Shutting Down Science

Shutting Down Science:
In January 2001 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study showing that reducing salt in the diet could lower blood pressure, even in people without hypertension. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which funded the study, quickly posted a press release on its Web site announcing the findings.

The Salt Institute, an industry group, was stung by the study’s results. Unable to challenge the data on scientific grounds, the institute found another way to attack them. It filed a petition under the Data Quality Act–a law ironically intended to ensure that regulations are based on solid science–arguing that the findings did not meet the act’s standards and that the heart institute had therefore broken the law by posting them…
this was dumb of them on both sides. one study does not a finding make and policy should not come from one finding.

2 comments on “Shutting Down Science

  1. Although this comment is tardy, I hope it is still helpful.

    I’m the president of the Salt Institute and intimately familiar with our challenge under the Data Quality Act. The DQA was intended to allow independent scientific review of studies used for government policy. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, the courts have ruled that the DQA is not independently enforceable: the regulators can decide for themselves if they’ve complied.

    In this case, they haven’t. Our challenge was due to the fact that the government and its paid outside scientists published only enough of their statistics to support their claim and not enough for any other scientists to know if what they said was true or not. Since we filed the suit, the author-scientists published another analysis of their data and confessed that six of the eight subgroups in the study had no statistically significant relationship — our contention at the outset.

    You’re absolutely right that we shouldn’t change policy based on one study (and a 30-day study at that!), but that wasn’t the point at all. We wanted a “slam dunk” case where the government has failed to follow the DQA; this was that, in spades. But the judge held that the DQA statute did not allow judicial review so the case was not decided on the merits of our DQA appeal at all.

    Finally, and back to your point about the quantity (and quality, I’d add) of the science used to set public health nutrition policy. For years, experts have quarreled over whether reducing salt would reduce blood pressure in society. Truth is: only a minority of the population responds with a BP lowering to drastic salt restriction (and some people’s BP goes UP on low-salt diets), but the overall population BP goes down — generally thought to be a good thing. Problem is that BP is only one of the risk factors that are affected by reducing dietary salt — it worsens hormone secretions that lead to more heart attacks and supresses insulin resistance making it difficult for the body to metabolize glucose — and thuse raises the risk of diabetes. But worse: when the larger question is asked — not “does cutting salt lower blood pressure?” but rather “does cutting salt improve health or extend life?” the answer is that scientific studies have not identified an improved risk. Sure, you can extrapolate “benefit” from blood pressure only, but it is really the net health outcome that counts. When you donate a pint of blood, your blood pressure goes down, but you leave the Red Cross no healthier than when you arrived. Your readers may want to visit our webpage on this subject, or visit our blog on salt and health:

    Dick Hanneman
    Salt Institute

  2. Michael says:

    The whole question of salt in diet intrigues me. Having done a couple of Indian cookery classes I was amazed at the amount of salt that we had to add to recipes to “balance the taste”. And I have to admit it did improve the taste without the food appearing to be salty. But we all wondered whether Indians had increased health risks from the amount of salt they apparently consume compared to Westerners.

    Monitoring your Blood Pressure Information

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