Concettina Died and Other Stories of the East Side

Salt Talks, posted January 28, 2009 at 08:51 PM

A recent article in The New York Times is interesting not just for what it shows about our city health commissioner, but what it says about the Times itself.

Dr. Thomas Frieden is the man behind Mayor Bloomberg's successful health initiatives--all the good stuff from the smoking ban to free condom distribution, electronic health records, and the elimination of transfats from NYC restaurants. He's widely recognized as a true leader in the overlap area of government and medicine that is known as Public Health. His newest initiative is a reduction in the salt content of mass-produced foods. His aim is for this reduction to be voluntary on the part of the corporations that produce mass-market foods (including large chain restaurants). His pitch to the food industry, from the article:

Over the next five years, identify the foods that are contributing the most sodium to people’s diets and cut the level of salt by 25 percent. In a decade, cut it by another 25 percent. And do it in unison with your competitors.

If they refuse?

“If there’s not progress in a few years, we’ll have to consider other options, like legislation,” he said in an interview last week.

The article talks about how the high-profile moves New York has made under Frieden--like posting calorie-counts at fast food chains--have led other areas of the country to follow suit. Not only could this new initiative be expected to do the same, it's actually being touted by Frieden himself as a national initiative.

But then the Times seems to go out of its way to swing the article toward undermining the commissioner. They naturally run quotes from a food industry group--the Grocery Manufacturers Association--which introduces legal and political issues that do not get picked up on again in the article, nor is anyone given the opportunity to refute them. Summarizing the spokesman for the GMA, the article suggests that "getting many companies to do something at the same time might have antitrust implications." One can imagine the Mayor's office might have a reply to that, but the article's author, Kim Severson, doesn't go there so we never find out.

And while the initiative has the support of "a half-dozen other health departments around the country and organizations like the American Medical Association" the last word on any medical issues is given to the contrary position:

Beyond the technical hurdles, Dr. Frieden might encounter resistance on scientific grounds. Some medical researchers question whether a mass reduction in sodium is the best way to spend public-health resources when losing weight and quitting cigarettes would do more for the country’s heart health.

Some medical researches, huh? Which ones do you think those are? The Times doesn't say. (And what about the weird linguistic jujitsu in that short paragraph? "Resistance on scientific grounds" has "medical researchers" offering a budget analysis of the initiative. The only science I detect in that is political science.)

I'm glad that our local (and national) paper of record is giving us information about the newest undertakings of what is arguably one of our city's most successful departments, but the kind of weird political undertone to the article makes me think either the paper or the reporter has some agenda against this initiative that isn't being revealed. That may not be the case, of course. But allowing industry spokespeople to raise issues in opposition to the plan without digging deeper into those issues, along with the age-old media reliance on the ever-mysterious "some" who "say" something or other simply to make it look like a reporter is covering both sides of a question, both give me pause.

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