I just came across a video created by Mike “The Health Ranger” Adams discussing a recent study. Applying all the subtlety of a Road Runner cartoon, Adams’ video painted the researchers as crazy mad scientists with kooky ideas that any idiot could see were just folly.
So what was Mike Adams complaining about this time? There was apparently a recent study published in August in the American Journal of Cardiology that led the authors to suggest it could be beneficial to public health if fast food establishments offered packets of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs to their customers. Suffice it to say, Adams, enemy of anything with the word “drug” in it, disagreed with their professional opinion.
But it’s not that he simply disagreed with the authors of the study that I object to but that his complaints were not scientific in nature and involved wild exaggerations of the risks of statin drugs, which my limited research found to be quite minimal. Perhaps given the fact that Adams is not a scientist, let alone a health expert in a relevant field, he didn’t really provide any legitimate scientific reasons for his objection. Instead, viewers were treated to a virtual laundry list of logical fallacies including an argument from personal incredulity, the naturalistic fallacy, and an hilariously over this top example of the slippery slope fallacy:
The idea seems to be that drug companies should start integrating their products with mainstream food items. If this effort were expanded and followed, it could lead to restaurants like McDonalds putting psychiatric drugs in Happy Meals for children, or offering blood pressure drugs as free condiments for its high sodium breakfast menu items. It could even result in fast food restaurants partnering with drug companies to blend medication chemicals right into their food products: THE PHARMA BURGER could become a reality.
Yeah, clearly McDonalds is just this close to providing free LSD instead of that toy promoting the latest Pixar film. Whatever you say, Mike. The vast majority of Adams’ arguments though can be summed up almost perfectly as, “C’mon!” or as Jay Novella of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe puts it, “Oh yeah?!”
One of the Youtube text comments below Adams’ video stated the obvious…or at least the obvious given the broad brush Adams had painted:
lol why dont we stop eating fast food all together? holly shit what a concept
Of course! Why didn’t those smart scientists think of something that obvious? DUH! It’s like the urban legend about the astronaut pen that true believers love to cite. Those arrogant scientists just can’t see the forest from the trees, man! Why drug up everyone when you can just get them to eat healthier? It’s so simple! Except that it’s not. That’s like saying why waste time on teaching how to use contraceptives when we can just teach kids abstinence. The problem of course is that it doesn’t work. You’re not going to get people to radically change their eating habits overnight and people like their Big Macs. They’re cheap, fast, and taste good. It’s that trifecta that ensures McDonalds and the Oompa Loompas a long, happy future.
Speaking of whom, Adams could maybe learn a thing or two from the Oompa Loompas, namely that there’s nothing wrong with eating junk food in moderation. Recent studies have even shown that people who are a just a few pounds overweight by in large (no pun intended), live longer than the extreme dieters Adams is trying to produce.
But what did the researchers Adams is criticizing actually say?
The risk reduction associated with the daily consumption of most statins, with the exception of pravastatin, is more powerful than the risk increase caused by the daily extra fat intake associated with a 7-oz hamburger (Quarter Pounder®) with cheese and a small milkshake.
In conclusion, statin therapy can neutralize the cardiovascular risk caused by harmful diet choices. In other spheres of human activity, individuals choosing risky pursuits (motorcycling, smoking, driving) are advised or compelled to use measures to minimize the risk (safety equipment, filters, seatbelts). Likewise, some individuals eat unhealthily. Routine accessibility of statins in establishments providing unhealthy food might be a rational modern means to offset the cardiovascular risk. Fast food outlets already offer free condiments to supplement meals. A free statin-containing accompaniment would offer cardiovascular benefits, opposite to the effects of equally available salt, sugar, and high-fat condiments. Although no substitute for systematic lifestyle improvements, including healthy diet, regular exercise, weight loss, and smoking cessation, complimentary statin packets would add, at little cost, 1 positive choice to a panoply of negative ones.
And when interviewed, Dr. Francis reiterated by saying:
“Statins don’t cut out all of the unhealthy effects of burgers and fries,” Dr. Francis, a researcher at the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London, said in a written statement. “It’s better to avoid fatty food altogether. But we’ve worked out that in terms of your likelihood of having a heart attack, taking a statin can reduce your risk to more or less the same degree as a fast food meal increases it.”
So contrary to Adams’ version of the story, Dr. Francis and his colleagues aren’t suggesting using a statin drugs in lieu of promoting healthy eating habits but that it could be used in conjunction with promoting healthy eating habits. And I thought Mike Adams was a big fan of complimentary medicine. It’s the same reasoning behind nicotine patches or snus; it’s about trying to find modest and practical approaching to mitigate harm. It’s not a perfect solution but it may offer enough of a health benefit to still be worth it. And there’s no reason researchers can’t explore multiple approaches at once.
Now the article linked to above also points out legitimate scientific controversy:
Dr. Franz Messerli, who directs the high blood pressure program at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, isn’t so sure about the plan. He told Reuters Health that giving out statins might “give Quarter Pounder consumers a false sense of security.”
And while statins are broadly successful at lowering cholesterol levels, especially the bad kind, studies have not consistently proven that the drugs actually prevent heart attacks unless you have already had one.
Statins, a family of cholesterol-lowering medications including Crestor and Lipitor, are currently available only by prescription. But given their relative safety, Dr. Francis said it might make sense for restaurants to be able to give them out to all comers.
I’m reminded of a joke I once heard from a comedian. I don’t remember the details but the essence of the joke was that the comedian was mocking patrons he sees at fast food restaurants who buy an abundance of unhealthy food but then order a diet cola. The point the comedian was making was that one would have to be foolish to think the no calorie diet cola would offset the quantity of calories from all that junk food. But while it was just a joke, I always found the logic of the criticism rather flawed. While yes, the diet soda is not going to completely balance out the negative effects from the rest of the meal, that’s at least a 100+ less calories that individual will be consuming. And even that small change can over time still add up to a more significant calorie reduction, especially if the individual isn’t a compulsive fast food eater. That’s the other fallacy being made, the assumption that the individual with the super-sized meal and diet soda is more than just the occasional fast food patron who doesn’t eat healthier or exercise on a regular basis. Mike Adams doesn’t seem to understand this principle. For him, everything is black and white, things are either 100% effective at achieving a goal or 0% effective. All or nothing. It’s not a very realistic expectation for medical science.
But putting aside the possible flaws in the Dr. Francis’ vision of a world where statin drug packets are being provided at fast food restaurants, Francis seems to loosely touch on what I find so hypocritical about “The Health Ranger’s uninformed righteous indignation:
“It’s ironic that people are free to take as many unhealthy condiments in fast food outlets as they like, but statins, which are beneficial to heart health, have to be prescribed,” he said.
As far as we know, such a plan has little to no serious risks while the benefits to public health could very well turn out to be enormous. If further research reinforces the findings of Francis, et al., this could turn out to be as significant a breakthrough in public health as water fluoridation…which incidentally, “The Health Ranger” also adamantly opposes for nonsensical ideological reasons even though the CDC considers it to be among the ten greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.
I wish I had a more profound conclusion but I guess the real takeaway here is that, regardless of whether we should be giving out statin drugs at fast food restaurants or not, Mike Adams is a big idiot who has no business giving anyone health advice or critiquing scientific research, and that this this statement needs to be repeated as often as possible.