When popular media relayed WHO’s statements on the carcinogenic nature of processed and cured meat, were you surprised? I was not. I knew the science, and the politics, I just wish everybody knew as well. This is what motivated me to write this article.
About the facts:
The facts come in a bit late, don’t they? And how selective was that still!
There is far more to animal products consumption and disease than the reductionist link between processed/red meats on just cancer. So from the science standpoint, that WHO announcement really did not teach me anything new, it also came to the public, far too late.
The question is: Why? Why isn’t the full extent of best practice widely broadcast loudly to the public as soon as the evidence is strong enough?
Well, the second aspect in which the WHO statement failed to surprise me is politics.
About the politics:
History has a bad habit of repeating itself. There is a major political dimension to such statements. It is not the first time that a major industry faces the economical threat of the truth coming into the public’s hands. This has been well-documented and the patterns are crystal-clear to me. But I want you to see it as well because it helps make wiser and life-saving choices. Today I want to save you thousands of pages of reading and get that clear in this relatively short and well-documented article. That’s the good news of history repeating itself, those who know the patterns can predict things far ahead of time, I’d love everyone to know! So let’s go back in a history similar to that of meat: the history of the cigarette. Let’s see how it helps predict the truth about our past relationship to meat, and more interestingly the future of meat. Let’s travel in the inevitable future and hopefully make it happen faster.
To do so, I will simply share my notes on the chapter “Saving the Cigarette” by Devra Davis in “The Secret History of the War on Cancer“. I highly recommend this book if you want a well-documented account of industry vs. health battles in recent history she has been at the forefront all her life. She focused on stories looking as far as the Nazi times up to now. I will elaborate on the Nazi German bit. We will also see if the pattern of public manipulation and fraud that happened with tobacco can apply to the meat, dairy, and egg industry. It may have already started…So we will pause one example of a communication from the meat industry, and analyze communication strategies in details. Because I love to have a solution to offer when I point to a problem, I’ll leave you with further practical advice of things you can do right now to avoid being taken advantage of any further. Happy ending…
But first, the rather epic story of the cigarette.
TOBACCO – A HISTORY OF CORPORATE DECEIT AND PUBLIC DENIAL
Chapter 7 : Saving Cigarettes
From the 1960s, US NCI’s smoker head Kenneth Endicott, and anti-tobacco Ernst Wynder got together to try and devise a safe cigarette. Wynder who had linked tobacco to cancer, also knew, perhaps from Graham’s death, that smokers wouldn’t give up smoking even with the best facts. Since it was going to be harder to get more smokers, the strategy now consisted in keeping the smokers addicted for longer. Filters were introduced but that was not enough. In 1967, $30 million of taxpayers money was spent by NCI to create a safer cigarette, about the same amount in the U.K.
Some cigarettes with filter actually had more nicotine and tar than unfiltered cigarettes, and the cigarettes that were retaining tar was also retaining taste and did not sell. In the efficient filters, it was crocidolite that was used, a filter for radioactive particles, made from a blue kind of asbestos. Less cancer-causing tar, more cancer-causing asbestos.
Because filters removed taste, the idea became to have a filter but one that would allow taste-causing tar to flow through. Then cigarette manufacturers found that by mixing some of the tobacco scraps with tobacco, the tar readings were lower but the smoke was still good.
NCI gathered bright scientists and funded their mission to develop a safer cigarette, even if privately the scientists knew “safe cigarette” is an oxymoron.
1969: Gio Gori became head of the Less Hazardous Cigarette Working Group, who unlike Wynder, had little knowledge and was easily disliked. He particularly lost credibility when he stated that filter cigarettes are safer, when in fact in was thought they’re worse because people smoke deeper and more cigarettes with filtered cigarettes. From 1954 to 1976, so before and after filters, the average smoker went from 22 to 30 cigarettes a day. But to attract public funding for research on a safe cigarette, Gori went against all his more scientifically-versed colleagues to build strong ties elsewhere, and promised that a safe cigarette was around the corner. He successfully had a set of research published, which ultimately made it to the prestigious journal Science. The tobacco sales doubled within two weeks for the brand mentioned in the paper as safe. However Califano, a powerful aide to President Johnson, wanted in 1978 to set up extremely hard preventive and tax rules on tobacco but faced opposition and threats from tobacco defenders saying he disregarded “economic realities” of the tobacco industry. North Carolina, the main producer of tobacco, was a part of Carter’s 1979 reelection growing campaign.
1979: The AMA (American Medical Association) officially recognizes that tobacco causes cancers, 15 years after the Surgeon’s general report. Days after, Gori published articles referring by brand the least hazardous cigarettes, which soon got him fired from government.
Sheehy of British American Tobacco preferred to carry out research on acceptability that smoking is personal and small risk and of the low risk of passive smoking, rather than on accepting that cigarettes are unsafe and designing a safe one.
The debate over tobacco capitalized on the scientists ability to love arguing, while it was clear compounds gave cancers to animals. The tobacco industry’s last science-based efforts was to nail in people mind that studies on rodents don’t apply to humans, although only 300 genes differ.
Sir Bradford Hill despair of the manipulation of public health studies in the debate over the hazards of smoking, and laid down principles to decide whether an exposure gives a specific health condition. By looking at statistics, statistician look for measurable differences between groups and then try to estimate if these differences are statistically relevant or not. To do so, we calculate the odds that the measured difference is accidental, it is the p-value, P can range form 0 to 1. If p=100%, the measured difference means nothing, if p=0,05 (the arguable maximum accepted limit in modern science), there is a 5% chance the results would be random.
For rare events or small numbers, the p-value is not used but confidence intervals instead. A confidence interval of 95% means there is a 5% chance the result would fall out of that range.
Epidemiologists also look at the dose-dependent effect of exposures, even if some people are armed with better resistance than others.
Hill urged to statisticians : “Too often I suspect we waste a great deal of time, we grasp the shadow and lose the substance, we weaken our capacity to interpret data and to take reasonable decisions. (…) All scientific work is incomplete (…) that does not confer us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have, or to postpone the action it appears to demand at a given time”.
Hill also know that the problem is not only a statistical one, it is a political one. The Carter administration was filled with the influence of the tobacco industry. Most people were smokers, and the people in key pro-health positions were ordered to not carry out work that somewhat poses a threat to the tobacco industry. PR specialist Bernays had devised a very clever plan for his very rich client and knew how to manipulate public opinion, and use the biases of smoker scientists or people in government to act on the side of the plans for the tobacco industry.
That idea that health is the consequence of lifestyle was not a popular one in the U.S., where people believed bad health was a result of poor morals or bad luck.
But that changed as medical practices changed and statistical work could tell what was worked and what didn’t. That work gave a hard time to the tobacco industry, which would accept the evidence one bit at a time, and delay its acceptance as long as possible.
Judge Gladys Kessler has clear opinions about the ability of democratic societies to rely on expert advice as she found tobacco firms guilty of using zeal and deception for financial success without regard for the consequences on the public. What information is permitted to get to the marketplace, who decides when to release findings about public health hazards are not determined by scientific inquiry but by the social and economic realities that constrain them.
So there you go, I hope it helped open some eyes on reality of manipulation and deceit through PR campaigns from interested corporations, and their political networks of influence.
Remember here, this is the time line of research from Chapter 3 of the same book) :.
- 1939: Dr. Franz Müller provided the first irrefutable proof that smoking causes lung cancer. He investigated lung cancers from autopsies to collect information on lifestyle habits and published in 1939 a dissertation in the Journal of The American Medical Association. Shoniger and Schairer confirmed these results, along with effects of asbestos, chromates and dust. British celebrity epidemiologist Richard Doll in comparison published rather late (1950) and without being conclusive on the dangers of Tobacco.
- 1940: Angel H. Roffo, from Argentina, publishes research showing that lung cancer is caused by tobacco tars, not nicotine.
German research had begun with Kaiser Wilhelm much before, and from 1942 to 1944, 7 dissertations on tobacco were published by the Scientific Institute for Research into Hazards of Tobacco
IT WAS CLEAR BEFORE WW2
- 1957~59: Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney declared smoking was causing cancer in 1957 and 1959, his last publication was withheld by the AMA officially because there was not enough evidence to decide. It was about avoiding to cause trouble to member of Congress whose votes were much needed on various issues, like the threat of a national health insurance which the AMA feared.
- 1979: The AMA (American Medical Association) officially recognizes that tobacco causes cancers, 15 years after the Surgeon General’s report.
Let’s see this in pictures.
40 YEARS AN OSTRITCH – MANY MORE YEARS OF DAMAGE
- Notice how the sales doubled during the austrich-policy time
- 40 years of silence: 80 years of
good salesaggravated damage. It took 40 years for official recognition, and about 40 more to get back to where we started, the levels of 1940.
How did that translate into lung cancer death?
Epidemiologically, few things in cancer correlate as predictably as smoking and lung cancer.
So…how many people died unnecessarily and prematurely, only out deceit and denial?
Quick and dirty estimation:
We will focus on the US only since this is US data.
We will assume symmetrical bell curves, and even simplify them as triangle shapes.
The average population will be 200 Million all across, which is grossly inaccurate but sufficient to guesstimate.
Women’s death rate will be about 1/3 of the male’s rate when relevant
1) In a perfect world where best evidence goes immediately into practice and tobacco sales go down in 1940 (who cared then?):
- 20 years of delay between cigarette sales pattern and death curves
- Best evidence available in 1940 => hypothetical peak of death of lung cancer in 1960 at 45 per 10^5
- Death curve: Beginning to hypothetical end of curve death reached in 1960+30 = 1990.
- Total 60 years to peak then down. Max at 45 per 10^5. 200 M people gives 60 • 45/100,000 • 200,000,000 = 5.4 million males => roughly 6 million people (women barely smoked then)
2) In the real world, where it takes gigantic efforts for best evidence to make it out:
- Same calculation, but with 1930-2050 as a base, and a lung cancer death rate peak at 90 per 10^5 gives 120 • 90/100,000 • 200,000,000 = 21.6 million men => 28 million people
In the US alone, due to the delay in application of best evidence regarding smoking, a total of ~22 million people have been killed by smoking, through lung cancer alone, all of them preventable (among other way to be sick or die of smoking).
TOBACCO – NAZI GERMANY KNEW BETTER, WHY DID NO ONE LEARN FROM IT?
If you read further through Devra Davis’s book A Secret History of the War on Cancer, you will find that a lot of unorthodox things happened after the Germans lost, among a few:
- Science, knowledge and technology was stolen form the Germans, in fields that have little to do with war or safety, but a lot to do with money and financial gains
- Some German scientists were bought and cleared from their charges by U.S. firms
- Science done by Germans under Nazi times was recycled, re-appropriated and not fairly cited.
- Knowledge about the toxicity of certain chemicals and foods had been thoroughly documented in Germany at that time and is part of the knowledge that was stolen but intentionally secretly kept by corporations among the Allies.
- Germans under the Nazi times (perhaps for the wrong reasons) were increasingly adopting very healthy lifestyles. They advocated a vegetarian lifestyle and a particular hatred for smoking was developed for many reasons, far before the effect on cancer was scientifically proven beyond doubt.
Inevitably, you are left to wonder: If so many things have been gladly stolen from the Germans, why were some valuable things like toxicology knowledge and a culture of optimal health not taken as well?
As the book The Nazi War on Cancer puts it:
1939: Germany sets up a Bureau Against the Dangers of Alcohol and Tobacco. Workers missing too many days of work due to smoking related illness are forced to rehab, and fertile women are advised to have vegetarian diets and are banned from buying cigarettes.
Extreme, forceful techniques, no doubt. But the point is serious health advocacy was in place in 1939. Why did the Allies wait for so long to start taking effective action at all on Health Advocacy on the leading causes of illness and death?
IS THE SAME HAPPENING WITH MEAT TODAY AS HAPPENED WITH TOBACCO?
The pattern of delaying the application of best practice has happened over and over again. It is predominantly a matter of politics, and financial interests, more rarely matters of public acceptance. To cite a few the history of iodine deficiency, proactive cancer prevention (though fasting, supplementation and chemo-prevention) cancer treatment, toxicity of glyphosate, of leaded gasoline, toxicity and uselessness of statins etc…the list is virtually endless. That’s just in medicine, I am not even touching the history of science!
So, it is hard to predict the future in detail, but based on court cases it is rather safe to speculate that the following scenario is very likely:
- “There is not enough evidence”: Eternally asking for more proof, or claiming that there is not enough evidence. This creates a delay and buys time.
- Creating doubt: Bribed bad science financed to defend that meat is not that unsafe, usually coming from trusted sources of information.
- Reassuring people: Attempts to make “safe meat”, looking for good ways to do the wrong thing.
- Rallying the biased and influential: A persistence to portray meat as healthy and nutritious, using the bias of doctors and researchers that are very dependent on meat personally. It’s common in science-washing. As for influence, remember the Camel ads? More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette.
- Diverting focus: Financing studies that focus on other dangers things than meat, other contributors to cancer and disease. Cigarette manufacturers have financed studies on the the risks of chemical pollutants to divert attention.
- Limiting focus: Only cured and processed meats, not all meats. The same was done in France where only the Roundup brand (from Monsanto) of glyphosate was banned only from gardeners shops, instead of all glyphosate from where it’s most used: in the fields by crop producers.
More of these tactics are well documented by Devra Davis. As an epidemiologist, she is well used to the old same textbook tactics being used over and over again.
I will focus on the attempts to make meat safer, which is not without reminding us the attempts to make a safe cigarette. Why would the meat industry try so desperately? Let’s see things from their perspective:
It shows some extract from the paper: “Red meat and colon cancer: should we become vegetarians, or can we make meat safer?” published in the Journal of Meat Science in 2011.
Let’s analyze the statements above:
“If these recommendations [to reduce meat intake] were adhered to, cancer incidence may be reduced, BUT FARMERS AND MEAT INDUSTRY WOULD SUFFER IMPORTANT ECONOMICAL PROBLEMS.”
“These additives, and others still under study, could provide an ACCEPTABLE way to prevent colorectal cancer.”
It’s about keeping business going, health outcomes are secondary to that.
I am quoting below bits of the abstract, and will break it down so that you can see the tactics employed. I put in italics the bits you should pay attention to.
1) “The effect of meat consumption on cancer risk is a controversial issue. However, recent meta-analyses show that high consumers of cured meats and red meat are at increased risk of colorectal cancer.”
2) “This increase is significant but modest (20–30%)”
3) “Current WCRF-AICR recommendations are to eat no more than 500 g per week of red meat, and to avoid processed meat”
4) “Dietary additives can suppress the toxic effects of heme iron.”
1) LIMITING FOCUS: Here we limit our focus only on the effect of meat on cancer only of all health consequences. Of all possible concerns meat contributes to, we will only focus on the colorectal cancer specifically. Of all meats we will only focus on red and cured meat. Of all consumers this concerns only high consumers. Is this reductionist? What defines high consumers? Let’s continue.
2) DISCOUNTING GRAVITY: We also deem that a 30% increased risk of that very specific cancer is “modest”: How many people die from this modest risk increase?
Quick and very conservative back of the envelope calculation, staying within the extremely narrow focus of the study.
Let’s assume 1 billion people eat too much meat,
Lifetime risk is ~5% in the US, with ~50% survival. let’s assume it’s that same rate in all countries that eat too much meat.
If all of them have indulged, taking only a 20% increased risk because of meat, that’s 20% of 5% => 4% is what the rate should be if people were not “high consumers”.
The extra lifetime risk of only cancer, only colorectal, only because of meat is 1%. Sounds small? Hold on.
1% x 1 BILLION people = 10 MILLION people that develop colorectal cancer only because of meat.
5 million of them dying of meat-induced colorectal cancer. Is that modest?
And anyway, the real numbers of meat-induced avoidable deaths are more likely to be around not 0.5% like above but around 50% of all people in those countries, essentially of cardiovascular disease/accidents and cancer. That’s 500 million, 100-fold what the study points to.
3) DIVERTING FOCUS: It’s people’s fault. Look, we are good people, we do tell have recommendations written somewhere saying that people should eat in moderation, such as eating in a week what they eat in a day. Meat consumption in “first-world” countries is close to 300g/day all meats included, that’s 2300g of meat a week, rather easy to end up putting in that 500g of red meat and 500g of processed meat. In practice such obscure recommendations have little effect if any. What is the “WCRF-AICR” anyway?
4) THE SAFER MEAT: And don’t worry, additives are here to save the day and make more safe what we reckon has toxic effects.
DOES THIS HAVE TO HAPPEN AGAIN?
No, and that’s the good news. What would you do if you became aware that a craving or bad habit of yours was planted in your head, deliberately, assuming you are weak and have poor control of yourself? That is precisely what happened with tobacco; new adverts running while tobacco manufacturers knew the science and the harm. It was about creating new addicts and keeping the old ones. There are people that started smoking their first cigarette from 1940 to 1980, all ignoring they were being manipulated by people who knew the harm, but hoped the smokers would not find out the good research in a pile of junk. So are we manipulated now to do things that are not good for us? Are we the new tobacco fools only with meat? Will we look back in 50 years thinking it was ridiculous of much meat people used to eat while it was clearly a carcinogen?
More importantly what can we do now?
Well, there is no nicotine in meat. That’s a big bonus to your advantage!
Millions of people have gradually moved on to a plant-based diet, and for having done that change myself, it’s rather easy, and certainly far easier than I thought. Here are some resources to help this transition. Watch this documentary about:
- How meat is produced: Earthlings
- The environmental aspect of meat consumption: Cowspiracy (Official Trailer)
- The health aspect of meat consumption: Forks over Knives (Official Trailer)
- The story of people who have switched to a plant-based diet: Vegucated
- Watch Dr. Greger’s regular science-based videos with updates on nutrition: NutritionFacts.com
- More science: Check out T. Colin Campbell’s work. The book “Whole”, “The China Study”, and his website NutritionStudies.com
“I’m convinced, what can help me?”
- Join a local vegetarian or vegan community, on Facebook , Meetup, etc. This is by very far the best piece of advice I have. It’s great for support to be connected with people that have made or are making the important change you are making. Some branches or groups have regular meet-ups and events with delicious food and nice folks, it is so in New Zealand 🙂 It’s also practical to ask practical questions such as “where to find plant-based meat?”, what are some restaurants that provide plant-based meals, are there doctors that are up to date with nutrition and that won’t poopoo you etc…
- FAQ of very common questions: Gary Yourofsky – The Most Important Speech You Will Ever Hear
- If anything here was of interest to you, save this article for future reference, and share it or some of it with others. That’s more to help others, and to help with the general situation. You can make a change, that’s what got me sat for three days putting up this article 🙂
- Contact me if you have any question or concerns. I’ll do my best to help.