Junk Food Junk Science Exposed

Much of the litigation our clients confront on a daily basis seems predicated on the philosophy that all predicaments, all injuries, must be the fault of someone else.  There is no such thing as personal responsibility; individuals need not face the consequences of choices they make. Why change your risky behavior when you can sue someone else for it?

This same approach is the foundation of the effort to remove all soda and so-called “junk foods” from our schools.  But, is the mere availability of such products in schools actually the cause of  childhood obesity -- certainly an important public health concern?

Readers may want to note a recent study published in the journal Sociology of Education.  See VanHook & Altman, Competitive Food Sales in Schools and Childhood Obesity: A Longitudinal Study, 85 Sociology of Education 23 (January 2012).

The study followed  nearly 20,000 students who started kindergarten back in 1998. The researchers recorded the students’ BMI (body mass index) in fifth grade and again in eighth grade, and correlated these data points with the availability of  junk food at their schools (like snacks, candy, and soda).  (The researchers did factor in race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, and other factors that might affect weight gain.)

Surprise, surprise?  They found no link between children’s weight and the sale of these foods in the nearly 1000 schools.  About 1/3 were overweight in schools with and schools without. This actually makes compete sense, and follows on other studies that showed when students couldn’t buy soda at school, they simply compensated by drinking more at home, before and after. See Taber, et al., Banning All Sugar-Sweetened Beverages in Middle Schools, Arch. Pediatr. Adolesc. Med. 2011; 0: 20112001-7.

Bashing food companies may make some feel better, and banning sales in schools may allow some to pat themselves on the back for a job well done, but selling these foods in school has little or nothing to do with whether children will become overweight.  The real issue is parental responsibility --  how, what, and how much parents are feeding their children at home; what eating patterns they instill, and what exercise parents encourage in their kids. Admittedly, changing parental behavior is a lot harder than banning the soda machine, but it is also the only approach likely to make a significant impact on this issue.  Regulation and litigation are not the answers.

British Journal Finally Retracts Autism Article

The British medical journal "The Lancet" has  finally issued a full retraction of a study it ran in 1998 purporting to link the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccines to autism.  Wakefield, et al., "Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children," Lancet 1998; 351: 637-641.

The journal noted that following the judgment of the U.K. General Medical Council's "Fitness to Practice Panel" concerning the lead author, it had become clear to the journal that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield, et al., were "incorrect," and contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation. Therefore, the journal "fully retracted" this paper from the published record.

Readers of MassTortDefense know how one article purporting to link a drug to a side effect, a chemical to an adverse effect, a product to an illness, can spawn significant products litigation, and even a mass tort.  Here, the study not only influenced a decade of litigation, it spurred a public health crisis by sending parents in the U.K. and the U.S. into confusion over the safety of having their children vaccinated.  The overwhelming scientific evidence shows vaccines to be safe, but The Lancet stuck by its article even when it was revealed that the study was connected to plaintiff lawyers' pursuit of litigation. In the meantime, all children were put at risk as Great Britain's child vaccination rates plummeted to below 70% in some areas, and by 2008 there were more than 1000 cases of measles, including fatalities, in  England and Wales.

The Lancet article issues demonstrate how even reputable publications can become conduits for plaintiffs' junk science and political junk science.  It's hard to fathom why it took so long for the retraction.  It calls again for an overhaul of the peer review process, which the Supreme Court in Daubert noted as a hallmark of good science.  Most importantly, it reminds the defense bar and their clients how important it is to have a thorough, searching examination of the science that plaintiffs rely on for general or specific causation.  Nothing can be taken at face value, and sometimes only a dogged pursuit of discovery will uncover the many flaws in a seemingly well-regarded study.

Autism and related developmental disorders are an extremely challenging medical issue, deserving of time and resources.  But the questions cannot be answered by junk science.