SIRC Media Watch Archive
The Pick – August 2002

Epidemic That Wasn't. For years, it has been widely thought that rates of breast cancer on Long Island are unusually high. But, contrary to popular belief, they are not. The rates on Long Island are not much different from those of the rest of the country…But the perception of an epidemic has persisted like a suburban legend. Figures that scientists say have no basis in fact, like a breast cancer rate that is 30 percent higher than the national average, have been bandied about at public meetings, and repeated by breast cancer patients, politicians and newspapers, including The New York Times…It was fears of such an epidemic, and the political uproar that ensued, that led Congress in 1993 to authorize the nearly $30 million study that has, so far, failed to find evidence that pollutants are linked to the cancer. New York Times

Teen soft drink consumption often misstated. The media has done a good job of covering one of the major public health challenges facing the nation - the growing rate of obesity. However, various news reports use a wide variety of numbers to describe teenage soft drink consumption. The faculty of the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy of Virginia Tech-Alexandria … has done extensive analyses of the U.S. government’s dietary surveys including Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals and the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. These data show that soft drink consumption by teens is often far less than is reported. EurekAlert!.

GM food is okay, says WHO. In their first combined study, experts from the World Trade Organization (WTO) and World Health Organization (WHO) also tackled the sensitive issue of genetically modified (GM) foods. "WHO is of the opinion that it is very unlikely that there is a risk for consumers when they consume GM food, currently approved and currently available in the market," WHO official Wim Vaneck told journalists on Thursday. Financial Express.

"Food deserts" - evidence and assumption in health policy making. We are suggesting that food deserts are an "idea whose time has come," and that somewhat slender empirical evidence has been used … to support the idea that food deserts are widespread … if they had argued in support of risks associated with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine or that HIV is not the causative agent in AIDS, we suspect that the studies would have been more critically appraised … Big 'multiple' stores have economies of scale that allow them to stock at reasonable prices a wide range of products, including foods that are currently recommended in dietary guidelines. In a recent study in Glasgow we found that big multiple stores were more likely to be located in or near deprived areas; we also found that a range of 57 basic food items was either similar in price or cheaper in more deprived areas than in more affluent areas. BMJ.

Nutrition watchdog praises fast food giants. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the nutrition watchdog that takes aim at excess fat and calories, announced some unexpected allies Wednesday: Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's and Subway. USA Today.

In a World of hazards, worries are often misplaced. Spared from worry about whether they will have enough to eat today or a roof over their heads tomorrow, most Americans have the luxury of worrying about the hazards that may be lurking in their air, water and food as a result of all this progress and affluence. New York Times

Doctor, I feel slightly funny. Another GP has a T-shirt with "CAMERA" on it; the Campaign for Real Ailments. Much of his workload consists of defusing the anxiety of an increasingly worried well population who don't have any discernible disease, just an awareness of what might, or might not, be "risk factors". Alas, in the doomed pursuit of a risk-free life, their new health awareness makes them pathologically anxious and they end up on anti-depressants. Great for the drug industry, but not great medicine. Independent

Cancer patients can be endangered by 'alternative cures' on the web. Internet websites promoting 'alternative' cures for cancer can seriously harm patients who follow their advice. And some are downright dangerous – according to an editorial published today in the British Journal of Cancer. A survey of 13 sites relating to alternative or complementary medicine and cancer found that patients were not only discouraged from using conventional cancer therapies but were not informed about alternative remedies that have been shown to be ineffective. BJC.

Seeds of doubt. The real danger is not GM foods, but ignorance and fear. It matters little that just 2.6 per cent of genes in the genetically modified crop trials in England and Scotland were rogue … But the error by the biotechnology company Aventis has played into people’s worst fears, however ill-founded, about GM foods … Unjustified hysteria among wealthy nations about GM will deny farmers from poorer countries the opportunity to export to them. The Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, last month said that the Government would lead a national debate on GM. The debate is happening without them. Once again it is focusing not upon the potential benefits of GM technology, but upon the worst fears of the scaremongers. Times.

Vegetarian shock tactics slammed. An animal rights pressure group has been ordered to stop making "alarmist" and "unsubstantiated" claims about the risks of eating meat. A leaflet published by a Brighton-based vegetarian pressure group earlier this year suggested that meat-eaters are more at risk of dying from heart disease, stroke and other diseases. But the Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that the claim was unduly alarmist and offensive. BBC.

Fed up with too many snacks. Health promotion and food campaigners generally blame poor diet for the rise in obesity, and junk food is a ready-made target…Such campaigns, though well-meaning, say more about adult food obsessions than about the problem facing children. For while there are many good arguments for children eating healthy food, reducing childhood obesity is not one of them. There is little evidence to suggest that the quality of food consumed by British children has deteriorated over the past century. Despite the scare stories, generally their diet has improved. Yet the number of obese children is rising. Frank Furedi in the Times

Praise the lard. It is a dietary mantra that has bordered on the fanatic: fat is a killer and a clogger and it furs your arteries, bursts your blood vessels, and sends your weight soaring through the stratosphere. Fry-up and die, runs the refrain. Or at least it did – for recently food scientists have had an unexpected change of heart. Suddenly, they don't seem so resolute in their rabid hatred of all things fatty. Observer

You've Been Had!: 'How the Media and Environmentalists Turned America into a Nation of Hypochondriacs'. As his title suggests, epidemiologist Melvin Benarde is not one to mince words. For him, television, radio, and newspapers are "the scoundrels at whose doorsteps must be placed our current pandemic of mediagenic diseases." He cites recent scares over "an extraordinary range of potential causes of cancer," including "asbestos, dioxin, hot dogs, breast implants, pesticides, coffee, liquor, hair dryers, mouthwash, dietary fat, magnetic fields and cellular phones." He blames the media for creating "an epidemic of anxiety, year after persistent year of alarm." Review by Mike Fitzpatrick in the BMJ

The future on a plate. Organic farming will not solve the crisis in food production … The global population is likely to top 10 billion in the next century. Our task is to feed these mouths, as well as the ones already here, while coping with the fact that we have nowhere left to grow things. We must squeeze greater yield out of the same patch of ground while trying to leave the plot in a reasonable state for descendants. We've been here before. After the second world war, doom-mongers threatened that we'd all starve by the 1970s. Instead, scientists averted the crisis by creating new breeds of high-yield cereal crops. This "Green Revolution" has been swamped by its success – by leaving an ever larger population with greater aspirations towards consumption and wealth. We need to continually pull the rabbit out of the hat. Guardian.

When journalists juggle figures, the public is at risk. A large and careful study, reported in a prestigious American medical journal, found that the use of combined oestrogen and progestin by post-menopausal women caused their risk of breast cancer to increase by 26 per cent. I imagine that a lot of people hearing this would have concluded that HRT creates a risk of breast cancer of 26 chances in 100. But get this: the alternative way of putting it is that this form of HRT increases the risk of breast cancer by 0.08 percentage points. Doesn't sound nearly so frightening, does it? The Age

Fruit and vegetable pesticide 'risk'. Much of the fruit and vegetables in UK supermarkets contains potentially harmful pesticide residues, campaigners warn. The supermarket chain Somerfield chain came out worst in the Friends on the Earth study, which showed 60% of its fruit and vegetables contained the residues. BBC. BUT – WWF rapped for 'alarming' advert. Conservation charity, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, has been criticised by the advertising watchdog for an "alarming" advert about chemicals in food. The WWF's advert was for a campaign highlighting the risks of toxins to people's health. But the Advertising Standards Authority said it implied all man-made chemicals may cause health problems. BBC.