In his 1996 book "Smokescreen," former New York Times science reporter Philip Hilts wrote about how the tobacco industry manipulated research and attacked scientific data linking cigarettes to cancer. "We know perfectly well that company executives are not making actual scientific arguments about tobacco and disease," Hilts wrote. "They are simply making any arguments that might raise any doubt possible " to guarantee "a lack of broad urgency on the topic."
A decade later, obesity is on the road to catching up with smoking as a leading cause of death in the United States. Today's children may face a lower life expectancy than their parents. There is fresh evidence that an industry linked to the crisis, the beverage industry, is engaging in tobacco tactics. It clearly hopes to maintain a lack of broad urgency.
Researchers from Boston's Children's Hospital this week found that industry-paid health research on soda and other beverages were four to eight times more likely than independent studies to produce favorable results. The study, published in the online, peer-reviewed journal PLoS Medicine, was most striking when it came to trials where participants were given drinks and then measured for the effects.
Of independent studies, 37 percent found negative conclusions. But of industry-funded studies, not a single one came to a conclusion that "ran counter to the industry's interests," said lead author David Ludwig.
Ludwig, a nationally known advocate for limiting junk food and director of Children's Hospital's Optimal Weight for Life program, said yesterday over the telephone, "Every scientist has preconceived notions, but those tend to cancel out over time in independent research. Think of independent research like little sailboats on a lake with only a light wind. Each boat has it s own tack, but the research can get every boat to any part of the lake.
"With industry-financed studies, it appears that the boats are all blown in one direction."
The American Beverage Association was quick to attack Ludwig's study. It said, "This is yet another attack on industry by activists who demonstrate their own biases in their review by looking only at the funding sources and not judging the research on its merits."
Ludwig said that, indeed, the scope of the study was not to decide the quality of each study. It was the first attempt to see if there was any trend at all in research funding on beverages and results. "Bias can occur in many ways, consciously and unconsciously, in study design and data collection that lead to particular conclusions," he said. "It's possible that some industry studies are of high quality, but we don't know whether there were negative studies that never come to light. That's publication bias. I don't blame scientists, but are scientists asking questions differently when food industry or commercial interests are paying for it and when renewal of a grant depends on the happiness of the sponsor?"
What is known is that Ludwig and many other researchers are piling up medical journal studies that show associated and direct affects of soda. A 2006 study in the journal Pediatrics found that consumption of soda by girls in the United States rose between two and three times between ages 9 and 19 and, adjusting for all other caloric intake, soda was associated with weight gain. Another 2006 study in Pediatrics found that American teens consume more calories than they need, with overweight teenagers eating and drinking 700 to 1,000 more calories than necessary, gaining an average of 58 pounds over a 10-year-period.
For the average American teen, drinking just one soda fewer a day could counteract weight gain, researchers wrote.
Would the beverage industry really want to see that? For all its claims about selling a wide variety of healthy beverages, and despite a decline from record highs of the 1990s, Americans drank 36.5 gallons of regular soda a year in 2004, according to federal statistics. That remains well above the 29.8 gallons of 1984 and is still more than twice the 15.8 gallon-a-year consumption of diet drinks.
"We need the food industry to feed us," Ludwig said. "We're not going back to the farm any time soon. But we need to understand the role of the industry and science and not mix it up. When government underfunds nutrition research, that leaves a big window that industry can come through. The relatively small costs of better funding nutritional research will be dwarfed by the costs of basing public policy on the basis of biased research.
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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