Wednesday, July 02, 2008

TV actors must not be seen to eat "junk food"

Hide the children: Commercial products are visible on network television. That's the urgent message from a clatch of public interest groups who wrote to the Federal Communications Commission last week demanding an end to "advertainment." According to the signers of the letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin - including the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, the Parents Television Council and Public Citizen - the appearance of brands in sitcoms and soap operas is bad for us and for the impressionable minds of children. The media are "carrying messages that would otherwise be criticized by the public or even deemed illegal," the groups wrote.

So what are these nefarious products and messages infecting the airwaves? Well, Oreos, to pick one outrage. The chocolate sandwich snack has appeared in sponsored plot points of two installments of "Everybody Loves Raymond." According to the public interest scolds, peddlers of junk food and alcohol are among the culprits exploiting our airwaves.

Such suggestions are almost guaranteed to find a receptive audience among politicians. The FCC's Mr. Martin expressed concern last year over the increasingly "subtle and sophisticated" ways of weaving commercial messages into traditional programming. Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey also profess to see product placement as a manipulation of our "emotional connection" to TV characters. This conspiratorial view of advertising goes back to Vance Packard and the "Hidden Persuaders," the book unmasking the supposed media manipulation of the 1950s.

In reality, TV producers are trying to make programming pay in an age when more and more viewers are TIVO-ing through the commercials. Overall, product placement has risen 13% on network TV in the past year, as advertisers seek ways to get their products noticed without annoying customers. A ban on product placement will increase the incentive for broadcasters to offer more programming as pay-per-view.

The FCC said this week it plans to consider new rules that would require shows to more prominently notify viewers of sponsored products in their plot points. But where does it end? A lion's share of product appearances has come on reality TV shows like "American Idol." Professional sports, especially Nascar and your average pro golfer, are wallpapered with endorsement logos. Viewers already understand exactly what's going on when a TV character flaunts a name brand - and that awareness is the best defense against whatever "manipulation" is going on.

One of the things at stake in this election is who will run agencies like the FCC, which have enormous discretionary power. In the 1970s, at the height of the nanny state, these agencies were populated by meddlers who harassed business and raised costs for consumers. They're back on the march, and eager to tell you what's good for you - whether you like it or not.


Can science save us from superbugs?

New antibiotics might help to fight hospital infections but socialized medicine systems might still not use them on cost grounds. Comment from Britain:

Last Thursday the Office for National Statistics confirmed that more than 20 patients a day now die from the superbug infections, MRSA and C difficile. NHS practice has been poor. MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcal aureus) is a bacterium that many people carry, safely, in their noses. Yet when people are weakened by sickness, MRSA can invade the bloodstream and kill. In Scandinavia, Holland and Harley Street (three places where MRSA is rare) carriers are screened and treated before being admitted to the wards, but the NHS has been slow in following suit.

Clostridium difficile is another bacterium that many people carry safely (in their intestines), but when hospital toilets are poorly cleaned, when wards are overcrowded, or when people fail to wash their hands, patients will acquire C difficile from each other and, in their weakened state, die of diarrhoea. Can science offer a technological solution to the NHS's failings? Can we invent new antibiotics? Two papers offer hope.

Our bodies make their own natural antibiotics, of which nitric oxide is one. In a recent paper in Science, Dr Fang of the University of Washington, Seattle, showed that MRSA produces a special enzyme that detoxifies nitric oxide. That is why MRSA can kill us.

Meanwhile Dr Pierik of Philipps University, Marburg, has shown that C difficile's enzymes are equally special. They are ancient. There is no oxygen within our guts because the bloodstream does not extend into them. But billions of years ago - before green plants evolved - there was no oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere either. Yet bacteria were already established, and C difficile still uses the enzymes of its primordial ancestors to flourish without oxygen.

Antibiotics work as "magic bullets". It was Paul Ehrlich, the German microbiologist, who in 1909 invented antibiotics by identifying chemicals that, magically, disabled bacterial but not human enzymes. But to find his bullets, Ehrlich had to search randomly. He infected rabbits with syphilis and he dosed them with random chemicals. He named his first drug Salvarsan 606 because it was the 606th chemical he tested that finally cured the rabbits.

Drs Fang and Pierik now proffer the hope of a focused future. Now that we can characterise the key enzymes of MRSA and C difficile, we might design new antibiotics systematically, not randomly. Science may indeed rescue us from the NHS's failings.

Yet the NHS, as a state monopoly, will find new ways to fail. And we will have ourselves to blame. The insurance-based systems of continental Europe - whose hospitals have bed occupancy rates of only 75 per cent and whose hospitals, being separately owned, compete for patients - are better than our own. But the British resist reforms that cost them money.


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