Thursday, August 31, 2006

Serious flaws in the latest big obesity study

The latest study of "obesity" has received what appears to be totally uncritical mention in the press so I think it is time I pointed out just some of the glaring problems with it. For starters, however, I reproduce the original journal abstract below:

Overweight, Obesity, and Mortality in a Large Prospective Cohort of Persons 50 to 71 Years Old

By Kenneth F. Adams et al.

Background: Obesity, defined by a body-mass index (BMI) (the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters) of 30.0 or more, is associated with an increased risk of death, but the relation between overweight (a BMI of 25.0 to 29.9) and the risk of death has been questioned.

Methods: We prospectively examined BMI in relation to the risk of death from any cause in 527,265 U.S. men and women in the National Institutes of Health-AARP cohort who were 50 to 71 years old at enrollment in 1995-1996. BMI was calculated from self-reported weight and height. Relative risks and 95 percent confidence intervals were adjusted for age, race or ethnic group, level of education, smoking status, physical activity, and alcohol intake. We also conducted alternative analyses to address potential biases related to preexisting chronic disease and smoking status.

Results: During a maximum follow-up of 10 years through 2005, 61,317 participants (42,173 men and 19,144 women) died. Initial analyses showed an increased risk of death for the highest and lowest categories of BMI among both men and women, in all racial or ethnic groups, and at all ages. When the analysis was restricted to healthy people who had never smoked, the risk of death was associated with both overweight and obesity among men and women. In analyses of BMI during midlife (age of 50 years) among those who had never smoked, the associations became stronger, with the risk of death increasing by 20 to 40 percent among overweight persons and by two to at least three times among obese persons; the risk of death among underweight persons was attenuated.

Conclusions: Excess body weight during midlife, including overweight, is associated with an increased risk of death.

1). What most glaringly identifies the sample concerned as not a random one is of course the percentage of women. A random sample would comprise about 50% women but there were actually twice as many men as women in this sample. So the population to which the findings may be generalized is essentially unknown, though a guess that it is a population who were worried about their health would probably not be too far astray.

2). The results were "adjusted" for physical inactivity. That is entirely inappropriate. Overweight people undoubtedly exercise less so the adjustment in effect creates an artificial population with no relevance to the real world. It is also possible that the adjustment for alcohol intake was inappropriate.

3). The overall results were, as usual, that people of middling weight lived longest. It was only in selected subsets of the sample that people of middling weight died somewhat younger. It is those subsets, however, that have attracted most media attention. If it were my practice in my own research to generalize from arbitrary subgroups of non-samples, I could prove anything too.

4). BMI is now in any case a rather contentious index of "obesity", for the amusing reason that in some populations it shows that overweight people live longer, as indeed it did in the present study.

5). The article looks at obesity at only one point in the lifespan. Weight tends to increase unevenly with age so that some people become overweight in later life who were not previously so. So what is true of those who are overweight in later life may not at all be true of (say) childhood obesity, and vice versa. This is a lacuna rather than a flaw in the study but it is yet another reason why the results of the study should not be generalized.

Since the conclusion given in the journal abstract is wildly inappropriate to the data, however, the media can hardly be blamed for their dramatizations, for once. It would seem that the prestigious academic journal -- NEJM -- in which the study appeared has gone the way of the BMJ in becoming a largely politically correct organ.

U.K.: Organic milk controversy: "Organic milk is healthier than standard pasteurised milk, scientists have said in a call on the Government to revise official advice. A letter written by 14 scientists that was received today by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) claims that organic milk has higher levels of Omega 3 essential fatty acids, which are thought to boost health and provide protection from coronary heart disease. The authors of the letter want the FSA to change its stance on organic milk and “recognise that there are differences that exist between organic and nonorganic milk”. But the FSA said: “On the basis of current evidence, the agency’s assessment is that organic food is not significantly different in terms of food safety and nutrition from food produced conventionally.”

Blood worth bottling: "Blood products taken from people who have recovered from bird flu could be useful for treating other patients in the event of a pandemic, research has suggested. An analysis of how such transfusions were used in hospitals during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 has indicated that they reduced the risk of death and eased symptoms, raising the prospect that a similar approach could be used against H5N1 influenza. Although vaccines and antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu are likely to be the front line of defence today, blood plasma transfusions could provide a valuable back-up. They could prove a particularly valuable weapon against the H5N1 virus in developing countries with poor access to vaccines and antivirals, scientists said yesterday."

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Morning sickness theory: "Morning sickness seems to come with the territory for some women in the first few months of pregnancy. And scientists now reckon they know the reason. It could all be down to the woman’s diet – it’s the body’s way of protecting the fetus from a ‘bad’ diet. A woman who eats healthily is more likely to sail through the first few months of pregnancy without any of the unpleasant symptoms of morning sickness, unlike the woman whose diet is predominantly made up of processed and fast foods. A research study has discovered that women are far more likely to suffer if they eat large quantities of sugars, sweeteners, and fried foods. Researchers analysed 56 studies on morning sickness, collated from 21 countries, and found a link with diets that were high in sugars, sweeteners and oil crops used in frying foods. Other suspect foods include large amounts of meat, and stimulants such as coffee and alcohol. Conversely, cereals and pulses reduced the risk of morning sickness."

"Drug naive"? "Perhaps it’s because we don’t get out much these days, but we’ve just stumbled on an expression we’ve never before encountered, and yet seems to be all the rage within the pharma culture in the States: it’s ‘drug-naive’. Although it’s a term that can’t be found in any medical dictionary, it’s already being extensively used in research, and a quick Google search reveals pages of its usage. While we couldn’t get an authoritative definition, we assume it refers to a patient who has never before taken a pharmaceutical drug. And, like so many expressions from the drug industry, it’s wonderful. It’s a great way of sign-posting your future audience, and so we assume patient files could be marked ‘drug-na├»ve’ under the category ‘Hot prospects’. We noticed it in an advertisement for Avandamet, a drug to help achieve glycemic control in patients with type 2 diabetes."

Sugary drinks pulled out of Australian schools

Soft drink manufacturers will remove sugared drinks from school canteens and stop advertising directly to children in a major overhaul of beverage marketing. The Australian Beverage Council today unveiled tough new guidelines in response to increasing pressure to alleviate childhood obesity. The policy was signed by almost all major bottlers of non-alcoholic carbonated, non-carbonated, juice and water-based drinks, and will be introduced over two years. Measures include the removal of all sugar-sweetened drinks from primary school canteens and supply to high schools only on request. The companies also propose to not advertise any such products directly to primary school-age children or in TV programs watched primarily by children. So-called diet drinks would not be included in the bans.

The companies also would relabel products to declare kilojoule content on the front and additional nutritional information on the back. Australian Beverages Council chief executive Tony Gentile said the changes were designed to help manage the complex public health issue of obesity. "With this document, the beverage industry is flagging to both consumers and Government that we see ourselves very much as part of the solution in assisting consumers in making informed choices," Mr Gentile said. "Through these policies, I believe that the Australian Beverages Industry is now clearly and unambiguously indicating to the community its commitment to both its customers and to the wider community."

The document, called Commitment Addressing Obesity and Other Health and Wellness Issues, includes nine major initiatives. Others include increasing the range of low calorie products, encouraging downsizing of portion size to avoid over-consumption and boosting educational programs. The companies also pledged to conduct independent research on consumer behaviour to encourage healthier lifestyles


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Cancer vaccine now on sale: "The world's first vaccine to protect against cancer goes on sale in Australia from today as federal health experts continue to assess an application from its makers to include it in the free national immunisation program for all girls. The inventor of the cervical cancer vaccine, Australian of the Year Ian Frazer, was due to attend launches today in Sydney and later Brisbane. He is expected to be honoured by the Beattie Government before injecting some of the first patients with the vaccine, called Gardasil. A third launch will be held in Melbourne later today. The vaccine will be available from pharmacies with a doctor's prescription. Pending a decision on government subsidies, patients will have to pay the full cost -- which, depending on the size of wholesale and pharmacy mark-ups, is likely to be between $150 and $155 for each of the three doses required, or $460 for the three-dose course. If the Government's Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee approves an application by the vaccine's makers to provide Gardasil free to schoolgirls, a nationwide immunisation program could be launched in February 2008. Professor Frazer became a national celebrity last year after trials published in The Lancet Oncology showed Gardasil attained a 100 per cent success rate in protecting young women against lesions and cervical warts caused by four strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV."

A local government jumps onto the obesity bandwagon: "Brisbane will bypass the State Government and seek federal funding to fight obesity. Lord Mayor Campbell Newman is spearheading a campaign by Australia's capital cities to combat the national epidemic. With 62 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women now overweight or obese, the capitals are seeking direct Commonwealth funding to run preventable community-based health programs, which would also target drug addiction, health research and childhood diseases. "I know the Federal Government is concerned about the costs of administering programs through the states," Cr Newman said. "A lot of money does go into administration, and we are offering the opportunity through these programs to very efficiently get money out there on the ground." In its submission to a federal health inquiry, the Council of Capital City Lord Mayors argues that capital cities are the Commonwealth's "logical partner" to provide preventative community health programs. "One of the focus areas is on addressing the main causes of preventable disease including poor nutrition and physical activity," it said".

The meningococcal peril: "Parents and health care workers must learn to quickly recognise the symptoms of meningococcal disease if more deaths are to be prevented, doctors warn. The plea comes after Sydney schoolgirl Brittany Pine almost died last month after her GP thought she had measles. In Brittany's case, her doctor advised the girl's mother Kristy to visit the Children's Hospital at Westmead, where emergency staff diagnosed rapidly advancing meningococcal septicemia. They treated the seven-year-old with intravenous antibiotics. Blacktown GP Michael Fasher said British data shows 50 per cent of children with meningococcal are misdiagnosed the first time they make contact with the health system. Dr Fasher said young doctors could confuse the initial rash for measles because the eradication of measles had been so successful, and many had never seen a case of measles. Parents also needed to know what symptoms to look out for as meningococcal disease could masquerade as influenza or gastro-like illness, he said. "The number one thing to look for is the progressive decrease in levels of consciousness." Brittany, from Maryong in Sydney, had missed a meningococcal C vaccination, provided free to children aged 1-19 until June next year."

Fraudulent PETA "Physicians"

Today the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom called on the deceptive Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) to withdraw its hopelessly biased school-nutrition "report cards." PCRM's report cards issue failing grades to school districts whose cafeterias emphasize meat and dairy foods, and praise those that offer vegetarian menu items.

While PCRM claims to be interested in "improving the healthfulness of school lunches," it is advancing a hidden animal rights agenda which seeks to remove all animal protein from Americans' diets. "This so-called Physicians Committee is just PETA in a lab coat," said Center for Consumer Freedom director of research David Martosko. "This is a wing-nut animal rights group that believes milk is an instrument of child abuse and cheese is an addictive drug. Schools should lend a deaf ear to PCRM's meat-is-bad advice unless they're looking to impose PETA-approved diets on children."

For the benefit of school nutrition directors, the Center for Consumer Freedom is highlighting little-known facts about the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and its connections to the radical animal rights movement:

* Less than four percent of "Physicians Committee" members are actual physicians.

* People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has already steered more than $1.3 million to PCRM. Animal People News notes that PETA and PCRM are so closely connected that they should be considered "a single fundraising unit."

* PCRM discourages Americans from supporting health charities like the March of Dimes, the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the American Red Cross, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation-solely because they support research that requires the use of animals.

* The American Medical Association (AMA) has called PCRM a "fringe organization" that uses "unethical tactics" and is "interested in perverting medical science." The AMA has also condemned PCRM for supporting "a campaign of misinformation against important animal research of AIDS."

Martosko added: "The Physicians Committee's well-documented opposition to life-saving medical research indicates that its leaders don't care if Americans live or die. So why should they have any say in what our children eat?"


Monday, August 28, 2006

Tea healthier than a glass of water: "The belief that drinking tea leads to loss of fluids and possibly dehydration has been quashed by scientists. They say drinking four cups a day can be beneficial - and better than plain water. Tea not only rehydrates but also protects against heart disease and cancer - as well as cutting tooth decay and possibly improving bone strength. The key component is a group of antioxidants called flavonoids which help prevent cell damage. Like fruit and vegetables, tea is a good source of flavonoids - three cups contain eight times the capacity of an apple. "You don't find these antioxidants in pure water," chief scientist Carrie Ruxton said. The British research was published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition."

Pet therapy: "He might not look the hero type but pet dog Ralph has already saved one life and now spends his days helping others. Nellie Worringham, an 18-year-old Brisbane student, saved the lovable "bitzer" from an RSPCA shelter last year. Ralph went on to return the favour. Nellie had been batting depression and an eating disorder and had tried to take her own life. But now the mutt has given her reason to live. "Ralph changed everything for me. He is always there and whatever is happening with me he is always his happy self," she said. "He was someone that I had to look after, so I had to look after myself as well." Inspired by him, Nellie is back on her feet and studying at Yeronga TAFE to be a counsellor [The blind leading the blind?]. "Ralph comes too. We've both been studying the mental health course for the past six months and now I am on placement at a community mental health centre," she said. "Ralph is just a fantastic icebreaker with people. Patients can pet him and talk to him and we just take it from there. "Ralph has given me a reason to live. He has touched my heart in a way I never believed possible." [My most-quoted academic paper concerned attitude to pets]

U.K.: "Organic" is "in": "As celebrity crazes go, this latest one is reasonably harmless: not hard-core drinking, drug-taking or even excessive slimming. No, the current fad for celebs who make a living out of appearing on the covers of Heat magazine is nothing other than knobbly vegetables. And free-range pigs. Fried up, that is, with some organic onion rings. "Green" food, grown without pesticides or hormones, is so hot at the moment that no right-minded member of Soho House would dare to throw a dinner party without a slab of organic fare on the menu... Being green is now accepted as being rather chic; a straightforwardly good idea worth signing up to, rather than something outwardly virtuous which requires a keen commitment to body hair and a vegan diet... Yet probably the single most crucial factor in helping to encourage this cultural sea-change is the celebrity take-up of green zeal. Liz Hurley, whose adoration of an organically reared (and very hairy) Gloucester Old Spot ended up in most of the papers last week, is said to be converting her 400-acre Cotswolds farm to organic production and launching a brand of organic baby foods (whether the labels will be designed by Donatella Versace is, as yet, unknown)".

Cosmetic surgery ban: More Leftist paternalism from the government of New South Wales

Teenager will be banned from having Botox or collagen injections under sweeping changes aimed at reining in the burgeoning cosmetic surgery industry. The Sunday Telegraph can reveal the State Government is planning to introduce regulations making it more difficult for people under 18 to undergo purely cosmetic procedures.

The changes have been personally driven by Premier Morris Iemma, who was disturbed when Big Brother contestant Krystal Forscutt, 20, promoted her breast-enhancement surgery. His intervention follows instances of teenagers as young as 15 turning up in cosmetic-surgery clinics across Sydney, requesting "Jessica Simpson" noses, breast implants, liposuction and Botox and collagen injections. Under the proposed changes, teenagers will be required to obtain a referral from a GP before seeing a plastic surgeon - and to undergo counselling. Surgeons will require the consent of the teenager's parents and will be forced to offer a minimum one-month cooling-off period before a procedure can be undertaken.

Mr Iemma said serious debate was needed about whether cosmetic surgery was appropriate for teenagers. "As a parent of a young daughter, I have become increasingly concerned that society's obsession with the perfect female body is influencing too many, too young," he said. "We need to send a strong message that young women will be valued for who they are, not what they look like. It used to be the case that the biggest question parents faced was whether to give their children permission to have their ears pierced. "Then it was tattoos. But, increasingly, parents are being asked to fund breast implants or a nose job as birthday or graduation gifts."

No figures on procedures are kept in Australia, but surgeons say the trend is on the rise.According to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, 326,000 cosmetic procedures in 2004 were on teenagers. They included 13,000 ear pinnings (otoplasty), almost 52,000 nose reshapings (rhinoplasty), nearly 4000 breast implants and 3000 liposuction procedures. In NSW, teenagers pay as much as $10,000 for breast implants and from $4000 to $7000 for nose jobs. Surgeons contacted by The Sunday Telegraph were concerned at the trend, which they said had been driven by "airbrushed" teenagers in magazines and reality shows. One surgeon said schoolgirls often arrived at his clinic clutching magazine clippings of celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez. Some teenagers viewed cosmetic surgery as an answer to low self-esteem and schoolyard bullying, he said.

The surgeons, all members of the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons, said most reputable doctors would not perform cosmetic surgery, other than otoplasty and rhinoplasty, on teenagers. But they conceded there were "cowboys" in the industry. Sydney plastic surgeon Tim Papadopoulos said the number of teenagers booked in for consultations for cosmetic surgery procedures had risen from one a month five years ago to one a week. Double Bay cosmetic surgeon Kourosh Tavakoli has received e-mails from girls as young as 13 pleading to have surgery. He said more parents today tended to encourage surgery. "I've also had a 15-year-old wanting breast augmentation. I won't do it on anyone still at school, but there are doctors who will."

Former Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons president Norm Olbourne said most of the teenagers who visited his Chatswood clinic wanted breast reductions and nose reshapings. "There are girls wanting breast enlargements, although I've never seen a girl under 18 wanting one who didn't come in holding her mother's hand," Dr Olbourne said.

Krystal Forscutt, who was 19 when she appeared on Big Brother, said she supported Mr Iemma's proposal for counselling under-18s. "I get young girls asking about my boob job. Some of them want me to recommend a doctor," she told The Sunday Telegraph. "But what I say to them is you can't get self-confidence from an operation. It comes from within." Ms Forscutt said she did not want to be seen as a poster girl for plastic surgery, despite having had a breast enhancement at 19. "It's a minute part of who I am. I'm more than just a pair of fake tits," the 20-year-old said. "It's major surgery, and there are side-effects. Because I got mine done so young, this isn't the end of it for me. I'll have three or four more operations as I get older."

People going overseas for cheap plastic surgery have been issued with a warning by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Australian embassies have reported a rise in calls from patients who suffered infections or complications after procedures.


Sunday, August 27, 2006

Allergy mystery: "The number of children with allergies rose worldwide in the 1990s, but scientists have little idea why. A study involving 56 countries, including Australia, shows rates of asthma, eczema and hay fever increased between 1991 and 2003. The findings were published in the latest issue of British-based medical journal The Lancet. Australian allergies expert Guy Marks, from Sydney's Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, said there was a profound increase in the prevalence of asthma among Australian children during the 1980s and the mid-1990s. But the increase stopped in the late 1990s and may now even be decreasing. "It's a fascinating observation, but it's frustrating (because) we really can't say why," Dr Marks said.

Avian flu vaccine? "An Australian company has successfully completed laboratory development of two avian influenza (H5N1 strain) vaccines for chickens, and is about to run trials on live chickens to see whether it protects them from avian influenza. Imugene managing director Dr Warwick Lamb said the development of an effective vaccine could be used to protect the world's poultry industry from further avian influenza outbreaks and halt the spread towards Australia. Dr Lamb said to control outbreaks, a viable vaccine must be safe, effective and able to be quickly and easily administered on a large scale. He said the vaccines used technology that allowed authorities to differentiate between infected and vaccinated birds. It delivers only a portion of the flu genetic material. "The vaccine candidates are specific to the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, but can be easily and quickly adapted to protect against other strains," Dr Lamb said."

Another stupid straight-line projection: "More than 12m adults and one million children will be obese by 2010 if no action is taken, a report by the Department of Health is predicting. The Health Survey for England also warns 19% of boys and 22% of girls aged two to 15 will be obese. The figures would mean the government would fail to meet its target to halt the rise in childhood obesity... The report warns that, based on current trends, 33% of men and 28% of women will be obese by 2010. The government says it is the "most accurate estimate so far" of future obesity rates. The data is published just days after a "minister for fitness" was appointed."

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Politicized science produces bad public policy: "A new study about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam veterans once again spotlights the need to separate the process of establishing veterans' benefits from scientific research. Researchers reported in Science (Aug. 18) that among 260 Vietnam vets studied, 18.7 percent had developed war-related PTSD during their lifetimes and 9.1 percent were currently suffering from PTSD."

Arthritis breakthrough? "Some relief may be in sight for arthritis sufferers thanks to a small Brisbane private biopharmaceutical development company, C-Bio Ltd. The group is behind what researchers yesterday hailed as a medical breakthrough, discovering a new anti-inflammatory compound which could provide new hope for arthritis sufferers. An exploratory study published in the international medical journal, The Lancet, shows that the compound, known as chaperonin 10, proved in a double blind trial that it was safe and effective in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. The study findings show that clinical improvement was obtained in all patients who completed the trial. A small group of patients in the trial at the highest dose level experienced up to a 70 per cent improvement in symptoms and clinical remission was achieved in 13 per cent of patients. The researchers, from a multicentre study group including the University of Queensland, Monash University in Melbourne and Royal Perth Hospital used a compound developed by the Brisbane-based C-Bio Ltd, funded in part by the Federal government".

Chicago chefs file suit over foie gras ban: "Saying the City Council stuck its beak where it didn't belong, a restaurant association sued the city Tuesday in hope of making foie gras legal again. Meanwhile, a handful of chefs said they will continue to serve the duck and goose liver delicacy -- it just won't appear on the bill. 'The law says we can't charge for it. It doesn't say we can't give it away,' said Michael Tsonton, chef and partner at Copperblue. The ban was approved by the City Council in April and implemented Tuesday. Animal rights activists contend that the production of foie gras, which involves force-feeding ducks and geese to enlarge their livers, is inhumane. The lawsuit showed that chefs aren't content muttering in their kitchens about the ban."

No, Rice Krispies aren't bio-toxic

If you listen to environmental activists these days, you might think that snap, crackle, and pop coming from your Rice Krispies is the sound of impending doom. This week they're trying to scare consumers about bioengineered, or genetically modified, rice. But when it comes to scare stories about biotech food, consumers should take these warnings with a grain of salt.

On Friday, Bayer CropScience and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that traces of an unapproved bioengineered rice variety were found in harvested rice from the nation's southern rice-growing region that includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. The biotech variety, known as Liberty Link 601, was developed by a company Bayer acquired in 2001. It has an extra gene that makes the rice crop resistant to the Liberty brand of herbicides also produced by Bayer.

No one knows how the unapproved rice got into the commercial crop - at levels equivalent to about 6 of every 10,000 grains in the tested samples. LL601 was field-tested from 1998 to 2001, but it didn't perform as well as some of Bayer's other varieties, and the company never submitted it to regulators for commercial approval. Figuring out how this variety re-surfaced five years later, and how to keep such leaks from happening in the future is a genuine issue that will keep scientists and agronomist busy for years. That's the bad news.

The good news is that the new gene in LL601 and the protein it helps to make are known to be perfectly safe for consumers and the environment. Two other rice varieties carrying the same herbicide-tolerance gene were approved by the USDA in 1999 and cleared by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000. Other approved crops, such as corn and soybeans, also carry the gene. And numerous varieties with the gene have been approved for food use in other countries, including Canada, the 25-nation European Union, Japan, and Mexico.

But that's not the spin radical environmentalists are putting on this story. They've spent the last 30 years insisting that a biotechnology-induced apocalypse is right around the corner. So, harmless error or not, the activists want Americans to believe this minor slip up is a catastrophe. When Bayer and the USDA announced this news about Liberty Link Rice, one Friends of the Earth campaigner claimed that "lax regulations in the U.S. have allowed consumers worldwide to be put at risk."

The irony is that U.S. biotechnology regulation is anything but lax. Indeed, because U.S. policy holds bioengineered crops to unrealistic and overly-restrictive standards that no conventional crop could ever meet, existing regulations actually make it more likely for this kind of pseudo-crisis to occur. Over the years, dozens of inconsequential transgressions of the overly stringent rules have become public-relations debacles, but not a single one has ever put human health or the environment at risk. From allegedly contaminated taco shells to imperiled Monarch butterflies, every new biotech scare story has turned out to be a false alarm.

Still, the public imagination -- and, in turn, news coverage -- seems to have been captured by the apparent newness and uniqueness of biotechnology. But scores of scientific bodies, including the American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, and the UN's World Health Organization, have investigated the safety of bioengineered crops and found that they pose no risks that plant breeders, farmers, and consumers haven't successfully managed ever since humans first started farming tens of thousands of years ago.

Each year, thousands of packaged food products are recalled from the American market due to the presence of all-natural contaminants like insect parts, toxic molds, bacteria, and viruses. Allergens like peanuts, milk, and wheat are accidentally mixed into products that shouldn't have them. And canola cooking oil often has (harmless) traces of a potentially toxic chemical called erucic acid that is produced by close relatives of canola that get transferred through cross-pollination or accidental commingling with the food crop.

Over one billion meals are eaten in the United States each day, and it would be practically impossible to prevent this kind of "leakage" from occurring. Nevertheless, every link in the food chain - from farmers to shippers, processors, and retailers - work over-time trying to keep America's food supply the safest in the world.

But while the inclusion of wheat gluten or peanut oil in a product that shouldn't have them can spell disaster for those with serious food allergies, the activists spend their time worrying about sophisticated technologies like bioengineering that actually improve food safety. Biotech food has never been implicated in a single sneeze, sniffle, or belly-ache, and it can already improve the nutritional quality of foods and one day will be used to eliminate allergens from foods like peanuts and wheat.

The only winners from the anti-biotechnology scare campaigns are the activists themselves. The losers will be consumers everywhere, who are denied access to safer, more nutritious, and affordable foods.


Friday, August 25, 2006


I detest smoking but I detest dishonesty even more -- and we have here another instance of science being dragooned into a political cause. I agree with the cause -- freeing non-smokers to breathe clean air -- but it is typically Leftist to think that deceiving people is necessary to achieve desirable aims. Note also the incongruous fact that the U.S. Government both discourages smoking and subsidizes tobacco farmers. Hypocrisy, anyone?

"Secondhand smoke debate `over." That's the message from the Surgeon General's office, delivered by a sycophantic media. The claim is that the science has now overwhelmingly proved that smoke from others' cigarettes can kill you. Actually, "debate over" simply means: "If you have your doubts, shut up!" But you definitely should have doubts over the new Surgeon General's report, a massive 727-page door stop. Like many massive reports on controversial issues, it's probably designed that way, so that nobody (especially reporters on deadline) will want to or have time to read beyond the executive summary - or maybe even the press release. That includes me; if I had that much time I'd reread War and Peace. Twice. But the report admits it contains no new science, so we can evaluate it based on research already available.

First consider the 1993 EPA study that began the passive smoking crusade. It declared such smoke a carcinogen based on a combined analysis (meta-analysis) of 11 mostly tiny studies. The media quickly fell into line, with headlines blaring: "Passive Smoking Kills Thousands" and editorials demanding: "Ban Hazardous Smoking; Report Shows It's a Killer." But the EPA's report had more holes than a spaghetti strainer. Its greatest weakness was the agency's refusal to use the gold standard in epidemiology, the 95 percent confidence interval. This simply means there are only five chances in 100 that the conclusion came about just by chance, even if the study itself was done correctly. Curiously, the EPA decided to use a 90 percent level, effectively doubling the likelihood of getting its result by sheer luck of the draw.

Why would it do such a strange thing? You guessed it. Its results weren't significant at the 95 percent level. Essentially, it moved the goal posts closer to the kicker, because the football kept falling short. In scientific terminology, this is known as "dishonesty" or "fraud."

Two much larger meta-analyses have appeared since the EPA's. One was conducted on behalf of the World Health Organization and covered seven countries over seven years. Published in 1998, it actually showed a statistically significant reduced risk for children of smokers, though we can assume that was a fluke. But it also showed no increase for spouses and co-workers of smokers.

The second meta-analysis, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2002, likewise found a statistical significance when 48 studies were combined. Looked at separately, though, only seven showed significant excesses of lung cancer. Thus 41 did not.

Meta-analysis, though, suffer from such problems as different studies having been conducted in different ways - the apples and oranges conundrum. What was really needed was one study involving a huge number of participants over a long period of time using the same evaluation. We got that in the prestigious British Medical Journal in 2003. Research professor James Enstrom of UCLA and professor Geoffrey Kabat of the State University of New York, Stony Brook presented results of a 39-year study of 35,561 Californians, which dwarfed in size everything that came before. It found no "causal relationship between exposure to [passive smoke] and tobacco-related mortality" - adding however that "a small effect" can't be ruled out.

The reason active tobacco smoking could be such a terrible killer, while passive smoke may cause no deaths, lies in the most fundamental dictum of epidemiology: "the dose makes the poison." We are constantly bombarded by carcinogens, but in tiny amounts that the body usually fends off easily. A New England Journal of Medicine study found that even back in 1975 - when having smoke obnoxiously puffed into your face was ubiquitous in restaurants, cocktail lounges, and transportation lounges - the concentration was equal to merely 0.004 cigarettes an hour or 0.1 cigarettes a day. That's not quite the same as smoking two packs a day, is it?

But none of this has the least impact on the various federal, state and city agencies, or organizations like the American Lung Association, for a very good reason. They already know they're scientifically wrong. The purpose of the passive smoking campaign has never been to protect non-smokers. Instead, it is to cow smokers into giving up the habit, expand bureaucratic turf, and fatten agency and pressure group coffers.

It's easy to agree with the ultimate goal of reducing teen and adult smoking. But inventing scientific outcomes and shutting down scientific debate as a means is as intolerable as it was when Nazi Germany "proved" eugenics is a valid "science" and certain races were truly inferior.


California Healthy Fruits & Liquor Store Act

The good news for the people of California is that this legislative session is in the last days and there is only so much damage they can do. The bad news is that they will pass a great many bad and silly bills between now and then.

I just learned about one that made me laugh out loud. S.B. 1329, the Access to Healthy Food Act, will create a new grant program to help inner-city stores carry fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. The idea behind the bill is that many inner-city grocery stores have closed completely and the small, convenience shops (i.e., liquor stores) do not carry many healthy staples, opting instead for alcohol, candy and fatty snacks.

This is one of those chicken-and-egg situations: do inner-city grocery shoppers not eat healthy food because it is not available to them, or is healthy food not available to them because they do not purchase it? Knowing the incredible efficiency of markets (in both the larger sense and the grocery store sense), if there is a demand for fruits and veggies, there will be a supply. For us to spend tax dollars putting such foods into liquor stores where people go for booze and chips will simply be a waste. Indeed, I suspect much of the fruit will sit untouched, fermenting until it becomes a product that liquor store consumers actually demand.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Widely used drugs now dangerous: ""Several drugs to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder must include new warning information about the risk of heart problems and psychotic behavior, U.S. health officials said on Monday. The drugs, which include GlaxoSmithKline Plc's Dexedrine and Novartis AG's Ritalin, must include a warning about the possible risk of sudden death and serious heart problems, Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman Susan Bro told Reuters."

Driving under the influence of food to be banned? "Drivers who eat and drink at the wheel are on course for a crash diet. Tests have revealed that drivers are almost twice as likely to crash when eating or drinking, even if they compensate by driving more slowly and more carefully. And the RACQ believes it is so dangerous it could call for a ban. A new overseas study has found that eating and drinking while driving left drivers with a significantly higher "mental workload" which left them unable to brake in time to avoid a crash. The tests found that eating and drinking while driving was as dangerous and distracting as using a hand-held mobile phone, which is now banned and carries a penalty of $225 and three demerit points." [Tofu eating will probably remain OK, though]

Beware of raw Amazonian snails: "More than 70 people in Beijing have fallen ill with meningitis after they ate undercooked or raw snails at a restaurant in the city. City health officials issued an urgent notice to ban the sale of raw or half-cooked snails at restaurants. The Shuguo Yanyi Restaurant - where those who developed the illness had dined - would be punished, officials said. Doctors said that although some of the people affected were in a serious condition, no fatalities had been reported and three people had already left hospital. The snails in question, from the Amazon, were first introduced to China in the 1980s".

Bad-food coverup on the grounds of "privacy"!

They are made public in New York, London, Toronto, Copenhagen, Los Angeles and dozens of other cities, but Sydney has ruled that the addresses of restaurants caught breaching food safety regulations must remain secret. Clover Moore, the independent MP and the Lord Mayor of Sydney, has long fought for stronger laws to protect the public's right to know, but her chief executive, Monica Barone, has refused a Herald appeal filed under freedom of information laws for access to the addresses where staff issued 78 fines over the past year. The council has released a list with the date and amount of fines imposed, but has blacked out names and street numbers, defying a worldwide trend towards disclosing such information.

In customer-focused New York, a website carries the results of inspections and will send you for free the results of any five restaurants you nominate. In Toronto restaurants must display a sticker in the window that reveals the results of health inspections with similar systems operating across the US and increasingly in Britain. Ms Barone dismissed any relevance such overseas practices might have for Sydney on the grounds that any publication of results was done "presumably in accordance with legislation which is applicable in those places". In NSW, she said, the Privacy Act prohibited her from revealing the names of the individuals fined.

While the street address of restaurants are in the phone book and available to passers-by, they remain secret on the grounds they are "information concerning the commercial or business affairs of a person". Revealing them could "reasonably be expected to have an unreasonable adverse effect", she said.

Similar fears were expressed in Europe and North America before the names of offending restaurants were published, but there have since been reports that many restaurants now prefer these details to be public as it becomes another way they can distinguish themselves from competitors and attract customers.

But Ms Barone said she could not release the information as it would be "reasonable to expect that advertising of the locations of these food premises may give a false representation of the condition of each of the premises, which could lead to a downturn in custom, thus reducing income and causing possible hardship for the proprietors". [But would that not be deserved?]

Besides, the imposition of fines had fixed the problems permanently in a way that did not seem to happen overseas. 'I am informed that following the issue of a [fine], City [of Sydney] staff return to the premises to ensure hygiene standards are being complied with," Ms Barone said. "I am also informed . all premises were complying [with one exception, which was then prosecuted]."


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Curry good for headaches: "Eating curry may be a better cure for headaches than aspirin, according to research. A study funded by the Scottish Executive has found that salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, occurs naturally in Indian food and that curry could help to treat migraines and prevent colon cancers. Spices such as cumin, turmeric and paprika, all of which are used in curries, are particularly rich sources of salicylic acid, the study said. Neither does Indian food cause some side-effects sometimes associated with long-term aspirin use, such as internal bleeding and ulcers, the study, conducted by the Rowett Research Institute, found. “One portion of vindaloo we examined contained 95mg of salicylic acid, more than the amount in an aspirin tablet. A low-dose aspirin tablet contains about 65mg of the acid.” Professor Garry Duthie, one of the study’s co-authors, said: “The dietary level of salicylic acid in curry is exceptionally high. I wouldn’t recommend a curry a day for headaches, but it is possible that someone with a headache who is a very good absorber of salicylic acid might find it went away if they had a vindaloo. “The hotter the curry is, the greater the possible benefits. A korma, with relatively low levels of spices, would be less effective than a vindaloo or a phal, the hottest curry widely available in Britain.” It is thought that curcumin, the component of turmeric that gives curry its distinctive yellow colour, is primarily responsible for its healthy effect."

Mouldy coffee is good coffee? "Don't turn your nose up to mouldy coffee - it tastes better, according to fungus experts. New Brazilian research has found that fungus in coffee crops makes for a flavoursome brew. More than 800 fungus experts from around the world will examine the recent findings and others at a week-long fungus conference this week in the far north Queensland city of Cairns. "The coffee research is exciting as it's likely to have implications on how coffee is grown and consumed in the future," says Professor Paul Gadek, a plant science researcher from James Cook University in Cairns. "Fungus naturally occurs on raw coffee beans and the Brazilian researchers found that the sweeter the species, the better the coffee tasted and smelt." Other topics to be discussed at the conference include fungi's ability to survive in space and its potential to destroy forests throughout the world."

Testosterone is good for you: "Low testosterone may boost the risk of death in men over 40, a new study has found. A U.S. team found that older men with relatively low testosterone had an 88% increased risk of death compared with men with normal testosterone levels. But they don't yet know why. The report was published in the Aug. 14/28 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. As men age, their testosterone levels gradually decline. After age 30, levels decrease by about 1.5% per year. Low testosterone levels can result in decreased muscle mass and bone density, insulin resistance and low sex drive, as well as less energy, more irritability and feelings of depression, the researchers noted. In the study, Shores and her colleagues studied 858 men over 40 to see whether low testosterone levels were associated with an increased risk of death. Among these men, 19% had low testosterone levels, 28% had an equivocal testosterone level (meaning that their tests revealed an equal number of low and normal levels) and 53% had normal levels. "Low testosterone in older men was associated with an increased risk for mortality," Shores concluded. During 4.3 years of follow-up, 20.1% of men with normal testosterone levels died, compared with 24.6% of men with equivocal levels and 34.9% of men with low testosterone levels, Shores' team found."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Fried Logic of the Food Police

Remember Caesar Barber, the New York maintenance worker who blamed McDonald’s for making him fat? “They said, ‘100 percent beef.’ I thought that meant it was good for you,” he claimed in July 2002.

Barber's story was harder to swallow than a super-sized Big Mac meal. So what are we to make of Arthur Hoyte, a retired physician from Rockville, Maryland, who is suing KFC because he thought fried chicken was a health food? In a lawsuit sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Hoyte claims he had no idea the restaurant chain fries its food in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. “If I had known that KFC uses an unnatural frying oil, and that the food was so high in trans fat, I would have reconsidered my choices," he says. Aren’t doctors supposed to be smart, at least when it comes to health-related issues? If Hoyte has no way of knowing about all the trans fat in KFC’s dishes, what chance do the rest of us have?

CSPI's would-be class action, based on Washington, D.C. consumer protection law, accuses the chain of failing to disclose “material facts” about its food and demands that it either stop using partially hydrogenated oil or post trans fat warning signs. According to CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson (who is not known for his rhetorical subtlety), KFC “recklessly puts its customers at risk of a Kentucky Fried Coronary” and is “making its unsuspecting consumers’ arteries Extra Crispy.” To support these claims, CSPI’s online statement links to three pages of nutritional information about the KFC menu.

But who is that bearded, white-haired gentleman in the upper left corner of each page in this damning indictment? It turns out the trans fat secrets Colonel Sanders is keeping from his customers—information so arcane even a medical specialist cannot reasonably be expected to know it—is contained in a “Nutrition Guide” on KFC’s Web site and on big, conspicuous posters in KFC outlets.

The use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil by restaurants is widely known; they switched to it after groups like CSPI complained about the animal fat and tropical oils they had been using. At the time, the new fat was thought to be healthier, but subsequent research has indicated it may in fact be worse. A man of medicine like Dr. Hoyte surely was aware of this development.

The problem, from CSPI’s point of view, is not that people don’t know about trans fat in KFC’s food but that they don’t care. If there were a big enough demand for trans-fat-free fried chicken, KFC would make the switch to nonhydrogenated vegetable oil (which costs more and has a shorter shelf life). But it’s possible that people who eat a lot of fried chicken don’t worry about the nutritional profile of their food.

As usual, CSPI does not like the choices consumers are making and wants businesses to follow its preferences instead. The organization brags about using the threat of a lawsuit to pressure the leading soda manufacturers into an agreement aimed at removing sugar-sweetened beverages from public schools—a deal that is not likely to have a noticeable impact on students’ waistlines but may inspire restrictions on adults, such as “junk-food-free” zones near schools. In Massachusetts, CSPI is threatening to sue Kellogg, maker of sugary breakfast cereals, and Viacom, owner of TV channels and cartoon characters used to market “nutritionally poor” food. CSPI argues that children are injured every time they see an ad for Apple Jacks or a box of SpongeBob SquarePants Pop-Tarts, whether or not their parents actually buy the product.

Each of these cases supposedly is about damage suffered and compensation owed. But the real goal is to impose CSPI’s ideas about a proper diet on consumers who have different values and priorities. If this is in “the public interest,” it’s an interest the public itself is too benighted to recognize.



Fast foods, processed snacks and sugary drinks can cause as much ill health as cigarettes, and should be taxed like tobacco and banned from schools and public institutions, obesity experts say. In the strongest call yet for governments to regulate the powerful food industry, Paul Zimmet, professor of diabetes at Monash University, has joined Philip James, chairman of the International Obesity TaskForce in London, to demand tough economic policies to control the availability of low-quality foods packed with fat, salt and sugar.

In an article published today, they say it is time to acknowledge the failure of policies of promoting exercise and healthy eating to control Australia's rapidly expanding waistline. "This epidemic is guaranteed to continue unless we accept that the decades-long reliance on health promotion and intense media coverage of obesity have had virtually no effect," they write in The Medical Journal of Australia. They advocate strict physical activity rules for school students, a ban on all heavily processed fast foods and snacks from public schools and hospitals, unambiguous colour-coded labels to denote nutritional quality, taxation for unhealthy products balanced with subsidies for fresh foods, and prohibition of all food marketing aimed at children.

With these measures in place, the obesity crisis could move into reverse within just one year, the doctors say. At least one in four children is now overweight and at risk of health problems, while the figure is higher for adults. Professor Zimmet says despite the Federal Government's continuing refusal to restrict television advertising to children, a positive move was a $500 million commitment from the Council of Australian Governments for health promotion and disease prevention, which would fund anti-obesity initiatives.

The federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, said the Government would not consider taxing processed foods. "It is unrealistic to expect Government to supervise every meal time. In the end, individuals are responsible for what goes into their mouths," he said. Dick Wells, the chief executive of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, declined to comment on the doctors' ideas.

Jeff Richardson, foundation director of the Centre for Health Economics at Monash University, said there was a strong case for forceful intervention through the tax system. Food marketing was so manipulative that a central free-market principal - that people would act in their own best interests - no longer applied in relation to food consumption.


Monday, August 21, 2006

That wicked sugar and salt again

Alarming amounts of sugar and salt are being added to breakfast cereals, new tests reveal. Food experts have found five popular cereals contain more than 30 per cent sugar, while some were saltier than a packet of potato chips. Even cereals that appear to be nutritious are laced with sugar and salt, according to Australian Consumers' Association food policy officer Clare Hughes.

ACA experts examined 150 brands of cereal and found just 40 of those would make a healthy everyday breakfast. "It was quite disappointing to see that a lot of cereals targeted at children weren't the type of the things we should be giving kids every day," Ms Hughes said. "Many consumers don't think about the salt content of their breakfast cereal because they may not taste overly salty." Ms Hughes said any cereal that had more than 27g of sugar per 100g was considered high in sugar. "Eight of the kids' cereals had very high levels of sugar (more than 40g)," she said. A suitable cereal would have more than 3g of fibre, less than 27g of sugar per 100g, and less than 600mg of sodium per 100g.

The Sunday Mail found popular breakfast cereal Honey O's contained 42.2g of sugar per 100g - a higher proportion of sugar than a Cadbury Picnic bar (36.1g).


Government food mania misleading and bad for kids

Ofcom - the UK Office of Communications, which monitors and regulates the British broadcasting industry - has put forward proposals to ban or heavily regulate adverts for fizzy drinks, crisps and sweets during children's TV programmes or during shows popular among children. Whichever of the proposals is finally accepted, the fact is that all of them amount to a serious clampdown on TV ads, and this is likely to cause serious problems for commercial broadcasting. One question is how channels other than the BBC (Britain's state-funded broadcasting corporation) will continue funding children's television without the lucrative revenue raised from such adverts.

There can be little doubt that ITV's recent decision to pull the rug on Granada Kids Production was influenced by Ofcom's heavy-handedness. For the record, I deplore ITV's decision; it was a cowardly and retrograde step for British creative talent. It was also a real abdication of a commitment to giving the young quality programmes, regardless of bottom-line profits. However, I would also like to say that I don't support any ban on advertising of so-called `unhealthy' foods to children - and unfortunately, there has not been enough opposition to Ofcom's proposals from the industry as a whole.

One reason for such a lukewarm opposition to such heavy-handed proposals is that many people feel queasy about appearing to back the likes of Coca Cola, McDonald's and Cadbury's. Many working in TV accept the popular prejudice that foods high in sugar, salt and other additives are indeed a threat to the health of the nation's children, and they believe that promoting such evil foods is a real `no, no' in today's climate of strict health correctness. More broadly, there seems to be what I would call a `fashionable queasiness' about corporate interests influencing children's lifestyles and diets.

However, I am queasy about something else - and that is the new phenomenon of children's broadcasters themselves seeking to influence the very same lifestyles and diets of the nation's kids. Last year, for example, Nickelodeon launched `Nicktrition', a series of programmes and live events accompanied by a website, all aimed at encouraging healthy lifestyles among children. This style of positive messaging seems to be seeping into children's programmes without any furore from within the industry.

But surely this is a major compromise of editorial independence? The story goes something like this: The government declares that there is an obesity epidemic (although note that many researchers believe this to be over-hyped scaremongering). The government then tells its regulators to declare war on junk food (although note that some experts point out there is no such thing as `junk' or unhealthy food. Our digestive systems do not distinguish between fish fingers and caviar.)

Then, following this political diktat that we should all obsess over healthy diets and panic about childhood obesity, children's broadcasters generate programme content that advertises the `correct' messages. This is best illustrated by proposals to ban celebrities like Gary Lineker, Britney Spears and even Thomas the Tank Engine from peddling crisps, Coke and fatty foods. Such celeb-led adverts are seen as a shocking manipulation of children's minds. But somehow it is not manipulative when the government quango, the Food Standards Agency, advocates that broadcasters use - guess what? - celebrities and cartoon characters to encourage children to eat healthier foods and to peddle the five-a-day message (where we are encouraged to eat five portions of fruit and veg every day).

So now Nickelodeon has the Olympic champion Sally Gunnell fronting its healthy lifestyle guide, and no one raises any problems with that. Meanwhile, BBC Worldwide uses CBBC characters such as the Teletubbies and the Frimbles to brand food products deemed nutritionally sound. One report says that, `By controlling the use of branded children's characters, the BBC is taking a positive leadership role in influencing the diet of children and encouraging healthy eating.'

It is worth noting a key difference here: the issue is not about using cartoon characters or celebrities to influence diet or lifestyle, but rather making sure that they endorse the right diet and lifestyle. And who dictates what is the `right' diet and lifestyle? It strikes me that what is `right' is increasingly dictated by the government and its agencies. So while everyone worries about the big bad corporate messages influencing the young through TV, no one seems worried about the government's `positive messaging' now sneaking into the schedules.

Programmes may reiterate government messages because TV generally reflects the zeitgeist. But my fear is that, too frequently, broadcasters seem to have become the unwitting dupes of current official orthodoxies. Traditionally broadcasters prided themselves on their editorial independence. When ITV's head Charles Allen (since resigned) and New Labour broadcasting minister James Purnell debated whether to relax rules on product placement - when programmes promote, either explicitly or implicitly, a certain product on behalf of the business or corporation that makes said product - a key concern was `preserving programmes' editorial integrity'. However, there is no debate - and I think there should be - about a new phenomenon: that is policy placement through positive messaging, which really does compromise programmes' editorial integrity. `Policy placement' is now widespread on TV....

Many of us argue against the authoritarian consequences of the growth of a `nanny state' pushing something like a smoking ban apparently for the good of the nation's health. Many of these health promotion orthodoxies have far-reaching political consequences, particularly in relation to personal freedom, and as such they should not be accepted uncritically.

Yet somehow, TV-land seems oblivious to these tensions, and it too often repeats government messages with little thought about the political consequences. I know that celebrity chef and school dinners campaigner Jamie Oliver has been virtually canonised in broadcasting circles. But his Channel 4 show Jamie's School Dinners, and his campaigner for `better' grub in schools more broadly, have had political consequences in the real world - and some of them are far from saintly. A number of draconian measures have been brought in by politicians, all of whom cite Oliver's series as an inspiration. For example, the government has introduced controversial `fat charts' into schools, involving the mass weighing and measuring of children from the age of four. Meanwhile, local authorities are piloting schemes involving the compulsory finger-printing of children as they queue up for their school dinners. One of the justifications for this is that it allows school authorities to monitor children's nutritional intake. And guess what, both the FSA and Ofcom have cited Oliver in their proposals to regulate or ban certain kinds of food advertising....

Both the BBC and ITV have fully embraced the government's policy for mass behaviour modification in relation to health....
How does all of this impact on children's programmes? Well, in terms of factual content, the healthy lifestyle agenda is everywhere. I do feel sorry for kids these days: nutritional awareness and fitness quotas are now cross-curricula priorities. Back in September 2004, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) produced the report Healthy Living Blueprint for Schools, in which it said that one key objective was `to use the full capacity and flexibility of the curriculum to achieve a healthy lifestyle' - that is, by incorporating the mantra of healthy eating into science, geography, maths, religious education and history.

So history lessons include modules on `insights into changes in our ancestors' diets and how some now familiar foods were introduced into this country', while in science lessons students are taught how to measure their BMI index. And that's before they get preached at in Personal and Social Health Education classes. They then go home and try to relax in front of the TV, but there they only get more of the same...

Another problem with policy placement is the danger that it might compromise journalistic integrity. Too often, policies and political positions - which should be open to challenge - are passed off as facts. When policy or political issues are the focus of current affairs programmes or documentaries, they are supposed to adhere to strict guidelines of veracity and balance. But when policy messages are delivered through entertainment formats and popular dramas, they are less susceptible to challenges when it comes to factual accuracy. When the BBC declares that it is `working to keep the problems of obesity in the public arena through incorporating the issue into its programming' and that `by including the issues as part of a drama, the BBC continues to involve its audience in the debate', one has to ask how the public can debate the facts when they are dressed up as fiction? While news reporters keep a rein on politicians' wild claims in news programmes, in other, softer forms of programming little scrutiny exists when claims are presented by celebrities or reality TV `experts'.

When erstwhile poster boy for Sainsbury's, Jamie Oliver, tells children that there is evidence to show that their diet affects their behaviour, their physical and mental development, and their ability to learn, he does not provide any hard evidence (of which there is little, as it happens). His assertions are in fact hotly debated and doubted in educational and scientific circles. But how does one confront a celebrity chef with this lack of evidence when he is fronting a show as a campaigning hero?...

Likewise, when Oliver proclaims to the nation's children that processed food is bad and organic food is good, are children fully informed that the evidence for this claim comes from the Soil Association, the main advocacy group for organic farming in the UK? This raises a serious problem with policy placement: it is inadvertently eroding the difference between advocacy and factual accuracy in children's broadcasting.

More here

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Gold and silver are good medicine: "Scientists have developed a new 'golden bullet' to help in the fight against deadly cancers. Adding tiny particles of gold to an existing cancer drug boosts its power by 50 per cent, they have found. This then helps the medicine kill off more malignant cells while leaving healthy tissue unharmed... The new study by a team at the University of East Anglia is based on a system which uses a light sensitive drug to target cancer cells. The drug homes in on the the tumour and when exposed to light, it starts to produce an active form of oxygen. This oxygen is toxic to the cancer cells so makes them die off. Dr David Russell and his team wanted to see if there was any way of boosting the effectiveness of the system, officially called photo-dynamic therapy. They attached gold nanoparticles to the drug and used it on cervical cancer cells in the laboratory. It emerged that the gold led to 50 per cent more of the active oxygen, known as 'singlet oxygen', being produced. As expected this then led to more cells taking up the drug and dying off... Professor David Philips, an expert in photo-dynamic therapy from Imperial College London said results so far bode well for the future studies. It is also not the first time that scientists have turned to precious metals to help fight disease. Experts have long known silver can tackle the superbug and can be highly toxic to other bacteria. Silver's antibacterial properties were used by sailors in the past, who put silver coins in barrels of water to purify it. The metal is still used today in water purification and is also used in some plasters and hospital dressings to try to prevent infections with MRSA."

Prosperity is making the Chinese fat too: "People in China are becoming overweight at an alarming rate, a Chinese medical professor has said. Professor Wu Yangfeng said that in the 15 years between 1985 and 2000, the number of overweight and obese children increased 28-fold. He made his comments in a special China edition of the British Medical Journal.... China used to be seen as a country with a lean population, but not any more. Today a fifth of the world's overweight and obese people live in China - and the numbers are rising dramatically. Professor Wu Yangfeng said this posed a considerable health problem, calling on the Chinese authorities to act now to prevent further increase. There seems to be a range of underlying causes - from changes in diet to reduced levels of exercise and a rapid increase in the use of cars."

Saturday, August 19, 2006

We wuz wrong! -- again: "Doctors have cast doubt on the standard way of measuring whether people are obese or overweight. New research suggests shortcomings in the system of Body Mass Index (BMI) in identifying whether someone is at risk of dying prematurely. Studies show that heart patients identified as 'overweight' by BMI actually survived longer than those judged to have a 'normal' weight. This is because the system fails to identify if a person's excess weight is muscle rather than fat. If someone is heavy because of muscle, they are less likely to die younger - and should not be classed as overweight - compared to someone whose excess weight is mostly fat. According to the BMI, which has formed the basis of defining healthy and abnormal weight for more than 100 years, more than half the UK population is overweight and a further 20 per cent obese".

Now it's pomegranates that are good for you: "Prostate cancer will claim the lives of an estimated 30,000 men in the United States this year. The second leading cause of cancer death in men, its incidence climbs with age. In Western countries, the disease is reaching nearly epidemic proportions among the elderly. However, the cancer can grow so slowly that many men with prostate cancer will die of something else first. A mystery has always been what factors might improve a man's odds of having a slow-growing malignancy. A new study suggests that drinking pomegranate juice might be one of them. Several studies have associated diets high in plant-derived polyphenols-principally, the deeply pigmented antioxidants in many fruits and vegetables-with lower risks of malignancies including prostate cancer. Because the blood-red juice of pomegranates is especially rich in such compounds, Allan J. Pantuck of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles and his colleagues decided to test it against metastatic prostate cancer... The researchers calculated that the men's average doubling time in PSA concentrations-a rough gauge of cancer growth-was 15 months. After men drank a glass of juice a day, their average doubling time more than tripled. In nearly one-third of men, Pantuck notes, PSA values actually fell-in a few cases, dramatically."

Cartoons make kids fat?

Cartoons are making our children fat. And not just because they spend an excessive amount of time in front of the television watching them. Promotional packaging using cartoon characters, celebrities, and tie-in competitions and giveaways have become standard in the junk food industry, and consequently integral to the childhood obesity problem, the Cancer Council NSW says.

In what is says is the first study to examine the extent and nature of food promotions at point of sale, the council conducted research in nine supermarkets across the Sydney metropolitan area. The survey revealed 82 per cent of all promotional gimmicks were being used on junk foods, and the vast bulk were aimed at children. "There is no doubt that promotional tactics are a ploy being adopted by unhealthy food companies to try to sell their product," said Kathy Chapman, a nutritionist at the Cancer Council. "It's little wonder Australian children are facing an obesity epidemic, with unhealthy food companies employing such persuasive tactics that could rival the big tobacco companies."

The highest level of cartoon and movie promotional material was found on the packaging of confectionary, followed by dairy snacks and snack foods - all classified as high in energy, saturated fat, sugar and salt, and low in dietary fibre and other essential ingredients.

Ms Chapman said food manufacturers and advertisers needed to be reined in, to stop the trend of dressing up junk food as "eye candy", encouraging overconsumption of unhealthy foods through schemes that encouraged children to "collect the complete set", and marketing low-nutritional food as part of an entertainment package. "You can tell what's on at the movies these days just by walking into a supermarket and looking at what's on the shelves," Ms Chapman said.

The large supermarket chains say they are not to blame for the panoply of sales gimmicks attached to products. "Our promotions aim to deliver the best-value products to as many of our customers as possible," a spokesman for Woolworths said. A spokesman for Coles Myer supermarkets said promotions for meat, fruit and vegetables also featured in their catalogues. "It is the domain and prerogative of the food companies to market those products in those ways." The chief executive of the Australasian Promotional Products Association, William Kestin, said the industry had been involved in several promotions to get children active.


Friday, August 18, 2006

Bloomberg's $164m private war on smoking

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire and former smoker, is to pour $US125 million ($164 million) of his money into a worldwide campaign against smoking, a cause he said was largely neglected by philanthropists. Mr Bloomberg, ranked by Forbes magazine as the 40th-richest American with an estimated wealth of more than $US5 billion, banned smoking in New York bars and restaurants in 2003. "Tobacco is the world's leading killer," said Mr Bloomberg, who was first elected Mayor in 2001. "Smoking doesn't just hurt smokers, it also harms and can kill people around them."

The personal donation aimed to make the world tobacco-free by improving programs that help smokers stop and prevent children from starting, he said. Mr Bloomberg built his wealth after founding the financial information company that bears his name, and he gives away millions of dollars each year.

Now that the 64-year-old Republican is in his last term and still enjoying sky-high approval numbers, every word he utters and move he makes outside city limits stirs speculation about his future plans. He has said repeatedly he will not run for US president and plans to create a foundation for full-time charitable work when he leaves City Hall in 2009.

Bloomberg, who quit smoking about 30 years ago, said on Tuesday that he recently bought a building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to house his foundation and said the anti-tobacco initiative was an example of what the foundation would do. The Mayor typically writes his charitable cheques without announcing that he is doing so, but he made a special effort to publicise this donation, which will be spread among several established organisations that have not yet been selected. "Unless we take urgent action, this century a billion people will die from smoking," Bloomberg said. "It is one of the world's biggest killers, and it has sadly been overlooked by the philanthropic community."

John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society, said the gift would go a long way towards stopping smoking worldwide. "There has never been this kind of philanthropy dedicated to tobacco control," Dr Seffrin said. "Once again, the Mayor's making history, and this will save more lives than any other way that money could be spent."

Mr Bloomberg, who outlawed smoking in city bars and restaurants during his first term, said the funds would help jump-start an international no-smoking drive over two years. Recipients will use the cash for programs that help smokers quit and educate children about the dangers of starting; for funds to push for bans and higher tobacco taxes in other cities and countries; and for a system to track global tobacco use and the effectiveness of anti-smoking efforts. According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide are smokers. In 2003, the WHO adopted an anti-tobacco treaty that requires participants to restrict tobacco advertising, put tougher health warnings on cigarette packets, enact tax hikes and impose smoking bans. The effort mirrors what Mr Bloomberg already has begun. Besides the smoking ban, the city health department runs an aggressive program focused on quitting. Nearly 1.2million New Yorkers smoke, and health officials have given out thousands of free nicotine patches.


Are You A Fatso? It Might Not Be Your Fault

Are all of your pants split at the seams, it may not be your fault that you are obese. You don't have to look at your pudgy face in the mirror and blame yourself for being too lazy to work out and too weak to resist second helpings. Relax, you don't have to take responsibility for looking like a baby hippo.

The Financial Express Net Edition reports: "The obesity epidemic is caused by a `poisoned' food supply that is altering people's biochemistry and driving them to eat more and move less, according to a hypothesis proposed by a University of California-San Francisco doctor who culled results from thousands of studies on obesity."

Great, we live in a society where nobody wants to take responsibility for their moral failings, and here is an egghead doctor giving people an excuse for being obese. Do you spend half of your salary at your local pub and come home drunk every night? You aren't an irresponsible drunk, you are an unfortunate victim of the disease of alcoholism. Did you spend your mortgage money hitting the slots in Vegas? You aren't a selfish jerk, you are suffering from a gambling addiction. And what happens in Vegas, stay in Vegas anyway!

According to this quack's theory, processed food is loaded with sugars that cause the body to believe that it is hungry, which makes people compelled to consume more calories.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist or a physician to know that processed foods like potato chips and other snacks aren't good for you. A responsible person will eat a couple of snacks per weak, a weak-willed idiot will gorge on snack foods and then blame his obesity on a "poisoned food supply." The more processed foods you eat, the fatter you will become, and the fatter you become the less you will feel like working out. It's a vicious cycle,and the only way out is by taking responsibility for your obesity - not by blaming it on a conspiracy by food companies to make us addicted to processed foods.


Thursday, August 17, 2006

Believe it if you like: "The man who made the Statue of Liberty appear to vanish may soon claim to do the same for unsightly bags and wrinkles. Master illusionist David Copperfield says he has found the "Fountain of Youth" in the southern Bahamas, amid a cluster of four tiny islands he recently bought for $US50 million. One of his islands in the Exuma chain, Musha Cay, is a private resort that rents for up to $US300,000 a week. The other islands serve as buffers to keep prying eyes away from celebrity guests on the white sand beaches. Copperfield is coy about his reasons for the Fountain of Youth claim. But the man best-known for entertaining with grand deception insists his archipelago also contains the legendary waters that bestow perpetual youth. "I've discovered a true phenomenon," he said. "You can take dead leaves, they come in contact with the water, they become full of life again. "Bugs or insects that are near death come in contact with the water, they'll fly away. "It's an amazing thing, very, very exciting." Copperfield, who turns 50 next month, says he has hired biologists and geologists to examine its potential effect on humans but he is not inviting visitors to swim in or drink from it just yet."

Obesity pill: "A drug which treats obesity by reducing the desire to eat has been launched in the UK. But NHS chiefs warned people not to expect it to become widely available straight away as the cost-effectiveness of the pill needed to be assessed. Rimonabant is the first drug to target factors governing the body's appetite, metabolism and energy use. Trials showed it can reduce weight by a tenth. UK experts said it could not replace healthy food and regular exercise. In the UK, it is estimated that one in five men and a quarter of women are obese. But at a cost of over 55 pounds for a month's treatment, it could end up costing the NHS billions of pounds of money. The drug still has to be assessed by NHS advisers the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. The review is not expected for another two years and NHS bosses warned the public not to expect its widespread use immediately".

"Trans fat" panic spreads to Australia

The consumption of popular brands of croissants, sandwich spreads and pastry goods can increase the chance of developing coronary heart disease by more than 20 per cent, research shows. But unlike many other developed countries, legislation in Australia does not even require manufacturers to disclose the presence of the offending ingredient on the foods' packaging. Clinical trials conducted by two researchers at Oxford University found that an increase of as little as 2 per cent in the consumption of common foods containing trans fatty acids can lead to a 23 per cent increase in coronary heart disease.

The research published recently in the British Medical Journal adds weight to arguments by an increasing number of nutrition experts that there is no safe level of trans fats consumption. Trans fats are added to most fast foods, and to a range of baked supermarket goods, confectionary and sandwich spreads, to improve taste, texture and shelf life. While trans fats occur naturally in small amounts in dairy products and meat, artificially produced trans fats are manufactured in large quantities by a process called partial hydrogenation.

A review of the Foods Standards Code in Australia last year concluded that saturated fat intake here was of more concern than trans fats, so the labelling of trans fat was only necessary if the product made a nutritional claim such as being low in fat or cholesterol. A spokeswoman for Food Standards Australia New Zealand said yesterday the revised code was now being reviewed again, and the statutory agency was in the final stages of collecting data on the prevalence of trans fatty acids in locally produced food. "But anecdotal evidence suggests there is less reliance here on soy and corn oil [which have a high trans fat content] than overseas," she said. "We tend to use canola more."

However, an analysis last year by the Australian Consumers Association's Choice magazine showed 18 common foods - including Nutella, some shortcrust pastries, party pies, pasties and sausage rolls, and supermarket-baked croissants - had dangerously high levels of trans fats, some even higher than a McDonald's burger and fries. Professor Garry Jennings, the director of the Baker Heart Research Institute in Melbourne, said trans fats should be identified on the label, if not removed completely. "There is no doubt that trans fats cause coronary disease and their presence in diet is unnecessary," he said. "It certainly seems that there would be no downside to eliminating them from our diet completely." Barbara Eden, the national nutrition manager for the Heart Foundation, said there was a strong case that trans fats were far more harmful than saturated fats.

Source. Note: The medical article concerned appears to be "Trans fatty acids and cororonary heart disease" by Robert Clarke and Sarah Lewington of Oxford University, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on 29 July 2006. Judging by the publicly available portion of it, it is in fact policy advocacy rather than a report of new research. See here for the other side of the story. It should be noted that the BMJ is notorious for its Leftist political biases and all the disregard for the full facts of the matter which that implies

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Paracetamol best for mild pain: "Old-fashioned paracetamol is more effective for treating ongoing back pain and arthritis aches than many newer painkillers, health professionals say. The National Prescribing Service (NPS) has released advice to doctors based on new research showing the benefits of paracetamol. Professor Milton Cohen, from Sydney's St Vincents Clinical School, said recent studies confirmed that paracetamol had very few side effects and was the best choice for mild-to-moderate pain relief. The old-fashioned drugs were available in a slower release formula suitable for people with persistent pain and had a better safety profile than many newer painkillers, Prof Milton said. "Some of the newer analgesics have been shown to have harmful reactions in people with stomach and heart problems as well as interactions with other drugs, so professional advice is recommended for safety as well as pain relief," he said"

We can't win: "There are now more overweight people across the world than hungry ones, according to experts. US professor Barry Popkin said all countries - both rich and poor - had failed to address the obesity boom. He told the International Association of Agricultural Economists the number of overweight people had topped 1bn, compared to 800m undernourished. Speaking at an Australian conference, he said changing diets and people doing less physical exercise was the cause. Professor Popkin, from the University of North Carolina, said that the change had happened quickly as obesity was rapidly spreading, while hunger was slowly declining among the world's 6.5bn population. The biggest increases are being seen in parts of Asia with certain populations more susceptible than others. He told the conference at the Gold Coast convention centre near Brisbane: "Obesity is the norm globally and under nutrition, while still important in a few countries and in targeted populations in many others, is no longer the dominant disease." [The usual medicalization of a normal condition]

Dangerous "natural" remedies for women

Women are being urged to avoid so-called natural hormone replacement therapy because of health fears. Some women using the therapy, also known as bio-identical hormones, have suffered elevated hormone levels that could lead to excessive bleeding, increased risk of breast and uterine cancer and blood clots.

Dr John Eden, director of the Sydney Menopause Centre at Randwick's Royal Hospital for Women, said in the past year he had referred two cases of uterine cancer in patients who had been taking natural hormone replacement therapy, to the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Dr Eden said these "handmade hormones" were prepared by chemists - known as compounding chemists - without scrutiny. Although the process is legal, it is beyond the regulatory control of the TGA and state-based pharmacy boards. "There's a whole stack of women being treated out there with handmade hormones. It's untested hormone replacement therapy," he said. "Many women think they are getting a herbal treatment and are shocked to learn they are getting a hormone treatment."

One of the NHRT's major wholesalers, Professional Compounding Chemists of Australia, defended the practice, citing an exemption in the TGA Act that allows the preparation of medicines for individuals. The medication is usually made into troches, or lozenges, with the hormones absorbed through the lining of the mouth. NHRT contains the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone, sourced from yams or soy and synthesised in laboratories. However, NHRT can also include the male hormone testosterone, which has not been approved in Australia for use on women. Some compounds also include thyroid hormone, the little-understood sex steroid pregnenolone and a steroid called DHEA, which converts to testosterone and is banned from manufacture in Australia.

Dr Helena Teede, research director at Australia's leading women's health organisation, the Jean Hailes Foundation, said many women were unaware preparations were not approved by the TGA. "There has been very limited research into these preparations and women taking the compounds are essentially guinea pigs," she said.

A leading compounding chemist Richard Stenlake, in Bondi Junction, said he would welcome more regulation of the industry and there were discussions taking place about how it could be done. Mr Stenlake said he was one of the few compounding chemists with the expertise to do regular testing of NHRT preparations to make sure there was the correct dose of hormones. "There should be parameters put on compounding pharmacists that drug companies face," he said. "You have to make sure the dose prescribed by the doctor is the dose that goes out to the patient."

The PCCA defended the safety of the practice, citing an exemption in the TGA Act which allows the preparation of medicines for individuals. However, it acknowledged in a written statement there was no formal testing of the products. "Since compounded products are made on an individual basis according to the needs of a specific patient, it is not possible to test each product before supply to a patient without making the cost prohibitive. Many pharmacies do test samples of products that are made frequently," it said in the statement.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Woad is good for you: "Woad, the plant that was used by Ancient Britons and Celts to make their striking blue warpaint, has been found to be one of the most potent natural sources of a compound used to fight cancer. A team of Italian scientists found that it contains 20 times more of the cancer-fighting chemical glucobrassicin than broccoli, a plant prized for its powers to combat the disease. The researchers, led by Stefania Galletti, of the University of Bologna, found that the glucobrassicin levels could be further enhanced to nearly 65 times. They hope that the discovery may advance research of disease treatments, particularly for breast cancer. The study, published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, showed that the compound plays a defensive role in plants, with levels increasing by 30 per cent if a leaf is damaged. Derivatives of glucobrassicin can kill some plant pests, such as insects, and also appear to have antitumour properties, and are particularly effective against breast cancer."

Asthma mystery solved: "Asthma sufferers could one day be carrying a second "puffer" to help them battle attacks triggered by head colds. The speculation came after a breakthrough by British scientists which solves the riddle of why asthmatics often have an attack following a cold. The key lay in the immune systems of asthmatics, according to a team led by Professor Sebastian Johnston at the Imperial College London. They discovered that when asthmatics were infected by the virus causing the common cold they produced only half as many anti-viral proteins, called interferons, as non-asthmatics. That allowed the viruses to more easily irritate the lung cells of asthmatics and explained why inhalers or steroid drugs were often less effective when they had colds. The research, published yesterday in the journal Nature Medicine, was hailed as an exciting breakthrough. "I think this is the first time this has been shown," Asthma Foundation of Queensland spokesman Ian Yang said. "This is quite an exciting breakthrough because it leaves open a way to deal with the problem. "What they have found is these proteins are deficient in asthmatics. It could be if you supplemented these proteins using a second inhaler it might help with attacks." Dr Yang said if such an inhaler could be developed the timing would be critical as sufferers would probably have to use it within the first day or two of contracting a cold".