Why pick these 7,000 lives to save?
The Food and Drug Administration announced on November 7, 2013, that they were working toward the elimination of transfats from the American food supply. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg was quoted in a Washington Post article by Brady Dennis as saying, “While consumption of potentially harmful transfat has declined over the last two decades in the United States, current intake remains a significant concern.”
The news struck me as odd, not because I fear a nanny state but rather because there are so many other currently legal products that kill us in greater numbers. The following information came from the Centers for Disease Control’s preliminary report for the 2011 calendar year.
Based purely on death statistics, alcohol is almost four times as lethal of a product as transfats, accounting for 26,256 deaths. Guns scored 31,718 kills in 2011, but that’s nothing compared to respiratory cancers and emphysema, both strongly correlated with cigarettes. Together those two categories accounted for 166,032 American deaths during that calendar year.
There are significant problems with such an oversimplified example. Not all emphysema and respiratory cancers are caused by cigarettes, for example, and an unknown percentage of those drug-induced deaths are attributable to controlled substances already outlawed. Additionally, deadly products that are banned or highly regulated (lead, mercury, arsenic, asbestos, etc.) are not reflected in the CDC data.
What this chart suggests, though, is that the move to phase out transfats isn’t purely the result either of logic or concern for the preservation of life. Of course it is logical to remove a harmful substance with no nutritional value from the food supply, and I don’t doubt for a moment that the good people at the FDA are genuinely concerned with saving lives. But if saving a large volume of lives is the goal, there are bigger fish to canola fry.
Perhaps the most obvious point here is that prohibiting transfats isn’t going to give rise to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil street wars, so as public health goes they’re a relatively safe target. And in terms of personal freedom, most people don’t rate french fry oil up there with their right to drink, smoke, and own a gun. Banning transfats represents 7,000 lives saved without risking protests.
Is there more at work here, though? Did the transfats lobby not have the pull of the tobacco lobby? Was there no National Shortening Association to buy a favor? I’m sure you have an opinion on the topic, so why don’t you grab a delicious prepackaged snack cake and tell me what you think is deep frying here?
photo M Glasgow / Flickr