I had an op-ed in the Washington Times yesterday on government's growing participation in public-health scare campaigns demonizing everyday foods that are fattening, salty, or thought to be bad for us in other ways. In particular, I singled out Mayor Michael Bloomberg's New York City Department of Health, which has followed up one scientifically dubious ad campaign on sweetened soft drinks ("What can we get away with?" asked one official) with an even worse -- in fact, grossly misleading and manipulative -- attack on salt in processed foods:
It shows a can of soup bursting at the seams with table salt, whole mounds and piles of it. The city's underlying point is not 100 percent off-base - healthful in most other ways, conventional canned soup is a relatively salty food - but the actual amount of salt in a can is more like 1 teaspoon, not the third of a cup or more depicted in the city's ridiculously exaggerated photo. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Bloomberg soup ad is built on a visual lie.
What would happen if a private advertiser tried to get away with imagery as misleading as this? Well, in 1970, in a case still taught in business schools, Campbell's got caught manipulating the soup pictures in its ads; its photographers had put marbles at the bottom of the bowl so that the pleasing vegetables would be more visible on top. The Federal Trade Commission filed a deceptive-advertising complaint to make the company stop.
The FTC's authority would not extend so far as to ordering New York City to cease its misrepresentations, and for various reasons (including the principle that states and localities ought largely to retain independence from federal dictation) we should be glad it doesn't. But couldn't we at least ask that the federal taxpayer not be made to subsidize the false advertising?
Last month, the federal Centers for Disease Control - headed by Bloomberg's own [former health commissioner Dr. Thomas] Frieden - announced a $412,000 grant to assist the city in its anti-salt efforts.
The full piece is here. Incidentally, via the American Council on Science and Health comes word of a new Harvard study finding that Americans' intake of salt is almost exactly the same as it was 50 years ago; it also seems that international studies find that people in other countries tend to pursue and attain very similar levels of salt intake. If accurate, that would cast doubt on two key themes of public health alarmism, namely that America is experiencing some sort of epidemic of exposure to salty processed foods, and that such an epidemic underlies rising hypertension rates (which, as the article explains, may owe more to obesity than to salt intake). I could not resist a chuckle at the name of the press outlet reporting the results of the new study: Bloomberg Business Week.