Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Make Sure you Read the Byline

In a capitalistic society such as our own, the dollar is always key. And, in the advent of the 20th century consumption patterns and tremendous growth following the industrial revolution, a company’s relationship to the public is the key ring that enables the company to reap the wealth their stockholders seek. A lot of this perception to the public is done through TV commercials, sponsorship of sporting events, magazine and newsprint ads, and the like. However, a more sure-fire way to sell your product is if you have studies confirming your product is superior to others. And, as companies have found out, it is possible to fund exactly that sort of research.

While general advertising has always been present, and there has always been research into which products work better for specific applications, it has become a subtle tool of the marketing strategy to utilize scientists, doctors, environmentalists, and other groups to create studies that support their own marketing claims: i.e., their product is superior to others. And this has dangerous consequences for our own scientific integrity as well as consumer wellbeing.

A recent example , taken from the headlines a couple weeks ago, relates to a new set of dietary requirements. The panel, which is headed up by such prominent people as Dr. Walter Willet, chairman of the Harvard School of Public Health and Dr. Benjamin Caballero, an obesity researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, came up with some startling opinions. At least at first they were surprising. Amongst others, they recommend that unsweetened tea or coffee can have a safe consumption level of 40 ounces a day. For you Starbucks fans, that is as much as three tall cups of joe. They limit fruit juices to 8 ounces a day, but give men reign to drink as much as 24 ounces of beer daily. Beer got a higher recommended daily allowance than soda, juice, and milk.

All of this sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Yes, until you start to look at who authored the study. Not the scientists and doctors, but the company sponsoring the research. Unilever provided the financial backing for the study. One of Unilever’s companies is Lipton Tea, which received a huge boost from the report. This creates not so little suspicion about the results of the study. Even more so when you consider that Lipton took out an ad in the USA Today, extolling the study’s findings and offering a coupon for their tea products.

It gets even murkier in another study revealed in December . This involves the same researcher from Stanford University who is reporting about preventative measures for cardiovascular disease. The first one reported that “aspirin is not used more because lipid-lowering statin drugs get greater priority from doctors. That’s even though statins are no more effective at reducing cardiovascular risk than aspirin – and a heck of a lot more expensive.” That is an interesting finding, but even more so was at the bottom of the page. The study was paid for by a grant from aspirin giant Bayer Pharmaceutical Corporation.

Wait, it gets better. The previous May, the same researcher submitted an article describing how “doctors fail to prescribe statins as much as they should to patients at risk for cardiovascular disease, and more aggressive efforts are needed to get patients to use them.” This report, extolling the virtues of statins, was provided financially by Merck, a major manufacturer of statins.

So, if you look at these two articles, the research is saying that doctors need to recommend more patients take statins, but in doing so are marginalizing aspirin use, which is just as effective and cheaper and therefore also neglected? So which is it?

Companies sponsoring research a study is dangerous. Most often it leads to information, which may still be true, but becomes skewed during the reportage. After all, the researcher wouldn’t want to jeopardize his relationship with Bayer, who paid a nice $48,000 for the study, by repeating the findings he had previously verified to be true (and in the process earn his $90,000 from Merck). Maybe statins and aspirin are both under-utilized. That is not at issue. What is at issue is groups and companies utilizing a relatively anonymous source of publicity to make their case to the world of consumers. It has been done a long time by the tobacco industry and oil industry. They create non-profits groups like Citizens for Responsible Futures or something and use that group to campaign for the benefits of their products. It creates this dangerously benign surface for their ad campaigns, and dilutes a lot of the common citizen’s ability to rationalize the data that is being presented. After all, if Phillip Morris came out with a study that said second hand smoke doesn’t kill you, you’d laugh all day long. But if the Concerned Americans for Tobacco Regulation said the same thing, you’d stop and think twice. After all, they’re concerned about us. It’s in their name. And they’re not some company saying this, but an independent group reporting. That carries more weight.

Consumers need to be wary of all reports that come out, no matter what the source. Blindly trusting reports that come out is dangerous, for it can be (and recently, quite often is) a company funneling their own PR information through another channel.

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