Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., just introduced a bill to restrict sales of soft drinks in schools. "The Better Nutrition for School Children Act of 2001" comes on the heels of a series of anti-soft drink articles in The Washington Post.
But Sen. Leahy should know better than to believe everything he reads.
The notion that children who consume soft drinks tend to be obese is intuitively appealing. That is undoubtedly why the Post felt comfortable running three articles on Feb. 27 — "Soft Drinks, Hard Facts," "Schools Hooked on Junk Food" and "Easy Cash Eroding Their Principles" — alarming readers about kids' soft drink consumption.
The bias in the Post's reporting is breathtaking.
"Soft Drinks, Hard Facts" reported: "One very recent, independent, peer-reviewed study demonstrates a strong link between soda consumption and childhood obesity. One previous industry-supported, unpublished study showed no link."
As opposed to the latter study, the former study apparently was "independent" because it was funded by federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
But both government agencies already urge that children avoid soft drinks despite the scarcity of scientific data, ostensibly only one study, to support such advocacy. The agencies are hardly disinterested in the outcome of the research.
A background check into the authors of the "independent" study reveals the study outcome is not unexpected. The authors have long been in the childhood obesity research business, blaming childhood obesity on diet and television-viewing habits.
It shouldn’t be surprising longtime childhood obesity researchers might be somewhat biased toward producing results that promote their area of research interest.
The Post expanded on the "independent" study, claiming each daily serving of a sugar-sweetened soft drink increased the rate of childhood obesity 1.6 times. This rate was estimated based on a statistical analysis of a small population of children.
It is elementary in such an analysis that reported increases in health effects rates on the order of 2.0 and less are considered weak and unreliable.
More accurately reported, the "independent" study reported no significant increase in obesity for soft-drink consumption among children.
The Post went to great pains to explain this basic rule when similarly weak statistics were used to link abortion with increased risk of breast cancer. With respect to women who had abortions having 1.5 times more breast cancer, the Post reported: "Though this may appear to be a large increase in risk … it falls in the barely detectable range."
Why the double standard? A cynic might suggest that abortion is more politically correct than soft drinks.
The Post's conduct gets worse.
Researchers from the Georgetown University-affiliated Georgetown Center for Food and Nutrition Policy presented four new studies at the Experimental Biology 2001 annual meeting on April 3.
The studies were based on analyses of data from two national surveys: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Continuing Survey of Food Intake. The researchers reported:
— No relationship between consumption of carbonated soft drinks and
obesity among 12- to 16-year-olds.
— Soft drinks did not reduce calcium consumption among 2- to 20-year-olds.
— Teens who consumed more soft drinks were as physically active as
those who consumed fewer soft drinks.
— Soft drink consumption did not harm diet quality among children and
teens as measured by the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index.
— The researchers added, "We need to stress the vital role of physical
activity for all students, not just the best athletes chosen for varsity sports
Though the media was informed of the Georgetown studies' release before the meeting, the Post didn’t see fit to report the news.
The omission is no surprise. The Georgetown studies were funded by the National Soft Drink Association. Though the group had no power to influence or alter the research findings, this funding arrangement apparently didn’t meet the Post's dubious standard for "independence."
But should the studies' funding source really make them less newsworthy? Shouldn’t scientific studies be judged on their technical merits, not their financing? On their scientific, not political correctness?
The new studies certainly are not the final word on soft-drink consumption and children's health, nor should they be. They are simply another analysis that should be considered among the limited database of relevant studies.
The problem, though, is that it seems as if the Post is more interested in frightening parents and children, and senators, rather than informing them.
Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of JunkScience.com