ACSH Dispatches Round-Up (from Fan Mail to Fig)

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December 10, 2007: A Nice Note of Support, a Less Than Nice Flu Season

- Quote to Note: "I've been a constant reader of [ACSH's website], loving every minute, learning valuable information, finally agreeing with something I read about science/health, and rolling my eyes at the rabid misinformation out there with the knowledge of how much this costs me and ignorant or scared people everywhere." --Anthony, a fan of ACSH.

- A big story this weekend was about big kids -- well, the fear of childhood obesity, that is. An editorial in today's New York Times called an amendment that would curb junk foods sold in elementary and high schools "worthy but imperfect." We agree more with the latter adjective.

One objection we have is that the amendment is endorsing sugary juices but will ban diet sodas in elementary schools. "It seems absolutely ridiculous that if you're worried about obesity you allow juices but take out diet soda," ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan exclaimed. Juices are full of calories and are minimally nutritious, far less so than whole oranges and apples, which have fiber.

We find such "logic" very skewed.

- More and more people are getting scratchy throats and muscle pains -- a true sign that flu season has commenced. The state of New Jersey votes today on a new measure that would mandate influenza vaccines for any child entering day care or preschool. ACSH is a fan of this idea. Safe vaccinations are the best way to prevent the spread of disease -- and not just the spread of flu in children. We believe that if this requirement is passed, an unexpected result will be a decrease in influenza in the elderly, since children are the biggest carriers of the disease.

Sadly, we do realize that some parents are going to protest against having their children vaccinated, most likely for fear of unfounded "dangers." As we've discussed before, opting out of vaccinations hurts not just the child opting out but also that child's peers. As reported in today's New York Times, two students at the University of Southern Maine contracted mumps, resulting in hundreds of students being barred from the university until they received a mumps vaccination, in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

- Our new website, Riskometer.org, received attention from the people at Freakonomics. This weekend our site was the top link on Freakonomics' "The FREAK-est links." If you haven't visited Riskometer.org -- ACSH's effort to give Americans a more accurate perspective on the real, documented risks to life in twenty-first-century America -- be sure to check it out!

- Also this weekend in the news, ACSH's Jeff Stier had an op-ed in the Washington Times on the dangers of global warnings. Warning labels are taking over the country, Stier writes, diminishing their effectiveness. ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross also gave a talk this weekend about the (lack of) "toxic dangers" of phthalates -- a common target of warning-label crusades -- in children's toys before the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in Washington, DC.

- Finally, last week we received a letter from an ACSH fan named Anthony. Anthony wrote to us to thank ACSH staffers and advisors for all that we do:

"For a long time, all I'd read or hear about was supposed reports about this medical danger, or this health danger, or this company claiming that their product is safe, or how this item is dangerous...

"And then I found both ACSH and CGFI (the Center for Global Food Issues). And since then, I've been a constant reader of both sites, loving every minute, learning valuable information, finally agreeing with something I read about science/health, and rolling my eyes at the rabid misinformation out there with the knowledge of how much this costs me and ignorant or scared people everywhere."

Anthony's kind words struck a chord with ACSH staffers. Nice to know you're appreciated. It also serves as a reminder how important speaking out is. Please send us your views of ACSH!

As a way to speak out, we encourage you to join the ACSH Morning Dispatch meeting table, ask questions, and make your public health opinions known by sponsoring a morning breakfast. For $250, you are invited to join us either by phone or in person at our breakfast table and have your comments featured in the day's Morning Dispatch. To sponsor a breakfast, please respond to this e-mail!

December 11, 2007: Syrian Hamsters, "Bad" Foods, Flu Pap, Booze for Life, and Weary Pharma

- Quote to Note: "Kitty's illness and recovery have taught me that there is no such thing as good and bad foods -- that all food has its value and place in the diet, whether you're skinny or fat, a recovering anorexic or struggling to lose weight." --Harriet Brown in the science section of the New York Times.

- ACSH staffers could have found many quotes to note today from Harriet Brown's column in the Science section of the New York Times, but we settled on the one above. The column focuses on Ms. Brown's daughter, a recovering anorexic, and how it changed Ms. Brown's perception of food. Her altered opinion is a very ACSH-like one. There are no "good" or "bad" foods. Rather, all can be enjoyed, so long as they are consumed in moderation. Ms. Brown's own childhood home divided foods into two categories: "good" (celery, carrots, diet soda) and "bad" (cookies, pasta, anything with fat). Sadly, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava says, too many Americans let similar misconceptions guide their food selections. And too many are, like Ms. Brown's family members, women who "struggle with weight, in part because of a familial culture that promoted cycles of dieting and binging."

ACSH doesn't believe any food should be demonized -- but rather recommends that consumers focus on overall healthy eating.

- The headline of an article in today's Wall Street Journal Personal section seemed promising: "Why You Should Still Get a Flu Shot" (subscription required). And while the first half of the article did, indeed, promote the benefits of getting an influenza vaccination, the second half steered off-course -- telling readers where they can get thimerosal-free doses. It's a useless tip because there is no documented harm in thimerosal. As the article itself noted, the Centers for Disease Control say there is no evidence thimerosal has caused disease.

- In the past year, Pfizer has laid off more than 2,000 scientists. As today's front-page story in the WSJ pointed out, that includes a twenty-three-year lab veteran who helped create the world's most successful drug, Lipitor. So what do these layoffs mean, we ACSH staffers asked ourselves? Well, for one, it's an indicator of dark times ahead for the pharmaceutical industry. And if pharmaceuticals are going through hard times and laying off chemists and drug innovators, that translates into a hard time for public health, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava suggested. Healthcare consumers are hungry for more innovation. ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross said he believes these hard times for pharmaceuticals are a direct result of the heavy-handed drug regulatory process and misplaced concern about the perfect "safety" of drugs, rather than a balancing of benefits and risks.

- If you're a Syrian hamster, booze is very attractive. In the Science section of today's New York Times, Natalie Angier wrote about the "ancient medicine" that is alcohol. Syrian hamsters have a proclivity for alcohol, and so do many populations around the world -- Americans are only number 39 when it comes to per capita alcohol consumption. Angier suggests that years ago people who drank fermented beverages instead of unsanitary, dirty water had a better chance of surviving and reproducing. ACSH staffers wonder if this also explains peoples from Asia being unable to process alcohol as efficiently; they have low levels of alcohol-metabolizing enzymes. Following the above hypothesis that alcohol acted as a "healthier" substitute to dirty water, for peoples in Asian countries perhaps tea performed the same trick, since brewing tea requires boiling water, thus lessening the "need" to maintain a high level of such enzymes in the population and making their health-related "need" to drink alcohol -- as a lifesaving behavior -- less urgent.

December 12, 2007: Caffeine, Corn, Cigarettes -- Spot the Dangerous One

- "Slapping a Proposition 65 warning label on cans of soda would do nothing to improve pregnancy outcomes. It would simply confuse consumers. This is just another example of a feel-good law that allows people to think -- without a shred of evidence -- that they're improving public health." --ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava about California's plan to place warning labels on caffeine-containing sodas.

- Yesterday the U.S. Agriculture Department warned of a significant decline in expected harvests of crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans, forecasting that U.S. wheat stocks will shrink to their lowest level in sixty years by the end of the 2007-2008 crop year. And it's not just in the United States -- there's bad news around the world, with cold weather damaging crops in Argentina and drought affecting Australia's wheat production. Articles like these remind us of how we take our food supply for granted, ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan noted. It also reminds ACSH staffers of the importance of food technology and how technologies can advance the supply of food if only we let them. It's too bad so many people blindly jump aboard the anti-food-technology bandwagon; as a result, food prices soar and many in Third World countries are left hungry.

- In other disturbing news, California is seeking to slap its Proposition 65 label on another product: caffeine-containing sodas and energy drinks. A California advisory board wants studies conducted to see if these beverages pose a risk to pregnant women.

As ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava said, while very high levels of caffeine intake could be problematic to pregnant women, the concern of California's advisory board is based on high-dose animal studies -- studies that cannot be extrapolated to humans. Also, why no warning labels on coffee or tea? Why only on sodas? It seems quite arbitrary -- as well as thoroughly unscientific.

The state is also calling for an immediate review of an evergreen scare chemical, bisphenol-A, which could lead to warning labels on plastic baby bottles, water bottles, and reusable food containers. ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross said he's still waiting to see data showing that BPA has an effect on levels of any hormone in humans at any exposure.

"California should just call itself a 'cancer-causing zone,'" said Dr. Whelan, since, thanks to Prop. 65, soon every product will require a warning label.

- The latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reported a study linking active smoking and the risk of Type 2 diabetes. ACSH wrote about the causal link between diabetes and smoking in Cigarettes: What the Warning Label Doesn't Tell You, but at that time there was still controversy about the strength of the link.

"Cigarettes are the most remarkable products," Dr. Whelan said. "They are involved in so many insidious consequences."

- Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a study that followed the trends in PSA testing for prostate cancer from 1995 to 2004 concluded that "despite the lack of clear evidence of benefit, PSA testing for prostate cancer screening has increased dramaticaly."

ACSH staffers said they find it remarkable how widespread PSA testing is now despite the fact that it's never been shown to actually save any lives. The negative consequences are clear, though -- people move ahead with what are often unnecessary surgeries.

- Our new Web site, Riskometer.org is gaining a lot of attention and support. Here at ACSH we've been thrilled to receive a multitude of e-mails telling us how enjoyable and addictive the site is. If you haven't checked it out yet, please do so now! And also, spread the word to friends and family. We've been getting traffic to the Riskometer from Freakonomics, university webpages, and even Facebook!

December 13, 2007: The Pope on Science, America on Statins, Kmart on Phthalates

- Quote to Note: "For the first time in nearly 50 years, the average cholesterol level for U.S. adults is in the ideal range, the government reported Wednesday...The growing use of cholesterol-lowering pills in people 60 and older is believed to be a main reason for the improvement, experts said." --Mike Stobbe, in an Associated Press story about the new U.S. cholesterol average.

- Although global warming is not an issue ACSH gets involved in, we were nonetheless fascinated by the Pope's recent comments on the issue, saying global warming is based on scare tactics not science, and that while the environment is important, mankind should be the greatest priority. ACSH is not taking a position as to whether or not the Pope is on target with this assessment -- but it is highly significant that in his statements he urged avoiding hype and sticking to science. If the Pope is interested in promoting science for the good of humanity, we here at ACSH hope that he also comes out against anti-biotech activists, as their activities are clearly working against the interests of providing adequate food to mankind.

- Hyped on the news feeds today is the story that approximately a million doses of Hib (hemophilus influenza type b) vaccine are contaminated. In fact, though, the vaccines recalled are for Hib, a type of bacteria found in the nose and throat. According to ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava, because of built-up immunity in our population it won't really matter if we go a year without new vaccinations. Our real fear: That this will be another excuse for the large number of anti-vaccine zealots to get unwarranted attention. Such contamination mishaps have nothing to do with the general safety of vaccines -- but we know that fact won't stop the anti-vaccine fanatics from exploiting this news to scare parents away from life-saving inoculations.

- Americans are not exactly known for their good health. But now they have some bragging rights: at 199, the average cholesterol of Americans is better than it's ever been. The average cholesterol has actually gone down since the last survey in 1999-2000, when the reading was 204. And when the readings began in 1960, the average cholesterol was at 222.

So who's getting the credit for this great news? ACSH believes cholesterol-lowering statins deserve the accolades. ACSH's Jeff Stier, though, said that he was surprised to see the coverage on ABC News last night that gave some credit to lower consumption of saturated fats among Americans. Stier said he never hears in the news that Americans are eating less saturated fat -- it seems convenient that the media mentions it now, when saying so acts to downplay the benefits of pharmaceuticals.

ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross pointed out, though, that dietary ingestion of fats is barely (if at all) related to cholesterol levels. Statins are a great tool for lowering cholesterol, even though they are not used widely enough; only about a third of the 50 million people with high cholesterol who would benefit are taking them. ACSH staffers are watching closely to see if the FDA approves of the behind-the-counter sale of the statin Mevacor. We have mixed feelings about the wisdom of such a move, but doing so would likely increase the number of Americans taking the drug.

- A couple of weeks ago we lamented the fact that Target is giving into the toxic terrorists and pulling many plastic products off its shelves because misguided activists claim they have a "toxic" chemical in them -- phthalates. Sadly, now Kmart is following suit. We can only imagine what product these stores will take away from consumers next. As we've often said, and published in peer-reviewed journals, there is absolutely no medical evidence showing that phthalates are harmful for humans of any age. And these products will probably be replaced with something that's less safe, has been studied less, and is less useful and more expensive (otherwise they'd have been using the alternative in the first place!). Is corporate America setting a precedent here -- displaying a new willingness to withdraw safe, useful products just because some fringe groups make distorted, unsupported health claims?

- Finally, in today's Wall Street Journal Personal section there's an article about testing your genes. As gene tests spread, questions follow, the article proclaims (subscription required). We wonder if people will hesitate to get these tests -- insurance companies won't want to touch you if they learn you have a serious genetic disorder. Of course, there are some genes that are important to know about -- such as whether or not you are a carrier for diseases like Huntington's or Tay Sachs. But this article mentions looking for things like the "sweet-tooth gene."

"That has to be a scam," ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava said. Would knowing you have his sweet-tooth gene help you with weight loss? Unlikely.

December 14, 2007: Fighting Fat, Cholesterol, and Auto Deaths

- Quote to Note: The panel "raised some important points for us to think about. We're going to cogitate." --Andrea Leonard-Segal, director of the FDA's division of nonprescription clinical evaluation, about whether or not to allow the cholesterol-lowering statin Mevacor to be available without a prescription.

- Yesterday, we were saddened to hear about the death of a daughter of a colleague of an ACSH staff member, a sixteen-year-old girl. She died after a terrible car accident -- one that involved no drugs, no alcohol, no teenage recklessness. The reason for the fatal injuries? She was simply not wearing her seatbelt.

We feel stories like this in our cores. We deal with many public health issues here at ACSH, but from the very beginning ACSH has emphasized the life-saving attributes of seatbelts. Mandating seatbelts in cars (with many states making it a crime not to wear a seatbelt) has actually saved tens of thousands of lives (unlike banning trans fats, which has probably saved none). We only wish there was more we -- or the car manufacturers -- could do. Cars have weighted alarm systems for the front seats if a seatbelt is not fastened -- we wonder if it is possible to install similar systems in the backseat, too. As you can see on Riskometer.org, motor vehicle accidents are a major threat -- about 40,000 people die from them every year. Seatbelts increase your chance of survival tremendously. Just think: if this young girl had taken one second to buckle her belt, she would be alive today and her parents would not be suffering inconsolable grief.

- An FDA panel voted yesterday against allowing Merck to sell its cholesterol-lowering statin Mevacor without a prescription. While we agree with this decision, it does raise interesting questions. The FDA is not forced to adopt the panel's recommendation, but it usually does. On those occasions when it does overrule the panel, it's usually erring on the side of caution. But sometimes too cautious an approach leads to a worse outcome. "The FDA weighs risk but rarely gives enough weight to potential benefits," ACSH's Jeff Stier said.

Still, in this case we agree -- Mevacor should stay prescription-only. ACSH staffers recognize the dilemma about statins: despite the fact that the average American's cholesterol is 199, only one third of Americans who could benefit from taking statins are using them. However, to get a reliable cholesterol reading -- including LDL and HDL levels -- you must go to your doctor anyway, so it makes sense to continue to require a prescription. In the case of cholesterol, "there's no benefit in not seeing your doctor," ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross explained. When it comes to heart disease, it's important to screen for other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or smoking. And only a physician can administer additional diagnostic tests as necessary.

- Here at ACSH we hope you all are having a wonderful holiday season. If you're still looking for that perfect gift for an opinionated or just plain curious friend or family member, consider sponsoring an ACSH morning meeting in his or her name. The recipient will then be able to join us (either in person or by phone) at our breakfast meeting and ask questions of our ACSH staff, as well as be featured in the day's Morning Dispatch. Happy Holidays!

- Finally, ACSH was pleased to read about the demise of a group of "lipo-dissolving" centers. A chain of cosmetic clinics in the St. Louis area closed, perhaps filing for bankruptcy. Since the chain Fig, originally named Advanced LipoDissolve Center, uses drug compounds that have not been approved for cosmetic medical use by the FDA, ACSH staffers were surprised they were not shut down for this reason alone. The other burning question on our minds: The promoters of this procedure claimed it liquefies fat. Where does the liquid fat go?

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.