180,000 Deaths Per Year?

icy vista

At the American Heart Association’s 2013 annual meeting, a Harvard postdoctoral research fellow named Gitanjali Singh presented some ideas that generated headlines and controversy. The topic was the public health hazard posed by soda pop in all its forms. She told the assemblage:

We know that sugar-sweetened beverages are linked to obesity, and that a large number of deaths are caused by obesity-related diseases. But until now, nobody had really put these pieces together.

Singh led a team from the university’s School of Public Health that spent five years studying the effects of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). The most noteworthy effect, in their view, is mortality. The researchers first looked at how many SSBs people drank worldwide.

They then proceeded to determine how the amounts of consumed beverages affected obesity rates, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Finally, the scientists calculated the mortality rates of these conditions and concluded that 180,000 deaths could be attributed to the consumption of unhealthy beverages.

A portion of these fatalities, of course, took place in the United States, with an estimated 25,000 people each year dying as a result of their fondness for SSBs. Now, prepare for a surprise. Are you sitting down? The American Beverage Association disagrees. One of the experts they rely on is the chief health and medical editor from ABC News, Dr. Richard Besser, who “compared sugary drinks to cigarettes — neither directly cause a person’s death, but both cause diseases that are often fatal.”

This is the type of issue that historians argue about, also. When totaling up the Mongols’ death toll, do you count only the people they directly beheaded, incinerated, impaled, etc? Or do you also count the ones who starved to death because of crop destruction, the women who died in childbirth as a result of being violated, and so on?

Apologists and hired guns

Jeff Nedelman, described as “chief lobbyist for the nation’s largest food trade association,” compared Singh’s assertions to “screaming at consumers.” He also accused the media of failing to examine facts and of distorting the facts they had not examined. He wrote:

This study shed strong light on the worst flaws in reporting breaking science news. Technically, what was presented was an “Abstract” from an observational epidemiological study done by Harvard’s School of Public Health. Great brand name, lousy science and a prime example of health data distortion.

One of Nedelman’s slurs is that “most observational studies never make it to peer-reviewed journals.” This may be true in many areas of science, but in epidemiology, for instance, there is not much choice. No group of scientists anywhere ought to be given official permission to purposely infect a group of subjects with tuberculosis, for instance, and then compare them to a control group not infected with the disease. Nedelman makes “observational study” sound like a dirty word.

Just looking

Observation means looking at the consequences after something awful, like falling into an icy ocean, happens to people. But no scientist is allowed to deliberately keep people in vats of near-freezing water. Not in any kind of civilized society, anyway. In some cases, observational is the only kind of study that is feasible or possible.

One type of observational study involves looking at the results of what people have done voluntarily, like smoke two packs of cigarettes per day for five years. But it would be highly unethical to set up a lab experiment and force that much nicotine into anyone’s body. No group of scientists should ever even want to do something like that, and hopefully, since the notorious medical experiments of Nazi Germany, none have.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Soda kills 180,000 people a year,” RT.com, 03/20/14
Source: “The venomous rhetoric is worse than the science,” FSHealth.com, 04/10/13
Image by NOAA’s National Ocean Service

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