Dispatch: PLoS, Obama's Smoking, Infections, Aspirin, and Kristof

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The New Face of the New McCarthyism
ACSH’s Jeff Stier got the last word in the Los Angeles Times’ report on PLoS Medicine’s recent announcement that they will no longer review studies that are funded by the tobacco industry.

“One point I want to make very explicitly clear in the discussion of this is that we are not defending the tobacco industry,” says Stier. “We’re defending the scientific process of peer review. Some are not condemning this move because the tobacco industry is disfavored, and appropriately so, but what’s the next disfavored industry going to be? Are journals going to suddenly stop accepting studies from the food industry or the pharmaceutical industry too? We’ve called this anti-industry sentiment the ‘new McCarthyism’ before, but this is the next stage of the new McCarthyism.”

Quitting Is Hard for Everyone
The latest report on President Obama’s health indicates that he has yet to quit smoking, despite his cessation efforts and use of nicotine gum.

“This is a testament to the incredible addictive power of this habit,” says Dr. Whelan. “This man is the President, the father of two young children, and he has a wife who wants him to quit, and yet he still can’t quit.”

“This proves not only how addictive cigarettes are, but also the failure of current tools to help people quit smoking,” says Stier. “That’s why we encourage the use of e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. Unfortunately, the President’s own FDA is trying to ban e-cigarettes and restrict advertising on harm-reduction products. Maybe instead of confiscating these things and throwing them out, they should give them to him. He would benefit from anything other than smoking.”

Hospital-Acquired Infections
Research based on hospital discharge records in forty states between 1998 and 2006 indicates that infections of sepsis and pneumonia acquired in hospitals may kill 48,000 people each year.

“This is right up the alley of our trustee Betsy McCaughey, who runs the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths (RID), which I’m on the board of,” says ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. “The interesting thing is that so many of these infections require relatively unsophisticated methods to control them. These deaths are largely preventable.”

“RID has a ‘checklist’ of ways to prevent hospital-acquired infections,” notes ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross. “Stringent adherence to hygienic and sanitary measures, pre-admission screening for infections (especially MRSA), etc. all help to reduce deaths, prolonged hospital stays and, of course, healthcare expenditures.”

New Aspirin Recommendations
According to a Wall Street Journal blog, “For years, many middle-aged people have taken [aspirin] in hopes of reducing the chance of a heart attack or stroke...Public health officials are scaling back official recommendations for the painkiller to target a narrower group of patients who are at risk of a heart attack or stroke. The concern is that aspirin’s side effects, which can include bleeding ulcers, might outweigh the potential benefits when taken by many healthy or older people.”

“Here is another controversy brought to you by the objective researchers of the USPSTF,” says Dr. Ross. “In this instance, they recommend that doctors do a more focused risk/benefit analysis before recommending daily or intermittent aspirin to prevent heart attack and stroke. Often it is forgotten that aspirin can provoke bleeding, especially in the GI tract, although it is very uncommon in those without a history of ulcers. But again, using a preventive agent with any risk in an otherwise healthy patient warrants a careful analysis. If the vascular risk is very low, perhaps aspirin should be avoided; however, in those with a history of heart or other vascular disease, or several risk factors for such, aspirin prevention may be the better option.”

Kristof’s Latest Concern
New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof is once again vexed by vague threats of environmental ‘toxins,’ as recorded in the latest entry of his anti-chemical diary.

Dr. Whelan isn’t convinced: “Keep in mind that Kristof is the man who told us that eating Girl Scout cookies is more dangerous than Al Qaeda.”

ACSH’s Jeff Stier notes that Kristof's main source for his unscientific musings is Dr. Philip Landrigan of Mt. Sinai. “Nowhere is it disclosed that Dr. Landrigan’s whole career has been devoted to alarmist claims of chemical toxins poisoning us at extremely low levels, a crackpot theory enthusiastically embraced by journalist-turned-toxicologist Kristof.”

Dr. Ross adds, “He cites as ‘great health dangers of modern times’ mercury, lead, tobacco, and asbestos. I guess one out of four isn’t too bad for a non-scientist. How many deaths can be attributed to the non-tobacco ‘threats’ he is concerned about? Maybe a few hundred from asbestos over the past decade, with zero for mercury and lead. And the increase in cases of autism he mentions is largely from better awareness of this diagnosis and more precision in the diagnostic criteria.”

“ACSH is currently working on a paper to study the insidious effects of chemophobia in America, forthcoming this spring,” notes Dr. Whelan. “We will send the first copy to Mr. Kristof.”

Curtis Porter is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org).