trans fat kills, but smoking massacres

Monday, June 22, 2015

In sports, fans get to boo and cheer because they have an emotional connection to their team and are invested in the outcome of the game. If only the same were true in the real world, where decisions made by the courts, elected officials and others have an impact on individual lives and society as a whole. For that reason, it would be very appropriate to take the FDA to task and boo loud and long. Given the responsibility for protecting the public by regulating food and drugs, those in charge of the Food and Drug Administration have forgotten their mission. Instead, they have allowed politicians to misshape their mission and in the process, allow millions of people to die.

Why the diatribe now? It’s about the announcement that trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) will be an effectively banned substance in the food supply. It only took 14 years for that decision to occur, since transfats were found to be a health risk by the National Academy of Science Institute of medicine in 2002. That led to the 2006 requirement that trans fat be labeled and 2013 FDA determination that transfats were no longer generally recognized as safe. FDA Commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, was quoted: “Further reduction in the amount of trans fat in the American diet could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year – a critical step in the protection of Americans’ health.”

That’s a lot of deaths to prevent, but in the scheme of things, there is a bigger fish and the FDA, the Surgeon General, the President and Congress have turned a blind eye to the tragedy of tobacco because it might be too hard work to mount a war against tobacco companies and their lobby. Plus, it would be extremely expensive, since the huge government income derived from taxes on tobacco would need to be replaced.

The numbers are compelling:

  • The American Heart Association estimates that cigarettes cause a quarter of all preventable deaths in the US each year, a total of 440,000 deaths. (The math says that is 60 times the expected numbers of lives to be saved by removing trans fat from the American diet.
  • In 2012, the Brooking Institute reports that federal and state governments collected 17.6 billion dollars in tobacco tax.
  • In 2012, the Federal government spent $231 million for lung cancer research.
  • The vast majority of lung cancers, more than 80% are attributed to tobacco use and second hand smoke.

There is no positive medical use for tobacco products. It is addictive and significant efforts are made to treat that addiction and stop people from smoking. New smokers are created day, though not as many as in past years. The high school smoking rate is 15.7% and that beats the 2020 US government goal of 16%. That rate should be zero or as close to zero as possible. More than 2,000 youths become regular smokers every day. Those new smokers are more than enough to replace the people who die every year from tobacco use and continue the demand for a product whose recognized side effect is disease and death.

Tobacco is a tough battle and government workers and elected officials have chosen not to take the high road because it is tough. Their lack of fortitude can be seen in their battle against trans fat that took so many years and their less forceful, politically expedient than approach. For a food product that is generally recognized as unsafe, food manufacturers can still apply for waivers for its use and are being given a three-year window to alter their product. Knowing that research showed their product to be unsafe in 2002 presumably did not give them enough time to do the right thing.

Saving 7,000 lives is a big deal ,but it is not time to cheer the FDA. It is time to boo them loudly, for the more than 400,000 people it allows to die each year.



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