SIRC Media Watch Archive
The Pick – December 2000

Warning fatigue. First, butter is the enemy. Then solid margarine is on the forbidden list. Next, beta-carotene supplements are thought to prevent cancer – until they are found to increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Later, tomatoes are the darlings of the prostate-cancer prevention community – until broccoli, cabbage and other crucifers take center stage. As incremental advances in scientific knowledge cause shifts and reversals in diet and health messages, what are confused, frustrated consumers to do? Some appear to be responding by tuning out the conflicting advice and eating less healthful diets, according to a study by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. EurekAlert.

Reasons to be cheerful. "… the boom in alternative medicine has little to do with the failure of orthodox remedies to cure serious disease … but with the alternativists' claims to be able to deal with illnesses which orthodox doctors can't diagnose, let alone treat. They are, if you like, the luxury illnesses, the illnesses which can be afforded by a society with too little to worry about … They are the illnesses which result from overexpectation, from the belief that we can feel happy, comfortable, positive, motivated all the time. But to feel that good that often you have to be pretty stupid in that way that stupidity so often manifests itself, as a lack of imagination. But because most of us aren't stupid and do have enough imagination to posit a world beyond our immediate and personal space and time we create worries which previous generations wouldn't have had time for. It's no coincidence, for instance, that animal rights as anything but the most intellectual of concepts has arrived as a popular movement only with postwar prosperity. Only the rich, with their Gore-Tex and Polar Fleeces can afford to be sniffy about animal skins; in polar societies where you skin a seal or die of hypothermia the options for animal liberationists are more limited. Observer.

You shouldn't believe it. "Abortion Could Lead to Breast Cancer," screamed the front page of The Mail on Sunday last August … Given that up to a third of women have abortions, this was major medical news. But, like many of the health stories checked out by our research team, further investigation showed it to be simply not true. "This story was totally ir-responsible," confirmed Professor Allan Templeton, honorary secretary of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. "We have re-viewed all the relevant studies and found the link between abortion and breast cancer to be inconclusive." … The Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) in Oxford, which has studied health reporting in the media, has … linked up with the Royal Institution and drafted a list of guidelines for science and health journalists. Will they take any notice? "Every little helps," says Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution. "It has been a bad period for science and health reporting. Journalists should think more about the implications of what they're writing. They should understand the context and nuances of a subject. It's all too easy to scaremonger without knowing the real issues." Readers' Digest.

The obsessive pursuit of health and happiness. Health and happiness are … held out as a promotional package to which all good citizens are expected to aspire, but the paradox is that it can lead to an addictive disorder that acts like a distorting mirror, affecting every aspect of our lives. BMJ.

Gay men are 'rebelling against health warnings'. Government campaigns to encourage safe sex among gay men are fuelling risky practices instead, according to new research…Dr Michele Crossley, a psychologist at the University of Manchester, who wrote the report, said: "The constant churning out of more and more messages promoting safe sex is making the problem worse by bringing out the rebellious streak in people." Times.
[see also The side effects of health warnings.]

Cell Phone Studies See No Link to Brain Cancer. Two of the most rigorous studies yet completed on the relationship between cellular phones and brain tumors have found that cell-phone users are no more likely than anyone else to develop benign tumors or malignant brain cancers. One study, supported by the National Cancer Institute, was released last night, weeks ahead of its scheduled publication in The New England Journal of Medicine, to match a similar study, which was paid for by the cell-phone industry and the federal government, that is being published today in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
New York Times.

The public wants it both ways, to our cost. The public is in a state of confusion concerning how best to protect its interests. People resent being told what to do by the state or by anyone in authority, but they often listen to campaigning groups…we expect to live in a risk-free environment and we are more risk averse than ever…we need to find a way to persuade people that life simply can't be risk free. Progress and change inevitably involve risk. – Bridget M Ogilvie. Extract from the Dainton Lecture at the British Library, given by the chair of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science. Independent.

'Tis the season to be wary, tra-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. Grandparents are highly inflammable and should be sprayed on arrival with some fireproofing agent. Independent.

Organic food for thought. Growing organic food benefits the environment - but not if it has to travel thousands of miles, warns Sarah Sexton. Health Matters.

Mad about Sheep. As the panic over BSE builds in Europe, you might be surprised to know that we still don't know for sure where the disease came from. New Scientist.

Threat that never was. A laboratory study which suggested that GM crops harmed butterflies provoked protests across Europe. Now environmentalists are having to backtrack. Times.

Another czar will do a fat lot of good. The Fat Czar is to lead improvements in Scotland's diet … I find it particularly odd that a party which at least had its origins in socialism should latch on to the title of czar with such zeal. The comrades dispatched their last czar with such enthusiasm because they felt he was something of a bossy boots, a tyrant, no less, who believed in eating peasants for breakfast. Yet New Labour feels czars are the answer to sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, and now fat … With a Fat Czar on one side caning your fingers every time you reach for a peanut and the Stasi knocking on the door to get you jogging round the block, won't we end up taking the easy way out: death by chocolate? Glasgow Herald.

Why life is all cakes and ale for the British. Over a third of British men live on a diet of beer and fast food, new research reveals today. Despite repeated healthy eating campaigns, men are shunning the advice preferring instead to tuck into burgers, chips and white bread … A spokesman for the Department of Health said it was aware that some people had difficulty getting hold of healthy food, particularly those living on poverty. "However, it is not the Government's job or responsibility to tell people what to eat and people will make their own choices." Express.

Bombay duck back on the menu. A businessman has won a four-year crusade against a Brussels law banning his favourite Indian dish. David Delaney, of Leominster, Hereford, was angered when Bombay duck was wiped from menus because of a European law on food hygiene. Times.

Organic Standards Coming. National standards for organic food will be released soon, and they will make clear that such products aren't safer or more nutritious than conventional products, (US) Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman says. Washington Post.

Drink to think. Does the best brain food come in a glass? Researchers at the National Institute for Longevity Sciences in Aichi Prefecture…found that, on average, men who drank moderately--defined as less than 540 millilitres of sake or wine a day--had an IQ that was 3.3 points higher than men who did not drink at all. Women drinkers scored 2.5 points higher than female teetotallers. New Scientist.

Drinking Occasions. "Drinking behavior varies widely – socially, culturally, and personally. The journey through life consists not of simple yes-or-no decisions and good or bad choices but the assumption of personal responsibility for these choices and decisions. Heath unfolds the vagaries of the use of alcohol by exploring when, where, how, what, and why people drink or do not drink. Whether we like it or not, alcohol is woven into the fabric of our world. The physical, psychological, and social benefits of alcohol are well established. Heath's book provides a well-documented glimpse into the use of alcohol in other cultures and reveals how the United States – in purportedly trying to produce a good, by dictum and denial – often ends up doing harm." Review of Dwight Heath's new book Drinking Occasions: Comparative Perspectives on Alcohol and Culture by Morris Chafetz in the New England Journal of Medicine. (See also SIRC's own Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking)

Fat Tsar. Despite a recent study conducted by researchers at Edinburgh University’s Research Unit in Health and Behavioural Change, which concluded that Scotish teenagers are eating an unprecedented amount of fruit and veg, and are also more active, watching less television and taking more exercise voluntarily in their spare time [Scotsman]…A "fat tsar" is to be appointed to wean Scotland's obese population off their fat-soaked, deep-fried, vegetable-shunning Caledonian cuisine. [Independent]…will he be employing the Spy in the Sky to help him "fight the flab"? [New Scientist]

A minimum income for healthy living. It costs at least £106 a week for a single man between 18 and 30 to live a healthy lifestyle in the United Kingdom, say researchers from London (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2000;54:885-9). They estimate that it costs about £3.00 a week to keep and use a bicycle, or a pair of trainers for jogging. Food costs include the price of two portions of oily fish each week and five portions of fresh fruit or vegetables a day. The national minimum wage just about covers the cost of a healthy lifestyle; social security payments for unemployed men do not. BMJ.

Irish committee backs genetically modified crops. The Irish government committee charged with coming up with a coordinated position on biotechnology has come out in favour of developing genetic modification techniques, recommending both that field trials of genetically modified organisms continue and that government agencies encourage cultivation of genetically modified crops…It says that the risks of applying the technology should not be minimised-or magnified-but concludes that it will in the future be a "critical source of economic growth" of considerable importance to Ireland. "These benefits-and the economic and other costs of missing out on them-must be considered alongside the possible risks." BMJ.