- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2001

The notion that children who consume soft drinks tend to be obese is intuitively appealing. That is undoubtedly why The Washington Post felt comfortable recently running three same-day articles exploiting this appeal. But is that an excuse for The Post failing to report new research that challenges intuition?

Researchers from the Georgetown University-affiliated Georgetown Center for Food and Nutrition Policy presented four new studies at the Experimental Biology annual meeting April 3.

The studies were based on analyses of data from two national surveys: the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services´ National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture´s Continuing Survey of Food Intake (CSFII). The researchers reported:

• No relationship between consumption of carbonated soft drinks and obesity among 12- to 16-year-olds.

• Soft drinks did not reduce calcium consumption among 2- to 20-year-olds;

• Teens who consumed more soft drinks were as physically active as those who consumed fewer soft drinks.

• And soft drink consumption did not harm diet quality among children and teens as measured by the USDA´s Healthy Eating Index.

The researchers added, "We need to stress the vital role of physical activity for all students, not just the best athletes chosen for varsity sports teams."

Though the media were informed of the Georgetown studies´ release before the meeting, The Post didn´t see fit to report the news. The omission is curious given The Post´s recent coverage of the issue.

On Feb. 27, The Post featured three articles critical of soft drink consumption by children headlined "Soft drinks, hard facts, " "Schools hooked on junk food," and "Easy cash eroding their principles."

The fact that The Post could make room for three long pieces but could not find space for the Georgetown study a few weeks later should disturb anyone who believes basic journalistic fairness requires a newspaper to present both sides of a story.

"Soft drinks, hard facts" reported: "One very recent, independent, peer-reviewed study demonstrates a strong link between soda consumption and childhood obesity. One previous industry-supported, unpublished study showed no link."

The bias in those two sentences is breathtaking.

The former study apparently was "independent" because it was funded by federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

But both government agencies already urge that children avoid soft drinks despite the absence of scientific data to support such advocacy. The agencies are hardly disinterested in the outcome of the research.

A background check into the authors of the "independent" study reveals that the study outcome is not unexpected. The authors have long been in the childhood obesity research business, blaming childhood obesity on diet and television-viewing habits. It shouldn´t be surprising that longtime childhood obesity researchers might be somewhat biased toward results that promote their area of research interest.

The Post expanded on the "independent" study, claiming that each daily serving of a sugar-sweetened soft drink increased the rate of childhood obesity 1.6 times. This rate was estimated based on a statistical analysis of a population of children. It is elementary in such an analysis that reported increases in health effects rates on the order of 2.0 and less are considered weak and unreliable.

More accurately reported, the "independent" study reported no significant increase in obesity for soft drink consumption among children.

The Post went to great pains to explain this basic rule when similarly weak statistics were used to link abortion with increased risk of breast cancer. With respect to women who had abortions having 1.5 times more breast cancer, The Post reported: "Though this may appear to be a large increase in risk, it falls in the barely detectable range."

Why the double standard? A cynic might suggest that abortion is more politically correct than soft drinks.

Given such bias, it is no surprise that the new Georgetown Center studies were passed over. They were funded by the National Soft Drink Association. But the group had no power to influence or alter the research findings. This funding arrangement inexplicably doesn´t meet The Post´s dubious "standard" for "independence."

But should the studies´ funding source really make them less newsworthy? Shouldn´t scientific studies be judged, after all, on their technical merits, not their financing? On their scientific, not political, correctness?

The new studies certainly are not the final word on soft drink consumption and children´s health, nor should they be. They are simply another analysis that should be considered among the limited database of relevant studies.

The problem, though, is that it seems as if The Post is more interested in frightening parents and children than informing them, and doing so by only presenting one side of the story.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

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