Death by Healthy Doses

 

by Walter Brasch

       

They buried Bouldergrass today. The cause of death was listed as “media-induced health.”

Bouldergrass had begun his health crusade more than a decade ago when he began reading more than the sports pages of his local newspaper, subscribed to his first magazine, and decided TV news could be informative if it didn’t mention anything about wars, famines, and poverty.

Based on what he read and saw in the media, Bouldergrass moved from smog-bound Los Angeles to a rural community in scenic green Vermont, gave up alcohol and a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and was immediately hospitalized for having too much oxygen in his body.

To burn off some of that oxygen, he joined America’s “beautiful people” on the jogging paths where the media helped him believe he was sweating out the bad karma. In less than a year, the karma left his body which was now coexisting with leg cramps, fallen arches, and several compressed disks. But at least he was as healthy as all the ads told him he could be.

To make sure he didn’t get skin cancer from being in the sun too long, he slathered four pounds of No. 35 sunblock on his body every time he ran, and went to suntan parlors twice a week to get that “healthy glow” advertisers told him he needed. He stopped blocking when he learned that suntan parlors weren’t good for your health, and that the ingredients in the lotions could cause cancer. So, he wore a jogging suit that covered more skin than an Arab woman’s black chador with veil—and developed a severe case of heat exhaustion.

From ultrathin models and billions of dollars in weight-reducing advertising that told him “thin was in,” he began a series of crash diets. When he was down to 107 pounds, advertising told him he needed to “bulk up” to be a “real man.” So, he began lifting weights and playing racquetball three hours a day. Four groin pulls and seven back injuries later, he had just 6 percent body fat, and a revolving charge account with his local orthopedist.

Several years earlier, Bouldergrass had stopped eating veal as part of a protest of America’s inhumane treatment of animals destined for supermarkets. Now, in an “enlightened” age of health, he gave up all meat, not because of mankind’s cruelty to animals, but because the media revealed that vascular surgeons owned stock in meat packing companies. Besides, it was the “healthy” thing to do.

He gave up pasta when he saw a TV report about the microscopic creepy crawlers that infest most dough.

He gave up drinking soda and began drinking juice, until he read a report that said apple juice had higher than normal levels of arsenic.

He ate soup because it was healthy and so Mmm Mmm Good, until he learned that soup had more salt than Lot’s wife. When he found low-salt soup, he again had a cup a day—until last month when he gave it up because a Harvard study revealed that soup cans contained significant amounts of Bisphenol-A-, which can lead to cancer and heart disease.

For a couple of years, lured by a multi-million dollar ad campaign and innumerable articles in the supermarket tabloids, Bouldergrass ate only oat bran muffins for breakfast and a diet of beta carotenes for lunch, until he found himself spending more time in the bathroom than at work. He eliminated the muffins entirely after reading an article that told him eating oatmeal, bran, and hood ornaments from Buick Roadsters were bad for your health.

Bouldergrass gave up milk when he learned that acid rain fell onto pastures and was eaten by cows. When he learned that industrial conglomerates had dumped everything from drinking water to radioactive waste into streams and rivers, he stopped eating fish. For awhile, based upon conflicting reports in the media, he juggled low-calorie, low-fat, and low-carbohydrate diets until his body systems dropped into the low end of inertia.

At the movies, he smuggled in packets of oleo to squeeze onto plain popcorn until he was bombarded by news stories that revealed oleo was as bad as butter and that most theatrical popcorn was worse than an all-day diet of sirloin.

When he learned that coffee and chocolate were unhealthy, he gave up an addiction to getting high from caffeine and sugar, and was now forced to work 12-hour days without any stimulants other than the fear of what his children were doing while he was at work.

Unfortunately, he soon had to give up decaffeinated coffee and sugarless candy with cyclamates since both caused laboratory mice to develop an incurable yen to listen to music from the Grand Funk Railroad.

He gave up pizza when the media reported that certain “health care investigators” claimed pizza was little more than junk food. But, he began eating several slices a day to improve his health when Congress, fattened by lobbyists campaigns, last month declared frozen pizza was a vegetable. He figured it made sense, since three decades earlier the Reagan administration had declared catsup to be a vegetable, and five years ago the Department of Agriculture decided butter-coated french fries were a vegetable.

Left with a diet of fruits and vegetables, he was lean and trim. Until he accidentally stumbled across a protest by an environmental group which complained that the use of pesticides on farm crops was a greater health hazard than the bugs the pesticides were supposed to kill. Even the city’s polluted water couldn’t clean off all the pesticides. That’s also when he stopped taking showers, and merely poured a gallon of distilled water over his head every morning.

For weeks, he survived on buckets of vitamins because the magazines told him that’s what he should do. Then, after reading an article that artificial vitamins shaped like the Flintstones caused dinosaur rot, he also gave them up.

The last time I saw Bouldergrass, he was in a hospital room claiming to see visions of monster genetic tomatoes squishing their way toward him. He was mumbling something about cholesterol and high density lipoproteins. Tubes were sticking out of every opening in his emaciated body, as well as a couple of openings that hadn’t been there when he first checked in.

In one last attempt to regain his health, Bouldergrass enlisted in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move army. But the only movement he was doing was when the nurses flipped him so he wouldn’t get bed sores.

Shortly before he died, he pulled me near him, asked that I write his obit, and in a throaty whisper begged, “Make sure you tell them that thanks to what I learned from the media, I died healthy.”

[Walter Brasch, a robust figure of health, doesn’t follow anyone’s advice on what is or is not healthy. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, a social issues mystery novel. Brasch says the book is a great Christmas or Chanukah gift, and increased sales will improve his own mental, if not physical, health.]

         

 

 

Questions Remain in Government's Anti-Cigarette Campaign

 

 

 

by Walter Brasch

 

The federal government has launched what may become one of the most effective propaganda campaigns in American history.

Beginning September 2012, every cigarette manufacturer must display one of nine government-approved graphics on the top half, both front and back, of every cigarette pack. Among the warnings is a picture of a pair of healthy lungs next to a pair of cancerous lungs, with the notice: "Cigarettes cause fatal lung disease." Another warning is equally definitive: "Cigarettes cause cancer," with a picture of rotting gums and teeth. A person with an oxygen mask is the graphic for the text, "Cigarettes cause strokes and heart disease." Other pictures show smoke coming from a tracheotomy hole and a dead body with autopsy stitches on his chest. Other warnings, with appropriate graphics are: "Smoking during pregnancy can harm your baby," "Tobacco smoke can harm your children," and "Tobacco smoke causes fatal lung disease in non-smokers." One graphic shows a man in a T-shirt with the message, "I quit." Cigarette manufacturers must include all nine warnings in rotation on their packs.

In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also requires that one-fifth of every print ad must include the warnings.

The FDA directive is based upon Congressional action in 2009. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which received strong bipartisan support, also prohibited cigarette manufacturers from sponsoring sports and cultural events. It further restricted tobacco companies from advertising their products on T-shirts and other clothing items.

The first cigarette ad was in the New York National Daily in May 1789. By the Civil War, cigarette ads were appearing regularly in newspapers. The tobacco industry's own propaganda machine significantly increased full-page full-color ads in magazines during the 1930s and 1940s; a decade later, the industry was one of the first to recognize the influence of the emerging television medium. The ads not only extolled the advantages of smoking, they linked dozens of celebrities to their campaigns. Bob Hope pushed Chesterfields; Ronald Reagan wanted Americans to give Chesterfields as a Christmas gift. One popular ad even had Santa Claus enjoying a Lucky Strike. Marlboros became hugely successful with its Marlboro Man commercials that featured rugged cowboy individualism. To get the largely untapped female demographic into its sales net, cigarette companies went with what is now seen as sexist advertising. Lucky Strike wanted women to smoke its cigarettes "to keep a slender figure." Misty cigarettes emphasized its smoke, like its women, was "slim and sassy."  

Camel cigarettes, which would eventually develop Joe Camel as its cartoon spokesman to counter the Marlboro Man, tied health, opinion leaders, and tobacco smoke. Its survey of more than 100,000 physicians of every specialty said Camels was their preferred brand.

However, by the mid-1960s, physicians had begun backing away not just from Camels but all cigarettes. A Surgeon's General's report in 1964 concluded there was a strong correlation between smoking and lung cancer. The following year, the Surgeon General required tobacco manufacturers to put onto every cigarette pack a warning, "Cigarettes may be hazardous to your health."

 In 1967, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that the Fairness Doctrine required TV and radio stations to run anti-smoking ads at no cost. The message was clear to the financial departments—voluntarily eliminate cigarette advertising or lose five to ten minutes of sales time every broadcast day. In 1971, the FCC banned all cigarette advertising on radio and TV.

By 2003, cigarette advertising peaked at $15 billion, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) To counter cigarette company advertising campaigns, government steadily raised cigarette taxes. State and local taxes accounted for $16.6 billion in 2008, according to the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution. Federal taxes, raised to $1.01 a pack in 2009, brought in about $8.5 billion. New York City residents pay the highest taxes per pack--$1.50 city tax, $4.35 state tax, $1.01 federal tax. The average combined tax nationwide is $5.51. Pennsylvanians pay $1.60 state and $1.101 federal taxes. Much of the money is used to develop anti-smoking campaigns. 

About 443,000 deaths each year are primarily from the effects of cigarette smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new campaign aims to cut that by half. The FDA estimates there are about 46 million smokers.

It's obvious that both tobacco manufacturer and government advertising campaigns have been effective. But there are several  questions that need to be asked.

If the federal government demands health warnings on cigarette packs, why doesn't it also demand similar warnings on other products that also carry known health risks, like liquor?

If there is so much evidence that cigarette smoke—with its tar, nicotine, and associated chemicals—poses such a high health risk, why doesn't the federal government ban it, like it does numerous products known to be unsafe?

Does the federal government's campaign violate the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech? This becomes an even more important question since the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that with few exceptions corporations enjoy the same rights as individual citizens.

If there is evidence that tobacco smoke is unsafe and unhealthy, and the government levies excessive taxes, why did the federal government grant $194.4 million in agriculture subsidies in 2010 and about $1.1 billion in subsidies since 2000?

Finally, if the evidence is overwhelming that cigarette smoke is dangerous, and the federal government taxes every pack but doesn't ban cigarettes, why has it been so adamant in refusing to decriminalize marijuana, which has significantly fewer health risks than what is in the average cigarette?

 [Dr. Brasch has never smoked, but respects the rights of those who do. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, a literary journalism novel about the counterculture.]

 

 

 

Weekly Pulse: Single-Payer Bills Pass Vermont Senate, House


By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The Vermont state Senate passed legislation to create a single-payer health insurance system, Paul Waldman reports for TAPPED. Since the state House has already passed a similar bill, all that’s left to do is reconcile the two pieces of legislation before the governor signs it into law.

Waldman stresses that there are still many details to work out, including how the system will be funded. Vermont might end up with a system like France’s where everyone has basic public insurance, which most people supplement with additional private coverage. The most important thing, Waldman argues, is that Vermont is moving to sever the link between employment and health insurance.

Roe showdown

Anti-choicers are gunning for a Roe v. Wade showdown in the Supreme Court before Obama can appoint any more justices. At the behest of an unnamed conservative group, Republican state Rep. John LaBruzzo of Louisiana has introduced a bill that would ban all abortions, even to save the woman’s life. The original bill upped the anti-choice ante by criminalizing not only doctors who perform abortions, but also women who procure them. LaBruzzo has since promised to scale the bill back to just criminalizing doctors. This is all blatantly unconstitutional, of course,. but as Kate Sheppard explains in Mother Jones, that’s precisely the point:

The Constitution, of course, is exactly what LaBruzzo is targeting. He admits his proposal is intended as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional right to privacy included the right to abortions in some circumstances. LaBruzzo says he’d like his bill to become law and “immediately go to court,” and he told a local paper that an unnamed conservative religious group asked him to propose the law for exactly that purpose.

Drug pushers in your living room

Martha Rosenberg poses a provocative question at AlterNet: Does anyone remember a time before “Ask Your Doctor” ads overran the airwaves, Internet, buses, billboards, and seemingly every other medium? Direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising has become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget that it was illegal until the late ’90s. In the days before DTC, drug advertising was limited to medical journals, prescription pads, golf towels, and pill-shaped stress balls distributed in doctors’ offices–which makes sense. The whole point of making a drug prescription-only is to put the decision-making power in the hands of doctors. Now, drug companies advertise to consumers for the same reason that food companies advertise to children. It’s called “pester power.”

DTC drug ads encourage consumers to self-diagnose based on vague and sometimes nearly universal symptoms like poor sleep, daytime drowsiness, anxiety, and depression. Once consumers are convinced they’re suffering from industry-hyped constructs like “erectile dysfunction” and “premenstrual dysphoric disorder,” they’re going to badger their doctors for prescriptions.

That’s not to say that these terms don’t encompass legitimate health problems, but rather that DTC markets products in such vague terms that a lot of healthy people are sure to be clamoring for drugs they don’t need. Typically, neither the patient nor the doctor is paying the full cost of the drug, so patients are more likely to ask and doctors have little incentive to say no.

Greenwashing air fresheners

A reader seeks the counsel of Grist’s earthy advice columnist Umbra on the issue of air fresheners. Some of these odor-concealing aerosols are touting themselves as green for adopting all-natural propellants. Does that make them healthier, or greener? Only marginally, says Umbra. Air fresheners still contain formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, and other questionable chemicals.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

ABC-TV: Oscar-Worthy, But Journalistically Unsound

 

 

by Walter Brasch

 

            The last segment on every Friday's broadcast of ABC-TV's "World News," with Diane Sawyer, is a "Person of the Week."

            Usually, those persons have gone out of their way to do something good for people, or have lived a long and distinguished life, or by their example give inspiration to others.

            Recent "persons of the week" have included a very special caregiver, a wheelchair-bound teen who does wheelchair tricks, and a homeless man who returned $3,300 he had found.

            However, this past Friday, the "Persons of the Week" were two actors. There's nothing wrong with honoring actors and others in the creative arts. They bring us joy and, often, intellectual stimulation. But, the reason ABC News honored Anne Hathaway and James Franco had little to do with acting—and everything to do with advertising.

            ABC is broadcasting the Oscars, Sunday, and Hathaway and Franco are the hosts. To justify their inclusion, Sawyer led off the segment by telling us: "The torch will be passed to a new generation. The baby boomers no longer hosting the Oscars."

            But, for two and a half minutes, we learned about Hathaway and Franco, and not the story of a change in the Industry. We even learned about what each would like to know about the other.

            In television, ratings, mixed with some demographic analyses, determine the price of advertising. The range for 30 second ads for scripted prime time shows is about $50,000–$250,000. For the Super Bowl, with the largest audience, 30-second ads this year went for about $3 million. ABC, which sold all ad time for the primetime Oscars telecast, charged about $1.7 million for 30 seconds advertising. ABC pays about $65 million to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the broadcast rights. The Disney-owned company expects about $80 million revenue and is hoping for at least 43 million viewers for the telecast. And that doesn't include the advertising for the pre-Oscar "red carpet" show, or the on-air promotions for Disney-owned productions.

            By Industry standards, if the ratings tank, ABC would have an obligation to return money to advertisers, something it definitely doesn't want to do.

            So, in addition to running numerous Oscar-related commercials during ad time in the two weeks leading to the Sunday night broadcast, ABC-TV made its "Person of the Week" nothing more than another Oscar promotion to guarantee the network a strong "return on investment."

            That decision alone damages a news operation's credibility.

 

[Assisting on this column was Rosemary Brasch. Walter Brasch is a journalist/columnist, the author of 16 books, including Sex and the Single Beer Can: Probing the Media and American Culture (3rd ed.). He is a retired professor of mass communications and journalismYou may contact him at walterbrasch@gmail.com]

 

 

Weekly Pulse: On Health Care Repeal, House GOP Full of Sound and Fury

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

House Republicans will hold a symbolic vote to overturn health care reform on January 12. The bill, which would repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and set the nation’s health care laws back to the way they were last March, has no chance of becoming law. The GOP controls the House, but Democrats control the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the Senate Democrats will block the bill.

Suzy Khimm of Mother Jones reports that the 2-page House bill carries no price tag. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the ACA would save $143 billion dollars over the next decade. The GOP repeal bill contains no alternative plan. So, repealing the ACA would be tantamount to adding $143 billion to the deficit. So much for fiscal responsibility.

Why are the Republicans rushing to vote on a doomed bill without even bothering to hold hearings, or formulate a counter-proposal for the Congressional Budget Office to score? Kevin Drum of Mother Jones hazards a guess:

[Speaker John] Boehner [(R-OH)] knows two things: (a) he has to schedule a repeal vote because the tea partiers will go into open revolt if he doesn’t, and (b) it’s a dead letter with nothing more than symbolic value. So he’s scheduling a quick vote with no hearings and no CBO scoring just so he can say he’s done it, after which he can move on to other business he actually cares about.

An opportunity?

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly argues that all this political theater around repealing the Affordable Care Act is an opportunity for Democrats to remind the public about all the popular aspects of the bill that the GOP is trying to strip away.

Last weekend several key provisions of the ACA took effect, including help for middle income seniors who are running up against the prescription drug “donut hole.” Until last Saturday, their drugs were covered up to a relatively low threshold, then they were on their own until they spent enough on prescriptions for the catastrophic coverage to kick in again. Those seniors will be reluctant to give up their brand new 50% discount on drugs in the donut hole.

Another crack at turning eggs into persons

A Colorado ballot initiative to bestow full human rights on fertilized ova was resoundingly defeated for the second time in the last midterm elections. Attempts to reclassify fertilized ova as people are an attempt to ban abortion, stem cell research, and some forms of birth control. Patrick Caldwell of the American Independent reports that new egg-as-person campaigns are stirring in other states where activists hope to take advantage of new Republican majorities.

Personhood USA, the group behind the failed Colorado ballot initiatives, claims that there is “action” (of some description) on personhood legislation in 30 states. Caldwell says Florida may be the next battleground. Personhood USA needs 676,000 signatures to get their proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot. Right now, they have zero, but they promise a “big push” in 2011.

Ronald McDonald = Joe the Camel

In AlterNet, Kelle Louaillier calls for more regulation of fast food industry advertising to children. New research shows that children are being exposed to significantly more fast food ads than they were just a few years ago. Other studies demonstrate that children give higher marks to food products when they are paired with a cartoon character. Louaillier writes of her organization’s campaign to prevent fast food companies from using cartoons to market fast food to kids:

For our part, my organization launched a campaign in March to convince McDonald’s to retire Ronald McDonald, its iconic advertising character, and the suite of predatory marketing practices of which the clown is at the heart. A study we commissioned by Lake Research Partners found that more than half of those polled say they “favor stopping corporations from using cartoons and other children’s characters to sell harmful products to children.”

Local elected officials are joining the cause, too. Los Angeles recently voted to make permanent a ban on the construction of new fast food restaurants in parts of the city. San Francisco has limited toy giveaway promotions to children’s meals that meet basic health criteria. The idea is spreading to other cities.

2011 trendspotting: Baby food

The hot new snack trend for 2011 is mush, as Bonnie Azab Powell reports in Grist. In an attempt to burnish its portfolio of “healthier” snack options for kids Tropicana (a PepsiCo company) is introducing a new line of pureed fruit and vegetable slurries. The products, sold under the brand name Tropolis, feature ground up fruits and veggies, vitamin C, and fiber in a portable plastic pouch. These “drinkified snacks” or “snackified drinks” will be priced at $2.49 to $3.49 for a four-pack, making them more expensive than fresh fruit.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

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