ACSH Dispatches Round-Up

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October 15, 2007: Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Nothing, Trading Kidneys

-- Quote to Note: "Every 1% is 5,000 people who aren't dying. That's a huge sense of progress at this point." --Dr. Richard L. Schilsky, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and president-elect of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

-- For the past decade, as ACSH has reported before, cancer death rates have been on the decline. ACSH staffers were thrilled to see the news story today about how cancer death rates have dropped by 2.1% a year in the United States recently. As one doctor quoted in the article pointed out, every 1% decrease is 5,000 people who aren't dying.

But this good news did not get as much play in the press as we might have hoped. While both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal did tease the story on their front pages, only the Times had a full article about this health news. ACSH staffers were in agreement that if a study showed cancer death rates were increasing instead of decreasing, the story would dominate the news cycle. The news about this story is that it's no news, ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan said.

-- An article in the New York Post yesterday brought up the issue that Dr. Whelan wrote about several years ago: banning smoking in apartment buildings. When Dr. Whelan wrote about one cooperative apartment building voting to bar cigarette smokers from purchasing apartments in 2004, the rule was viewed as draconian and the building became what Dr. Whelan describes as the laughingstock of the city. But in the last few years, there appears to have been a major turn, as described in the NY Post story. It appears people are now much less tolerant of smoking and are willing to make the necessary legal moves to keep smokers out of their apartment buildings.

-- Another ACSH point of view was bolstered by a Wall Street Journal article today. More than a month ago, ACSH's Jeff Stier wrote about ending the black market of organ trading by providing incentives for donors. Today, the WSJ published a piece on kidney pairing, where families "partner" up so that healthy members are able to provide unhealthy members of a different family with kidneys. It's a win-win situation for both families with this "swap."

-- Several months ago, Rep. Lois Capps from California wrote to eleven women's magazines asking them to halt publication of cigarette ads. The catalyst for Rep. Capps and other members of Congress was the new ads from RJ Reynolds promoting Stiletto cigarettes and calling Camel No. 9 (reminiscent of Love Potion No. 9) "light and luscious." In a Washington Post column on Friday, Rep. Capps wrote about her disappointment that while seven of the eleven magazines did respond, none promised to drop the advertisements.

Our response: Why the surprise? Since the 1980s, ACSH has been tracking cigarette ads in women's magazines, and the results show the same thing: There are lots of cigarette ads, and few articles even mention the harm smoking can do to one's health. As recently as 2004, an ACSH survey found that in nine magazines reviewed there were 390 pages of advertisements that condoned or promoted smoking.

Obviously, there are exceptions in the articles (the most recent issue of Fitness magazine featured a long story on the cost of smoking, both financially and physically), but it's a shame that this is merely an exception.

-- Finally, an interview in Harvard Public Health Now caught Dr. Whelan's eye. The exchange with Dr. Walter Willett about his new book, Eat, Drink, and Be Happy, raised some eyebrows. He seems to view eating as a totally biological experience -- he sticks to a diet of cooked whole grains with fruit, salad, vegetables, and nuts, sometimes with tofu, chicken, or fish. Occasionally, Willett says he admits to "splurging" -- with a piece of flavorful cheese or a bit of chocolate.

While ACSH staffers say to each his own, none of us could fathom eating with the sole purpose of gaining nutrients, not truly enjoying our food. As Dr. Whelan said, eating is an important daily experience. At ACSH, we still buy into the idea that you can eat anything in moderation.

October 16, 2007: The Skeptic of Zion, the Cancer Secrets of Nazis, Fat Furor

-- Quote to Note: "There is no evidence that any New Yorker -- patron or employee -- has ever died as a result of exposure to smoke in a bar or restaurant." --Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, quoted by Sidney Zion in Skeptic magazine.

-- Today ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava had the top letter in the New York Times Science section, on how the furor over trans fats could be another "cascade" effect.

-- Just when we thought the truth was being recognized about the so-called "cancer epidemic" being overblown, a book called The Secret History of the War on Cancer is published. The book, by Dr. Devra Davis, plays up her point that big government and industry knew the secrets of cancer and did nothing about it, resulting in more than 10 million preventable cancer deaths over the past thirty years.

Needless to say, ACSH staffers were astounded by these claims, which fly in the face of all the scientific and epidemiological evidence. ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan said that one thing she finds fascinating, though, is that some of the book is actually quite historically accurate -- particularly the sections detailing how much the Nazis actually knew about cancer, specifically the ties between smoking and lung cancer.

The book on the whole, though, published as fact many assertions that are patently false or misleading. For instance, Davis's advice to reduce risks of cancer starts out logically -- avoid smoking, don't overeat, keep moving (which we assume means partake in healthful exercise) -- but continues down the path of nonsensicality: never eat aspartame because "all scientists are concerned about its long-term safety," don't put anything on your baby's skin that you can't eat, and so on. Another claim ACSH staffers doubted: the author asserts that pap smears, which detect cervical cancer, were not put into use for more than a decade after they were shown to save lives because they would "undermine private medical practice."

It seems only fitting that Dr. Davis is compared to Rachel Carson, whose unscientific anti-DDT crusade led to the needless deaths of many millions from malaria.

-- In other skeptical news, ACSH staffers were proud to see Dr. Whelan quoted in Skeptic magazine in a piece on secondhand smoke. She is quoted as the president of the "prestigious" ACSH.

The entire issue of the latest Skeptic magazine, devoted to medical myths, sounds a lot like ACSH. Another cover story points out the differences between animal tests and human results, and the dangers of too closely analogizing them.

October 17, 2007: Second-Hand Counter-Arguments, Declining Cancer Rates

-- As you read in the Morning Dispatch, on Monday ACSH staffers discussed frustration with the minimal coverage given to the news that cancer death rates are declining. Today, ACSH's Jeff Stier has an op-ed in the New York Post on the public-policy significance of the decline.

-- Following the startling news that staph infection fatalities may exceed AIDS deaths, ACSH staffers were pleased to see one of our Trustees on television this morning talking about the importance of stringent attention to sound hygienic practices, especially washing hands, in hospitals. Betsy McCaughey spoke this morning on Today in New York, emphasizing how seemingly simple actions -- like making sure your doctor washes his or her hands -- can help prevent the spread of the infections, which one study links to 90,000 cases and 19,000 deaths since 2005. McCaughey is chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, a strong advocate for lowering this needless toll.

-- In other news today, ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan pointed out what she calls a "truly remarkable" article in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association. The article is about tobacco industry funding and second-hand smoke research.

Dr. Whelan said she is astounded about the number of times the term "tobacco-industry funded studies" is thrown around and how this phrasing is being used as an attack against any research that does not support the concept that short-term exposure to second-hand smoke is a major cause of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. It seems now that any scientist who dares to say that there's not a strong relationship between second-hand smoke and heart disease -- no matter how much scientific evidence that scientist may have to back himself up -- is discredited as a "paid liar." ACSH staffers agreed that it is particularly troubling that a reputable peer-reviewed journal published this tirade.

One of our trustees, Dr. James Enstrom, published a lengthy article on this very topic, "Defending Legitimate Epidemiologic Research: Combating Lysenko Pseudoscience." Dr. Enstrom writes that science has become so politicized that those who stray from party lines are put on the defensive as "paid liars." Dr. Whelan says she believes Dr. Enstrom's argument is correct. His personal anecdote is particularly supportive of this claim: After he completed a study on second-hand smoke that questioned a link between it and lung cancer, anti-smoking activists were infuriated. Even though his report was published in the esteemed _British Medical Journal_, the activists went on a full-fledged smear campaign against Dr. Enstrom.

The "paid liars" theme is also continued in this article in today's New York Times about mercury in fish. ACSH staffers said this type of "smear" approach is usually used against those whose science is accurate and who the opponents can't discredit with research findings alone.

October 18, 2007: Malaria Vaccine Breakthrough, Cancer-Fighting Progress

-- Quote to Note: "It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but with all the conflicting information on risk, they may as well call it Breast Cancer Confusion Month." --ACSH's Cheryl Martin

-- The top health news story today -- or at least what should be the top story -- is the breakthrough vaccine for malaria in children. The vaccine is 65% effective for infants, the population that has the largest morbidity for malaria. Because malaria kills between one and three million people worldwide every year, ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross said this vaccine has the potential to be a wonderful thing.

GlaxoSmithKline, the producer of the drug, has been refining the vaccine for twenty years and expects to have spent up to $600 million on it by the time it is available for use. ACSH staffers pointed out the interesting juxtaposition between this news and the recent Wyeth lawsuit, where women sued that drug company, claiming its hormone replacement therapy caused their breast cancer. Here are companies that have done a great deal of research and spent a great deal of money in an attempt to save lives. After the company goes through the lengthy approval process and finally gets the green light from the FDA, should it really be held responsible if years down the road a side effect surfaces that no one anticipated? Won't that just quash innovation? And future vaccines?

-- In other news, ACSH staffers enjoyed the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the new ways we are fighting cancer. The article, written as a response to recent news that cancer death rates are in decline, not only mentions certain new cancer vaccines but points to increased awareness of cancer risk and therapies.

October 19, 2007: Trustee Homecoming, Corporate Money, Staph Infections

-- Quote to Note: "There's nothing more terrifying than ignorance in action." --Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

-- This week ACSH just couldn't stay out of the news -- Tuesday, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava had a letter in the Science section of the New York Times, Wednesday Jeff Stier had an op-ed in the New York Post, and today the Los Angeles Times published a letter by Dr. Gil Ross on "superbug" infections and the importance of drug innovations that can fight them.

-- On the East Coast, the alarm over MSRA staph infections continues to grow. Staph is not uncommon, Dr. Kava explained this morning (most people have some sort of staph on their skin), but the MSRA strain is a dangerous strain and should be taken seriously. In school gyms, for instance, a shared towel, touching an open wound, can spread the infection. The New York Times noted that 85% of infections reported from the bacteria were from healthcare settings. While most people think of hospitals as extremely clean, ACSH Trustee Betsy McCaughey keeps pointing out that is not necessarily so.

-- While there is no fool-proof way to prevent the spread of MSRA (though simple steps like regular hand-washing can help), we are lucky to have so many vaccinations against fast-spreading illnesses like measles, mumps, chicken pox, and polio. However, as displayed on this morning's Today show, it seems parents are choosing not to protect their children from these diseases. More and more parents are using "religious" exemptions in order to keep their children from getting vaccinated. One mother on the show said that vaccinations do more harm than good. She blamed vaccinations for the ADHD of one of her sons and for another son's brain tumor. Seriously, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan asked, do people believe this?

The only way people are going to snap out of this paranoia, Dr. Kava said, is if there's an epidemic of one of these diseases they no longer want to be protected against. Parents may think measles and chicken pox are "relatively harmless" childhood illnesses, but what about polio -- paralysis is a very different story from itching or swelling. Dr. Whelan was reminded of the Goethe quote about ignorance.

-- The latest issue of Discover magazine features an article called "Science's Worst Enemy: Corporate Funding." The article said the worst thing that can happen to scientific research is corporate dollars and complained about the difficulty of finding "pure" and "untainted" scientists in the world.

ACSH staffers gave a little groan when they heard this argument -- are we to think corporate money is tainted and government money is pure? Government-dominated funding can come with its own biases, Dr. Whelan said. For instance, there may be a desire to find results that justify a scientist's budget, justify more regulation, and protect the status quo -- or whatever the popular wisdom of the day happens to be.

-- Finally, as the morning meeting wrapped up, ACSH staffers got a breath of fresh air -- a New York Times article quoted Dr. Charles Hirsch, New York City's chief medical examiner, saying that a detective's death from lung cancer was not, in fact, a result of working at Ground Zero after 9/11. His conclusion was brave, given the popularity of claims that 9/11 is responsible for all lung disease of anyone who worked on the pile.

Along the same lines, Dr. Whelan noted a courageous statement by Dr. Clifford Hudis, chief of Breast Cancer Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Dr. Hudis explained that recent stories linking breast cancer and alcohol consumption were "overhyped," according to a story quoting him in Montana's Argus Leader.

"Alcohol consumption could be associated with an increased risk (in breast cancer)," Dr. Hudis said. "But it's also associated with being sedentary, eating too much, and a variety of other behaviors that maybe aren't quantified and [yet are] linked to breast cancer."

Sometimes ACSH staffers feel that we are alone in speaking out against fear and paranoia, so it's comforting to see other scientists also speaking up.

-- Finally, this week ACSH Trustee, Nobel Prize winner, World Food Prize founder, and "father of the Green Revolution" Dr. Norman Borlaug returned home to Iowa. His return home coincided with the awarding of his World Food Prize to another Iowan last night -- Philip Nelson, who was given the prize for his work in post-harvest technology, which has revolutionized the food industry. The ceremony honoring Nelson was attended by people from sixty countries, estimated World Food Prize organizers.

Corrie Driebusch is an ACSH research intern. Receive these dispatches each workday in your e-mail by becoming an ACSH donor -- donate here, send a tax-deductible donation to the Broadway address at the bottom of this site, or call (212-362-7044 x225) or e-mail DriebuschC[at]acsh.org.