When famous surgeon Michael DeBakey was asked why his research on the link between smoking and lung cancer was virtually ignored in the 1930s, he had to remind people of the situation at the time. The whole company smoked. Smoking was in the movies. It was everywhere. Medical meetings were held in “heavy fogs of smoke.” Smoking was briefly normal. It was as if the cigarette and lung cancer debates in the US Congress were being held in smoke-filled rooms. (I wonder what they serve for breakfast at Dietary Guidelines Committee meetings these days…)
In the past I talked about a famous statistician named Ronald Fisher, who strongly opposed what he called: “propaganda … to convince the public that cigarette smoking (was) dangerous.” Fisher made invaluable contributions to the field of statistics, but his analysis of lung cancer and smoking was flawed because he was not prepared to examine the full range of data provided. This smokiness may have been due to the fact that he was a consultant to the tobacco industry, or because he was a smoker himself. Part of his reluctance to perceive a dangerous link can be traced to his fondness for smoking—which makes me wonder if researchers today are biased toward certain preferred foods.
I find it ironic time and time again that vegetarian researchers cite their own dietary choices as a potential conflict of interest, when in the 70,000 articles on meat in the medical literature, I have not once seen a researcher highlight their non-vegetarian habits—because that’s normal.
Just like normal smoking used to be. How could something so normal be bad for you? Besides, you don’t smoke one cigarette and collapse dead, do you? Cancer takes decades to develop. Given that most doctors at the time smoked themselves and saw no immediate ill effects, they refused to accept even the possibility of such a link, despite the mountain of evidence.
It may have taken 25 years for the surgeon general’s report to come out, and even longer for general medicine to join them, but at least now we no longer see advertisements encouraging people to: “Inhale to your heart’s content!” ”Now we’re seeing ads from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fighting back.
In terms of food advertising, we don’t have to go all the way back to: “Meat … for heart protection” or “Nutritious bacon” or to doctors prescribing meat or sugary drinks, for that matter. “Thank God!” “Trix will get you addicted!” We know it’s bad when the most common sense nutrition advice comes from cigarette ads.
Nowadays, we can see hot dogs with American Heart Association certifications and meat cheese tips. And which food item on the market was the first to receive the “Kids Eat Right” label from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics? Was it an apple? Maybe broccoli? No, it was cheese from the American conglomerate Kraft.
Today, just as the avant-garde tried to save lives in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, there are people who are turning ads about what you can do with a pig’s butt into what pork can do do to your butt. A good example is the campaign of the Health Committee for Responsible Medicine entitled “Meat is the new tobacco”. Barnard tried to explain in an editorial in the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics: “plant-based diets can be considered the nutritional equivalent of quitting smoking.”
How many more people have to die before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also starts encouraging residents not to “wait for open heart surgery” before they start eating healthy?
However, just as we don’t have to wait for our doctor to stop smoking before we quit, we don’t have to wait for our doctor to attend a nutrition class or clean up our diet before we make healthier food choices for ourselves. Doctors no longer have a professional monopoly on health information.
We are witnessing the democratization of knowledge. And so, until the system changes, we must take personal responsibility for our own health and the health of our families. We can’t wait again for society to catch up with science because it’s life or death.
dr. Kim Allan Williams became president of the American College of Cardiology and was asked why he was following his own advice about a plant-based diet. “I’m not worried about dying,” answered Dr. Williams: “I just don’t want it to be my own fault.”