Coke v. WHO on sugar & obesity, gene therapy v. HIV, Obama & Obamacare v. Galifianakis, David Wright v. Office of Research Integrity


They’d like to teach the world to drink Coke

The National Press Foundation recently sent out an invitation to a webinar for journalists next week, something it does occasionally. The ostensible topic is science reporting. But “science reporting” turns out to be just a cover for a public relations campaign on behalf of Coca-Cola.

coca cola

I know this because Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn rose wrathfully to beg writers not to attend and to urge the Foundation to cancel the webinar. As Raeburn pointed out, not only is the session sponsored by Coca-Cola, both the speakers–the only speakers–have been supported by Coke and have used their professional positions as academics to work against public health efforts such as taxing sugar-sweetened beverages and posting calorie counts on menus. “But why on earth is a journalism organization allowing Coke to use its cred to legitimize this webinar? This is a scandal.”

Also wrathful is Gary Schwitzer at the HealthNewsReview, where he critiques science and medical journalism. He quotes Raeburn at length, pointing out also that for four years HealthNewsReview has been on the National Press Foundation’s case for these fairly naked PR moves on behalf of its sponsors. He’s written several times about the fact that the Foundation has taken money from Pfizer for seminars on topics such as cancer, where the pharma has a big financial stake.

Sugar, sugar. I just can’t believe it’s true.

Sugar–denigrations of it, that is–is a topic on other recent blogs too. Nearly every week, actually. It’s always a favorite with Marion Nestle at Food Politics. This time she’s writing on the World Health Organization’s call for comments on its proposed guidelines for intake of added sugars. WHO advocates that added sugars account for less than 10% (50 grams) of daily calories; 5% (25 grams) would be even better.

Nestle’s post is particularly sweet and juicy because it fills us in on the politics and lobbying behind why this same guideline never made it into the dietary recommendations WHO issued a decade ago.  The reason is not very complicated. A can of Coke or Pepsi contains about 40 grams of sugar.

Noting that the comment deadline is March 31, Nestle says, “WHO must either think that the research basis of the 10% sugar guideline is much stronger now . . . or that the political landscape has shifted so far in the direction of reducing sugar intake that governments will ignore industry groups this time. I’m not so sure.  I think WHO needs all the help it can get with this one. Submit comments here.  Now!”

It’s possible that Nestle may not be giving changes in the anti-sugar political landscape enough credit. Scott Clement, at the Washington Post blog The Fix, reports that the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that twice as many poll respondents think sugar is the biggest health risk than those that fear marijuana most. OTOH, neither group was a big percentage of the sample. Only 8% were most worried about pot, while just 15% listed sugar as the biggest health risk. Half the respondents were most worried about tobacco and a quarter about alcohol.

Obesity? What obesity?

Obesity? What obesity?

At the PLOS blog Public Health Perspectives, Lindsay Kobayashi doesn’t mince words either: “Refined sugar is one of the worst things found in the Western diet.”  She urges favorable comment to WHO by the end of this month too. Kobayashi also takes the oddly optimistic view that the WHO guidelines might be “a stepping stone for health policy and the food industry to move forward together in reducing refined sugars in processed foods.”

Sure they will. Gail Collins tells us that part of the federal school lunch law taking effect this year will ban candy and soft drinks from school premises, including vending machines. So you can see why the sugar people are in a panic, and why Coke has seized an opportunity to lobby journalists.

Gene therapy for HIV and selling Obamacare

There’s a possibility for gene therapy for HIV infection involving one of the new gene-editing techniques, zinc-finger nucleases. I wrote about it at the Genetic Literacy Project earlier this week.

The post also mentions a couple of developments announced at the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. For example, there’s been another apparent cure of a newborn involving heavy doses of antiretroviral drugs. CROI is a pretty jam-packed conference, but you can catch up quickly on HIV developments if you consult Paul Sax’s Really Rapid Review at his NEJM blog HIV and ID Observations.

Sax concludes with that clip of President Obama gamely pitching Affordable Care Act insurance to Zach Galifianakis on the latter’s mostly lame online mock interview show Between Two Ferns. In case you missed it, my review is that it’s mildly amusing in a couple of spots, especially the finale, but not worth 15 minutes of your time. Or Obama’s, either.

Galifianakis and Obama

Nice to know, though, that those highly desirable Millennials have a different view of Galifianakis. The interview was, for a time, the biggest source of referrals to No word yet on whether the youths stayed to actually buy policies, thus contributing to the actuarial demands of cheaper health insurance. Mother Jones has what it calls “This Week’s Must-Read” piece describing how the interview came to be.

Integrity at the Office of Research Integrity

A few days ago, Adam Marcus reported at Retraction Watch that the head of the Office of Research Integrity had resigned his post last month for reasons that were undisclosed and mysterious. The ORI monitors alleged misconduct by scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Public Health Service. It reports annually, ususually listing about a dozen findings of misconduct. These include cases of fabrication, falsification, and/or plagiarism.

Now we know why David Wright quit, in his own words, because Science‘s Jocelyn Kaiser has obtained a copy of his letter of resignation. It appears at ScienceInsider.

David Wright. Credit: ORI

David Wright. Credit: ORI

It’s a doozy. Most of his job, Wright said, was “spent navigating the remarkably dysfunctional HHS bureaucracy to secure resources and, yes, get permission for ORI to serve the research community.  I knew coming into this job about the bureaucratic limitations of the federal government, but I had no idea how stifling it would be. What I was able to do in a day or two as an academic administrator takes weeks or months in the federal government.”

His beef is with the Office of Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh at the Department of Health and Human Services, ORI’s supervising agency. Kaiser explains, “He writes that ORI’s budget was micromanaged by more senior officials, and that Koh’s office had a ‘seriously flawed’ culture, calling it ‘secretive, autocratic and unaccountable.’ For example, he told Wanda Jones, Koh’s deputy, that he urgently needed to appoint a director for ORI’s division of education. Jones told him the position was somewhere on a secret priority list of appointments. The position has not been filled 16 months later, David Wright notes.”

Ivan Oransky has followed up at Retraction Watch by linking to Kaiser’s post. Several intriguing comments. Wright says he’s been told that his job is to make his superiors look good and to be a team player. He also questions whether a very political agency like OASH is the proper home for a regulatory agency like ORI. And there’s lots more, including his plan to publish his daily log.

The journalist in me is salivating. The citizen in me is in despair over how much ammunition these stories are about to hand over to the enemies of government. No longer will they need to invent victims of Obamacare and the school lunch program. The truth is likely to be awful enough.

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