Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Life Expectancy Goes Up but Risk-reduction lectures Continue

Bravo! to Rob Lyons at Spiked. Since it’s now apparent that life expectancy has increased almost everywhere and is at historic high levels in much of the developed world, Lyons asks the logical question:  why is the public health system still scolding everyone about what people eat and how fat the average person is?

A paper by David Leon in this month’s International Journal of Epidemiology showed the dramatic increase in life expectancy — the median age at death, that is.  It has reached over 85 years for women in Japan, but it’s high even in countries where longevity was relatively low a generation ago.  Cheeringly, US life expectancy at birth is now 78 years; in the UK it’s 80.  And it’s even higher in some countries of western continental Europe.  Here are the graphs for different parts of the world from Leon’s paper, showing trends since 1970:

Life expectancy since 1970

Lyons has gone after the anti-obesity crusaders before (as well as related topics at his smart blog on contemporary food confusion, Panic On A Plate).  Now, he’s particularly disturbed by the sermonizing about eating. “You can’t even have a pie and a pint without someone telling you it will kill you, it seems,” Lyons writes at Spiked.

And, really, it’s even worse than that — because it’s not just eating that’s the subject of the lecturing.  It might be true that you will live longer if you give up smoking, cut your salt intake, drop your BMI down to 24.99, exercise four times per week for at least 20 minutes each time, get immunized against flu and human papillomavirus, drink in moderation, and take naps.  But unfortunately there’s not a bit of evidence that any of that — apart from the decline in smoking — has contributed to increasing longevity.

And of course, even with smoking cessation, there’s no telling whether it would make any difference to you — only on average.

So why are the public health messages so far away from what really matters — basically, prenatal care, postnatal care, and wealth (with its concomitant, standard of living)?  Well, there’s a puzzle.

What’s the point of having an industry whose main aim is to make sure that people are constantly in fear that they are doing something that will kill them — even as it becomes apparent that most of what people do is only making us live longer?   Lyons calls it Good News Omission Mentality Syndrome (GNOMES).

I ask you:  could it have something to do with control?  And the desire to sell products?

Anti-Tobacco Crusaders

It’s hard to understand why the public health industry is so irrational about tobacco use.  Yes, it’s dangerous  to inhale the fumes of burning tobacco.  Smoking can be very bad for people.  But why vilify tobacco use in all its forms?

The anti-tobacco crusade is a modern-day version of Revivalist religious fervor.  It sure isn’t science.  And it isn’t about protecting people’s health.

The CDC estimates that 442,000 Americans die from tobacco smoking each year.  These estimates are slippery; they’re based on a fairly loose definition of what it means to die “from” a behavior — but let’s agree that a lot of people die sooner than they otherwise would because they smoke cigarettes.

Alternative ways of self-administering nicotine allow users to avoid the disastrously harmful drug-delivery device, the cigarette.  You’d think that Big Public Health, 45 years into a campaign to get people to stop smoking, would be promoting all sorts of safe methods of nicotine delivery.

That’s not what happens.  Instead, the industry pours anathema on light cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and other safer-than-cigarettes products.

The latest sermon is an article in this month’s The Nation’s Health — the newsletter of the American Public Health Association (APHA, which has turned into the High Synod of Public Health Religion).  The article  claims that “New Types of Smokeless Tobacco Present Growing Risks for Youth.”

The title is a double rhetorical turn now (alas) typical of APHA:  (1) your kids are going to die, and (2) the “risk” to them is increasing.  The piece would seem silly if the author, named Kim Krisberg, weren’t so serious.  After all, it isn’t kids who die from smoking, and the risk of smoking-related death isn’t increasing at all.  But we’re not in the realm of truth here.

Since Big Public Health isn’t dealing in truth when it comes to tobacco, evidence isn’t part of the story.   The head of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids can say “the time to stop the spread of dangerous products is before they become the fad of today,” insouciantly sidestepping the fact that smokeless tobacco products aren’t dangerous.  Brad Rodu’s invaluable website Tobacco Truth explains — see Brad’s June 16th post, for instance.  Or go to this page at the excellent resource TobaccoHarmReduction, or see this article published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention in 2004.

The public health industry’s animus for tobacco leads it to label as harmful something that is really a boon to public health — the increasing use of products that provide nicotine without burning tobacco.  Surely it’s better to have people chewing nicotine-containing products that won’t harm them than to allow them to continue smoking tobacco in order to get a nicotine dose.

Moralistic fervor makes you stupid.  Stupid enough to write, as two physicians with FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products did,

As state and local communities across the United States adopt indoor clean-air laws that restrict smoking in public areas and workplaces, the tobacco industry seems increasingly focused on the development and introduction of novel smokeless tobacco products

… as if the tobacco industry were magically making Americans who would otherwise stop smoking suddenly crave smokeless tobacco — and as if that would be bad for them.  Drs. Deyton and Cruz, you should know better.

But Matthew Myer with Tobacco-Free Kids isn’t unintelligent.  Nor, I assume, are Deyton and Cruz.  And I can’t imagine they really want people to suffer.

Still, do they really think that safe non-smoked tobacco products are going to bewitch our kids?  Do they believe that apocalypse comes in a package of smokeless tobacco?

Are they just so obsessed with battling tobacco companies that they’ve lost sight of the aim of public health, i.e., to reduce suffering?

Or is it simpler?  Has the public health industry’s big-money anti-tobacco campaign allowed too many people to make too good a living by saying stupid things about tobacco?

The cigarette manufacturers have been scurrilous, dastardly, and sometimes appallingly inured to the misery and death their products have hastened.  Maybe they deserve the Myerses of the world.

But the public health industry could be a lot more focused on helping people to live less painful lives, and less obsessed with its private demons.

As Carl V. Phillips suggests in a post this week, the FDA will have to break with the public health industry’s moralism if people who use nicotine are going to protect themselves from cigarettes.

If the FDA can’t overcome Big Public Health’s obsession with satanic tobacco rituals, re-introduce truth into the discussion, and re-focus on making real people’s lives less miserable, the zealots are going to turn stupidity into bad policy.

New Year’s Wishes for Public Health

May 2010 be the year when health officials return to the business of alleviating suffering and stop promoting panic. (Don’t miss Nathalie Rothschild’s “Ten Years of Fear” in Spiked!’s Farewell to the Noughties, recounting the hyped-up panics of the ’00s — from the Y2K bug to swine flu.)

May CDC become a force for real public health, not an advocate for the risk-avoidance canard.  May the new director, Dr. Frieden, stop favoring pharmaceutical companies’ profit making through expansion of immunization.  And may he direct the agency to begin to address legitimate public needs, like sound answers about vaccines and autism, and clear communication about what is — and isn’t — dangerous about obesity.

May WHO officials stop playing with the pandemic threat barometer.  May WHO begin demanding that the world’s wealthy countries devote at least the same resources to stopping diarrheal diseases, malaria, and TB as they do to dealing with high-news-value problems like new strains of flu.   Diarrheal illness kills as many children in Africa and Asia in any given week as the 2009 swine flu killed Americans in eight months.  So does malaria.   Direct policy, and money, toward sanitation, pure water free of parasites, adequate treatment of TB, mosquito control, and prevention of other causes of heavy mortality in the developing world — not just flu strains that threaten North America, Europe, and Japan.

May public health professionals lose their obsessions with bad habits. May the public health profession return to the problem of ensuring basic rights — access to sufficient food, clean water, decent housing, good education, a livable wage, and adequate child care — and ease up on its moralistic obsessions with nicotine and overeating (for recent examples of the preoccupation with tobacco, see this article or this one (abstracts here; subscription needed for full articles) in recent issues of the American Journal of Public Health).

May science be what Joanne Manaster does at her incomparable website: looking at the world with wonder, asking without dogmatic preconceptions how it works, and accepting that its irrepressible quirkiness makes it impossible to know the world perfectly.  May science not be the crystal-ball-gazing thing whose so-called “scientific” forecasts are really doomsday scenes worthy of the medieval Church — predictions of liquefied icecaps and rising seas,  hundreds of millions of deaths in a flu pandemic, or catastrophic plagues sparked by people with engineered smallpox virus.  There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about both the environment and disease outbreaks based on sound here-and-now observations; leave the forecasts of Apocalypse to the clergy, who know how to handle dread.

A new year’s wish (from the valedictory exhortation in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America):  “More life!”

Obesity and Public Health Control

This month’s American Journal of Public Health brings us a primer (abstract here; subscription required for full text), written by lawyers supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, teaching “policymakers to avoid potential constitutional problems in the formation of obesity prevention policy.”

The article isn’t exactly a Steal This Book for the anti-obesity crusaders, but the authors’ stated aim is to help those crusaders skirt legal challenges to statutes that might, for instance, ban fast foods or require the posting of accurate calorie counts on restaurant menus:  “This primer is meant not to deter obesity prevention efforts but to foster them,” the authors adumbrate.

Of course, the anti-obesity crusade is well on its way to using the law to tighten the control of behavior already.  And the failure of restaurant calorie counts to show any effect on eating patterns isn’t dampening enthusiasm, it seems.

Brian Elbel of NYU and colleagues just reported in Health Affairs that the calorie counts now posted by law in New York (another piece of legislation backed by our bluenose mayor) don’t affect how much people eat,  based on a study of over a thousand New Yorkers from minority neighborhoods (abstract here, full article here).  At Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner surmises that this sort of program only helps people “who are already the most vigilant about their health and well-being.”  But it’s hard to find anyone in public health who is opposed.

They should be.   The public health industry, which likes to claim its main interest is human dignity, should be lobbying for less regulation of human appetites, not more.

But public health is often the pre-eminent paradigm of control in our society. Rename the acts or traits you find morally repugnant as diseases, and you can hand them to the health sector for management.   Once you say you’ve got an epidemic on your hands, you can count on the public health industry to respond.  Alcoholism, addiction, smoking, obesity, social anxiety… there seems to be a big supply of epidemics that used to be moral offenses or threats to the social order and are now opportunities for your doctor or your health commissioner — not your clergyman — to tell you how to act.

The neat thing about the control exercised through public health is that you never have to sermonize, read Bible verses, or prophesy Apocalypse.  The rhetoric of risk is a lot easier for the self-professed progressives in public health to swallow than religious sermonizing would be.  Even when the sermon and the risk rhetoric have the identical goal: wiping out the moral offense.

From Junkfood Science, we learn that

Employers will now perform random tests of employees for evidence that they’ve smoked outside of work and will weigh employees in the workplace and report their BMIs to the state. Employees deemed noncompliant with the State Health Plan’s employer wellness initiative, will pay one-third-more for health insurance. Employers believed that eliminating smokers and fat people would lower health costs.

And from WSJ Health Blog, that the CEO of pharmaceutical corporation Schering-Plough agreed (at a meeting at the Cleveland Clinic) that people with unhealthy behavior should pay more for health insurance.  Sure — you certainly wouldn’t want the wealthy to pay more.

That’s not the only problem with the public health industry’s vigorous embrace of behavioral control, but it’s a big one.  Start classifying people based on how they behave, and you begin discriminating against the ones who don’t act right.  But the ones who you think don’t act right are almost always the ones society was already discriminating against — the poor, most of all.

And even when the poor aren’t getting shafted in the crusade against the unhealthy, inquiry about how a just society should work is going down the tubes.  The profound moral-philosophical questions of what is the right way to live a life, the right way to raise children, the nature of liberty, and so forth, are surrendered in the public health paradigm – replaced with the simple dichotomy:  healthy vs. not-healthy.

America, Free of Risk: Taxing Soda

The possibility of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages has been re-awakened, sparked by this week’s New England Journal of Medicine article, written by some prominent researchers and officials.  It’s the latest instance in the long battle to turn the conduct of private American lives over to the care of larger forces — Big Science and Big Public Health.  Another step toward the public health vision of risk-free America.  Another step away from the relief of suffering in favor of meddling with people’s choices.

The NEJM paper argues that there would be health benefits of a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks — preferably to take the form of about a penny’s worth of excise tax levied per fluid ounce for any beverage containing “added caloric sweetener” (possibly to be defined as more than 1 g of sugar per 30 ml of beverage).

There’s much to be learned by the response.  The NY Times article, in its Business section Wednesday, was titled “Proposed Tax on Sugary Beverages Debated” but was generally slanted strongly in favor of the proposal.  If you read only the Times, you would think that objections to the tax come only from industry, which obviously has an economic interest in keeping sales of soda and sport drinks up by keeping the price down.

Shirley S. Wang at yesterday’s WSJ Health Blog adds some insight.  She points out that a 2-liter bottle of soda subject to the proposed tax, assuming the tax is entirely passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices, would still be much cheaper than a half-gallon of orange juice.

James Knickman of the NY State Health Foundation, writing in the NY Daily News last week, acknowledged that a soda tax would be essentially regressive, affecting the poor more powerfully than it does the wealthy.  He urges that

To counteract the soda tax’s regressive nature, revenue generated from the tax should go to health-related programs that benefit the poor – essentially putting the money back into their pockets. The revenue could be used for myriad initiatives, including subsidies for federal health reform – which is estimated to cost $1 trillion over the next 10 years – subsidies of fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods in low-income community grocery stores, and food stamp increases for the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Knickman gets at one of the main purposes of a tax like this:  to get the poor to pay more of the costs of doing business.

But what isn’t being discussed, it seems, is the underlying logic.

First, there’s the assumption that obesity is uniformly and intensely bad.  The NEJM article begins with the statement “The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has been linked to risks for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease,” citing three articles — two of them authored, in part, by the same men who helped write this week’s soda-tax NEJM article.

What’s the point of the misleading opening in the NEJM paper (apart from getting some additional citations for the authors’ other work)?  The line suggests that drinking sugar-added beverages causes heart disease, yet no evidence suggests that.  Extra calories might add up to extra weight, some people (less than half) who have BMIs in the “obese” range report having diabetes, and diabetes can predispose to heart disease — but the NEJM authors make it seem that the sugar-heart connection is somehow direct.  The point is to create an impression of uniform and unavoidable harm. Who would want to be for heart disease?

The supposition that obesity is a terrible illness responsible for broad impairments to Americans’ health — a premise that the soda tax depends on —  is amply and cogently criticized in a series of posts by Sandy Szwarc at Junkfood Science (start here, for instance, or here).  In fact, epidemiologic studies point to a relatively small effect of obesity on mortality, primarily at the upper end of the weight-for-height (body mass index, BMI) scale.  A careful analysis of national survey data from a few years ago (Flegal et al., JAMA 2005) shows that the effect of high BMI on mortality has been declining over time and almost entirely vanishes after age 70.  In fact, some studies point to a protective effect of high BMI for older Americans.

And the claim that increasing the price of sugary beverages is a suitable inducement to Americans to change their behavior rests on standard — but flawed — economists’ analysis.  It’s rational choice theory come home to roost at your refrigerator door.  If you know that it’s going to cost two bucks and a half to replace that 2-liter bottle of root beer in the fridge, you’ll drink it more sparingly than if it cost only $1.29, the theory goes.  Here is where the regressive aspect comes in.  It’s primarily to the poor that coming up with $2.50 for a bottle of root beer seems substantially more difficult than $1.29.  Here, the soda tax reveals itself as just another attempt to get members of what is perhaps America’s most despised ethnicity — the poor — to “fix” their behavior.

And it all rests on a premise so common we might call it the American assumption:  that people only do things that might harm their health because they don’t know any better or because they can’t stop themselves.  Ergo, laws and rules, to make sure everyone knows where and how to draw the line — taxes, bans on smoking in restaurants (or, perhaps soon, parks) and bans on serving trans fats, removal into foster care of kids whose mothers use drugs, prosecution of parents whose kids are too fat, et cetera.  And of course, we need the products that will provide substitute enjoyment or relief.  Thus:  sugar-free soda, trans-fat-free potato chips, Prozac and other SSRIs, diet books, gyms, alcohol-free beer, and so on.

And we need it all to be wrapped up and rationalized in the language of avoiding risk.

Apparently, it isn’t plausible to the doctors and scientists who wrote the NEJM paper, or the legislators who are eager to institute the proposed soda tax, that people might drink too much soda — or eat too much, or smoke, or stay home and watch TV instead of jogging — with full awareness of the possible consequences.   In the risk-free zone of America as envisaged by the public health industry, only the insane and the uninformed would engage in “risky behavior.”

Nobody, in risk-free America, does anything because it feels good, knowing it might be harmful.  Nobody overeats because it brings her pleasure, nobody screws without a condom because it turns him on, nobody smokes because she had a bad day or a good day or because the day hasn’t started but it looks unpromising, nobody rides her bike without a helmet because she likes the feel of the wind in her hair.  It’s risky.  We all know better.

The libertarians think it’s big government you give up your private choices to, and the progressives think it’s big business.  But really, it’s neither — or both, working together.  And the public health and medical industries are complicit.  It’s not a conspiracy.  It’s more like religion.