December 3, 2007: Buckley vs. Smoking, Bush Fans vs. Stem Cells
-- Quote to Note: "Stick me in a confessional and ask the question: Sir, if you had the authority, would you forbid smoking in America? You'd get a solemn and contrite, Yes." --William Buckley.
-- As we mentioned in Friday's Morning Dispatch, for the past week and a half since the announcement that two different research teams discovered how to use skin cells to produce stem cells, conservative political pundits have been directly crediting President Bush for creating the impetus for the new discovery. Their argument: that without his restrictions on the public funding of embryonic stem cell research, the newest discovery wouldn't have happened. Here at ACSH, we find these columns disappointing, hypocritical, and false. As ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan noted, the latest development in stem cell research is a great accomplishment, but we must keep in mind that it could not have occurred without embryonic stem cell research. That's far from "vindicating" President Bush.
Our frustration with conservatives trying to put an ideological spin on a scientific issue was echoed in two opinion pieces this weekend -- an editorial in the New York Times and, better still, an op-ed in the Washington Post. The authors were Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science, and James A. Thompson, professor of anatomy at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and the first to isolate human embryonic cells -- as well as the discoverer (along with Japan's Shinya Yamanaka) of the method for producing stem cells embryo-free from skin cells hailed two weeks ago.
Not only did the article point out how Thompson and Yamanaka's recent work depended "entirely" on previous embryonic stem cell research, it reminded readers that scientists are still unsure whether these converted skin cells will hold the same promise as embryonic stem cells. As ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross succinctly explained, "This is not a triumph for President Bush, it's a triumph for science." Besides the scientists' op-ed doing a fantastic job of driving this point home, the fact that scientists wrote it at all also struck a chord with us. Thompson read the column by Charles Krauthammer (which ACSH discussed last week) and instead of sitting idly by, he advocated sound science in the pages of the Washington Post. We applaud him for speaking out.
-- ACSH staffers couldn't help but notice the latest scare-headline this weekend -- the claim that eating foods cooked at high temperatures will increase a woman's risk of cancer. (Our initial reaction: So should we stick to a raw-food diet?) It turns out the article is about acrylamide, a chemical produced when many foods are fried, grilled, or roasted. Dutch researchers queried 120,000 people on their eating habits and found that women who ate more acrylamide were at higher risk for ovarian or womb cancer.
"This is a perfect example of association being called causation," ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava said.
-- In today's New York Sun, ACSH staffers were interested to see a column by William Buckley with an anti-smoking message. Buckley shared a personal story about his and his wife's battle to quit smoking, and how cigarettes eventually took her life. As today's Quote to Note points out, Buckley wrote that if he were able to forbid smoking, he would. Buckley is the founding editor of National Review, and he is a pillar in the conservative community -- a community, Dr. Whelan pointed out, that has a history of critiquing those who seek to make the dangers of smoking widely known.
ACSH staffers were also intrigued by Buckley's comparison of cigarette apologists to the Zyklon B defendants after World War II. The makers of Zyklon B, the gas that was used in death camps to murder millions, claimed they were technicians, "putting together chemicals needed in wartime for fumigation." In Buckley's eyes, people who do not protest the presence of tobacco smoke in the air are very close to the Zyklon defendants who pleaded ignorance about the use of their gas.
-- Finally, in case you missed it, ACSH's Jeff Stier appeared this morning on Fox Business Channel discussing the widespread use of warning labels and how the over-abundance detracts from their usefulness.
December 4, 2007: NCI Silence, Folic Fortification, Off-Label Uses, AIDS Numbers, and Unpopular Nukes
-- Quote to Note: "Women shouldn't be unduly worried by this news. As the authors point out, this is the first time a link between acrylamide and womb and ovarian cancer has been suggested, and further studies are needed to confirm this finding." --Dr. Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK.
-- After yesterday's over-hyped story on the potential dangers of acrylamide, ACSH hoped scientists would speak out. In the UK, they did. The director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, Dr. Lesley Walker (quoted above) reassured women, noting that causation has not been established women do not need to worry. For now, Dr. Walker recommended women eat a balanced diet rich in fruit, vegetables, and fiber and low in fat -- that's the best dietary advice for reducing cancer risk.
Here at ACSH, we wonder why no one in the United States spoke out; we certainly heard nothing from the National Cancer Institute.
"NCI never speaks up to counter unfounded cancer scares," ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan explained. "If the specialists in cancer do not speak up, who will? When media hypes acrylamide, phthalates in plastic, dioxion in paper towels, PCBs in the Hudson -- or whatever the 'carcinogen du jour' is -- the folks at the National Cancer Institute sit there in silence...and let the misinformation prevail."
Dr. Whelan said she remembers the Alar in apples controversy, and NCI did nothing -- it just let people panic. ACSH staffers believe it is absolutely irresponsible not to respond to cancer scares and are pleased the Cancer Research UK released a statement. We hope one day NCI will do the same -- it owes it to the American people.
-- Today's New York Times science section addressed the ongoing debate about increasing folic acid fortification in flour. It is established that reproductive-aged women should take folic acid to prevent birth defects such as spina bifida. While flour is currently fortified with some folic acid, the dose is below the amount shown in research to prevent birth defects. The American Medical Association, the March of Dimes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that the amount added to flour be doubled. The proposal has come before the FDA multiple times but has not been passed.
ACSH staffers realize the importance of folic acid fortification -- most women do not realize they're pregnant from conception through the first trimester, the time when folic acid prevents neural tube defects. Still, officials must consider possible side effects of too much folic acid (such as masking a vitamin B12 deficiency). It's a very complicated situation, and we really sympathize with Dr. David A. Kessler, the food and drug commissioner at the time the FDA allowed the fortification amounts in place today. He said the issue "was probably the hardest decision I had on my tenure on the commission."
The practice of fortification has the potential to do lots of good -- just look at the benefits of adding iodine to salt to prevent cases of mental retardation, fluoride to water to prevent cavities, and iron in flour to prevent anemia. ACSH hopes the FDA continues to look at all the issues as it decides about increased levels of folic acid -- both the positives and the negatives.
-- The FDA is considering new guidelines that would allow drug companies to provide physicians with peer-reviewed medical journal studies of off-label uses for approved drugs.
While it is legal for a doctor to prescribe an approved drug for off-label uses, there is some confusion as to whether or not pharmaceutical companies may share peer-reviewed literature about unapproved uses for their products.
Here at ACSH, we encourage the FDA to clarify the law so that pharmaceutical companies feel confident in the legality of sharing information.
-- Stories about changing AIDS estimates were in the news again this week. There are two main AIDS statistics -- the estimate of the number of HIV infections and the number of new AIDS cases. Epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are increasing the estimated number of new HIV infections each year from 40,000 to between 55,000 and 60,000. We are always excited to hear how new advances in technology (in this case better methods for counting new cases) can help better our understanding of disease incidence (and prevention). However, we do wonder how this news can be released without the data also being released.
-- Another story today involved the opposition expressed by New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo to extending the license of the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Cuomo's alleged reasons: It's a terrorist target, it's old, and the evacuation plan is inadequate. Moreover, he stated that he wished the plant could be "closed down immediately." Really? Where does the Attorney General think all that megawattage will come from? He's acting as a spokesperson not for the people of New York, as he should be, but for the zealots who oppose clean, safe nuclear power-generation.
December 5, 2007: Supping, Sneezing, Suing, Scaring, and Smoking
-- Quote to Note: "Morning programs like Today on NBC and The View on ABC are the modern equivalents of the old Barbizon Hotel for Women, a frilly haven where men were not allowed above the first floor -- or here, after the first hour -- and viewers are treated to diet tips, ambush makeovers, cancer health scares, relationship counseling and, of course, shopping." --Alessandra Stanley, television critic for the New York Times.
-- Today's dining section in the New York Times proclaimed that the entree is headed toward extinction. ACSH staffers paused to think and we came to a consensus -- give us a choice of ordering one entree or a couple of appetizers for dinner, and we will choose the latter. People (us included!) don't want to eat too much of any one food these days. While the article doesn’t delve into calories or obesity, our minds immediately turned to that angle. Instead of ordering an appetizer and an entree, two or three appetizers could be a healthier path to take.
Still, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava pointed out that there are downsides of having smaller portions. For one, they leave more room for dessert! Also, if you have enough tapas and dim sum, you can easily have as many calories as are in a regular-sized entree! As with any attempt at "healthy eating," eating moderately, whether it be an entree or multiple appetizers, is most important.
-- As we've mentioned in past morning dispatches, the age-old question surrounding flu season is why does influenza hit in the winter months? ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan said every time she is interviewed about influenza, that unanswerable question is the one she fears the most. But today, the New York Times reported a possible answer -- the flu virus is more stable and stays in the air longer when the air is cold and dry. This finding, by Peter Palese, a flu researcher who is professor and chairman of the microbiology department at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, could help explain why flu season in the northern latitudes is from November to March and in the southern latitudes from May until September.
Still, ACSH staffers expressed doubt. What about the fact that the flu still persists seasonally in Miami and Los Angeles? There is as much flu in those warmer, more humid climates as there is in New York, as a rule. Is it because people from colder temperatures, like New York, travel to these warmer climates and, in effect, bring the virus there? As Dr. Whelan said: "I think the answer to the question, 'Why do we get the flu in the winter' is still 'We just don't know'."
-- Making waves is news that the US Supreme Court is in the process of hearing arguments in cases that address the issue of preemption in pharmaceutical liabilities. The outcome of these cases could mean that once the FDA deems a drug safe and effective, plaintiffs would be precluded from alleging in a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company that the drug is unsafe. As a result, pharmaceutical companies would have more protection from frivolous lawsuits and therefore more incentive to spend millions on innovating new drugs, knowing that once their drugs are approved by the FDA they will not be further exposed to safety questions in state courts.
ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross pointed out, however, that there are cases in which drug companies should be held liable -- such as if the data given to the FDA to review had been manipulated in some way. While ACSH believes most of the lawsuits brought against drug companies are baseless and stand only to hurt future drug innovations, there are those exceptions when pharmaceutical companies should be held responsible.
-- CNN today reported another typical health scare -- that the lining of baby formula cans contains "toxic" chemicals. The Environmental Working Group is propelling these claims into the mainstream media, drumming up fear. On the one hand, Dr. Whelan noted, a story like this is completely unremarkable -- it's just another unsubstantiated scare (the formula makers and the FDA say the chemical in question, BPA, is completely safe). On the other hand, we wonder if CNN just puts any health scare on the news? What if ACSH had a blue ribbon panel that found BPA has no health implications? We would get no press coverage. But EWG's fear-inducing press releases always seem to gain widespread media attention.
As we debated just how irresponsible CNN is for uncritically funneling these scares on the air, we were reminded of an article in yesterday's New York Times written by Alessandra Stanley. Her story on how morning television veers from news to thrills was candid, not to mention very perceptive. Stanley pointed out how the Today show, for instance, spends its final hour targeting female audiences with stories on make up, diet tips and -- get this -- "cancer health scares."
This explains some things! If "cancer health scares" (or "junk science," as we here at ACSH prefer to call it) is just part of the formula, of course advocacy groups like EWG are given airtime!
-- Finally, today's New York Sun sadly reminded us just how clueless some people are about the dangers of smoking. In a letter to the editor today, reader Linda Stewart stated that "only 10%" of smokers suffer adverse health consequences from their habit. She is completely wrong, Dr. Whelan said. Virtually 100% of chronic smokers experience measurable negative health effects associated with smoking and 50% die prematurely from a smoking-related disease.
December 6, 2007: Whelan, Stier to Be on MSNBC
-- Quote to Note: "But department officials acknowledge that short of irradiating the meat, there is no magic bullet to prevent E. coli contamination." --Business section of the New York Times, Dec. 6, 2007.
-- A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine tracked about a quarter of a million Danish children and found that those who were overweight between the ages of 7 and 13 were much more likely to develop heart disease between the ages of 25 and 71. These increased risks occurred even for those who were slightly overweight as children and those who lost the weight when they grew up.
ACSH staffers agree that this study is scary -- we're not going to reverse the obesity epidemic unless we get parents involved. Pediatricians can read parents the riot act in the doctor's office, but if parents continue serving the same meals to their children and don't make regular exercise a priority, no progress will be made against the problem of childhood obesity. To change someone's diet is enormously difficult -- eating patterns are very stable, not to mention culturally influenced. And it's also important to emphasize a healthy activity level. Parents' own behavior is very important -- we hope they will learn to "model" healthy lifestyles for their children. There's no "quick fix" or vaccination or pill to prescribe. Instead, it takes a lot of education.
"You have to push nutrition education in schools, in doctors' offices, everywhere," said ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava. "You have to make healthy eating attractive for kids without stigmatizing." It's a tough balance to strike, ACSH staffers recognize -- on the one hand, we don't want 11 year-olds to be overweight, for fear of the future impacts on their health. On the other hand, we don't want to unintentionally promote a rise in eating disorders.
"In retrospect, dealing with cigarette smoking as a public health problem is far easier than dealing with obesity," said ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. With cigarettes, people can quit. No one can "quit" eating.
-- More bad news for teens: Teenage birth rates have risen in this country by 3%, the first increase since 1991. As the New York Times postulates, this could mean President Bush's "abstinence only" campaign is not working. While abstinence only is a terrible sex education program, as ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross pointed out, ACSH staffers are not convinced that this is the sole, or even the main, reason for the increase in teenage pregnancy. There are many contributing factors. As the Times points out, recent advances in AIDS treatments have lowered concerns about the disease, and AIDS education programs (which encouraged condom use) have dwindled. Also, many young girls want to have a child and choose to get pregnant, Dr. Whelan said, for social and cultural reasons and peer-group identification. And another noteworthy statistic -- rates of pregnancy for unmarried women of all ages has increased, from age 15 all the way to age 45.
-- The front page of today's New York Sun tapped into one of ACSH staffers' oft-mentioned frustrations -- secondhand smoke migrating into our apartments. The bottom line is that there is no law, no precedent, about whether smokers should share the cost to keep neighbors' apartments smoke-free, whether by adding more insulation or changing ventilation.
Even if secondhand smoke is not killing you or making you ill (an argument that many angry non-smokers are using), what the smoke is killing is our enjoyment of our apartments. Here at ACSH, we're interested to see how this controversy plays out legally.
-- Traveling during the holiday season? Too busy flying around to schedule a flu shot? Fear not -- you can now get your influenza vaccination in airports. After you go through security, airports in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, and Newark are offering flu shots to thousands of people, ranging in price from $15 to $35.
We think this is brilliant -- the more people vaccinated against the flu, the better.
-- Finally, as though the obesity in children study hadn't raised our collective blood pressure enough this morning, a story in the New York Times' Business Section boiled our blood even more. The story looks at meat processors and how they're searching for ways to keep ground beef safe. The quote that got us seething (our Quote to Note above): "But department officials acknowledge that short of irradiating the meat, there is no magic bullet to prevent E. coli contamination." In other words, meat processors recognize that irradiation is, in essence, a "magic bullet" but one they won't use because of perceived consumer fear. "They'd rather let their consumers die than run the risk of alienating consumers or, worse, letting the price of meat rise 15 cents," Dr. Ross said.
December 7, 2007: "Toxins": Banned, Hidden and Broadcast
-- Quote to Note: "When it comes to a dispassionate review of 9/11 health claims, all the tenets of sound science go ignored. The conventional wisdom is that 9/11 dust should be blamed for any illness suffered by anyone who spent any time near Ground Zero -- even if it was weeks or months after 9/11. Raise questions about such conclusions, and you'll be accused of defending the terrorists by downplaying the effects of the attack." --ACSH's Jeff Stier in today's New York Post.
-- China is banning a U.S.-made product because it allegedly poses a cancer risk? It may seem counter-intuitive and ironic, but that’s the latest news story to hit the airwaves: China is banning the import of Pringle potato chips because they contain the additive potassium bromate, which is "potentially harmful."
After all the hype of lead in toys from China, we wondered how long before the United States felt some backlash. Trade wars among countries often claim "dangerous additives" to be the reasons for bans, an excuse to exercise power, ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan explained. The EU's longstanding resistance to American genetically engineered food products, allegedly based on "health" concerns, is largely a trade-protectionist ploy in this same category. Potassium bromate has been shown to be carcinogenic in high-dose rodent studies, but has not been shown to threaten human health. You know what we think about that.
-- ACSH staffers were incredibly disappointed today with a story that appeared on forbes.com. The story on "hidden household toxins" deems everything from air freshener to couch cushions to videogame consoles toxic.
Steve Forbes is a long-time friend of ACSH, and has even written a fundraising letter on our behalf, hence our dismay. While we understand that Forbes reporters did not write this article, and its editors did not edit it, subscribing to a wire service does not require printing all of its articles -- and this particularly hyped-up and incorrect one should not have made the cut.
Air fresheners may, indeed, contain phthalates, but why not tell the truth about how safe phthalates actually are? And instead of fearing flame retardants, shouldn't we be happy to see life-saving technology used in household furniture? Every year ACSH puts out a publication of the year's "Top 10 Unfounded Health Scares." We're starting to think this might get included in that list.
-- The death rate of cancer in children has fallen, the CDC announced. The complexity is that the incidence of cancer in children has gone up slightly (less than 1%). This is possibly because of improved diagnosis, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava pointed out. On the same note, treatment has also improved dramatically, hence the falling mortality rates. With this only slight increase in childhood cancer and decrease in death rate, we can say with confidence that there has been no cancer "epidemic" in the United States over the past twenty-plus years, as some activist groups continue to state.
-- YouTube is the hottest place for Internet-savvy folks to get their information. And, it turns out, to also get their misinformation. A study published in the latest JAMA found that more than half of the videos on YouTube on the subject of vaccination portrayed childhood, HPV, flu and other vaccinations negatively or ambiguously. More disturbingly, these anti-vaccination videos received higher ratings and more views than the "positive" (and more scientifically accurate) vaccination videos!
While YouTube is a great forum for public discussion -- ACSH is able to post clips of our vlogs for more viewers to see -- as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Whose responsibility it is to help get the right message across is a more difficult question to answer.
-- Also in the news today, read Jeff Stier's op-ed in the New York Post on blaming all illnesses on 9/11.
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.