Red meat and the health-scare gravy train
The widely leaked Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) report on red meat and cancer upset another venerable body of health professionals: the World Cancer Research Fund. Not that the WCRF disagreed with COMA's findings. Quite the opposite. It is just that COMA raced to the press briefings before them and threatened to steal all the limelight. For this reason the WCRF retaliated by rushing out their own 600-page report, which says much the same thing about the evils of red meat. They are also setting up road shows around the world to show that they not COMA are the true guardians of public health.
The COMA findings show that red meat has been 'linked' with colon and stomach cancers. ('Linked' is the term epidemiologists use when they can't actually show a causal connection.)
So, COMA tell us that we should eat less red meat. But the level initially recommended no more than about 6 ounces, 5 times a week is more than most people eat anyway.
A few journalists pointed this out, and a couple of small voices questioned the need for scary warnings, at which point COMA hurriedly withdrew their initial statements and changed their recommended maximum to 3 ounces. The story was now headline news, with COMA and WCRF spokesmen competing for air-time and column inches. But who will benefit from the death-threat headlines? Certainly not the general public. The Social Issues Research Centre (a left-of-centre think tank in Oxford) is conducting a review of research on the social and psychological effects of such over-zealous health promotion. The findings show, not surprisingly, that a diet of scary headlines based on dubious science is not beneficial to public health. Competition for media attention between the big players in the health-promotion business results in a constant stream of contradictory advice about health risks, causing unnecessary confusion, anxiety and fear.
In 1991, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld complaints against two of the WCRF's press advertisements, concluding that their approach was "unacceptable and would promote unnecessary anxiety in the reader". WCRF were forced to withdraw their ads, but neither they nor COMA objected to headlines such as "How We're Eating Our Way To An Early Grave".
The only beneficiaries of such scares are the health-promotion businesses. The WCRF, for example, is an offshoot of the American Institute for Cancer Research an organisation which spends a third of all its income on expenses associated with fund-raising and administration (the Vice President of AIRC earns over £114,000 per year), and most of the remainder on 'health promotion'. In 1993, the WCRF spent only 12% of its income on research.
The WCRF is also unusual in that it is only concerned with the effects of diet on cancer. Not surprising then that it wants us to believe that diet is the major cause of cancer. Other organisations, including COMA, have their own, competing, vested interests.
Objections to this unseemly competition for health correctness have tended come from the political right: the so-called libertarians who see such messages as being threats to God-given rights of commercial exploitation and the rule of market forces. They are missing the point. The gravest threat to health is one in which neither right-wing groups such as the Social Affairs Unit nor COMA and the WCRF express much interest. It is something which is given the code Z59.5 in the International Classification of Disease Handbook and accounts for more deaths world-wide than any other single factor. It is defined as "Extreme Poverty".
We must hope that New Labour will remember the principles on which the movement was originally founded, and will not be inclined to divert dwindling NHS resources from genuine health care into alarmist, status-seeking 'health promotion'.