Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Childhood Obesity and Food Adverts

Major Food Companies Promote Childhood Obesity
Thomas Riggins

Any democratic government has a responsibility to protect the health and well being of its citizens and especially to prevent private interests from exploiting children for private gain or any other reason. This may look like common sense, but governments around the world, including the US government, have been far too lax in allowing food companies to manufacture, advertise, and sell foods for children that they know is unhealthy and will lead to serious health consequences in the future.

According to ScienceDaily (June 30,2011) scientists at the University of Liverpool in the UK have shown that children watching TV commercials promoting unhealthy foods (foods with too much fat,salt and sugar) develop a desire to eat these kinds of food in preference to nutritionally healthy alternatives ("TV Food Advertising Increases Children's Preference for Unhealthy Foods, Study Finds").

The study was conducted on children 6 to 13 years old who were shown a cartoon after watching 5 minutes of toy commercials or 5 minutes of commercials of unhealthy snack foods. The children were then allowed to choose what kind of foods they wanted from lists of healthy and unhealthy foods including famous brand names and non brand named foods. The children choose significantly more unhealthy foods to eat after the food commercials but not after the toy commercials.

Emma Boyland, one of the authors of the study was quoted as saying, "Obesity in young children is now a major health concern around the world. Our studies highlight that there are global connections between advertising, food preferences and consumption. This is a beyond-brand effect, increasing children's selections of all unhealthy foods -- not just those shown in the adverts."

If these conclusions hold up it means that governments should ban all such advertising aimed at children and indeed ban the the production and sale of unhealthy foods entirely. The purpose of food is to provide healthy nutrition to the food consumers, not profits to capitalists. It is simply not rational, nor moral, to allow private companies to enrich themselves by making millions of young children around the world unhealthy and obese.

The suggestions from Ms. Boyland are not as strong as those I suggest. She says that limiting TV watching time, for example, might be one solution since only children who watched more than 21 hours of television seem to have been negatively affected by the food commercials. However reports show that US teens spend about 20 hours a week in screen time (60%) but about 30% of teens spent 40 or so hours in screen time. I'm sure different countries will have different breakdowns

In any case, Boyland concludes by saying, "This study demonstrates that children are far more likely to eat unhealthy foods if they watch a lot of television. This suggests that it would be beneficial to reduce the amount of television that children watch. These findings also have implications for the regulation of television food advertising to children. A 9pm watershed should be introduced so that children are not exposed to high fat, high sugar and high salt food advertising during popular family viewing."

Well, that would be a start, but a people's government would simply ban all such fake food products in the first place.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Public Health Spending means Healthy People

Thomas Riggins

Some things that just seem obvious are often denied for devious political or personal reasons. It just seems obvious, for example, that the more money the government spends on public health projects, the more healthy people would become. Conversely, the more public health funds are cut the less healthy people would likely become.

All this talk about cutting Medicare and rolling back federal, state and local funding on public health (to fight the deficit) seems to really be saying that the government should not care if its citizens are healthy or sick-- each individual is on his or her own. Cut back proponents, of course, claim that the cut backs won't really make such a big difference: there will still be emergency rooms and private charity available. But they really know better.

Let's take this argument out of the realm of politics and right wing dogma and see what objective scientific evidence is available. I am happy to report that what seems intuitively obvious to common sense is also what scientists report to be objectively true. A report has just come out in the journal Health Affairs that provides clear evidence that the more that is spent on public health, the healthier the population becomes. The report is summarized in ScienceDaily for 8-8-2011("Increase in Public Health Spending Results in Healthier People, Study Suggests").

The study concentrated on four public health concerns: infant mortality, heart disease, diabetes and cancer and correlated variations in spending over a 13 year period on public health by local agencies in the nearly 3000 local public health agencies in the US. It was found that causes of death for these four health conditions fell from 1 to nearly 7% for each 10% of increased public health spending.

Glen P. Mays (University of Kentucky) one of two authors of the study (along with Sharla A. Smith of the University of Arkansas) was quoted as saying: "In light of the Affordable Care Act that authorized the largest expansion in federal public health spending in decades, coupled with an economic downturn that has precipitated large cuts in state and local government support for public health activities, it's critical to take a data-driven look at whether public health spending translates to improved health of our population. Our findings suggest that a connection between spending and health outcomes does exist, although it's important to note that resources must be successfully aimed at activities that target at-risk population groups to ensure that spending is resulting in positive outcomes."

We should note, therefore, that almost every cut in public health funding affects the four major groups of illness studied and translates into a higher death rate, especially in poorer areas, for real individual people not just statistical entities. The right wingers, who complain about President Obama's imaginary "death panels," should be called on the real death panels they run when they push through spending cuts in public health funding. Moderate Democrats should also think twice about inflicting higher death rates rather than higher tax rates.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Fracking: Who Regulates the Regulators?

Fracking: Are the Regulators in Bed with the Oil and Gas Industry?
Thomas Riggins

One of the major concerns about the hydraulic fracturing industry, in which toxic chemicals and water are pumped under high pressure deep down in the earth to fracture and break up rock formations to release natural gas to be captured for commercial purposes, is that this method of fracking also can pollute and make undrinkable the water supplies in the area where it is applied.

A recent New York Times online article ("A Tainted Water Well, and Concern There May Be More" by Ian Urbina, 8-3-11) seems to suggest that some elements of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may be colluding with the oil and gas industry in covering up this threat.

The article reports, for example, that both the industry and those who are charged with regulating it, have told the American people for years that fracking is a safe way to extract natural gas and "has never contaminated underground drinking water": a statement that both know is untrue.

Urbina quotes the CEO of ExxonMobile, Rex W. Tillerson, who told Congress in 2010 that, "There have been over a million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry, and there is not one, not one, reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated from hydraulic fracturing. Not one." And it is not just a dishonest CEO who makes that claim, it is also bandied about by "our" state and federal elected officials and EPA directors ("past and present") all of whom know, or should know, that this is untrue.

There is at least one reported case on record and many other contaminations have occurred but have not been officially "reported " because they have been suppressed and covered up by the industry with the help of high ranking leaders in the EPA. At least that is my conclusion from reading Urbina's article.

The one official report was about an incident in 1984 when Kaiser Exploration and Mining Company did some fracking in West Virginia which resulted in a water well being contaminated. The EPA published its report in 1987. The oil and gas industry knows all about it and was successful in keeping the EPA from investigating other incidents which could have been included in the report. So ExxonMobile and its friendly EPA directors know that "Not one case" is not true and the reason there is only one case is due to industry pressure to cover up others and that the EPA helped them do so.

EPA investigators can't fully document the other cases, back then as well as now, "because their details were sealed from the public when energy companies settled lawsuits with landowners." Urbina talked to Carla Greathouse, the author of the 1987 report, who said "If it's so safe, let the public review all the cases." She also revealed that she still didn't understand "why industry should be allowed to hide problems when public safety is at stake." She should read about how cozy the relationship is between Congress, the regulators, and the regulated not only in oil and gas but in every aspect of the government's dealings with powerful capitalist corporations.

An ExxonMobile spokesman, Alan T. Jeffers, when asked about sealed settlements, which prevent the facts about fracking from getting to the public, replied, according to Urbina, that if regulators actually were interested in this information subpoenas were available to them. But that's the point. The EPA didn't go after the oil and gas giants but just passively accepted that it couldn't investigate because of "sealed settlements." This is kowtowing to the industry, not protecting the public. "Our hands are tied," one anonymous EPA official stated. So the Environmental Protection Agency can't protect the environment because oil companies don't want it to. What the frack is that?

When in 2004 the EPA released a study that fracking for coal-bed methane wells posed almost no danger to drinking water people within the EPA itself complained that the official report was "unscientific and unduly influenced by industry." But who is there to regulate the regulators? Congress is ultimately responsible, but with the tea party at large in the House and industry lobbyists flooding Washington, don't expect much help from that quarter.

The people have to do it themselves by pressuring their elected representatives and demonstrating against the companies at their fracking sites and headquarters. And a rebuff at the polls next year for all those who put profits before people would not hurt.