Consumer Reports Bashes Pharmaceuticals; ACSH's Stier on NPR 12/7 (UPDATED)

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When articles like a new one alleging sinister hidden side effects from common drugs migrate from Consumer Reports to Fox News, you know how urgent and important ACSH's science-based outreach is.

Our Weighing Benefits and Risks in Pharmaceutical Use paper gives you, the consumer, the information you need to understand these issues, without the anti-science, anti-industry spin.

For more on how to decipher activist papers, see our guide, Good Stories, Bad Science: A Guide for Journalists to the Health Claims of "Consumer Activist" Groups.

ACSH associate director Jeff Stier appears on NPR's Talk of the Nation show to discuss health rumors, Dec. 7, 2005 at 3:20pm Eastern -- with the audio available online thereafter. Below is an excerpt from the show transcript:

NEIL CONAN (HOST): Joining us now to talk about a separate type of rumor is Jeff Stier. He's associate director for the American Council on Science and Health, in response to many untrue rumors about public health. He joins us from the studios of Westwood One in New York City.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JEFF STIER (Associate Director, American Council on Science and Health): Hi, Neal. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: I guess public health rumors, there's an underlying fear of getting sick, dying.

Mr. STIER: There is. There are especially fears about cancers in food and things that you can't see, things that you can't control. People are scared of those things and you can understand why, but the problem is that these public health scares aren't always in the public health's best interest.

CONAN: Of course, there are things we can't see that can hurt us and we ought to be looking out for those and washing our hands a lot and that sort of thing. But, you know, many--how--a lot of these rumors never seem to be conclusively quelled. I mean, for example, resurrections of the allegation that artificial sweeteners cause a host of illnesses.

Mr. STIER: That's a classic rumor and it's also completely untrue. That leads me into some of the classic signs of these rumors and how to identify them. People want to know: Is this true? Should I believe it or shouldn't I believe it? And we at the American Council on Science and Health have boiled them down to a few hallmark signs of an Internet health rumor. Some of those include the fact that the only place that you see it is in your e-mail box. And if that's the case, if you only see it in your e-mail, there's probably a reason for that. Because you on radio and people on TV have producers; newspapers have editors. They're gatekeepers and it's hard to get rumors past all the gatekeepers. So if you're only seeing it in your e-mail, there's a reason for that.

If it says `Forward this to everyone you know,' it's usually a sign that it's a rumor that they need help circulating. If you see lots of exclamation marks--you know, I read The New England Journal of Medicine; you don't see exclamation marks in The New England Journal of Medicine or mainstream...

CONAN: Not a lot, no.

Mr. STIER: No. And they don't tell you to photocopy this page and mail it to people. So, you know, rumors need help because they don't have facts behind them. They need help perpetuating themselves.

And another one that you often see is what I would call attached credibility. It'll be an e-mail--and this NutraSweet aspartame scare rumor is typical of that. It'll come and say--the e-mail will come in your inbox and say something along the lines of `I got this from my cousin and she's a nurse so she really knows what she's talking about.' And they attach the credibility to someone that they know. In fact, I've talked to people and asked people, `Why do you send this to me?' And they say, `Well, you know, I got it from a friend of mine and it's a very trustworthy person.' And sometimes I'll try to trace back to that person and say, you know, `You sent this along and people trust you. Why do you send it?' And they said, `Oh, I just thought it was interesting.' And these are how these things spread.

People think there's no downside, but in fact, often and sometimes there is. And one example of a downside of these scares is at the American Council on Science and Health, people know to call us if they want to find the difference between a real health threat and health hype. And we got a phone call from an elderly woman in Florida who did not use e-mail herself but her friends who sat with her at the pool did get e-mail. You know, they're e-mailing with their grandchildren. And this woman drank a lot of diet soda. And they said to her, you know, `You drink a lot of diet soda. We heard that this aspartame stuff causes multiple sclerosis,' which is completely untrue, but she heard--it's a pretty scary thing.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. STIER: So she decided to stop drinking her Diet Coke and she switched to regular soda, which was a problem for her because she was a diabetic. So these scares actually can have negative impacts. In addition, they distract us from, as you said, the real things that--there are lots of things we can do to protect our health, but listening to these health rumors is not one of them.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Jackson in Basalt, Colorado. `Who started the rumor that fluoride in drinking water is bad for people? My local community has banned the use of fluoride in drinking water. I know of several dentists who are quite happy that they have more work to do compared to communities that do have fluoride in their water. How has this been such a persistent and pernicious rumor that's even gone on to change community decisions? Web site that I looked at have no decent scientific rationale for supporting the bans and yet they continue.'

Mr. STIER: Well, that's such an important question because one of the greatest public health advances we made in the last century is adding fluoride to water. Now when you tell people, if you were to take a poll right now and say, `Would you like the government to add a chemical to the public water supply supposedly to make you healthier?' most people understandably might say no. But at the levels at which the fluoride is added, it's quite beneficial to our dental health. So people hear things that the government is doing to improve your health and I could understand why they get skeptical.

You know, one of the other signs of the rumors is if the e-mail says, you know--this is the corollary to the fact that the only place you see it is in e-mail. The corollary is the reason you're only seeing it here is because they don't want you to know about it, whoever `they' might be. That's been such a successful way of spreading misinformation that it's been incorporated into the title of one of the most popular selling books this year about things that they don't want you to know. Of course, that book is also--is full of rumor and innuendo and not based on science.

CONAN: We're talking about rumors today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get--well, here's another e-mail. This is from John in Cincinnati. `I recently received a forward of a news item from the BBC regarding a pack of killer squirrels that attacked and ate a dog in a far eastern Russian city. The source was called Russian media. I sent it to friends in Moscow, who told me that it came from a newspaper so notorious for making up the facts or the equivalent of our supermarket tabloids. I shudder to think that the Weekly World News is a source of seriously reported stories in other countries.'

And, Nick DiFonzo, I guess the Internet plays a part in all of this now.

Prof. DiFONZO: Definitely. The Internet makes us all much more connected. And so if I spread a bit of funny information, killer squirrel information, then I'm able to spread it far and wide.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Getting back to science rumors, Jeff Stier, you know, some things that, I guess, started out as unsubstantiated or as rumors--you know, `cigarettes can cause cancer'--turn out to be true.

Mr. STIER: Well, talk about things that you really can do to improve your health--is to quit smoking or never to start. But I don't know if I would put cigarettes in that category of it just being a rumor, because there is substantiated medical literature. Now early on, there was a period of time before the medical literature that it was just a rumor, and that's the challenge we have in science, which is...

CONAN: Stunt your growth, is what I think I heard back in those days.

Mr. STIER: Well, you know, there were people who opposed cigarette smoking because they just thought it was a dirty, ugly habit, and, you know, there were religious activists who were against it. And at that point, there was only rumor behind it. Now certainly, that doesn't mean to say you shouldn't listen to people who tell you to stop smoking, but the bottom line here is we have to differentiate, based on the information that we have available to us today, and make rational decisions based on the best available information. We have to come to terms with the fact that we don't always have all of the information we'd like to have, but we have to go on making sensible decisions each and every day. And sometimes the decision is not to use a product, but sometimes the alternative of not using a product is more dangerous.

I saw on the news today that Microsoft decided to stop using PVC plastics. Plastics have become [grist for the] rumor mill lately--that plastics are all dangerous. And the fact is, they aren't, but now Microsoft's stopped using plastics out of concern for--or certain types of plastic, PVC, because their customers are upset by it and some activist groups have been pressuring them to stop.

Now we have to be able to differentiate between the real risks and the hypothetical ones, and I don't think we're always doing a good job in this country about doing it. There are real things that we can focus on--quitting smoking, wearing helmets--helmets even made of plastics--and doing things like wearing seat belts and exercising, things that we can do to improve our health. And we're being distracted by these sometimes silly scares, and it's really--when you forward these scares to your friends, you may think it's amusing; you're probably hurting somebody's legitimate business. You're probably taking away a safe, useful product from other consumers, and you're distracting the rest of us from things that we can do to protect and improve our health.

CONAN: Jeff Stier, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. STIER: Thank you.

CONAN: Jeff Stier, associate director for the American Council on Science and Health, and he joined us from the studios of Westwood One in New York City.