems to reduce the chances of migraine and reduce chronic pain in other parts of the body. At least there was a sensible disclaimer at the end: Dr. Tronvik said, "no matter how well high blood pressure prevents headaches, people should not abandon their hypertension medications...High blood pressure is a huge problem in this country, and far too few people are controlling it as they should."
Forwarding health scares
The Internet is a technological miracle, but is it also the primary source of health scares? This parody e-mail we received yesterday says it all. Here are a few excerpts of the e-mail to underline the absurdity we face on a daily basis:
"Thanks to all of you for your educational emails over the past year. Because of you...
I no longer have any savings because I gave it to a sick girl (Penny Brown) who is about to die in the hospital for the 1,387,258th time.
I no longer have any money at all, but that will change once I receive the $15,000 that Bill Gates/Microsoft and AOL are sending me for participating in their special e-mail program.
I no longer eat KFC because their chickens are actually horrible mutant freaks with no eyes or feathers.
I no longer check the coin return on pay phones because I could be pricked with a needle infected with AIDS.
I no longer use cancer-causing deodorants even though I smell like a water buffalo on a hot day.
If you don't send this e-mail to at least 144,000 people in the next 70 minutes, a large dove with diarrhea will land on your head at 5:00 PM this afternoon and the fleas from 12 camels will infest your back, causing you to grow a hairy hump. I know this will occur because it actually happened to a friend of my next door neighbor's ex-mother-in-law's second husband's cousin's beautician..."
DISPATCH: Radiation, Beans, Fat, Alcohol, Taxes, and Industry
There are some public health stories that aren't exactly surprises to us here at ACSH, which makes us think that occasionally we may have a "Duh" category in our daily Morning Dispatch, when we see obvious "news" stories. If you have followed ACSH's concerns about foodborne illnesses and ways to protect consumers over the years, then you know that when we saw the article in the L.A. Times headlined "USDA scientists say irradiation could be key to food safety,"( http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-greens11apr11,1,554... ) talking up the benefits of food irradiation, we were all thinking one thing: Duh!
Yes, they are right, and we're glad to see food irradiation get the credit it deserves, but at the same time it's old news to ACSH staffers. Dr. Elizabeth Whelan's explanation for this positive food irradiation press was, "With all the outbreaks of food contamination, maybe it is finally starting to dawn on people." Even with this positive portrayal of food irradiation in the news, not everyone was smiling at the ACSH table. According to ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava, "Irradiation is an important step for improving food safety, but most are afraid of it."
We hope that anyone who is having second thoughts about food irradiation reads the story about recent salmonella contamination( (http://money.cnn.com/news/newsfeeds/articles/djf500/200804071558DOWJONES... ) of cereals. So far, around two dozen people have become ill after eating the cereal. The cereals included in a voluntary recall are unsweetened Puffed Rice as well as unsweetened Puffed Wheat cereals. The cereals are distributed under the Malt-O-Meal brand name, as well as other brand names including Acme, America's Choice, Food Club, Giant, Laura Lynn, Jewel, ShopRite, Pathmark, Tops, Weis Quality, Shaw's, and Hannaford. ACSH's Jeff Stier looked around the conference table and asked, "Is anyone eating that cereal?" ACSH staffers doublechecked their bowls and were happy none of us were mid-bite into a preventable foodborne illness.
Baked Beans All Day, Every Day
And while we were talking about getting sick from food, ACSH had to discuss the story of the man who lost 140 pounds eating more than a half-ton of baked beans. Just the thought of it made ACSH staffers queasy.( http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,350429,00.html )
According to Fox News, a diet of baked beans helped a man lose 140 pounds in nine months. The man, who had been told he was at risk for bowel cancer, changed from his normal diet of traditional English breakfasts ( loaded with eggs, bacon, and sausage) and eight beers a day to a diet of beans. ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava said, "There's nothing magical about baked beans -- this man lowered his calorie intake substantially by eliminating the alcohol and high-fat foods!"
Trans Fats and Breast Cancer
A study featured in the _American Journal of Epidemiology_( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080411/hl_nm/cancer_breast_fats_dc ) suggests that women with the highest blood level of trans fats had about twice the risk of breast cancer of women with lowest levels. "Talk about mixing up association and causation," said ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross. "This is the perfect example." Whoever wrote this story should see ACSH's paper _Distinguishing Association from Causation: A Backgrounder for Journalists_( (http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.1629/pub_detail.asp ).
Breast Cancer and Alcohol
Another breast-cancer related story discussed a large study linking breast cancer to drinking( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080413/hl_nm/breastcancer_alcohol_dc ). ACSH looked at the data and concluded there was nothing new about this study per se, but it is a very large study (with 184,000 participants). "With a study that large, we cannot quickly dismiss a causal link," said Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, although as an epidemiologist she wasn't that startled by the numbers. There was a 32% increase in occurrences of hormone-sensitive tumors in women who had one to two small drinks a day. While that sounds scary, it doesn't hold a candle to the cancer risk for smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, about a 1,000% increase. This isn't to say that we don't buy the data indicating an actual link between breast cancer and alcohol. Dr. Whelan wrote an editorial in the _New York Post entitled "Booze and Breast Cancer"( http://www.nypost.com/seven/10012007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/booze__b... ) in which she addressed the possible link.
Several other studies have indicated the same likelihood, and the relationship is noted in respected cancer epidemiology textbooks. Dr. Whelan said the news was leaving out the critical point: It has been demonstrated that taking the B-vitamin folic acid (about twice the usual recommended dose) literally wipes out whatever small risk of breast cancer might be posed by the alcohol consumption.
Trace Levels of a Chemical Lead to Toy Recall, Again
Prop 65 can send the biggest corporations walking home with their tails between their legs. A California activist group, Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, (no bias or agenda there right?) sued CBS as well as a toy maker and several retailers on Friday, claiming they sold toy crime-scene kits based on the TV show _CSI_ that contained a cancer-causing material, asbestos( http://www.reuters.com/article/healthNews/idUSN1141698220080412?feedType... ). ACSH has established in our publication about Prop 65 publication( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.146/pub_detail.asp ) that exposure to low enough trace levels of many notorious chemicals, even asbestos, are not necessarily cancer-causing. Furthermore, CBS states that it had the toys tested and there was no trace of asbestos, but of course Prop 65 led them to recall the toys despite any threat. What does this say? According to Dr. Gilbert Ross, "They are taking something that has zero risk and multiplying it by 1,000," which should still leave even cautious observers with zero fear.
Cigarette and Tobacco Tax Hike
House lawmakers on Thursday gave initial approval to a package of tax hikes, including a dollar increase on a pack of cigarettes and a series of business tax loophole closings -- the first major tax package since 2002. If this bill becomes law, the cigarette tax would supposedly generate an estimated $175 million dollars in revenue. ACSH was sad to see, however, that there is a proposed tax hike on all tobacco products, including smokeless tobacco. Clearly, these lawmakers are not thinking about the power of harm reduction for smokers made possible by transitioning from cigarettes to non-combustible products like snus( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.1538/pub_detail.asp ). Why would you tax something that might help people tame a powerful and deadly addiction to cigarette smoking? "They don't make distinctions; it's all just cancer-causing tobacco to them," explained Dr. Gilbert Ross in frustration.
Ross in L.A. Times
ACSH would like to say congrats to Dr. Ross for his letter in the L.A. Times addressing conflict of interest. In his letter, Dr. Ross highlighted the fact that financial conflicts are often targeted, while many other potential threats to scientific objectivity are ignored. Some of these include professional advancement, careerism, ideological or political beliefs, personal (or family) experiences or even religion. Conflict of interest is an issue that ACSH will continue to address, and we have recently released a report on the subject: _Scrutinizing Industry-Funded Science: The Crusade Against Conflicts of Interest_( http://www.acsh.org/news/newsID.1689/news_detail.asp ).
DISPATCH: Foodborne Illness, Irradiation, rBST, and Whole Foods
Foodborne illness, why won't you go away?
Much to the disappointment of U.S. health officials, efforts to contain foodborne illness have made little progress in reducing the number of infections( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080410/hl_nm/usa_foodsafety_states_dc;_ylt=... ). High-profile food safety scares over the last few years, involving such favorites as spinach and peanut butter, put pressure on health officials to ramp up their efforts to protect the food supply. However, the ten-state report issued by government researchers found no change in the rate of infections caused by listeria, salmonella, shigella, E. coli O157, and several other microorganisms in 2007 compared to the previous three years. Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control's Division of Foodborne, Bacterial, and Mycotic Diseases, said, "A lot of things have been going on to improve food safety and we still think they are likely to bear fruit...but we have not seen a particular decrease in the important sections that we are tracking." It doesn't really surprise us that foodborne illness incidences haven't decreased. Food safety -- or any real health issue -- isn't getting the attention it really deserves, in part because the media, activists, and the government are too busy running around worrying about invisible "cancer-causing agents" like BPA. They don't have time to focus on the real issues.
A new study( http://www.foodnavigator.com/news/ng.asp?n=84598&m=1fne411&c=tgrjjginqhz... ) claims that irradiation is the safest method of reducing the risk of foodborne diseases such as E. coli in fruit and vegetables. This is music to our ears here at ACSH, since we have long been proponents of irradiation( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.1562/pub_detail.asp ).
Irradiation could be very beneficial to fresh produce growers and retailers, since an outbreak of foodborne illness can have many consequences, from loss of revenue to illness and potentially death for the consumers, followed perhaps by expensive litigation. According to the American Chemical Society, harmful microbes are "masters of playing hide-and-go seek," meaning that washing fresh produce, even with chlorine or other disinfectants, may not kill all the microbes. The researchers took cut romaine lettuce and spinach and submerged the leaves in an E. coli cocktail. They were then either treated with three-minute water wash, three-minute chemical wash (sodium hypochlorite), or irradiation. The first two methods yielded little to no significant reduction in E.coli. However, ionizing radiation did have a significant affect on pathogen numbers, with reductions of 99.99% on romaine lettuce and 99.9% on spinach (at the highest dose tested), the study claimed. While this study offers encouragement for potential reduction in foodborne infections, we keep asking ourselves, and whoever else will listen: why is irradiation still so under-utilized?
Milk label controversy
The debate rages on about milk labeling in Ohio. Last Tuesday, a public hearing hosted by the Ohio Department of Agriculture and several organizations presented evidence highlighting the negative effects of a rule change that would prohibit or restrict claims citing milk free from hormones( http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/news/ng.asp?id=84555 ). Growth hormones like recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) are administered to cows to increase milk production. Currently, dairy processors in all fifty U.S. states can say their milk is from untreated cows but must include a Food and Drug Administration-authorized disclaimer that states: "no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from [the growth hormone] rBST-supplemented and non-rbST-supplemented cows." Wal-Mart and Kroger's had decided not to sell milk from hormone-treated cows.
The Ohio Dairy Association Producers want only USDA National Organic Program claims to be permitted and say "size, placement, and wording of these claims should not mislead consumers into believing one type of milk is better than the other." Both scientific analysis and common sense tell us that there is no difference between milk produced from cows treated with rBST and hormone-free cows -- they essentially yield the same product( http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.1145/news_detail.asp ). Without rBST, people might be paying a lot more for milk then they are now due to decreased production rates. Now more then ever, with prices of food and fuel rising, we need all the technological help we can get.
World Food Crisis
Soaring food prices have been felt across the globe like a shock wave( http://washingtontimes.com/article/20080411/BUSINESS/752414606/1006 ). A typical American spends only a small share of income on food, but millions of poor people spend up to 75% of their income purchasing the food they need to subsist each day. Soaring food prices have spawned social unrest around the world in recent weeks. Part of the problem is growing crops used to produce ethanol and biodiesel, droughts, and the weak dollar. In my opinion, the Green Revolution saved us the first time, and we need to find a new technology to save us again. At ACSH, we find it incredible that while people are starving we continue to ignore or rally against bioengineered crops that could potentially provide a much higher yield, and grow in areas prone to droughts. Maybe when Americans and Europeans start paying 75% of their income on food, they will be willing to look beyond the superficial arguments -- and trade protectionism masquerading as health and safety issues -- which have prevented many areas from benefiting from biotechnology.
DISPATCH: Mumps, Fat, and Defending BPA
Quote of the day:
"Serious scientists rarely engage in public quarrels. Alarmists are therefore often unopposed in offering simplicity in place of complexity, ideology in place of scientific dialogue, and emotion in place of dry perspective." --Paul Reiter and Roger Bate in the _Wall Street Journal_, April 10, 2008.
Jeff Poor of the Business and Media Institute wrote a good commentary( http://newsbusters.org/blogs/jeff-poor/2008/04/09/nbc-news-can-t-seem-fi... ) yesterday about the _Today_ show on Wednesday -- which scared consumers about plastic bottles containing minuscule levels of bisphenol-A. The chemical found in some water bottles, causes health problems in lab rats when they're given doses "thousands" of times higher than what exists in the bottles. We discussed this in yesterday's Morning Dispatch, but we think it's worth mentioning it again, since someone is bringing science and reason into the equation. And speaking of the _Today_ show -- this morning, they revisited the plastic bottle scare story. We were hoping they would add some sensible perspective to yesterday's disastrous presentation hyping the risk of drinking from pastic bottles, but once again we were disappointed.
Mumps making a comeback
Mumps made an alarming comeback in the United States in 2006 and may take years to completely eradicate, federal health experts reported on Wednesday( http://www.reuters.com/articlePrint?articleId=USN0946228920080410 ). The outbreak of the viral disease came despite the widespread use of a second dose of a mumps vaccine, produced by Merck, beginning in 1990. Eighty-four percent of the people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four who became ill in the outbreak had received the second recommended dose, the researchers reported in the _New England Journal of Medicine_. The U.S. has a goal of eliminating the disease by 2010, but permanently banishing the disease is unlikely because 43% of nations do not vaccinate against the disease. Health experts say parents who do not vaccinate their children put them at risk and put at risk children too young to have been vaccinated or with conditions that prevent vaccination.
CamelBak submits to customers concerns
Yesterday, a statement was issued from CEO Sally McCoy of CamelBak( http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/0... ), makers of sport and recreational water bottles and hydration packs, about BPA and plastic reusable water bottles. The company announced that a complete line of reusable water bottles will be 100% BPA-free by the end of April. McCoy said, "The science surrounding BPA (bisphenol-A) can be confusing and contradictory. While we believe in the safety of all our products, enough consumers requested a BPA-free alternative that we re-engineered our bottles with an innovative new material to provide consumers with worry-free hydration." ACSH's Jeff Stier got a call yesterday from CamelBak public relations telling him of their plans to remove BPA. Stier discouraged them from doing so and noted, "When companies give in to consumer requests that are based on these high-dose animal studies, it is only going to hurt the consumers in the long run -- by increasing cost of replacement -- and setting a precedent. Every time there is a new animal study, companies will have to find alternatives that may be less effective, more expensive, and not any better then the original."
Price tag of obesity as much as $45 Billion a year
Today, 34% of American adults fit the definition of "obese" and may be placing an extra financial burden on their employers. A new report released by the Conference Board found that obese employees cost U.S. private employers an estimated $45 billion annually in medical expenditures and work loss( http://www.indianasnewscenter.com/news/business/?feed=bim&id=17431499 ).
There are many financial and ethical problems raised by the obesity issue. Whether companies should get involved, and how to properly go about it, will are challenging questions. Obesity is associated with a 36% increase in spending on healthcare services, more than smoking or problem drinking. These numbers would likely motivate any company to start looking at what options it has. As long as the companies tackle the problem with some sensitivity, they may be able to have an impact on the problem -- at least for their employees.
Today, ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross appeared on the _Today_ show to comment on the safety of plastic bottles( http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/24023514#24023514 ). Dr. Ross said, "The toxic effects found in rats were done at levels thousands of times higher then we are exposed to in the environment." While ACSH was pleased that Dr. Ross was given an opportunity to communicate the views of ACSH, we were not pleased with the overall segment. Dr. Whelan noted that "the segment was up there in the top three of the most biased TV reports I have ever seen." About 98% of the piece seemed to come down on the side of bisphenol A( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.1033/pub_detail.asp ) being bad, leaching from bottles, and posing a hazard to health. The scientific side of the argument was barely acknowledged. It was clear they had no intention of taking a balanced approach to this story. A quote revealing the purpose of the story -- to scare people -- came from Dr. Leo Trasande from the the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, shown saying, "there is no level of BPA exposure that was identified as being safe, and children and women of child bearing age are especially susceptible." This is clearly absurd. But not as absurd as Dr. Trasande looked when he was live being interviewed by Matt Lauer -- and wearing a stethoscope while in the NBC studio (and we are not making that up).
Pears vs. apples: Which one is more hazardous to your health?
Another study finds that women with the largest waists -- thirty-five inches or greater -- had a 79% higher chance of premature death compared with women whose waists measured twenty-eight inches or less( http://www.latimes.com/news/custom/scimedemail/la-sci-fat8apr08,0,195835... ). The risk was adjusted for multiple health factors. Dr. Kava notes that "this is a confirmatory study; we have known this for a long time now." Women who are "apple-shaped" (having more fatty tissue around the abdomen) vs. "pear shaped" (more fat on hips and thighs) have an increased risk of dying prematurely. Women with the largest waists had twice the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease -- even if their weight was normal -- and a 63% greater chance of dying of cancer compared to women with smaller waists, according to the report. So why is having a belly so bad? One theory is that abdominal fat exposes nearby organs to potentially toxic chemicals produced by the fat, said lead author Dr. Cuilin Zhang, who conducted the research while at Harvard.
New Yorkers gained 10 million additional pounds in two years
New Yorkers like to consider themselves an elite. Now they can add the fastest-growing waistlines in the U.S. to their laundry list of "accomplishments."( http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/pr2008/pr022-08.shtml ) According to a New York City Department of Health, the estimated weight gain among New Yorkers totaled more than 10 million pounds in just two years. The city's rates of obesity and diagnosed diabetes both increased by 17% during the two-year study period, while the rest of the nation experienced just a 6% increase in obesity prevalence and no increase in diabetes diagnoses. Department of Health researchers place some of the blame for increased obesity rates on the consumption of soda. "When people count calories, they too often forget to include drinks, which can account for a large number of extra calories," said Cathy Nonas, the Health Department's Director of Physical Activity and Nutrition Programs. ACSH has said repeatedly that trying to blame one type of food or beverage is misleading, though. Obesity is a really big public health challenge because there are so many factors involved: economics, education, culture, psychology, etc., and any solution will have to encompass all of these factors to be effective.
Cigarette company seeks to expand into smokeless realm
Yesterday, Susan M. Ivey, the Chairman and CEO of Reynolds American, the nation's second-largest tobacco company, gave a remarkable speech at the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas.
Ivey expressed Reynolds' commitment to advancing the cause of "harm reduction," which would encourage a transition from cigarette smoking to either quitting or using less harmful forms of nicotine delivery. Ms. Ivey strongly criticized the pending legislation that would give FDA regulatory authority over tobacco products (ACSH also rejects this legislation as not advancing the cause of public health). She states: "the bill contains hundreds of pages of legal and legislative language...but it all boils down to a rather simplistic, abstinence-only approach. Step one: make products currently on the market less acceptable to consumers. And step two: prevent lower-risk products from coming to market."
Her bottom line -- one which is very positive from a public health perspective: "educate...adults...to switch from a higher-risk product, like cigarettes, to tobacco products with significantly lower risk, like smokeless or other nicotine products." She specifically criticized the former U.S. Surgeon General Carmona, who (erroneously) stated that all forms of tobacco use pose the same risks. That is, of course, patently absurd. What kills smokers is not the nicotine in cigarettes (nicotine does serve to keep smokers addicted). What kills is the products of combustion -- the burning of tobacco and the inhaled smoke. Non-combustible tobacco products are far safer, as ACSH noted in our report on smokeless tobacco( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.1403/pub_detail.asp ).
So, is Reynolds going to stop selling cigarettes? No, not for the foreseeable future. But Reynolds is apparently committed to cooperating in a transition from cigarettes to other, less risky products, whether a smokeless tobacco product or another "clean" form of nicotine delivery. As they are in transition, with smokers moving to less hazardous products, will Reynolds make tons of money? You betcha they will. But since those revenues will motivate them to market far less hazardous products, public health is the winner -- because tobacco-related deaths and diseases will plummet.
Does this mean that ACSH thinks that Reynolds is all of a sudden a good corporate citizen worthy of our unquestioning support and admiration? No way. We know more than most about the manipulative, deceptive history of the cigarette industry starting back in the 1920s and continuing to some degree today. They fail to fully and specifically warn of the health consequences of smoking (they hide behind the insipid mandatory government warning label). But any willingness of a cigarette company to initiate a transition away from cigarettes must be welcomed and encouraged.
DISPATCH: Industry, PCBs, Alligators, and Supplements
Dr. Whelan's op-ed about industry funding appeared in the _Washington Times_ today( http://www.washingtontimes.com/article/20080408/COMMENTARY/817871714 ). Scientists and researchers taking funding from corporations is a highly debated subject. Dr. Whelan points out in her article that the decision to regard industry funding as some uniquely corrupting force overlooks the reality that bias can be introduced into science in many forms -- not just through corporate funding. The obsession with "transparency" regarding funding sources has come to obscure what is truly important about scientific research: the quality of the research process and the legitimacy of the findings. If a study is done meticulously and accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, why does it matter who funds it? Does the mere fact a study is funded by a corporation (even an odious corporation) make its conclusions invalid? The current trend toward cleansing government panels of scientists with any taint of industrial support will leave scientific debate in the hands solely of those who pass the politically-correct test. Our main concern at ACSH is that necessary research is taking place, and that people remember that all studies need to be scrutinized regardless of source of funding.
Doc Frieden puts PCB worries to rest
The NYC Health Commissioner issues sound science commentary! The claim that PCBs were found in school buildings could have set off a mindless panic( http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/education/2008/04/07/2008-04-07_lett... ). One reason that did not happen is that NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas R. Frieden issued a clear statement noting that these trace levels of PCBs posed no risk to health. The _Daily News_ performed an "investigation" and found window sills and door frames in dozens of city public schools "containing a toxin" linked to cancer and other health problems. Random tests, conducted in February and March, found PCBs in eight of nine schools. Six of the nine contained levels of PCBs deemed unacceptable according to the investigators. However, in a letter to the _Daily News_, Dr. Frieden wrote: "Do PCBs pose a health risk in schools when they're present in intact caulk samples?...[T]he findings indicate that they do not."
We have disagreed with the Commissioner and his staff on a number of recent issues (including his ban on trans fats in restaurants), but we compliment him here for stating the facts and thus mitigating fears.
A preliminary study suggests that alligator blood could serve as a basis for new antibiotics targeting infections complicating the treatment of ulcers, burns, and even drug-resistant "superbugs."
The research is still in its infancy stage, since extracts of alligator blood have only been tested in the laboratory, and there is no guarantee they will work in humans. Although we desperately need new antibiotics for the "superbugs," there will definitely be some obstacles to get around in using this new source. For instance, the proteins extracted from alligator white blood cells -- which were used to kill methicillin -resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, may very likely be rejected by our own immune systems( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/07/AR200804... ). Dr. Stuart Levy, a professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, says, "Our bodies love to make antibodies to proteins...After you get the first dose, the body sees it as foreign, and the next dose gets scooped up by the immune system, and it's done." We think it's an interesting concept, though, and we're eager to see more research.
It's one of those pieces of information that "everybody knows" -- dietary supplements are not closely regulated, and even though they might be "natural" can still be the source of health problems. But many people still don't recognize that the vitamins, herbs, and minerals that all come under the rubric of "dietary supplements" are drugs( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.515/pub_detail.asp ) and can cause harm directly or indirectly by interacting with prescription medications( http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.389/news_detail.asp ). So we at ACSH were pleased that the _New York Times_' Jane Brody acknowledged the problems associated with the lax regulation of these products. ACSH nutrition director Dr. Ruth Kava said, "I'm glad this topic is getting wider attention -- consumers should be reminded that the fact that a supplement is sold over the same counter as an FDA-approved medication does not mean it has received the same level of scrutiny for safety or efficacy."
DISPATCH: Smoke, Eggs, Baseball, and Calories
¢Quote of the day: "Our legal system invites lawyers to act like bullies." --John Stossel in his op-ed in the _Wall Street Journal_, April 4, 2008.
Can't smoke here, can't smoke there, can't smoke anywhere
If you had a chance to catch _20/20_ on April 4 with John Stossel last Friday, you are probably aware of the case of a smoker being sued by her neighbors. If you didn t see it, here s a quick re-cap. The story is about a New York City woman, aptly named Huff, being sued by neighbors, claiming that they could smell cigarette smoke in the hallway. The woman and the apartment complex took action to insulate her apartment after getting a letter about it back in October. This was not good enough for the "super lawyers" who are her neighbors, as they apparently sent her a settlement agreement with a new list of demands. Jonathan Selbin, who is suing her, said, "We do not want to try and tell her to stop smoking in her home or elsewhere, but because her smoke comes into the common area, it becomes our business." John Stossel also wrote an op-ed for the _Wall Street Journal_ about small victories for tort reform and mentions the smoking case( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120726862740288339.html?mod=opinion_main... ).
We at ACSH have great sympathy for apartment-dwellers who find cigarette smoke from an adjacent apartment migrating into their apartment. The migrating smoke is unlikely to be a health hazard (see ACSH's report on second hand smoke( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.346/pub_detail.asp ), but it can be horrific nonetheless, given the way cigarette smoke can be absorbed by sheets, towels, and clothing -- it smells awful. We get a number of queries each week from people who are more than a bit annoyed about smoke coming into their apartments -- and our only recommendation is to get professional assistance in sealing up the points where the smoke can enter (and in the smoker's apartment as well).
But in this case, John Stossel focused on the smoker who had taken measures to keep her smoke from leaving her apartment. The plaintiffs in this case argued, though, that there was smoke in the hallway outside the apartments and that it was a health hazard to their child. That is a bit of a stretch, we believe. ACSH's Dr. Ross said, "The litigious litigators here claimed that the alleged smoke in the common hallway presented a danger to their four-year-old son. How much smoke can emanate from a somewhat-distant, ventilated apartment into a hallway -- and how much such exposure might conceivably present a health threat, even to a child?" Just because you can smell something doesn't mean it's toxic.
Eggs, the new super hero?
Eggs go from bad to superhero this week, since apparently eggs can reduce risk of breast cancer, or so says a new U.S. study( http://www.keepthedoctoraway.co.uk/showNews.aspx?loadid=00965 ). Once castigated as the evil cholesterol carrier, they are now the super choline carrier. The study of more than 3,000 women has found that the risk of developing breast cancer was 24% lower among women with the highest intake of choline, a nutrient found in egg yolk. This is another example of how misleading even accurate reporting can be -- from this report one might assume that eggs are some sort of miracle food, while it's choline that was tested! Eggs are nutrient-rich and make valuable contributions to the diet, but they're not panaceas. Further, of course, we have no idea from this report what the rest of these women's diets -- or indeed their lifestyles -- were like. It's great that eggs are recognized as being nutritious, but there is not enough evidence to say that they prevent cancer.
Play ball, but not here
A baseball field in a small town in North Dakota was shut down for fears that the gravel may cause cancer( http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,346853,00.html ). The gravel contains erionite, a mineral found in chalky white rock mined from the nearby Killdeer Mountains. Steve Way, a federal Environmental Protection Agency coordinator, said studies have shown that erionite causes cancer in lab rats. Residents were told not to use the gravel until further tests are done. However, residents are more concerned about road maintenance than cancer. Gary Jepson, a rancher in the area, called the worries over erionite "one of those sky-is-falling kind of deals." At ACSH, we couldn't be more sympathetic to their plight. How many things at high doses cause cancer in rats? They are too numerous to count.
Calorie-posting face-off: DOH vs. restaurants
The battle between the Restaurant Association and NYC Department of Health is not over yet( http://www2.nysun.com/article/74258 ).
The restaurateurs have unearthed evidence that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) criticized and rejected the study now being used by the City to defend the new menu regulation. The Health Department's study focused on the Subway restaurant chain, which posts the calorie content of their foods on their menu boards. According to that study, people who noted the posted calories ordered meals containing about fifty calories less than people who didn't note calorie content (only about a third of customers said they had seen the calorie postings). But that's not very good evidence that posting calories will really fight obesity. The Subway chain has been advertising its food for years as a means of consuming fewer calories and losing weight -- not true for other chain restaurants. Any epidemiologist worth his or her salt will tell you such advertising will bias the study results, since one would expect that customers who want to lose weight, and are thus more calorie-conscious, would be more likely to eat at Subway than at other similar chain restaurants and would thus be more likely to pay attention to the posting of calorie content.
A federal judge, Richard Holwell of U.S. District Court in Manhattan, will rule this month on whether the calorie-posting law will be enacted. Because the judge may be looking at what scientific evidence is behind these recommendations to list calories and supposedly reduce obesity, the health department's study is emerging as a key element of the City's defense of the regulation. I guess we will have to wait and see who wins in the next few weeks. ACSH's position on this mandate is well-known, so you know who we are cheering for.
DISPATCH: Fat, germs, sugar, tobacco, and vilified aspartame
Today we had a Morning Dispatch guest, Carl Olson, who sat and discussed the morning news with us during our breakfast meeting. Carl made a great suggestion about putting subheads on each paragraph, making it easier to identify what stories you're reading about. Henceforth, it shall be done.
Obesity causes esophageal cancer?
Researchers at Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals of Cleveland, OH, found that cancer of the esophagus may be related to Americans' increasing intake of total and refined carbohydrates and subsequent rise in obesity rates( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.1629/pub_detail.asp http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080403/hl_nm/throat_cancer_dc;_ylt=AipNJbRl... ). The study found that the incidence of esophageal adenocarinoma was "strongly correlated" with carbohydrate consumption. We wonder why they are targeting carbohydrates in the first place. If you are following the food pyramid, a large portion of your daily intake will be coming from carbohydrates. Does that mean everyone is at risk of the throat cancer?
The investigators then mention that this type of cancer is known to be strongly associated with gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), which in turn is associated with obesity and a high carbohydrate intake. Ah, now it all makes sense: It's three degrees of separation -- high carbohydrate intake leads to obesity, which leads to GERD, which can lead to esophageal cancer. If the researchers were focusing on high fat intake, they likely would have drawn the same conclusion. It is easy to forget that there are three sources of energy (fat, protein, carbohydrates), and singling out just one energy source and labeling it "bad" will not necessarily decrease obesity rates. The important issue is the number of calories consumed -- not the source of the calories. Further, an association between two variables doesn't necessarily mean that one causes the other.
Excuse me, doc, can you please wash your hands?
A new report shows( http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/03/doctor-did-you-wash-your-hands/ ) that patients aren't comfortable asking doctors challenging questions about their care -- even though national campaigns encourage patients to take an active role in improving hospital safety. Researchers queried eighty surgical patients asking them how they felt about asking doctors or nurses various questions, and asking the patients to rate their level of willingness to ask the questions. The results found that the basic questions like "Have you washed your hands?" scored much lower marks then a question like length of hospital stay. The findings suggest that patients are worried about insulting their doctors by asking safety-oriented questions. The lesson of the day is, don't be afraid to ask questions -- it's your health that's at stake.
Slate on sugar
The author of the story "Footloose and Sugar-Free"( http://www.slate.com/default.aspx?id=2187878 ) makes a common association between decreasing sugar and improved health -- but she made many changes to her diet at the same time, not just reducing her sugar intake. That's obvious from her noting her stomach became flatter -- fewer calories, perhaps? ACSH's Dr. Kava noted, "There's a strong psychological component as well -- people feel better about themselves when they feel they are controlling their diet or other aspects of lifestyle. It's not just the sugar!"
Aspartame -- oh no, not again!
A new review in the European _Journal of Clinical Nutrition_ examined the role of aspartame and brain health. Researchers found a number of direct and indirect changes that occur in the brain as a result of high levels of aspartame consumption, leading to neurodegeneration. Despite some concerns being raised over the sweetener, both the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not changed their guidelines regarding the safety of the ingredient or intake advice. Just last year, a study that reviewed some 500 articles, published in the journal _Critical Reviews in Toxicology_ confirmed that the weight of existing evidence shows that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption: "No credible evidence was found that aspartame is carcinogenic, neurotoxic, or has any other adverse effect on health when consumed even at quantities many times the established ADI [acceptable daily intake] levels."
The authors of the new study -- which seemed very short on actual data or information -- admit that more testing is required to further determine the health effects of aspartame. We wonder when this aspartame controversy will be finally brought to an end.
Victory for tobacco
Yesterday a federal appeals court threw out an $800 billion class-action lawsuit on behalf of smokers who said they had been misled into thinking that light cigarettes were safer than regular ones( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/business/04tobacco.html?_r=1&th&emc=th... ). ACSH's Dr. Ross commented, "Cigarette makers seem to be immune to the litigation system." The plantiffs' lawyers wanted to represent millions of people across the country, but the court ruled those people could not be treated as a class since there were too many factors involved with choosing a "light cigarette." However, the court made no ruling on the actual merits of the case -- so the plaintiffs still wanting to sue will still be able to do it individually.
DISPATCH: Conflicts of Interest, Genetics of Cancer; Plus Flu, Water, and Autism
¢Quote of the day: "A new scientific McCarthyism is alive and well in America today." --ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan
Some in-house news today: ACSH just released its long-awaited report examining the subject of industry-funded science( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.1688/pub_detail.asp ). Scientific progress has long benefited from collaboration between science and business. Nevertheless, self-appointed "consumer advocacy" groups now routinely assert that science is being perverted by scientists' ties to industry and point to a handful of scandals to make their case -- despite the lack of evidence showing that ties to industry are especially corrupting. Our report on scientific "conflicts of interest" concludes that while disclosure is perfectly reasonable, treating any and all ties to industry as corrupting and other sources of bias as irrelevant -- even membership in anti-industry activist groups -- is a formula for scientific stagnation and skewed debate.
¢Three teams from France, Iceland, and the United States reported yesterday that they had pinpointed a region of the genome containing genes that can put smokers at even greater risk of contracting lung cancer( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080402/hl_nm/cancer_lung_dc ). This new study suggests that some people who smoke are more likely to become addicted -- and develop lung cancer -- than other people due to a genetic propensity. Unfortunately, some of the media coverage misinterpreted this report to indicate that nicotine itself is a carcinogen. Nicotine is addictive but does not itself cause the cancer -- though smoking does. Perhaps, if people knew that they had a genetic propensity toward lung cancer, they would be more motivated to quit.
¢Autism is frequently in the news, yet how many of us really know anything about it? The CDC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network released data in 2007 that found about one in 150 eight-year-old children in multiple areas of the United States had an autism spectrum disorder( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080402/hl_nm/autism_prematurity_dc;_ylt=Ap9... ). So what are the risk factors for autism? Little is known about the epidemiology of this condition -- but it was not surprising to hear that attention is being given to low birth weight as a risk factor for autism. Premature birth and low birth weight have been recognized in earlier studies as risk factors for a number of developmental problems, including autism and other illnesses. This new study, published in _Pediatrics_, noted that this was not the first time low birth weight was eyed as a risk. But the study -- of ninety-one children who were born between seven and fourteen weeks prematurely and weighed 3.3 pounds (1.5 kg) or less at birth -- was the first to directly assess the risk of autism in this population.
¢How many times have you been told (maybe by your mother) that to stay healthy you had to drink eight glasses of water a day? It has for a long time been a part of the popular wisdom. But apparently it may not be so.( http://www.efluxmedia.com/news_Benefits_of_Drinking_8_Glasses_of_Water_a... ) University of Pennsylvania researchers reviewed all the studies dealing with the health benefits of drinking lots of water and concluded that average healthy people did not require increased fluid intake. ACSH's Dr. Kava reached this same conclusion seven years ago when she wrote an article debunking the water myth. ACSH's Jeff Stier said, "It just goes to show you how far head of the curve we are here at ACSH." Dr. Kava noted, though, "Sometimes myths take a long time to die." Case in point: despite the results of this research, the Food Standards Agency (in the UK) is sticking to its recommendation to drink six to eight glasses of fluid a day.
¢Your boss, spouse, or children may all rely on you not to get sick, but you may be surprised at how many people are hoping you do. Apparently "the flu" is big business, and all you healthy people were hurting the bottom line in 2007. According to an article in the _Wall Street Journal_, flu hit late this season -- March instead of December -- and has been responsible for decreasing the profits of Kleenex, cold medicines makers, and hospitals. To quote P&G CEO A.G. Lafley, "Unfortunately, people have not been getting sick at a rate that we would all like yet." Another noteworthy remark, made by Walgreen Co. CEO Jeffrey Rein during a December shareholder gathering, was the joking comment: If anyone needs to cough, leave the room and "go to a movie theater or on a bus" to spread the germs. The quotes in the article get even worse when LifePoint Hospitals Inc. CFO David Dill adds, "You have a strong flu season, and the ancillary business is very profitable." Sicker patients often bring higher reimbursement from insurers or the government. We were a bit incredulous that businesses and hospitals would blantantly say they want us to get sick lest their profits suffer. Here we thought they were in the business of reducing our suffering. Of course, we know that this is just business, but there is such a thing as finesse and diplomacy, which these corporate representatives appear to lack, judging by these quotes.
DISPATCH: Toys, Car Accidents, Lipitor, and CPR
¢We found it appropriate that yesterday, on April Fool's Day, the state of Washington enacted a law banning phthalates from children's toys( http://www.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSN0232989320080402?feedType=RS... ) -- a measure that will protect no child from anything, while seriously impeding business in that state. The governor signed a bill that claims to protect kids from "chemicals" in toys. Advocates of the bill have been suggesting that not supporting it would be a vote for exposing kids to "poisons."
ACSH's Dr. Whelan said, "The momentum among the misinformed population is what's driving this, even though it's baseless." Specific concern focused on phthalates (used to make plastics flexible) in toys. (California has already banned most use of phthalates in toys and other children's products.) Will these moves advance the cause of public health? Absolutely not -- but they will make toys more expensive. And who knows what substances will be used to replace the phthalates? For some reason, in their eagerness to ban "chemicals," advocates never consider what the alternatives might be. We hoped this news would turn out to be merely an April Fool's joke, but sadly it's not.
¢A new study concludes that pregnant women reduce their risk of injury in car accidents if they are wearing their seatbelts( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080402/hl_nm/pregnancy_seatbelts_dc;_ylt=Ar... ). This hardly comes as a shock to ACSH -- but the article claims that there is a prevailing myth that seatbelts harm the fetus and should not be used by pregnant women. A rather odd myth, we think, but hopefully this study will call attention to the lifesaving attributes of seatbelts--for everyone.
¢Researchers at the University of Wisconsin claim to find a causal link between banning of cigarette smoking in bars and restaurants and an increase in the number of drunk driving incidents( http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,344833,00.html ). The claim is that people who want to drink and smoke resort to smoking in their cars right after downing a few -- and get involved in DWI incidents. They found that, on average, in communities with smoking bans there has been a nearly 12% rise in the number of drinking-related accidents. The study authors, Scott Adams and Chad Cotti, caution, though, that the increase in drunk driving should be weighed against the "potential positive health impacts'' from smoking bans.
¢If you have had a heart attack in the past, having a defibrillator at home might seem like a good idea. However, a recent government-funded study found that having a heart defibrillator at home may not increase your chance of survival, and the device may end up collecting dust instead( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120710398211382527.html ). In the study, 7,001 participants and companions -- usually a spouse -- were given CPR training, and half of the participants were given a defibrillator and instructed on its use. The researchers found that after three years, the defibrillators had few chances to be used. Among the participants, about 100 in each group experienced a cardiac arrest episode. About 65% of those episodes were at home, and among those, only about half were witnessed by somebody else. Overall, the death rates were similar in the two groups, 6.4% for the group with defibrillators versus 6.5% for the group without. This is a disappointing outcome for home defibrillators, because the technology for making such systems commonplace certainly exists.
¢A great side benefit of lipitor may have been uncovered. A new study done on the cholesterol-lowering statin drug Lipitor( http://money.cnn.com/news/newsfeeds/articles/newstex/AFX-0013-24181054.htm ) -- at the relatively high dose of 80 mg -- showed unexpectedly significant reduction in myocardial ischemia (insufficient blood and oxygen supply to the heart) in patients with chronic stable angina. They found that of 60% patients treated with Lipitor, all ischemic events were completely eliminated by the end of the study. This may indicate that Lipitor (Pfizer's atorvastatin) acts directly on constricted coronary arteries, in addition to having a cholesterol-lowering effect. If that's the case, perhaps the other statin drugs work through the same mechanism. Much new research will be stimulated by this report, we believe, with the potential to save many lives from heart disease.
DISPATCH: Weight, Hair, China, Hypertension, and the Cellphone Apocalypse
¢In yesterday's Morning Dispatch, we talked about the recent study claiming that cellphones can cause brain tumors. Well, ACSH's Jeff Stier recommends a new approach: "I say we reach a consensus this morning that enough is enough. We've always said that we shouldn't rely on just ONE study. Well, here's yet ANOTHER study( http://www.wneg32.com/index.php/news/article/a-new-study-links-cell-phon...) linking cellphones to brain tumors. There MUST be SOMETHING to it."
So as per the precautionary principle, today the American Council on Science and Health calls for an immediate and complete ban on all cellphone use in Europe and California. (Some 911 calls will be permitted, but no more than once per month, and calls must last less than ninety seconds.) Washington State, Maine, and other states seeking to be cutting-edge should consider legislation modeled on this proposed California ban.
Cellphone use will only be permitted if a series of studies not funded by industry can prove with absolute certainty, no matter how many rats it takes, that cellphones present zero risk whatsoever. The ban should go into effect today: April Fool's Day.
¢We all know that it's April Fool's Day and it's fun to play practical jokes, but saying you can't ever eat bacon again is just mean-spirited( http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,343548,00.html ). A "charitable organization," the UK's World Cancer Research Fund, has warned that eating just one sausage or three slices of bacon a day, about 1.8 ounces, may increase the risk of bowel cancer by a fifth. A spokesman for the WCRF said that the safest amount of processed meat, which also includes lunch meat, is none at all. This claim was reported by the UK's _Daily Record_. ACSH's Dr. Whelan said, "This is your classic example of a 'study' that defies common sense." Indeed. Let them eat bacon!
¢With only a few more months left until the summer Olympics in August, Beijing seeks to cut back on cigarette smoking in public places( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080331/hl_nm/olympics_beijing_smoking_dc;_y... ). Given the smoking habits of the Chinese, ACSH does not give this project very much hope of success.
This proposed ban would not apply to restaurants and bars. Such a ban has been proposed in the past but has met with fierce resistance among the Chinese -- described in this article as "the world's most enthusiastic smokers." Authorities had written to 30,000 restaurants asking them to put smoking bans in place, the _China Daily_ said in January, but not a single one took up the suggestion. We wish Beijing the best of luck. Maybe we should send them harm-reducing smokeless tobacco?
¢Merck is reporting good results with its experimental weight loss medication taranabant( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080331/hl_nm/heart_merck_taranabant_dc;_ylt... ). Patients taking the drug for a year lost an average of 14.5 pounds -- as opposed to 5.7 pounds for those who were on a placebo. Morning Dispatch readers should watch this year for a new ACSH paper on the subject of the use of pharmacological technology in coping with our nation's obesity crisis.
¢There is good news for people suffering from hypertension. Lotrel, a pill that combines two blood pressure drugs into one pill, was so effective in preventing heart attacks in recent studies that the clinical trial was stopped early( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080331/hl_nm/heart_lotrel_dc ). "For the 73 million patients in America with high blood pressure, we offer a new option to reduce heart attacks, strokes, and heart-related death by 20%," said Dr. Kenneth Jamerson of the University of Michigan, who presented his findings at the American College of Cardiology, meeting in Chicago. The studied drug, Novartis's Lotrel, contains an angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor (an ACE) plus a calcium channel blocker -- and patients on this combination pill had 20% fewer heart events such as heart attacks and strokes than those who took an ACE inhibitor and diuretic, or "water pill," combination. We definitely think is an exciting advance in reducing the toll of heart disease and stroke.
¢Tired of unwanted body hair? Why not pick up a handheld laser?( http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB120701119204278961-_Wdaalr6hNgPWb... ) After all, It will only set you back $1,000 -- though it's not made for everyone's skin. Tria will be the first personal cosmetic laser to be sold in the U.S. and uses the same diode-laser technology that became the gold standard in professional hair removal more than a decade ago. Another device called Silk'n will be launched this week, too, and will cost $800. The limitations of the products come from the fact that they are slower than professional laser hair removal and work best on smaller areas such as underarms -- and neither device can be used on dark skin. Tria's maker developed a skin-color safety sensor that helped allay FDA concerns. A small, detachable tester is placed on the skin -- it flashes a green light if the skin is light enough to be treated safely, a red light if it isn't. These new handheld devices may be received with a loud hurray by women desperate to eradicate body hair once and for all.
DISPATCH: Vaccines, Cell Phones, and Pesticides -- Oh, Yeah, and Anthrax
¢Quote of the day from a letter in today's _New York Times_:
"It seems the parents who reject vaccines have it all figured out: they've done their 'research' and claim to 'understand' the risks and benefits of exempting their children from vaccines. One question remains: Whom will they sue when their children die of preventable diseases? Themselves"
--Carl Baum, pediatrician and director of Center for Children's Environmental Toxicology at Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital (Carl Baum has hereby earned an Honorary seat at ACSH's table).
¢Here we have the most absurd story of the week( http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,343335,00.html ): the claim that cell phones are as dangerous (in terms of cancer risk) as smoking cigarettes. A doctor described as "one of the world's top neurosurgeons" makes these claims (how would he know?), noting that using phone handsets can "more than double the risk of brain cancer" -- and calling on the phone industry to make phones "safer."
ACSH's Dr. Ross noted, "These scares trying to link cell phones and cancer -- especially brain cancer -- have arisen spasmodically over the past fifteen years or so, since Larry King gave airtime on his show to someone spewing this myth. Despite studies disproving any connection, it just won't go away."
¢A small study( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/28/AR200803... ) published in the journal _BMC Neurology_ suggested ties between "exposure to pesticides" (primarily on farms) and Parkinson's disease -- which affects about 1 million people in the United States. But the authors add prudently, "biological evidence is presently insufficient to conclude that pesticide exposure causes Parkinson's disease" -- a clear example of an "association" being distinguished from "causation."
¢For many obese people fearful of gastric bypass surgery -- and frustrated with their lack of progress with diet and exercise -- there is still hope: Enter gastric banding( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120692909065176045.html?mod=todays_us_pa... ). Gastric banding -- in which a silicone band is wrapped around the upper stomach to restrict food intake -- is a potential cash cow for both Johnson & Johnson and Allergen. A number of studies suggest that gastric banding is safer than gastric bypass surgery -- although both pose a risk of infection and other typical surgery-related complications -- with weight loss comparable to gastric bypass, albeit a bit slower. The difference between the two procedures is that during the gastric bypass, the surgeon reroutes the gastrointestinal system, but gastric bands don't alter the body's basic plumbing. It's one more alternative to consider for those battling the bulge. Be on the lookout for the silicone band, coming to a surgeon near you.
¢Most of us -- especially New Yorkers -- have not forgotten about the anthrax scare in 2001. The originators of this murderous assault had, we thought, never been found -- but now, Fox News has announced that the FBI has narrowed down its focus to four suspects( http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,342852,00.html ), and three of those suspects are linked to the Army's bioweapons research facility at Fort Detrick in Maryland. Anthrax-laced letters were mailed to two U.S. senators and at least two news outlets in the fall of 2001. Five people were killed and more than a dozen others were infected by the deadly spores. "Fort Detrick is run by the United States Army. It's the most secure biological warfare research center in the United States," a bioterrorism expert told Fox News.
ACSH's Dr. Whelan noted, "This story is close to being wrapped up, so why has only Fox news covered this story? This should be a big news story." We think it's unsettling that the military had anything to do with this.
¢The vaccine court judges have turned their backs on science by dropping preponderance of evidence as a standard( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/31/opinion/31offit.html?_r=1&ref=todayspa... ). Now, petitioners need merely propose a biologically plausible mechanism by which a vaccine might cause harm -- even if their explanation contradicts published studies. An op-ed by Dr. Paul Offit -- chief of the infectious diseases division of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and an ACSH Advisor -- made a very good argument: The damage done by the recent vaccine court decision to pay damages in the case of a young girl, Hannah Poling, may wreak more havoc than it ever intended. Parents may now worry about vaccinating their children, more autism research money may be steered toward vaccine theories and away from more promising leads, and, if similar awards are made in state courts, pharmaceutical companies may abandon the liability-incurring making of vaccines for American children. In the name of trying to help children with autism, the Poling decision has only hurt them.
DISPATCH: Calories, Obesity, and Food
It seems that the main health topics in the news today concern calories, obesity and food. I guess you can say that spring is officially here! Time to dust off the running shoes and get in shape for the summer.
¢New York City's proposed requirement for menu board posting of calories at chain restaurants was supposed to go into effect on March 31st. The restaurant trade associations are, understandably, protesting this regulation. There are a number of interesting points to ponder here when deciding whether or not you think the City is acting in the public health's best interest in requiring menu calorie disclosure:
First, the truth is that most of the fast food chain restaurants (like McDonald's, Burger King, etc.) already disclose the calorie content of their fares on their websites, on wall posters, on food wrappers -- and on tray liners. The question is whether they should also be required to put calorie information on the menu boards (or in the case of a chain restaurant like Red Lobster, on the menu itself).
Second, only a subset of New York City restaurants -- those with multiple venues -- are being targeted by this regulation. One might ask (and the ruling judge might well do so) why, if caloric posting is so essential for public health, the City is exempting a so many restaurants from posting their nutritional information.
Third, and most important from a public health perspective, is the question of efficacy( http://www.nydailynews.com/lifestyle/health/2008/03/28/2008-03-28_health... ): the purported goal of mandated menu board posting is to prevent obesity and the sequelae of obesity (for example, diabetes). Implementation of this regulation will cost chain restaurants substantial amounts of money, which in turn will be passed on to customers. The City Health Department predicts that menus posting will prevent obesity and diabetes. They estimate that calorie posting could reduce the number of people in the City who suffer from obesity by 150,000 over the next five years, preventing more than 30,000 cases of diabetes, but their data base for these estimates is questionable at best. Shouldn't the public health establishment have in hand firm data to support the efficacy of such proposals before they require business (and consumers) to assume the costs of the regulations being promulgated?
¢According to the _New York Sun_( http://www.nysun.com/news/new-york/post-smoking-ban-city-gains-10-millio... ), you should pick your poison: cigarettes or obesity. Their columnist suggests that one reason for the increase in obesity is the decrease in smoking. Critics of the smoking ban include Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, and the founder commented, "While they're trying to save one segment of society, they're getting nowhere because it has a negative effect elsewhere." I guess they will try to find any excuse to further their cause.
Just yesterday a reporter contacted ACSH's Jeff Stier asking if he would make a comment affirming that the rise in obesity is due to New York City's smoking ban. Jeff refused. Some people may gain a few pounds after quitting smoking, but a weight gain of 10 lbs. in a person with a healthy starting weight is cosmetic and not a meaningful contributor to the obesity problem. The risk of a few extra pounds is far outweighed by the benefits of quitting smoking.
¢A warning for all wannabe sushi chefs, this is one task better left to the professionals. Amateurs who do not know how to handle raw fish properly can get very sick. Seafood can contain parasites, bacteria, viruses and toxins caused by marine algae( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080328/hl_nm/japan_sushi_dc ). Still hankering for some home made sushi? Stick to using vegetables and cooked seafood such as shrimp and crab at home. It still tastes good and may save you a trip to the emergency room.
¢A few slices of buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil sounds like a nice healthy snack, but apparently some people in Italy are afraid of an extra ingredient: dioxin( http://www.guardian.co.uk/feedarticle?id=7412727 ). Sales of buffalo mozzarella plunged 40% in January this year due to fears of dioxin contamination. Apparently, Naples and the surrounding region suffered a garbage crisis since dumps were full, so locals burned piles of rubbish in the streets and open fields -- which would explain the increase in dioxin levels. Although the quantities were higher than EU legislation requires, it was not excessive. ACSH's Dr.Ross said, "There is no scientific evidence linking dioxin or any other disease at typical environmental exposure levels. Nevertheless, we always read about 'cancer-causing dioxin.' It's just not true."
DISPATCH: CT, HRT, DHA, and more
¢Yesterday saw front-page news coverage about scientists outraged that tobacco interests funded research on the efficacy of CT scans used to detect lung cancer early enough to allow life-saving interventions. We have since received many specific questions about how effective these CTs really are. On one hand, it seems intuitive that if you find a cancer early, you are much more likely to cure it. But in reality, that may not be the case.
In a recent study (published March 2007 in the _Journal of the American Medical Assocation_), researchers evaluated the CT scans of more than 3,200 adults with a history of smoking but no symptoms of lung cancer. The imaging procedure was shown to find smaller tumors earlier, but the researchers saw no evidence that patients lived longer as a result of early detection and treatment( http://www.cancer.org/docroot/NWS/content/NWS_1_1x_Study_CT_Scans_Still_... ).
The authors concluded, "Without such a benefit to justify the approach, we are left with the prospect of taking people who have no symptoms of disease and subjecting them unnecessarily to the costs, pain, inconvenience, and health risks associated with additional scans, surgeries, recuperation, etc. More research is needed to determine if people who show no symptoms of lung cancer should be screened. These findings raise doubts about the premise underpinning CT screening for lung cancer, and also raise concerns about its potential harms if pursued on a wide scale."
¢So, if you're in your forties and you can no longer see your toes because of your beer belly, but the doc says you're still in a physically-healthy weight range, you've got nothing to worry about, right? Not necessarily. A study of more than 6,000 people found the more fat they had in their abdominal area in their early to mid-forties, the greater their chances of becoming forgetful or confused or showing other signs of senility as they aged( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/26/AR200803... ). Those who had the most impressive midsections faced more than twice the risk of the leanest.
Surprisingly, a sizable stomach seems to increase the risk even among those who are not obese or even overweight, the researchers reported in a paper published online today by the journal _Neurology_.
"A large belly independent of total weight is a potent predictor of dementia," said Rachel A. Whitmer, a research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, CA, who led the new study.
When we hear of associations like this, we wonder: what is the possible biological explanation? Well, the authors have one: Stomach fat might increase the risk for dementia in the same ways it promotes heart disease -- by boosting blood pressure and constricting blood flow.
These reports about the health consequences of obesity are truly alarming to us at ACSH (please be on lookout for our soon-to-be-published book on the health consequences of obesity). We are getting fatter, and unfortunately the bad news about the health effects of obesity still keeps coming in. Wonder if Santa Claus has gotten the word (maybe we should add him to the ACSH Morning Dispatch distribution list?). His waistline may make him forget his Christmas rounds.
¢Not all fat is bad. In fact, makers of children's food such as Beech-Nut, YoMommy yogurt, and ZenSoy are promoting products enhanced with DHA omega-3 fatty acid( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120658258377667497.html?mod=googlenews_wsj ). There is some evidence that DHA has been linked to improved cognition and vision, although some point out the benefits have been mostly noted in premature babies, rather than older kids. A rich source of DHA in the diet is fish, a food that is sometimes avoided by pregnant women. ACSH's Dr. Kava noted that "it wont hurt to add it, even though the data is not that strong." It's important to note that the body can make DHA on its own from what is naturally present in the diet, even a diet that doesn't include lots of fish. Although added DHA may be beneficial, keep in mind that a lot of its supposed benefits are likely just marketing hype.
¢Bad news for Eli Lilly, as they agreed to pay $15 million to the state of Alaska( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/26/business/26cnd-zyprexa.html?_r=1&ex=13... ) to settle a lawsuit claiming that the company's drug Zyprexa caused patients to develop diabetes. ACSH's Dr. Ross noted that this will set a precedent for the company, and they will most likely have to settle with everyone in several other states and with the federal government, who filed lawsuits. Zyprexa helps calm the hallucinations and delusions associated with schizophrenia and also treats the mania and depression of bipolar disorder. ACSH is concerned about what message this will send to doctors and patients about the safety of Zyprexa. The reason for the lawsuit is the state's assertion that Lilly failed to warn doctors and patients about Zyprexa's propensity to cause severe weight gain, blood sugar changes, cholesterol problems, and possibly diabetes. Even though the drug may be linked to these possible side effects, the benefits to these people who couldn't otherwise function must be carefully weighed against unpleasant side effects.
¢The latest study published by the _Journal of the National Cancer Institute_ strikes us as a "duh" moment. The researchers found( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080325/hl_nm/cancer_hormones_dc;_ylt=At5WAB... ), unsurprisingly, that women who have had breast cancer are more likely to suffer a recurrence of tumors if they get hormone replacement therapy. Given that the state-of-the-art post-treatment plan for early breast cancer is hormone _depletion_ (by means of aromatase inhibitors) -- certainly not hormone _replacement_ (which is normally used to combat menopause effects) -- we have to wonder how many women who've had breast cancer are nonetheless getting HRT, a seemingly risky move. The potentially important news of this study should reach doctors and patients considering HRT -- there may be many women who are concerned about menopause effects but who should be even more concerned about breast cancer.
DISPATCH: Things premature, old, green, fat, and subsidized
¢Quote of the day "If you're using blood money, you need to tell people you're using blood money," said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.
¢This front-page story in the _New York Times_ today( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/26/health/research/26lung.html?_r=1&hp&or... ) about the ethics of tobacco company funding of screening tests for lung cancer raises many questions. Among them: what does it matter who funded the study? Is it not more important what the data and results are and whether good scientific procedure was followed. This is a perfect example of the diversion of attention from science to funding. Of course, this case is complicated by the heinous history of cigarette manufacturers, starting in the 1950s, using funding to distort science. But is that charge applicable here? We think not.
The article suggests that the cigarette companies got together and decided they could sell more cigarettes if they could convince smokers that lung cancer was not a deadly disease if detected early. Then, once early detection -- in this case CT scanning -- was widely accepted, smokers could smoke with impunity, confident that any lung cancer consequences could be dealt with. Did the cigarette companies have this motivation in funding these screening studies? We do not know.
Instead of focusing on who funded what study, though, the Times would have served readers better by analyzing the real issue: does early screening for lung cancer save lives? ACSH has always expressed doubt about the efficacy of such screening given the enormous potential for picking up "false positives," which cause unnecessary anxiety, surgery, and related interventions
¢The consequences of being born prematurely can last a lifetime. This is something we forget in an age of marveling at one-pound babies being saved. Avoiding premature births should be a top public health priority. Cigarette smoking during pregnancy is a major risk factor for premature births, and would-be mothers need to know the long-term negative effects smoking can have on their unborn children.
¢The tree-hugging Sierra Club will be using its "seal of approval" to help Clorox get a piece of a $150 million market( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/26/business/businessspecial2/26cleanser.h... ). The product endorsement is a first in the club's 116-year history. The idea behind the partnership is "to do powerful cleaning naturally." An environmental organization and a chemical cleaning company may seem like strange bedfellows, but it shows how important a "green image" is for marketing products. This new trend towards "green" products is a huge distraction from real health issues, though. By the way: does this mean that good old Clorox -- we mean before it turned "green" -- was somehow hazardous to our health? This question was posed by ACSH's Dr. Beth Whelan in a letter to Clorox's president a few months ago, and we are still waiting for a response.
¢Xenical -- sold over-the-counter at half strength as Alli -- helps people shed a few pounds by blocking the absorption of a portion of fat in the diet. Now, there appears to be a new beneficial side effect of the drug: it can help people lower their blood pressure( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080324/hl_nm/hypertension_drug_dc;_ylt=Ao0L... ). It is difficult to tease out here if it is the reduced fat absorption per se that may assist in reducing hypertension or whether it is the weight loss itself -- but either way, it is good news for those who need to shed a few pounds and bring their blood pressure down.
DISPATCH: Sherlock Holmes, the Beatles, and Teen Rx Abuse
--Quote of the day: "If you want to figure out why California has gone berserk over risk, look no further than the fact the that scientists are not 'barking'." --Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.
--If you picture California as home of surfers and bohos who are laid back and easygoing, you may be surprised to learn that they are paranoid about everything -- including invisible, hostiles forces. Of course, we know that not all Californians are paranoid (in fact, ACSH's Jeff Stier was out there two weeks ago visiting with ACSH donors). However, ACSH staffers could easily name ten things that needlessly scare Californians: acrylamide, bisphenol-A, cancer from countless sources (think Prop 65)( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.146/pub_detail.asp ), DDT, dioxin, high fructose corn syrup, lead, pesticides, phthalates, and in Sebastapol (cue drum roll, please) now even wi-fi( http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/03/24/state/n10073... )!
California is indeed overwhelmed with bogus "health hazards." ACSH has a question: when there are so many health scares out there (California recently banned rubber duckies and related products out of hysteria over trace levels of phthalates, and they live by Prop 65, which bans or labels anything that "causes cancer" in high-dose animal tests), why do California scientists sit mute? Why is there not outrage among the academics of California over this hyperbole about risk?
If self-appointed activists announce next week that they are banning daylight because it causes shadows -- and activists think "Just to be safe, you should be afraid of your shadow" -- will academic silence still prevail? Sherlock Holmes once said that he solved a mystery because "the dogs did not bark." So here is your clue and a question: Why are the academic dogs in California not barking?
--Neil Aspinall, a longtime friend and business associate of the Beatles, has died of lung cancer at age 66( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/24/arts/music/24cnd-aspinall.html?em&ex=1... ).
His death is a reminder of the toll that cigarette smoking has taken on the generation born during and after WWII. (It certainly had a devastating effect as well on the generation preceding his, as cigarette smoking became increasingly popular in the mid 1920s and beyond.) For Aspinall and his colleagues, cigarette smoking was the norm, and given the addictive nature of the habit, it was a lifetime commitment. During Aspinall's lifetime, some 70% of his male age-mates were cigarette smokers.
Beatle George Harrison died in 2001 at age fifty-eight of smoking-related cancer (he had lung, throat, and eventually brain cancer).
--On a somewhat lighter note, a truly remarkable surgery: a transplant surgeon working on a sixty-three year-old woman to remove a very hard-to-reach tumor ended up removing a variety of organs -- six to be exact, which included her liver, stomach, and intestines -- to gain access to the tumor, and then put all the organs back in place( http://www.efluxmedia.com/news_Breakthrough_Cancer_Surgery_Gives_Woman_S... ). This is a first in surgery. ACSH's Dr. Whelan noted that this shows the sophistication of medical technology.
--Pasteur would likely be rolling over in his grave -- raw milk is just fine for people to drink, until it isn't. It can be a source of many microbiological hazards such as listeria, E. coli, staphylococcus, etc. Yet, now there is a whole mythology claiming raw milk is somehow much more nutritious, etc., than pasteurized milk -- part of the "raw foods" movement. There seems to be a growing movement of closet raw milk drinkers. Even a nurse who advises her patients to avoid unpasteurized dairy was secretly drinking raw milk when pregnant with her first child. An article about it appeared in the _Boston Globe_( http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/magazine/articles/2008/03/23/got_raw_m... ).
--Apparently, you not only have to "child proof" your prescription medicines and medicine cabinets, you also need to "teenage proof" them. In recent years, a growing number of teenagers have begun abusing prescription drugs. Young people may be moving from one bad trend to the next. Where they were once using Ritalin and Adderall, they are now trying powerful painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet. Although the percentage of use for painkillers is relatively low, it is on the rise, found one University of Michigan study. The worrisome part of the story was that some people don't perceive prescription drugs to be dangerous and underestimated how addictive they can be. ACSH's Dr. Ross pointed out that another serious concern is that these young people are sometimes getting their drugs over the Internet( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120639877117160751.html?mod=todays_us_pe... ) -- and who know what they are actually getting?
DISPATCH: Regs, Cantaloupes, Pounds, and Polyps
Quote of the day "obesity is not rocket science, it's a lot more complex" Diane Finegood, director of CIHR's institute for Nutrition, Metabolism, and Diabetes.
¢The pendulum may be swinging the other way and knocking down anyone in its path. According to an article( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120631764481458291.html?mod=hpp_us_whats... ) in today's _Wall Street Journal_, the idea of "less regulation is better" is losing momentum and reversing course towards overregulation. "We're in for a potentially significant regulatory response," said Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia University's business school. "The hope is we wont overreact." We share the same sentiment here at ACSH and hope that the mood for more regulation fades quickly. Now more than ever does our voice need to be heard so that decisions are made based on sound science and not regulation for regulation's sake. As the public increasingly grows leery of American companies and perceives a lack of control over safety and quality, so too does the push for more regulation. With stricter regulations in place, activists try pushing for "zero tolerance" for substances like lead (think Consumer Product Safety Commission) or phthalates, which may lead to more recalls and cause a spiral of ever more calls for tightened regulation -- without improving public health.
¢The Manhattan Institute's MedicalProgressToday blog carries an excellent commentary( http://www.medicalprogresstoday.com/enewsletters/mpt_ind.php?pid=1743&ni... ) by Dr. David Gratzer, highly critical of Republican Presidential presumptive nominee John McCain on the subject of pharmaceutical pricing. McCain, who has characterized U.S. drug companies as "bad guys," laments the high cost of pharmaceuticals -- and advocates drug importation as part of the solution. As Dr. Gratzer writes, "Reimportation is politically popular; it's also bad policy. McCain would be better served by abandoning this idea and speaking out in favor of reforms that will help Americans pay a fair price for prescription drugs."
He also points out that approving drug importation as a means of reducing the cost of drugs is synonomous with approving price controls -- certain to discourage innovation in the drug industry. We hope candidate McCain takes these comments to heart and develops a more enlightened position on U.S. pharmaceutical policy.
¢At a time when nutritionists everywhere are encouraging people to eat more fruit, it's disheartening to learn that salmonella bacteria have been found contaminating cantaloupes( http://www.accessnorthga.com/detail.php?n=208284 ) imported from Honduras. In addition to avoiding the suspect supplier, consumers should be reminded that all fruit should at least be rinsed before eaten, and fruit with wrinkled rinds (such as cantaloupes) should be scrubbed before they're cut to eliminate the possibility of carrying bacteria from the skin into the interior of the fruit. ACSH's Jeff Stier commented that while he was shopping at ShopRite on the weekend, he saw they had a sign near the cantaloupes warning that ShopRite is aware of the recall and does not carry cantaloupes imported from Honduras. Dr. Whelan noted that "the concept of washing the outside of a melon may surprise people."
¢We're heartened to see that the news stories on obesity sometimes really get it right. A Reuters article( http://dailynews.muzi.com/news/ll/english/10064796.shtml ) points out that since obesity results from the interaction of genetics and several lifestyle and environmental factors, the solutions to the current obesity epidemic will not be simple. Thus, calls to ban particular types of foods or fats are highly unlikely to have any lasting effect, as ACSH has noted many times. In addition to these issues, we can add the problem of unrealistic expectations. Dr. Ruth Kava noted that research has shown that people focus more on the cosmetic aspects of weight loss than the health benefits that can result. A person who is fifty pounds overweight might be disappointed if he or she lost only ten pounds, but even that relatively small amount might substantially reduce the risk of obesity-associated disease such as diabetes.
¢The Weekend Journal of the _Wall Street Journal_ had an in-depth look( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120578917150143145.html?mod=todays_us_th... ) at progress being made with virtual colonoscopic examinations -- a type of X-ray first introduced in the 1990s. While the standard colononscopic exam remains the "gold standard" for colon cancer screening, the procedure can be very expensive (up to $3,000) -- and not all Americans have access to this procedure. Given that colon cancer deaths are second only to lung cancer deaths, screening is a top priority. Tremendous progress has been made with virtual colonoscopic exams -- but problems remain. First, it is possible that the virtual test might miss so-called "flat" polyps.
Second, the virtual version offers no advantage over the standard test in terms of the pre-procedure preparation. Both require the prep, and if a polyp is detected during the virtual exam, the patient will need to start from scratch with a new prep and scheduling of a standard colonoscopic exam to snip the polyp.
Keep your eye on the progress of the virtual procedure with the prospect of evaluating its use for mass screening opportunities at lower cost. But if you have access to the standard colonoscopic exam -- and you are over age fifty -- take advantage of it. It is safe, effective, and mostly painless -- and it could save your life.
¢Also, please be sure to check out Dr. Ross's letter (fourth down)( http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-bizletters23mar23,1,3777100.story?... ) in the L.A. Times about "toxicants in green products."
Morning Dispatch #150: Driebusch Departs, Bed Bugs and STDs Attack
- Today marks a bittersweet occasion -- this is the 150th edition of the Morning Dispatch, and it is also the last one I will ever write. After 150 glorious days writing about ACSH's interpretation of science and health news, I will be moving on from my research position here. Starting next week, I will be transitioning to my new job as a hedge fund reporter at Institutional Investor News, but I will never forget ACSH. Thank you for your loyal readership, and all your newsworthy comments. While I will no longer be helming the Morning Dispatch, fear not -- an equally informative edition will continue to come to your inbox every day.
Now, for today's science news:
- Maybe the FDA is reading the commentary by ACSH's Krystal Ford on the importance of Gardasil for women -- the FDA is currently conducting a fast-track approval review( http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601202&sid=aQKYu22f3TFs&refer=h... ) of the use of the drug for women between the ages of twenty-seven and forty-five. The FDA is expected to make a decision about this expanded use of Gardasil in the summer.
ACSH can only hope the FDA not only approves the use of the vaccine for older women, but also quickly approves the use of Gardasil for boys and men -- they are, after all, also at risk of getting infected with HPV, an STD that causes oral cancer as well as cervical cancer.
- The _Wall Street Journal_ earns today's Unintended Irony Award -- on the same page, the Journal ran two seemingly contradictory stories. One lauded using poisonous gases and liquid hydrogen to remove bedbugs( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120596873874750153.html?mod=todays_us_pe... ). The other lauded "green" cleaning services( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120597420143850507.html?mod=pj_main_hs_coll ).
Maybe it's just us, but we find the juxtaposition rather odd -- one story says we cannot remove bed bugs without chemicals, and the other one touts a line of products that brags about being "chemical free." It's time to admit that in countless ways, much-feared chemicals actually make life safer and easier.
- Unfortunately, the use of hormonal therapy to treat prostate cancer patients seems to have been ineffective. A study published in the most recent issue of the _New England Journal of Medicine_( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120597164990250361.html?mod=googlenews_wsj ) followed more than 1,000 men and treated about a third with both radiation and hormonal therapy. These patients were found to have more problems with energy and sexual function
ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross said that originally researchers thought that since prostate cancer is driven by androgens, giving patients anti-androgens would help slow the cancer. But this does not seem to be the case, an unfortunate realization about the most common cancer among men.
- Be sure to check out this Huffington Post blog( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-stier/sick-kids-misused-in-smok_b_923... ) by ACSH's Jeff Stier about the New York Department of Health using stock photos of sick children in its ad campaign against second-hand smoke. Stier hopes your reaction will be more favorable than that of at least one of the commentators, who accused Stier of working for Philip Morris. In fact, the opposite is the case: Since our founding in 1978, ACSH has been in the forefront of educating the public and the media about the vast spectrum of diseases caused by cigarettes. But such ignorant attacks are typical of the sorts of mud slung at us by anti-science activists.
DISPATCH: Sickened Rats, Threatened Children, Forgetful Elderly
- Quote to Note: "So is a new era coming, one in which real toxins and carcinogens will be weeded out from the countless hypothetical and negligible ones that we have spent the past fifty years (and billions of dollars) pointlessly fighting? That's still up in the air. My gut reaction is to say it can't be any worse than the useless current method." --ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross in an _American Spectator_ op-ed( http://www.spectator.org/dsp_article.asp?art_id=12914 ).
- Can't remember what stories the Morning Dispatch covered yesterday? You're probably not alone. Although most people, young and old, report some memory loss, when does it get serious? According to the Alzheimer's Association, an estimated 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease -- the association predicts one out of eight Baby Boomers will become afflicted with the disease.
Also, according to a report in the _Annals of Internal Medicine_, researchers found that more than a third of American over the age of seventy have some form of memory loss.
"Has it always been that way?" ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan asked. And what's the proposed solution? ACSH staffers wonder what sort of funding has been given to researchers to find treatments for this debilitating condition. If memory loss is hitting a third of all Americans over the age of seventy, and Alzheimer's one in eight people, a search for a solution certainly seems like a good investment.
- ACSH staffers have argued before that the concept of "no safe level of lead" is false. However, even we were given pause when we read about the $1 million civil penalty settlement against Reebok after a young boy died from ingesting charms that contained higher-than-allowed levels of lead( http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml08/08224.html ).
As ACSH's Jeff Stier admitted, while the .06 percent per weight of lead allowed in toys is lower than necessary, when it comes to jewelry you must be extra careful.
While manufacturers can say a toy should be kept away from mouths, or should not be consumed, children will be children, ACSH's Krystal Ford pointed out. Even though it's not entirely clear that the young boy died from the lead poisoning (though all signs point to it), it is clearer that Reebok violated federal law.
- Good news for breast cancer patients -- new research published in the most recent edition of the journal _Lancet Oncology_ found that using radiation therapy in fewer, but higher, doses appears to have the same efficacy as longer, conventional doses for women recovering from breast cancer( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/18/AR200803... ).
"This is a terrific advancement," Dr. Whelan noted. In many parts of the country, women do not live near treatment facilities, and the inconvenience of radiation therapy may interfere with completion of the therapy.
- Finally, Dr. Whelan also found it important to bring up phthalates. Once again, Dr. Whelan said she cannot comprehend the attack on phthalates. Dr. Ross said that just because a chemical was found to cause cancer or any other adverse effects in mice in a high-dose animal test doesn't mean it causes cancer in humans. For more on how mice experiments cannot necessarily be extrapolated to humans, read Dr. Ross's op-ed in today's _American Spectator_( http://www.spectator.org/dsp_article.asp?art_id=12914 ).
DISPATCH: Organic Industry, Chinese Pollution, and Moderate Drinking
Quote to Note: "There's no magic wand you can wave and suddenly reliably change the quality of air in a region, but there is a very real risk that the health of some athletes will be impaired." --Anthony Hedley, chairman of the department of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong. "
- As the 2008 Summer Olympics quickly approach, focus again turns to China -- especially on China's air quality( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120577799162242425.html?mod=googlenews_wsj ). The International Olympic Committee found that outdoor endurance events, those that include an hour or more of continuous, high-intensity physical effort, might be dangerous for athletes in Beijing. As ACSH staffers have mused before, is it really a good idea to hold the games in Beijing this August? It seems like a recipe for a public health disaster. National Olympic committees have been preparing athletes for the bad air, which is a good start. We hope that helps more than China's first effort -- alternating the days cars can drive through the city.
- ACSH staffers were pleased to see another mainstream media report on the benefits of adding moderate amounts of alcohol to the diet at middle age( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/18/health/18prev.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&oref=... ) -- even for nondrinkers. Despite proven benefits of moderate alcohol intake for decreasing risk of cardiovascular disease, many scientists have been hesitant about encouraging nondrinkers to start imbibing, treating the idea as taboo.
But the results in this new study published in the March issue of _The American Journal of Medicine_ may even convince the skeptic -- the study shows that those who begin having a drink or two a day in middle age were 38% less likely than those who did not drink to have a "cardiovascular event" (heart attack, stroke, or sudden death) during a four-year period. We'll toast to that.
- Following close at the heels of yesterday's discovery that even "green" products contain "toxins," ACSH staffers learned today (compliments of a clever graphic)( http://www.boingboing.net/2008/03/14/which-giant-corporat.html ) that those "organic" labels don't mean much. Think anything you consume that's "organic" is from a small family-owned farm in the Midwest? Think again. Many of the popular organic companies are actually owned by big corporations. For instance, the Organic Cow of Vermont is owned by none other than Dean. And Back to Nature? Owned by big business Kraft.
It really goes to show how the "organic" labeling is just a ploy to confound consumers and make us believe we're getting something both "healthier" and "purer" -- when really it's just a sticker that raises the price of the product.
DISPATCH: Pyramids and Toys, Greens and Girls, Plus Valuable Water
- First off, ACSH staffers would like to wish you all a very Happy St. Patrick's Day. But before you start rationing off your day's diet of Irish soda bread based on the food pyramid, there's an article worth reading about the accuracy of the pyramid and editing its guidelines.
The article, "A Call for Higher Standards of Evidence for Dietary Guidelines," is published in a recent issue of the _American Journal of Preventive Medicine_. The authors point out that some of the data used in the current food pyramid isn't that great and asks why the government is giving people guidelines if there is so little solid evidence to support them.
ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava agreed that these authors have a good point. "We should be providing the evidence for people who can read it and understand it," she explained. (Dr. Kava pointed out one of the article's ACSH-like examples, that there is no evidence that trans fats are uniquely responsible for obesity.)
This is the perfect time to be writing about re-thinking the pyramid guidelines -- the government updates the pyramid every five years, and they're beginning to set up committees for the next (2010) set of guidelines. Also, thank you to ACSH advisor and trustee Dr. Jim Enstrom for alerting us to this article.
- ACSH's Jeff Stier noted that an article in _USA Today_ looks at how activists are focusing on the "safer toys" issue( http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2008-03-16-toy-safety_N.htm?csp=34 ). Stier has written about this before. "Whenever someone says there's 'no safe level of exposure to lead,' you know he's not speaking scientifically," Stier insisted. And ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross pointed out that the article erroneously refers to phthalates -- vinyl softeners that have been under attack recently -- as being linked to reproductive problems in humans. In fact, while this assertion is widely promoted by anti-chemical activists, Dr. Ross said there is no truth behind it.
- ACSH staffers were pleased to see the latest charity drive sweeping through New York City: pay a dollar for tap water to help bring clean water to a child. UNICEF estimates that one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water.
This week, restaurants around the country will ask customers to donate at least $1 for tap water -- each dollar provides a child clean drinking water for forty days.
As ACSH s mission is to improve public health, we are in full support of this fundraising and awareness campaign. For more information, check out tapproject.org( LINK ). We'd also appreciate it if you support ACSH's own fundraising campaign -- though not desperate for drinking water, we do rely on you, since we can't afford full-page ads in the _New York Times_. You can donate here: ACSH.org/Support( LINK )
- We can't help but laugh when we read that supposedly "green" products are not "safe" either -- they, too, have traces of "toxic" chemicals in them.
"This just underscores what we've been saying for years and years -- if you test any product, you're going to find chemicals that cause cancer in animals," Dr. Kava explained. Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's safer -- the natural world is filled with things that can harm, after all. Perhaps consumers will think twice about panicking over reports of trace chemicals found in everyday household products now that they know even so-called "green" products contain them, too.
- ACSH staffers believe the _New York Times_ editorial "One in Four Girls" was solid, as well as necessary. In the wake of a study that found that more than 25% of teenage girls between the ages of fourteen and nineteen had an STD, increased screening, HPV vaccines, and sex education are needed.
One line ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross had a slight concern about, though, was one saying that regular screening of sexually active girls is needed.
"Regular screening of _all_ girls is needed," Dr. Ross noted. "There was a discord between girls who _said_ they were sexually active and those who were found to be so [based on their positive STD test results]."
DISPATCH: Candy, Popcorn, Fat, and Milk Bottles
- Typically, when we hear about junior high students getting suspended for buying "candy" on the playground, our thoughts jump to substances like marijuana and cocaine. But in the case of eighth-grade Connecticut honor student Michael Sheridan, he really was buying candy -- a bag of Skittles, to be exact( http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5isN6v6GwTgk9BTFyA_IDWvRoYP7gD8VC6C380 ).
Sheridan has since been reinstated as class vice president (the title was initially stripped after his "illegal" move) but the question remains -- why the strict enforcement of the New Haven school system's candy sales ban?
ACSH's Jeff Stier said a TV news report said that the Mars Company is trying to work around such bans by making "healthy" candy -- its latest creation is called Generation Max and is not considered "candy," although it is still highly caloric( http://www.greatamericanfundraising.com/products/generation_max/index.htm ).
"Healthy candy? An interesting concept," ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava said with a laugh. We have to agree -- it's like schools allowing energy drink Gatorade, laden with calories just like soda, to be sold while Coca-Cola and Pepsi are banned: rules-induced craziness instead of just the usual marketing-induced craziness.
- Diacetyl, a component of artificial butter flavoring found in microwave popcorn, has been linked to damaged airways in mice. The chemical has previously been linked to occupational risk but nothing more.
While some headlines pointed out up front that this was a mouse study, the gist of some media reports suggested that these data can be directly extrapolated to humans( http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23613160/ ).
"I don't think it's necessarily a valid extrapolation," Dr. Kava noted. "But it's a mechanistic study and we have to wait to see the numbers from it." For instance, how much diacetyl were the mice exposed to? Is it a high-concentration study or one that better reflects typical human exposure?
ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross agreed with Dr. Kava. "We can't just throw it into the garbage just because the study was done on mice," he explained. "The comparison between a mouse's lungs and human lungs are closer than some other physiological functions, but we need to know the concentration."
- Boston, in an effort to be as "cool" as New York City, has decided to jump on the bandwagon and ban trans fats as well( http://www.bostonherald.com/business/general/view.bg?articleid=1080204 ).
We were quite impressed, though, with Bostonians coming up with a new twist on the issue -- we thought we'd heard it all, but now trans fats are being called a "dangerous food preservative."
"No one in the general public has any clue as to what trans fats are, so now government officials and journalists are calling them whatever they want," Dr. Kava said.
Much of this is done in the name of fighting obesity. But of course a ban on trans fat has nothing to do with obesity -- as a fat is a fat, at 9 calories per gram.
- While ACSH staffers laugh off the supposed health threat of trans fats relative to other fats, including saturated fats, we are well aware of the dangers of obesity. Now there's more new research finding a tie between obesity and a higher risk of pancreatic cancer( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080312/hl_nm/obesity_cancer_risk_dc;_ylt=Au... ). On a related note, make sure to look for ACSH's book on the medical complications of obesity, coming out in late spring. The book follows the format of our _Cigarettes: What the Warning Label Doesn't Tell You_ book in that it looks at the negative consequences of obesity within each major medical specialty.
- Finally, this morning ACSH staffers once again bemoaned the attack against phthalates and bisphenol A (newest update -- a grandmother purchased glass bottles for her grandchildren lest they get "contaminated" by "dangerous" chemicals( http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080313/ap_on_re_us/parenting_glass_bottles;... )).
"I don't think we can win the battle one chemical at a time," ACSH's Todd Seavey said. As ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan noted, "there is a general assault on the products of technology -- not just phthalates and BPA. The assault does not come from the mainstream scientific community but rather from a small number of ideologically fueled activists groups. The only answer to this problem is to encourage prominent scientists to speak up and dispel the myths behind [the groups'] bogus health claims."
DISPATCH: STDs, Asthma, and the Flu
- Yesterday's shocking headlines that more than one in four teenage girls have an STD is now amplified by a new unfortunate statistic -- syphilis is also on the rise for the seventh year in a row( http://www.reuters.com/article/healthNews/idUSN1220954820080312?feedType... ).
Syphilis is one of the STDs researchers did not test for in the fourteen-to-nineteen-year-old girls in yesterday's report (neither did they include gonorrhea in their scary report, so the real figure is clearly higher than the astounding 25% rate of STDs in America's teen girls -- see yesterday's Morning Dispatch for details).
ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross pointed out that syphilis is reportable, meaning that doctors must report new cases to the local health board, making it easier to track. From 2006 to 2007, the national rate of syphilis rose by 12%, putting it now at 3.7 cases per 100,000 people. For men the rate is nearly double that, at 6.4 per 100,000 people. Researchers noted that the rise is attributed to the homosexual male population, whom they recommend get tested at least annually.
"It seems like a flashback to another age," ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan commented.
- As ACSH discussed yesterday, the surprisingly high percentage of teens with STDs is sobering, but some public health officials are not as surprised as we are -- at least not those located in the Washington, DC area. According to a 2007 study by the DC public school system, about 60% of teens in high school and 30% of middle school students have had intercourse. More startling -- about 20% of high school students said they had sex with four or more people.
This article in today's _Washington Post_( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/11/AR200803... ) drives home the point we were discussing yesterday: Abstinence-only sex education is not the answer. Discussion about using protection -- each and every time -- is essential. As important is opening up communication between parents and children, no matter how "awkward" it is.
- So far aspirin helps relieve various aches and pains and has been linked to preventing cardiac arrest in men (although it can cause stomach bleeding, too). The latest ailment it might treat: asthma. Well, at least according to analysis from the Women's Health Study. Women were randomly assigned to take 100 mg of aspirin every other day or take a placebo. The results showed that taking aspirin may lead to a slight -- 10% -- decrease in the risk of developing asthma over ten years.
"It's not a powerful study," Dr. Ross noted. "In fact, a small fraction of people develop asthma symptoms from aspirin, or have their asthma made worse by it, so this study is truly surprising."
- Hong Kong isn't fooling around with a recent flu outbreak -- the government shut down elementary schools for two weeks during a seasonal flu outbreak. Officials are looking into the deaths of four children to see if they are related to the virus.
In addition, based on pictures we've seen online, it seems people all over Hong Kong are wearing masks to prevent the spread of the disease( http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/Hong-Kong-Flu-Outbreak/ss/events/hl/031208... ).
This is one way to try preventing disease in a country, but in Belgium the government has come up with a different solution -- jail parents who don't vaccinate their children against polio( http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/5168 ).
While ACSH isn't encouraging the United States to start closing schools, passing out masks, or jailing parents, it's always enlightening to see how other countries are responding to public health problems.
DISPATCH: Client #9, ACSH Dispatch #144
- In a state where the governor just resigned after being linked to a prostitution ring, how can a morning meeting in New York not revolve around sex? Luckily, here at ACSH we have a good excuse -- public health.
- Today, trying to avoid more jokes about Client 9, we turned to science stories but found no reprieve -- more sex. In a startling story about rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in teenagers, we discovered that 26% of girls from the age of 14-19 have at least one STD( http://www.reuters.com/article/healthNews/idUSTON17355320080311 ). From its test group, the CDC predicts that about 3.2 million girls have STDs such as human paillomavirus or HPV, chlamydia, genital herpes, or trichomoniasis. Of the girls who had an STD, 15% had more than one. Even more disturbing, and semi-confusing, is that only about half of the girls who had an STD reported ever having had sex. ACSH staffers surmised that the other half of the girls are having oral sex (which many young girls believe is a way to be sexually active in a relationship while still preserving their "virginity").
The scary thing about that -- something that was not mentioned in the article -- is the link between HPV and oral cancer.
"The majority of the girls infected were infected with HPV," ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan noted. "But the majority of girls do not realize HPV can cause cancer -- both cervical cancer and oral cancer." ACSH staffers are extremely disappointed that no news stories mentioned this tie.
ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross pointed out that the study only tested for four STDs, ignoring gonorrhea, a common disease amongst young people. Furthermore, these data come from a health survey between 2003 and 2004 -- that's four years ago. Imagine what the numbers are now. Dr. Ross said studies like this one are great examples of why "abstinence-only" sex education is not working -- more relevant sex ed is clearly necessary.
ACSH's Krystal Ford suggested following compromise, though: "ABC and PS," meaning "Abstinence, Be faithful, Condoms and Prevention and Screening." Until people -- young and old -- realize the importance of using protection, these STDs are going to continue to spread.
So what should you do if you're a parent of a fourteen-to-nineteen year-old? ACSH staffers agreed we'd be tempted to lock up our sons and daughters in their rooms, but the more practical choice is to shove them in the car and take them straight to the doctor for a preventive HPV vaccine. And we'd do this for our sons as well as our daughters (as soon as the vaccine is approved for boys). After all, boys are spreading these STDs to their partners, through all forms of sex, oral included.
Perhaps our former governor Eliot Spitzer would be interested in an HPV shot...
- Of course, not all news today is about sex. There were also stories about drugs!
Now, don't get all excited, we're not talking about the illegal sort, rather drug therapies. A new study published this week links drinking alcohol and taking hormone replacement therapy with a three-fold increase in a woman's risk for breast cancer( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080311/hl_nm/drinking_hormones_dc;_ylt=And2... ).
With all the negative news we've been hearing about hormone replacement therapy, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava wondered how many women are actually still taking the drugs. Dr. Whelan hypothesized that the number is around 40% (Dr. Ross estimated that the figure was lower), with many women limiting their time on the therapy to only a couple years. One piece of good news from the study: even though the (small) link between drinking alcohol and breast cancer often appears to be fairly well-established, this study found that the drinking habits of women (who were not taking hormone replacement therapy) did not increase their risk for breast cancer.
- In other health news, ACSH staffers learned that because two forms of head and neck cancer -- one brought on by heavy drinking and smoking cigarettes and the other from HPV -- have such different risk factors, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore believe they should be treated as separate cancers( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080311/hl_nm/cancer_head_dc;_ylt=Ah3Vfc59yo... ).
Dr. Ross noted that the cancers are histologically different, and the HPV type is more amenable to therapy.
The take-away lesson from this article is how little people know about the subject. Maybe it's because people are uncomfortable talking about sex, but from a public health standpoint it's essential to analyze this problem -- at all ages.
- Finally, we thought we'd share one piece of news not related to sex or drugs. Yesterday on the _Today_ show a young boy with cerebral palsy appeared to be cured after being infused with his own stem cells. The stem cells, preserved from his own cord blood, were injected into two-year-old Dallas Hextell, and his parents now believe their son will be cured of the formerly incurable condition( http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23572206/ ).
Dr. Ross said since cerebral palsy occurs because of cerebral anoxia (inadequate blood flow to the brain) during the later stages of pregnancy or during a difficult birth, he's amazed stem cells would have had an effect on it. While ACSH staffers believe we cannot conclude anything from this one example, we've never discounted the possible benefits of stem cells. This latest news will probably encourage more parents to save their children's cord blood as well. (Storage isn't cheap: A spokesman from the Cord Blood Registry said it costs $2,000 for processing and about $120 per year for storage).
Although there's no proven benefit from saving cord blood now, we're always curious and hopeful about what the future may bring.
DISPATCH: Vatican, Vaccines, and Variant Lifespans and Lung Capacities
- The Vatican put out a new list of "sinful behaviors,"( http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/wayoflife/03/10/vatican.updates.sins.ap/i... ) at least one of which had ACSH staffers puzzled. While we weren't all that surprised that smoking was left off the list of "sins" (it always is, even though drug use is listed as a "sin") we were taken aback to see "genetic manipulation" on the list of "forbidden" activities.
We do not know yet exactly what the Vatican means, but we fear this implies the Vatican is against bioengineered foods. Since crops that are genetically engineered to resist insects produce more bountiful harvests, thus providing more food, we have a hard time believing that the Catholic Church, which is always encouraging us to help our neighbors, particularly those who are less well off than we are, is against using this life-saving technology.
- Most of the health stories we read can be categorized as "negative" (if not panic-attack-inducing). But today on the front page of the _Wall Street Journal_, we were pleased to read that during the 1990s life expectancy in the United States rose 1.6 years. Then we realized it was a one-sentence blurb -- with no story attached. Why are we not surprised this good news is so quickly glossed over?
- Although many doctors don't even talk to their patients about smoking (as ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross has pointed out many times before), if they do, one of the most effective methods for increasing the rate of their patients' success in quitting is by measuring and discussing lung capacity( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/11/health/research/11smok.html?ex=1362974... ).
Research reported in the most recent issue of the _British Medical Journal_ suggests that patients who are told their "lung age" by their doctors are about twice as likely to quit. (Lung age is approximated by using a spirometer, which measures lung capacity and compliance, and comparing these to normal measurements of healthy nonsmokers.) Researchers followed 561 smokers with an average age of fifty-three. All participants were encouraged to quit smoking, and some were told their "lung age." A little more than 6% of those who were not told their lung age quit smoking, but 13.6% of those who knew their lung age had stopped.
ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan said she believes it's the "hard data" that provides the impact -- and the motivation -- to quit. After all, how scary must it be to see that your lungs are fifteen years "older" than you are?
"Even if your lungs don't have any deficit, it wakes you up about what could happen," ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava noted. ACSH staffers agreed that this research can be a great tool in helping smokers quit a terrible, deadly habit.
- Just when we thought the latest vaccine-autism debacle had come to an end, we read in the _New York Times_ an editorial on the subject( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/11/opinion/11tue3.html?_r=1&ref=opinion&o... ). While the editorial board believes that vaccines don't cause autism, it notes that a lawsuit that finds an "exception" and then hands over a large settlement because of it is curious and raises questions.
ACSH staffers agreed. As Dr. Gil Ross pointed out, "Here the government says vaccines are safe, but then it gives money for a case. Of course people are going to question it. People must realize that this was simply a business decision, not a science decision."
DISPATCH: Drugs in Water, rBST in Cows, Alcohol in Moderation, Thimerosal in Vaccines
- "[With limited research funds,] I think it's a shame that so much money is going into monitoring to figure out if these things are out there, and so little is being spent on human health.'' --Shane Snyder, research and development project manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority, about the news that traces of pharmaceutical drugs are found in drinking water.
- There's a new advocacy group that is speaking out to defend the use of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). The group, American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT) is comprised of dairy farmers. Some have criticized the group because it gets some financial support from Monsanto, a producer of rBST.
This issue of financing should not really matter, ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan insisted. Instead, the focus should be the benefits of rBST-treated cows on our food supply.
An rBST-treated cow will produce an extra gallon of milk per day, Dr. Whelan noted. While ACSH's Krystal Ford pointed out that the image she conjures when she thinks "rBST-treated cow" is of a cow with sagging udders, perhaps a common misconception, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava said she's seen rBST-treated cows, and they look no different than any other cows -- the only difference is their milk-producing capacity.
We wish more news reports shed light on the safety and benefits of rBST-treated cows, instead of focusing on supposed negatives. (At least the _New York Times_ article on AFACT admits that using rBST-treated cows doesn't just benefit Monsanto but also individual dairy farmers( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/09/business/09feed.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=rbs... ).) We also wish Kraft wasn't caving in and declaring it is now not going to use milk from rBST-treated cows. How disappointing.
- ACSH staffers noted the fear-inducing headline of the day is that our drinking water is laden with pharmaceutical drugs. For starters, how could people believe they wouldn't find drugs in the water, Dr. Kava asked? But the bottom-line issue is that given the level of analytical sophistication we have now attained, we can find anything in anything if we look hard enough, which doesn't necessarily mean there's an impact on human health. ACSH staffers particularly enjoyed a point made in the Associated Press story, that the public doesn't know how to interpret the information and will be unnecessarily alarmed( http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080309/ap_on_re_us/pharmawater_i_4;_ylt=ArJ... ) if such news is made available without any context.
"It's real data-dredging," ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross noted. "These pharmaceuticals have been detected in parts per billion concentration -- it's just macro-biomonitoring and should not be taken seriously. There are no possible health effects from such tiny amounts of substances."
- With the latest study showing non-drinkers who begin to take the occasional alcoholic drink live longer and are less likely to develop heart disease, Dr. Whelan wondered if it's about time for scientists to begin recommending moderate alcohol intake( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080307/hl_nm/heart_drinking_dc;_ylt=AlkbTU3... ). The research, published in the most recent issue of the _American Journal of Medicine_, followed about 8,000 non-drinkers between the ages of forty-five and sixty-four over ten years. During that time, 6% of the volunteers began drinking, and compared to the non-drinkers they experienced a 38% lower rate of new cardiovascular disease.
Although many studies have shown the benefits of moderate drinking to health, time after time researchers note that there is no reason for those who don't drink to take it up -- but perhaps it's time for a change. And a drink.
- Finally, after last week's "debate" about the safety of vaccines in relation to autism (spurred by a lawsuit settlement), ACSH staffers were pleased that the CDC didn't stay quiet on the issue and instead came out to defend vaccines. ( http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2008-03-07-vaccines-autism_N.htm )
DISPATCH: GMOs, Larry King, Patrick Swayze, CPSC
- Reports that "socially concerned U.S. investors" have launched a campaign asking food companies to stop using modern means of genetic modification on crops greatly disturbed ACSH staffers.
The public campaign is led by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a religious group that for some reason takes issue with genetically engineered foods.
"The food supply is very vulnerable," ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan remarked. "It's something we cannot take for granted."
Precisely because of that, it seems socially responsible to modify the genetics of food crops with the most efficient technologies -- the safe modifications produce stronger crops such as insect-resistant rice, which result in high crop yields as well as lowered costs for farmers on preventive measures like pesticides. The high crop yields present the opportunity to feed more people both in the United States and hungry developing countries( http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.547/news_detail.asp ). To call on religion as a reason to reject this life-saving technology doesn't make any sense at all.
But the tragedy is not only the baseless objection of activists -- it's that the food producers are going to cave in and agree not to use genetically-modified products.
"As a result of a small handful of people doing letter-writing campaigns, we're going to have higher food costs, and the food supply is going to be smaller, too," Dr. Whelan lamented. We in the U.S. will only suffer in our wallets, but the implications for those in Africa and Asia who are already malnourished is much bleaker if such campaigns do indeed lead to food producers abandoning science.
We wish there was something we -- or someone -- could do to prevent this besides sit back and pray for the food corporations to grow a backbone.
- When we read the headline "U.S. Government Concedes Vaccines Cause Autism"( http://www.newsmax.com/health/vaccines_cause_autism/2008/03/03/77315.html ) many of us wondered if we'd remembered to put in our contacts this morning. Even reputable wire services like the AP picked up the story.
After a closer read, though, ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross noted that it's not the story that is terrible -- it's the headline that's misleading.
The story does not indicate that the government or scientists believe vaccines cause autism. Instead, the story is about a girl who had a particularly rare mitochondrial disease that vaccinations were thought to have worsened.
Dr. Ross explained that with autism studies, researchers can compare risk factors in hundreds of thousands of cases. But with this girl, there are not many cases to compare. Medical and legal experts note that the "narrow wording and circumstances probably make this case an exception," but we're worried about Larry King's show tonight -- he's been teasing a story on vaccines and autism. We sure hope he doesn't give in to the activists' hype.
- ACSH staffers were saddened to read that actor and dancer Patrick Swayze, well known for his role in _Dirty Dancing_, has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer( http://www.nationalpost.com/arts/story.html?id=357126 ). There is a very low survival rate for pancreatic cancer -- only 5% will live for five years past diagnosis, and most die within a few months.
What Dr. Whelan wondered is why most media outlets are not mentioning how smoking can cause pancreatic cancer -- nearly one third of pancreatic cancer cases are a result of smoking. Swayze was a heavy smoker -- in fact, a plane crash back in 2000 is partially attributed to his smoking cigarettes while piloting( http://www.kpho.com/entertainment/139040/detail.html ). At the very least, we hope that the sad news of Swayze's illness will increase awareness of the fact that smoking can cause the disease.
- Make sure to watch ACSH's Jeff Stier appearance on Fox Business News Channel( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHmBogU4Z_8 ). He spoke this morning about the disappointing new bill that aims to overhaul the Consumer Product Safety Commission. For a more in-depth take on this bill, read the op-ed by Stier in the _New York Post_( http://www.nypost.com/seven/02202008/postopinion/opedcolumnists/safety_i... ).
DISPATCH: Oral, Herbal, Fertile, Supreme, and Presidential News
Quote to Note: "Health surveys indicate that well over half of American teens now engage in oral sex, with about 10 to 20% claiming 'technical virginity.' Pediatricians will tell you that this behavior is fueled by the adolescents' belief that oral sex is risk-free play, making it more common and acceptable. But few practice it safely." --Dr. Bernadine Healy, writing about the link between oral sex and increased risk of oral cancers caused by HPV.
- Earlier this week, some ACSH staffers realized they were getting colds -- one whipped out a packet of Airborne, an "herbal" supplement chock-full of vitamin C and other nutrients that is supposed to ward off sickness. Whether it has any use against colds or not, Airborne has a large following.
So we were a bit taken aback when we read that Airborne settled a class action lawsuit for $23.3 million for false advertising( http://money.cnn.com/2008/03/04/news/companies/airborne_settlement/?post... ). The lawsuit was filed because Airborne made "cold-curing" claims. While Airborne admits to no wrongdoing, the company has now taken the advertising off of its website. Although ACSH staffers noted that many people who use Airborne still think it's miraculously saving them from illness, the lack of scientific evidence for efficacy was an important point in this case.
Why do people love Airborne? ACSH's Jeff Stier suggested it may be a placebo effect (and as this new study shows, if a company charges more for a placebo, people find it more effective)( http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601124&sid=aAmdWrOf6gl0&refer=home ).
- Dr. Bernadine Healy's article "Clueless on STDs, Throat Cancer, and Oral Sex" was both provocative and a wake-up call( www.usnews.com/articles/opinion/bhealy/2008/02/19/clueless-on-stds-throa... ). Dr. Healy discusses the link between oral sex and increased risk of oral cancers -- the culprit being human papillomavirus (HPV). It is not widely known that HPV can be easily transmitted (from man to woman and woman to man) during oral sex.
"There's an argument out there that oral sex is not sex," Dr. Healy writes. Some adults use it as a way to deny they're cheating, and for young people it's a way to "preserve" virginity. "From a medical perspective, however, this is sex -- and generally, as practiced, it's unsafe," Dr. Healy states.
ACSH's Dr. Whelan noted that two years ago a forty-seven-year-old friend of hers -- married, a mother, a psychologist -- died of oral cancer. She had been diagnosed with stage 4 of the disease just months before. She was never a smoker, and the doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital told her that her condition was normally only seen in male lifetime smokers over the age of seventy. They did note that they were seeing more cases of oral cancer in young, non-smoking men and women, and they suspected it was related to HPV transmitted during oral sex. After her death, the doctors suggested to her husband that he may have been the vector for his wife's disease -- something that shocked and depressed him.
What are we to do about this basically unpublicized risk factor? People -- young and old -- need to know about the risk of HPV infection from oral sex. The reality of this potential transmission is yet another reason to be advocating the use of the anti-HPV vaccine for both young males and females. The vaccine is now only approved for young women (the main use of the vaccine is to prevent HPV-induced cervical cancer).
- Republican presidential candidate and Arizona senator John McCain is backtracking, it seems, from his original statement on autism and vaccines. While he hasn't publicly retracted his former statement, we're happy to see that he at the very least isn't repeating his original false statement( http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/mccain-has-a-new-answer-on... ). ACSH staffers often bemoan the fact that scientists don't speak up about important public health issues, but we're pleased that in this case we were wrong -- in droves, scientists criticized Sen. McCain's unscientific statements.
- Be sure to read the op-ed in today's _Washington Times_( http://www.washingtontimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080305/COMME... ) by ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross. He wrote that he hopes that in the case of Wyeth v. Levine, the Supreme Court sides with Wyeth -- and by default sides with FDA preemption of state-by-state laws on drug approvals. Without preemption, drug innovation has been stalled, hurting everyone.
- Dr. Ross also has a letter to the editor in today's _Detroit News_, denouncing unscientific claims that chemicals in the environment may lead to reduced fertility in males( http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080303/OPINION01/803... ).
DISPATCH: Alcohol, Caffeine, Smoke, TV, and Malaria
- Quote to Note: "At the time the ad was filmed, I was certainly fit enough to row for the shoot. I trained to row for it, and I intended to do so. But at the last minute, I was informed that the insurance carrier for the shoot would not permit me to row because the water temperature in the mountain lake at that time of year was about forty degrees -- so cold that if I had an accident, I could drown within minutes because of hypothermia. So the production company hired a rower experienced with that kind of racing shell for the distant shots. It never occurred to me that anyone would consider this dishonest." --Dr. Robert Jarvik, inventor of the artificial heart, in a statement defending the use of a "double" in a Lipitor ad ( http://www.jarvikheart.com/news.asp?id=21 ). The ad came under fire when the use of a body double was discovered last month, and it was pulled off the air by Pfizer last week.
- Today brought many surprises in the news. First, ACSH staffers were scratching their heads about a new study linking alcohol consumption to rising blood pressure ( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080304/hl_nm/alcohol_pressure_dc ).
ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross acknowledged that this is a well-documented risk among people who drink heavily, but the latest research published in the Public Library of Science Journal found that alcohol intake may increase blood pressure a much greater extent than previously thought -- even in moderate drinkers. Since moderate alcohol consumption (one to two servings per day) has been associated with improved cardiac health, many of us did not know how to understand this new information.
"Maybe it's a J-shaped curve," Dr. Ross postulated. There are "pluses" that come from moderate drinking (e.g., raising HDL) and also minuses from drinking too much. "It's a question of when the pluses and minuses balance out."
- Confirmation of something ACSH staffers have been saying for a while: Although it's commonly heard that caffeine is a diuretic, according to the _New York Times_ science section, the fear that caffeine-laden drinks can cause dehydration may be a fallacy. A report by scientists at the University of Connecticut compared caffeine with water or placebo and found that caffeine has only mild diuretic effects( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/health/nutrition/04real.html?_r=1&scp=... ). In fact, water retention was very similar to that from water itself.
ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava noted that research has shown that people who drink caffeinated beverages on a regular basis are unlikely to undergo any diuretic effects from it, but those who are "caffeine naive" (those who do not drink caffeine often) may experience it.
- When we saw the full-page ad in the _New York Times_ today about smoking directed at physicians, Dr. Ross asked with a sarcastic chortle, "Do doctors really need to be reminded to ask their patients whether or not they smoke?"
The answer, of course, is yes, as Dr. Ross wrote in his 2006 op-ed for Medscape( http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/521351 ). In 2003, only 63.6% of smokers were counseled by a physician in their routine medical checkups to stop smoking. Dr. Ross says he finds this statistic regrettable and entirely reversible.
"One of the most potent stimuli for a person to quit is being advised to do so by a physician," Dr. Ross noted.
- While ACSH staffers do not find it hard to believe this recently published study showing that television watching may contribute to obesity in children( http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-tv-children-healthmar... ), we found aspects a bit surprising.
The study gave each family member a special code to turn on the television. Some of the children were allotted restricted viewing time, others were not. Following the children for two years, researchers found those who watched TV less (researchers halved the time they could be in front of the TV) had lower BMIs than those who watched more. But, contrary to our initial reaction, it's not because these lighter children were any more active -- their comparatively lower BMIs can be attributed to less snacking.
Also surprising for ACSH staffers is that the children studied were between the ages of four and seven years old -- ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava pointed out that while similar studies on TV-watching have been conducted, this is a first for such young children.
- Today's article on malaria in the _New York Times_ science section pleased ACSH staffers. While most articles of its sort fail to mention the lifesaving properties of DDT, this one actually recognized it( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/health/04mala.html?ref=science ). The World Health Organization's malaria chief was even quoted saying that with enough money, nets, medicines, and DDT, the number of malaria cases could be decreased by 90%.
While most articles refuse to mention the "scary" subject of using a chemical such as DDT to save lives, we were happy to see some sense in the Times.
DISPATCH: Seaman on the Pill, Rice Off a Panel, Whelan on Beer, Ross and McCain on Vaccines
- Quote to Note: "Sponsored in large part by companies who stand to benefit from the hokum spun by these chefs about organic foods, sustainable farming, bio-engineered foods, and such, the servings of 'anxiety pie' keep growing, feeding as Child noted long ago on some native American fear of pleasure." --Clarice Feldman in the article "Meryl Streep and Julia Child: Apples and Oranges," published in the recent issue of _American Thinker_.
- ACSH staffers noted this weekend that writer and activist Barbara Seaman died of lung cancer. ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan pointed out that her obituary says she saved tens of thousands lives as a result of her activism against the birth control pill. Her book _The Doctors' Case Against the Pill_ pointed out little-known side effects of the pill, such as an increased risk for heart attacks, strokes and depression (nowadays, the increased risk of stroke is commonly advertised).
But Seaman didn't stop at the pill and continued to rally people against hormone replacement therapy. "It just goes to show that you don't need science on your side to make an impression," ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross explained. In 2003, his review of Seaman's book _The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women_ appeared in the _Washington Times_, calling Seaman's argument against estrogens "anti-hormone, anti-physician, and (especially) anti-pharmaceutical-company-profit."
An issue Seaman did get right, though, was her warning against diethylstilbestrol (DES), a drug prescribed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to women at risk of premature labor. Her concerns about the drug proved accurate -- DES was later shown in rare cases to cause cancer in some of the daughters of women who took DES while pregnant, a classic case of a cluster that turned out to be for real. (Usually "clusters" turn out to be coincidental, Dr. Whelan explains.)( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.58/pub_detail.asp )
- The story of one of ACSH's favorite chefs, the late Julia Child, is being brought to the big screen soon. As this _American Thinker_ article( http://www.americanthinker.com/2008/03/meryl_streep_and_julia_child_a.html ) points out, the actress portraying Julia Child, Meryl Streep, couldn't be more different from the outspoken food enthusiast.
Streep, as ACSH staffers remember all too well, served as a spokeswoman for activists claiming Alar-treated apples and apple products posed a cancer risk to children. The 1989 Alar scare has since been debunked, but the formula for scaring parents about "cancer-causing chemicals" is still followed today (just link a chemical to children and cancer or other serious conditions: think phthalates).
Julia Child, on the other hand, was a food lover to the core -- one who did not shun foods (and certainly was against condemning certain foods) in the name of "health." Dr. Whelan says she remembers Child saying you can't cook without butter or cream -- nothing else tastes so good. Child embraced food (in moderation) because she enjoyed eating. ACSH was honored to have Child as a guest speaker at an ACSH event a number of years ago. And she served on our twenty-fifth anniversary dinner committee. While we're excited to see Child's ideas and life on the silver screen, we're curious how Streep feels playing this role, one that seems to oppose her food beliefs.
- Deborah Rice, an award-winning toxicologist, was removed from an Environmental Protection Agency committee due to her outspoken health claims against flame retardants( http://www.latimes.com/news/custom/scimedemail/la-me-epa29feb29,0,381628... ).
Rice's scientific background was not enough to keep her as chairwoman of a federal panel researching flame retardants, as she has spoken in the past about the dangers of flame retardants and is openly in favor of banning them.
While ACSH does not support the theory that every "conflict of interest" (such as funding) biases scientists, it appears this case is the exception that proves the rule. As Rice was serving on a panel to determine the safety of flame retardants, it's comparable to allowing someone to serve on the jury in a murder case who's already made up his mind the accused should hang.
For more information about bias in science, look for our soon-to-be-released publication _Scrutinizing Industry-Funded Science_.
- ACSH staffers stand in support of Vermont, one of the many states planning to lower the drinking age to eighteen years old.
"People are getting sent to Iraq, and when they return they cannot legally have a beer?" Dr. Whelan asks. "It's absurd."
In the public health arena, though, ACSH staffers noted that it's important to have a uniform age -- not some states with one legal drinking age and other states with a different requirement. In that case, teens may drive across state lines to get their buzz, increasing the risk of drunk driving.
ACSH staffers agreed that it makes no sense to deny young adults access to alcoholic beverages. Indeed, there could be public health benefits of changing the legal drinking age to eighteen and making it less of a "forbidden fruit." Young people should be taught to use alcohol safely in moderation -- that is, if they choose to drink at all.
- Also, did John McCain actually say on a campaign stop that "there's strong evidence" that thimerosal in vaccines increases the risk of autism in children? ACSH is appalled. At least news sources are calling him out on his unscientific and disproven statement( http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2008/02/john-mccain-ent.html ).
- Finally, be sure to read Dr. Ross's op-ed in the _San Diego Union-Tribune_ about how personal belief vaccine exemptions are a danger to public health and should be eliminated or severely restricted.( http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20080302/news_lz1e2ross.html )
DISPATCH: Strange News on Spanking, Vegas, and Sleep Deprivation
- On this extra February day, we ACSH staffers found ourselves searching intensively for serious science and health news stories -- but to no avail. Those that we found were, well, a bit out there...
- We find it hard to even include this study, as it seems so illogical, but supposedly spanking children may lead to risky sexual behavior later in life. Researchers from the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire-Durham found that physical punishment by parents may lead to sexual problems when their children reach adulthood( http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2008-02-27-spanking_N.htm?loc=inters... ). Yes, psychologically we can see the possibility that children might grow to "equate love with physical pain," but more likely we see this as a case of what ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross refers to as "data-dredging."
- A science fallacy we often hear is that vitamins may ward off cancer risk. But a study published in the recent issue of the _American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine_ reported that vitamin supplements do not in fact reduce the risk of developing lung cancer( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080229/hl_nm/cancer_lung_vitamins_dc;_ylt=A... ).
"We've been saying that since 1995," ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava noted. In fact, the study found that taking vitamin supplements may slightly increase risk, though it is scientifically unclear why.
- Let's hope what is in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas -- at least in the case of the toxin ricin that was found yesterday in a Nevada motel( http://cbs2.com/national/ricin.vegas.motel.2.665646.html ). Ricin is made from the leftover waste of processing castor beans, and even in small amounts it can be lethal( www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.228/pub_detail.asp ).
ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross noted that while it's easy to make ricin, you need a large amount of castor beans to do so -- and since castor beans are not (as far as we know) native to Las Vegas, we wonder how this ricin showed up at the motel.
- Finally, it's the weekend and we hope you get a lot of rest (it seems Americans are more sleep-deprived than ever!)( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080228/hl_nm/sleep_usa_dc_3 ).
DISPATCH: Vaccinations for the Young, Vegetables for All
- Quote to Note: "The communities in our city where obesity and diabetes continues to skyrocket are the same communities that lack even the most basic access to fresh fruits and vegetables." --Christine Quinn, city council speaker, about New York issuing 1,000 new permits for mobile fruit and vegetable stands in the city.
- This morning we learned that ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross finally won his argument calling for all children to be vaccinated for the flu -- the CDC is now recommending that children aged six months to eighteen years be inoculated( http://www.abcnews.go.com/Health/ColdFlu/story?id=4353731&page=1 ). The past guidelines recommended the vaccine for children six months to five years.
While it is merely an advisory -- requirements come from states -- Dr. Ross said he's excited by this progress. The number of Americans who die every year from the flu is about 35,000. While most of these deaths occur among the elderly, Dr. Ross said vaccinating children (who can spread the flu) is key to reducing this deadly toll. "By vaccinating children, we are protecting their grandparents," Dr. Ross explained. In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan conducted a mass inoculation against the flu for schoolchildren. During those same years, Japan saw its mortality rate from influenza and pneumonia decline significantly.
Dr. Ross lamented that many activists who are still convinced that vaccines cause autism (though study after study have shown otherwise) will take issue with this lifesaving recommendation, due to the minute amount of thimerosal, a preservative, present in the flu vaccine.
- In New York City's fight against obesity, ACSH actually embraces the latest action plan -- introducing 1,000 new "green" carts in lower-income neighborhoods( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080228/hl_nm/green_carts_dc;_ylt=At9ymvtc4k... ). These green carts sell fruits and vegetables daily, and while the city currently has 4,000 carts, most of them are found on street corners in wealthy neighborhoods.
Unlike banning trans fats, providing inhabitants of poorer neighborhoods with a greater variety of eating options will lead to healthier eating patterns, and may help lower obesity rates. The problem we foresee, though, is the rising cost of food, especially produce. If these prices continue to skyrocket, we fear it will be all too easy to go back to processed, highly-caloric (but inexpensive) foods.
- Not much is currently known about macular degeneration (one fact we do know is that it can be caused by smoking cigarettes), but a new study by Australian researchers found that this degenerative eye disease (the leading cause of severe vision loss) may raise a person's risk for stroke( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080228/hl_nm/stroke_eye_dc;_ylt=AuAlsFAw.rf... ).
Dr. Ross noted that there are some practical implications from this study -- mainly that it should increase the inclination of doctors who care for those with ARMD (age-related macular degeneration) to thoroughly screen for other vascular problems, such as carotid and coronary artery disease, even if symptoms are ill-defined.
- Finally, ACSH staffers were saddened to hear of the passing of columnist, novelist, and adventurer William F. Buckley. ACSH has long noted that Buckley has been outspoken on the dangers of smoking. In a recent column he went so far as to suggest banning cigarettes. Mr. Buckley attributed his late-in-life diagnosis of emphysema to his cigarette-smoking as a young adult -- thus recognizing the reality of irreversible effects of cigarette smoking( http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.377/pub_detail.asp ).
Buckley's legacy lives on in part in his son, Christopher Buckley. Chris wrote _Thank You For Smoking_, a novel about a tobacco lobbyist that recently was turned into a movie. Chris was a keynote speaker at ACSH's 25th anniversary event.
DISPATCH: Safer Nicotine, Downer Cows, Fatter Stroke Victims
- Quote to Note: "[I] am pleased to see that there are people out there who are trying to make public the truth about snus. I was a heavy smoker and used snus to quit smoking cold turkey. I felt better almost immediately. I understand that all tobacco products are 'dirty' to some degree, but it amazes me that European governments still allow the dirtiest of tobacco products (cigars, cigarettes, and -- in the UK at least -- spit tobacco, which is probably better than the first two but not as clean as snus) and ban the one that has been shown to be the cleanest. If I move back to the UK, will I need to take up my 30+ a day habit again? Or will sanity prevail, so I can keep a snus tin and prolong my life along with it?" --ACSH fan David Paul, in an e-mail responding to the blog entry "Smokeless Tobacco is Safer" by ACSH's Krystal Wilson( http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.1131/news_detail.asp ).
- Yesterday, ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan met with some professionals interested in alternative tobacco products (ATPs) as a method of harm reduction. In Sweden, Dr. Whelan reported back to ACSH staffers, men rarely smoke cigarettes anymore. This general switch from cigarettes to snus, a type of smokeless tobacco, did not happen overnight. Rather, it took a couple of decades. Still, the end result is the same -- fewer deaths and less disease from inhaling the products of combustion in tobacco smoke.
Discussing "snus," ACSH staffers realized at least one reason it's not as widespread here -- there's a great misconception about what it is. For instance, many of us were confusing it with chewing tobacco. Snus does not need to be spit out. Rather, you absorb it into your oral tissues. Also, many people still believe that nicotine is dangerous -- which it is, generally speaking, not.
Dr. Whelan said some public health officials estimate that if all American smokers switched from cigarettes to using snus, the number of tobacco-related deaths would fall from 400,000 a year to fewer than 6,000 -- an astounding decline.
We wonder why the American Cancer Society and other public health bodies reject snus and other smokeless alternatives to cigarettes -- it's not like these organizations don't already promote other forms of harm reduction, like condom use and providing clean syringes to prevent spread of AIDs.
Cigarette manufacturers are increasingly interested in adding smokeless products to their sales line -- which may help cigarette smokers who want to quit.
- Be sure to check out Jeff Stier's debate with Consumers Union (the publisher of _Consumer Reports_) on CNBC yesterday, explaining why the latest meat recall was a regulatory problem, not a public health problem( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffiUZSgsNn8 ).
- Today, we learned two new factoids about the increased health risk stemming from obesity -- a risk that keeps getting bigger and bigger (no pun intended).
For one, middle-aged women who are overweight have an elevated risk of having strokes. Secondly, obese children are more at risk for "adverse events" during and after surgery. Such "adverse events" include developing respiratory problems after their operations( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080226/hl_nm/obese_kids_dc;_ylt=AopM1pdm6Mw... ).
Dr. Whelan noted that she feels empathy for overweight women who read about this increased risk of stroke, among other diseases, and don't know what to do about it. ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava pointed out that many people are eager to deny the risk associated with their actions -- whether living at an unhealthy weight or smoking.
"The depths of people's self-deception is unbelievable," Dr. Kava noted.
DISPATCH: Prosty the Spokesgland, Phony the Non-Jarvik
- Quote to Note: "A group advocating the development of imaging technology for prostate screening created a mascot, Prosty the Spokesgland, complete with a theme song, to the tune of 'Frosty the Snowman.' Not surprisingly, it has not caught on." --Tara Parker-Pope in today's New York Times science section on how "prostate cancer leaves men in a muddle."
- Gaining momentum in the news cycle is the headline that an Arkansas jury found against Wyeth and Pfizer, ruling that hormone-replacement drugs caused a woman's breast cancer( http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=a5wmR1npr_zg&refer=home ). This isn't new news -- such cases have been going on for a while now, ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross said. The real news is a new study about hormone replacement therapy and the diagnosis of breast cancer( http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080225/hl_nm/cancer_breast_hormones_dc;_ylt... ).
The research, from the 2002 Women's Health Initiative study, found a slight increased risk (one in 1,000) of breast cancer in women taking hormone-replacement drugs, but more women taking the drugs had abnormal mammogram results (35% compared to 23% of women not on hormone-replacement therapy). ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava explained that this is because the hormones increase breast tissue density, making mammogram images more difficult to interpret.
"This story has a lot of different factoids in it -- all of which are disturbing," ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross noted.
- When reading the letters in the "Health Mailbox" of today's _Wall Street Journal_, one question piqued the interest of ACSH staffers -- possible negative health effects of chewing nicotine gum.
The reporter responding to the questions correctly touched on the subject of harm reduction -- "compared to the hazards of smoking, chewing nicotine gum seems harmless" -- she wrote. This is true -- and the same logic can also be applied to smokeless tobacco, Dr. Ross pointed out. Unfortunately, Dr. Ross said, the Mailbox columnist noted possible cancer links of smokeless -- in fact, there is only a remotely increased risk -- but ignored the lifesaving benefits from helping addicted smokers quit cigarettes, the essence of harm reduction.
- It's official -- Dr. Robert Jarvik (best known for pioneering the artificial heart more than twenty-five years ago) has been pulled off Pfizer's Lipitor campaign. Our response: What took Pfizer so long? As Morning Dispatch subscribers will remember, more than two weeks ago we learned that the fit "Dr. Jarvik" rowing across the lake is not actually him -- it's a body double (the real Jarvik cannot even row!).
Although the change in the ad campaign seems a bit delayed (the body double news came out Feb. 8th), ACSH staffers are pleased that Pfizer is correcting this misleading mistake -- we hope the next ad focuses on Lipitor, not on a celebrity stand-in.
DISPATCH: Meats and Measles
¢ Quote to Note: "In the prevaccine era, 3 to 4 million measles cases occurred every year, resulting in approximately 450 deaths, 28,000 hospitalizations and 1,000 children with chronic disabilities from measles encephalitis." --Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication by the CDC, about the recent measles outbreak in California.
¢ It should not be surprising that it took the largest meat recall in history more than 140 million pounds of meat -- to spark discussion about food safety. But considering the recall was not because of food safety issues, rather because of animal cruelty issues, ACSH staffers are left scratching their heads. There s nothing wrong with focusing on how to better protect our foods from contamination (hm, perhaps we could use food irradiation?), but we wish news articles weren t incorrectly suggesting the meat recalled from the California-based plant is dangerous to our health.
¢ Today we learned unfortunate news of a measles outbreak in California -- 12 children have contracted the disease( http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm57e222a1.htm?s_cid=mm57e222a1_e ).
It's a sad story, especially because it is so unnecessary and easily preventable, ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross noted. In January measles was identified in an unvaccinated California boy who just returned from traveling to Switzerland with his family -- despite his increasing symptoms of coughing, coryza and conjunctivitis he continued to attend school and went to the pediatrician. "His doctor's office unfortunately became a petri dish for measles," Dr. Ross explained, and the disease was spread.
Dr. Ross also explained that this boy, while 7 years old, was not vaccinated because California allows personal belief exemptions from vaccines. Other states allow religious belief exemptions, but those require documentation from religious officials. In California you do not need any such documentation.
ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan pointed out the ironic juxtaposition of California's personal-belief exemption policy and its bans of childhood toys like rubber duckies in the name of "public health." If the state were to do anything in the name of public health, we believe focusing on the real risks -- such as not allowing parents to simply sign a form exempting their vulnerable toddlers from lifesaving vaccinations -- would be the way to go. Instead, California makes it legal for children to skip such life-saving inoculations while banning baby bottles and other safe, useful plastic products. "What a stark contrast," Dr. Whelan noted.
¢ Will giving Gardasil vaccinations for boys become commonplace? Public health officials may soon encourage all preteen and adolescent boys, as well as girls, to get vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been shown to be a cause of cervical cancer( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/24/fashion/24virus.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&... ).
Opponents don't see why Gardasil should be administered on boys -- they say that it's just vaccinating the boys to protect the girls.
Dr. Ross pointed out that these opponents are missing at least one point -- Gardasil does not only protect against cervical cancer, it protects against genital warts, which -- besides being a precursor to cervical cancer in women -- are a serious problem for both males and females. And they're far from rare. "Warts are not easy to treat anywhere -- they're tough enough to treat on the hand," Dr. Ross noted.
One minor issue ACSH staffers took with the coverage of this new debate, though, is how many articles failed to note how Gardasil is completely safe. (We were amused, though, with the prospect of a new pick-up-line for boys: "Hey, I ve had my HPV vaccination!")
¢ ACSH staffers have previously noted our disbelief in the new book by Devra Davis. This recent review in the New York Review of Books by Richard Horton( http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=21056 ), editor-in-chief of the British medical journal The Lancet, is well done -- criticizing Davis's The Secret History of the War on Cancer for how it personally attacks Sir. Richard Doll, the deceased British physiologist and epidemiologist who pioneered research finding the link between smoking and lung cancer. Dr. Horton stated that Davis's current book " ¦ feels like a crude and sometimes indecent settling of old scores."
Corrie Driebusch and Krystal Ford are research interns at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org).