STATS at George Mason University how to evaluate health risks
10. Are the pleasure police on patrol?


The proposition that “if it feels or tastes good, it’s probably bad for you and if it’s unpleasant, it’s probably good” is a recurring theme in the media’s coverage of health and in medical literature. There are numerous advocates from anti-tobacco activists to consumer groups whose entire missions are devoted to emphasizing the risks related to fatty and sugary foods and alcohol, tobacco and other recreational drugs.

Conversely, in some cases there are industries devoted to promoting such products as totally safe and harmless. Finding unbiased information in these areas is extremely difficult, as is finding information that puts the risk of these products in context as the pleasure police and the food and legal drug industries are so extreme in their presentations of their opposing cases.

For example, a large body of observational evidence (experimental research would be extremely controversial) now suggests that moderate consumption of alcohol may lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. Health advocates — while relying on similar observational data to support many dietary changes — do not usually suggest moderate drinking for health and if they do, it is only as an afterthought and with heavy-handed warnings about the dangers of alcoholism. Wineries, on the other hand, want to put the possible health benefits on their labels. There is little health reporting that puts the potential risks and benefits in context without veering strongly towards either moralizing or hedonism.

As a result, when you read a new study about sugar, fat, illegal drugs, tobacco, alcohol, sex or any other highly charged emotional issue involving potential pleasure and potential risk, hold on to your skepticism. Look closely at the sources funding the study, the methods used, the actual risks demonstrated (place them in context of other risks you take regularly if you can) and how the research fits into the bigger picture. The case against cigarette smoking is one of the most clearly demonstrated in all of health research — and quitting is one change in behavior warranted by the data. But that doesn’t mean that a similar case can be made against other products or activities that provide “unearned” pleasure.



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