ACSH Dispatches Round-Up

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January 2, 2007: Less Smoke in France, Less Sperm Everywhere, More Fat in Memphis

- Quote to Note: "There's no stopping now. Soon they'll ban alcohol and you'll need to bring in your latest blood tests to eat in a restaurant," said Francis Attrazic, vice president of the hospitality industry association UMIH, about the new smoking ban in France.

- We hope everyone had a wonderful time ringing in 2008. Our main New Year's Resolution is, as always, to try and put an end to junk science. It's not an easy job, and we were reminded this weekend of how tough it can be. On Saturday, the New York Times published an op-art about 2007's "greatest" food scares. Reading through it, ACSH staffers got a laugh -- one news clip was about how sperm counts decline in men whose mothers ate more red meat while pregnant. (Earlier this year, our own Dr. Ruth Kava pointed out the holes in this theory.) Another area on the chart touted the "fertility" diet, saying if women give up trans fats they will more easily become pregnant. The advice is also the subject of a new book by Dr. Walter Willett and Dr. Jorge E. Chavarro, The Fertility Diet (ACSH staffers have said before that this "miraculous" diet is pure marketing nonsense). The problem with the op-art? The Times took all the "scares" seriously.

- When it comes to resolutions, Parisians better add "quit smoking" to their list. That or "stop frequenting bars and cafes." A smoking ban went into effect January 1st in bars and restaurants in France and most of Germany. We can only imagine how shocked people in France are. As ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan said, "I never thought I'd see the day when there was a smoking ban in France. Everyone smokes there." We are interested to see how this plays out.

- Finally, as Americans look to 2008 with hopes of self-improvement, many resolutions involve losing weight and becoming more physically fit. In the case of Memphis, Tennessee, we can only hope they succeed and help their city lose its title of "fattest." When it comes to America's most obese cities, Memphis tops the list. The Forbes magazine article on the subject pointed out several possible causes: declining exercise rates, cheaper, unhealthy food, and enormous portions, as well as a culture built around Southern hospitality. These cultural and economic factors all make sense to us. What doesn't make sense: Dr. Willett's theory that the enemy of our waistlines can be found in specific items in the supermarket. The professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health is quoted saying our "salvation" lies in ridding the grocery store of foods "not fit for human consumption." Dr. Willett would like to purge the shelves of "sugar water" (we imagine he means sodas) and "breakfast cereal" (we encourage Dr. Willett to examine a box of cereal one of these days; a quick look will show most give consumers full servings of essential vitamins). We hope Tennessee doesn't take him too seriously and instead just decides to eat smaller portions in 2008.

January 3, 2007: Fat, Smokes, Cocaine, and Defibrillators

- Quote to Note: "You're better off having your arrest at Nordstrom, where I'm standing right now, because there are fifteen people around me." --Dr. Leslie A. Saxon, the chief of cardiology at the University of Southern California, on a study that found hospitals are too slow to respond to cardiac arrests in a third of the cases.

- The cliché is that you can never be too thin or too rich, but if your path to thinness is through weight loss programs, you may be foregoing a lot of extra cash in attempts to earn a more slender physique.

Forbes magazine looked at a handful of diet programs like NutriSystem, the Zone, Weight Watchers, and South Beach and found consumers spend between $100 and $385 during the first week. Compared to the average American's weekly grocery bill of $111, dieting can add up. And here at ACSH we wonder about the time it takes, too. While some of these programs provide you with ready-made meals like the Zone for almost $400 a week, if you have a family you may still need to cook a separate meal. "Wouldn't it be much easier and more practical to just continue eating what you regularly eat but eat less of it?" Dr. Whelan asked.

- We noticed some great news this week: In New York City the percentage of teenagers smoking dropped about as low as the city's temperature today: to 8.5. Furthermore, there's no gender difference in teen smoking rates here anymore. So to what exactly do we attribute this? There are the Truth campaigns on television, as ACSH's Cheryl Martin pointed out -- and those definitely grab our attention. But those campaigns are national, not New York-specific. ACSH staffers also think the cost of cigarettes is a factor. Some cost almost $10 a pack, making it more difficult for teens to afford them.

Although this smoking decline fantastic news, it does not entirely compensate for a story we saw yesterday about cigarette sales overseas. While the government is encouraging Americans to quit smoking, it has been using trade agreements to help tobacco companies promote smoking in other, poorer countries.

"This is how these tobacco companies are going to survive -- by making profits overseas," Dr. Whelan explained. There will be a billion smoking-related deaths by the end of this century, the World Health Organization estimates, a number ten times greater than in the twentieth century.

- ACSH staffers were skeptical about the headlines touting a cocaine vaccination. While we at first thought the vaccine might behave like antabuse, the product that helps alcoholics by eliminating their ability to tolerate alcohol, this is different. The cocaine vaccine is intended to fight cocaine addiction by blocking the "good" stuff from the addictive substance. "Antabuse does nothing to counter the craving for alcohol," ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross explained. "What it does is, if you drink alcohol while taking antabuse you have an aversion reaction -- you get terribly ill." There is one similarity between these two products, though: both are disincentives to abuse these substances. Dr. Whelan said she hopes similar products become available for smokers.

- Is it really safer to suffer cardiac arrest in the department store than in a hospital? All evidence points to "yes," according to a new study that found that in nearly a third of cases of sudden cardiac arrest in hospitals the staff takes too long to respond. These extra minutes can cause brain damage and even death.

Here at ACSH, we were startled by the study's findings. Dr. Ross pointed out a few wrinkles that may help explain them, though. For one, some smaller hospitals have rules that nurses cannot use a defibrillator without a doctor present. Also, not all hospitals have automatic defibrillators. Automatic defibrillators are designed for laymen to use, so they are basically foolproof. ACSH staffers anticipate a day when public places will be required to have these life-saving machines on hand.

January 4, 2007: Anti-Intellectual Advice from Pollan and from Doll's Detractors

- "Avoid foods containing ingredients you can't pronounce. Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize." --suggestions from Michael Pollan, in his new book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.

- Sir Richard Doll is a name instantly recognizable in the field of cancer epidemiology. Among his accomplishments is co-authoring a 1951 paper that confirmed for the first time the link between cigarettes and lung cancer, a finding for which many colleagues believe he deserved a Nobel Prize.

Since his death in 2005, however, activists who are unable to deal with certain scientific statements Doll made are sinking to the level of name calling. They insist he spent his career as a "paid liar" for the chemical industry -- all because Doll stated there is no cancer epidemic and trace levels of environmental chemicals wouldn't likely be to blame if there were (if this sounds familiar to you, it should -- it's also a position ACSH takes). Now, activists are claiming they have documents that reveal the "sordid truth" of Doll's connection with the chemical corporation Monsanto. In truth, the documents just prove what Doll was very up-front about during his career -- that he acted as a consultant for Monsanto. Furthermore, the "proof" merely shows that the money went straight to Wellcome Trust, one of the world's largest medical research charities.

ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan said the whole Doll debacle is particularly heartbreaking because it is an attempt to sully a great epidemiologist's reputation. Does it really matter if he took money from industry if his science is accurate? Attack the science if some part of it is in error, not the person. As a line from a Vancouver Sun article said, "The savaging of Sir Richard Doll reveals what some activists will do when scientists don't say what they want them to say."

- Any student who has studied entry-level psychology is familiar with the "placebo effect," in which patients think they are getting effective treatment and sometimes feel positive results, even though the pill itself has no proven biological effects.

Some ACSH staffers were still surprised by the high percentage of doctors who have used a placebo during their clinical practice -- 45%. "Are you familiar with doctors giving placeboes to patients?" asked Dr. Whelan.

"Of course!" ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross said, laughing. "The placebo effect is very powerful, and there's nothing wrong with prescribing them."

Dr. Whelan was not as accepting of the placebo route. "When my mother had macular degeneration, a top specialist here in New York gave her worthless vitamin supplements, and that bothered me." Dr. Whelan added, "In essence, he was saying, 'We can't help you, but these useless pills may make you think we are helping'."

- ACSH finds the common portrayal of the issue of "cloned meat" very misleading. In today's Wall Street Journal, a headline proclaimed that the "FDA will rule that cloned animals are safe to eat." While this is good news, we find the language terribly deceptive -- consumers are not eating cloned animals, merely the offspring of cloned animals (the originals having been copied from choice animals but then producing descendants in the usual fashion).

"I think we need some new vocabulary," Dr. Whelan said. "Perhaps 'biologically enhanced.' I think we need to change it because semantics is very important."

The idea that this is a completely new practice is misguided. Breeding, for example, has been going on forever. What this "cloning" does is take breeding to the cutting edge -- making more of the "blue ribbon" cows available to breed. Around the ACSH morning table, we decided we liked Dr. Ross's suggestion the best: "genetically selected." Now, that doesn't sound so scary, does it?

- A full-page ad in today's New York Times brought sarcastic smiles to ACSH staffers' faces. The ad is for a new book by Michael Pollan, who actually is an excellent writer, although we often disagree with his positions. The tag lines, though, were laughable. Among the suggestions from Pollan's An Eater's Manifesto are: "Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize" (What does this mean? No tofu?), "Pay more, eat less" (A brilliant way to help our struggling economy, no doubt), and "Avoid food products that carry health claims" (Like "organic"?). And what are we to make of his rule "Don't eat anything with ingredients you can't pronounce"? One ACSH staffer joked, "I can't say 'broccoli' -- should I avoid it?" At least we hope he said it facetiously...

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]