Overreach, or a No-brainer?

by Rick Austin September 25, 2012 11:49 AM

Should the government be involved in regulating our diets? In her most recent blog entry, my colleague Shannon thinks not. In the comments on that blog, our friend David Phipps at York University thinks that government intervention is appropriate.

Courtesy of Futurity, the university research aggregator, here’s some more fodder for that conversation.

A study at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity estimates that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps, pay approximately $2 billion annually for sugar-sweetened beverages like soda pop and sweetened fruit juices.

The researchers point out the 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans target sugar-sweetened beverages for reduction, and that their finding is significant motivation to reconsider SNAP program priorities.

If you’re of the mind that less government is more, then this finding and its related recommendations are a two-edged sword, with both edges harmful. On one edge, how much government food and nutrition assistance is too much? On the other edge, should government be using its regulatory leverage to modify behavior?

In my opinion, this is a no-brainer. Unlike climate change and the efficacy of vaccination, no one is really disputing that large quantities of sugary drinks are bad for you. Does the government have the right to decide “we’re not going to pay for soft drinks with SNAP funds?” Absolutely. And will the government be influencing behavior with that decision? Absolutely.

It reminds me somewhat, although in reverse, of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) offering incentive grants to the states that implemented seat-belt laws. NHTSA was saying, in effect, “We’re not ordering you to have a seat-belt law. You just can’t have this grant money if you don’t.”

Intrusive overreach, or appropriate social engineering?

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A New Year’s Resolution: Focus Your Knowledge Translation!

by Rick Austin January 5, 2012 02:35 PM

A recent posting at Futurity, the university research aggregator, trumpets a dog-bites-man story about loud noise contributing to hearing loss. Really?! The twist, such as it is, involves MP3 players and other personal stereos contributing a disproportionate amount of damage.


Loud noise causing hearing loss is not news, and one of the investigators, Rick Neitzel, spends a substantial amount of time pointing out the limitations in both their methodology and their results. The discussion in this Futurity article ranges from the lopsided contribution of MP3 players to noise exposure, to the varied sources of exposure in urban environments, to a comparison of mass transit users and non-users. Buried in the very last paragraph is arguably the most important point:


“Lots of people appear to be exposed at hazardous levels,” [Neitzel] says. “A growing number of studies show noise causes stress, sleep disturbance, and heart disease. It may be the noise which we haven’t historically paid much attention to is actually contributing to some of the top health problems in developed countries today. This begs for a public health education program.”


In 2011, Research Into Action conducted a systematic review of research into noise-induced health problems for the Houston mayor’s office. They’ve made noise pollution a priority issue for Houston, and needed practical support for their policy initiative. Our review found substantial evidence for the detrimental effects of environmental noise, including increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and immune system disorders.


It’s possible to report your findings, assess their significance, and still point out the most important focus. Successful knowledge translation goes beyond reporting the results. This Futurity article leaves the focus extremely blurry.

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Is Pink the Color of Confusion?

by Rick Austin April 13, 2011 02:22 PM

A few months ago, my colleague Shannon blogged about the seeming overkill on breast cancer awareness. We’ve had “Save the Ta-Tas,” “Race for the Cure,” and pink shoes, wristbands, and chinstraps on NFL football players.


Now, courtesy of Futurity, comes an article asserting that the long-term effects of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) have been measurably positive. The research, published originally in the Journal of Health Economics, contends that prior to NBCAM, breast cancer was rarely discussed, only coming to the surface in the wake of public crises, like the diagnoses of Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan. Now, some 20 years after widespread recognition of NBCAM as a regular event, diagnoses are spread out over the entire calendar year, with no noticeable spiking. The authors say that this indicates that breast cancer screening has now become a more normal part of the conversation. Read the original research to see how they did an ex post analysis of many years of Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) statistics to obtain their results.


So here’s my question for you: Awareness-schmawareness, or valuable long-term public health tool? Scratch a social marketer, and they’ll tell you that awareness campaigns are mostly cop-outs, that what we should be shooting for is action. It could be that NBCAM has achieved that goal. What do you think?


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This Headline'll Kill Ya

by Rick Austin January 13, 2011 03:51 PM

A little while ago, I went all nitpicky on several headlines which, while probably garnering some clicks, were seriously misleading about some serious health topics. Now, if the topic under discussion is Olivia Munn or John Boehner, then the more outrageous the click-bait the better, I say.

But if the subject is physiology and sleep loss, then this headline is just plain dumb. Once again, the culprit is Futurity, the university research Web portal. As my colleague Shannon said, journalists should  write their own headlines. When the staff headline writer gets into the act, you get articles that imply: “Hey, stay awake for 24 hours and melt off that flab!”


To go along with this ridiculous headline, the growing body of research on how more sleep may lead to easier weight loss is barely mentioned. If you are on Facebook, I highly recommend that you “like” Newspaper Ledes That have Nothing To Do With Their Stories. It’s a hoot.


Send me your examples of ridiculous health headlines that could end up killing someone; I’ll be glad to take a shot at them.


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