Faces and Places

Public Health’s Inconvenient Truths


calvin-ayre-patrick-basham-becky-liggeroThe new calendar year hasn’t started well for the public health doomsayers – always described in media reports as “leading experts” – who have spent the past decade predicting that regular folks are literally eating, drinking, and (legally and illegally) smoking themselves to death. We all ‘know’ these dire predictions are true, because leading experts have told us, repeatedly, that industrialized nations are being physiologically damaged and, hence, economically bankrupted by respective obesity and binge drinking “epidemics,” as well as by legal cigarette smoking and illegal marijuana consumption.

The latest problem for the doomsayers is that this week’s news has been full of evidence that the state of public health in America, for example, is actually improving rather than deteriorating. Furthermore, smoking – whether of the tobacco or joint variety – may have specific, previously undocumented health benefits.

Few things are more widely accepted by the global public health establishment than the ‘fact’ of an obesity epidemic in industrialized countries. Nothing has brought more politically correct scorn upon me and my long standing coauthor, Dr John Luik, than our critique of the myth of an obesity epidemic.

Yet, the Gallup research organization has now confirmed what a plethora of earlier data suggested: the growth in the number of obese Americans has peaked and is actually on the decline. Obesity rates for all demographic groups included in Gallup’s analysis are either trending down or were statistically unchanged in 2011.

For example, Gallup found that more Americans are a normal weight than are overweight. In the third quarter of 2009, 26.3 percent of Americans were officially obese. However, by the third quarter of 2011 the percentage was 25.8.

Of course, obesity statistics, such as official government statistics and Gallup’s own data, are based upon Body Mass Index scores, which are deeply flawed in a methodological sense. Nevertheless, even these crude, conventional numbers capture the true trend in contemporary American waistlines.

For years, we have been assured that epidemics of obesity, binge drinking, and problem gambling-induced suicide were going to shorten average lifespans significantly. Yet, brand new life expectancy data released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Americans are projected to live longer than ever.

Life expectancy reached a historic high in 2010, as fewer people died from heart disease and cancer – diseases always projected to skyrocket as more Americans became obese and cancer-ridden on fat-laden diets of junk food and red meat.

Yet, the average American man now has a life expectancy of 76.2 years, and the average American woman now has a life expectancy of 81.1 years. Average life expectancy has risen by two years for both men and women over the past decade of allegedly deteriorating public health.

This week also brought good news for older smokers. An American study found that older adults who are starting to have memory problems might benefit from moderate amounts of nicotine.

The study by Dr Paul Newhouse, director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University, and published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, found that older adults on nicotine therapy showed better results on cognitive tests for attention, memory, and on how fast and consistently they could process information.

After six months, the nicotine study group regained 46 per cent of normal performance for age on long-term memory tests, whereas the group of older adults that did not receive nicotine therapy worsened by 26 per cent over the same time period.

This week’s good news for legal smokers was matched by some very good news for smokers of an illegal product: marijuana. New academic research finds that occasional marijuana users have greater lung capacity than either tobacco smokers or non-tobacco smokers.

A research report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says that there is reliable evidence that occasional marijuana use can cause an increase in lung airflow rates and lung volume. Volume is measured as the total amount of air a person can blow out after taking the deepest breath they can.

The study, which was carried out by researchers from the University of California and the University of Alabama, spanned more than two decades and involved more than 5000 men and women in four American cities.

Even at daily usage levels of one joint per day over seven years, people did not seem to have any degradation of lung capacity or function. And, even one joint per week for 20 years did not appear to have a deleterious effect.

At the very least, the growing volume of data confirming that the public health sky is not really falling should bolster both the arguments and the spirits of those who seek, over the long term, to rebalance the regulatory environment away from myth and towards reality. Evidence-based policymaking should not be held hostage to a public health establishment embarrassed and irritated by inconvenient truths.

Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute and is a Cato Institute adjunct scholar. 


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