**Public Policy That Makes Test Subjects of Us All **
By JOHN TIERNEY
Suppose you wanted to test the effects of halving the amount of salt in people’s diets. If you were an academic researcher, you’d have to persuade your institutional review board that you had considered the risks and obtained informed consent from the participants.
You might, for instance, take note of a recent clinical trial in which heart patients put on a restricted-sodium diet fared worse than those on a normal diet. In light of new research suggesting that eating salt improves mood and combats depression, you might be alert for psychological effects of the new diet. You might worry that people would react to less-salty food by eating more of it, a trend you could monitor by comparing them with a control group.
But if you are the mayor of New York, no such constraints apply. You can simply announce, as Michael Bloomberg did, that the city is starting a “nationwide initiative” to pressure the food industry and restaurant chains to cut salt intake by half over the next decade. Why bother with consent forms when you can automatically enroll everyone in the experiment?
And why bother with a control group when you already know the experiment’s outcome? The city’s health commissioner, Thomas R. Frieden, has enumerated the results. If the food industry follows the city’s wishes, the health department’s Web site announces, “that action will lower health care costs and prevent 150,000 premature deaths every year.”
. . . . .
First, a reduced-salt diet doesn’t lower everyone’s blood pressure. Some individuals’ blood pressure can actually rise in response to less salt, and most people aren’t affected much either way. The more notable drop in blood pressure tends to occur in some — but by no means all — people with hypertension, a condition that affects more than a quarter of American adults.
Second, even though lower blood pressure correlates with less heart disease, scientists haven’t demonstrated that eating less salt leads to better health and longer life. The results from observational studies have too often been inconclusive and contradictory. After reviewing the literature for the Cochrane Collaboration in 2003, researchers from Copenhagen University concluded that “there is little evidence for long-term benefit from reducing salt intake.”
A similar conclusion was reached in 2006 by Norman K. Hollenberg of Harvard Medical School. While it might make sense for some individuals to change their diets, he wrote, “the available evidence shows that the influence of salt intake is too inconsistent and generally too small to mandate policy decisions at the community level.”
I’ve always wanted to know what a “premature death” is – dying before some hypothetical age we might have reached if we had eaten, drunk, exercised, &c. as they tell us to?
Just by living in heated houses with indoor plumbing we have delayed our “natural” death date significantly, never mind modern medicine.
If I recall, Bloomberg was also a pioneer in banning transfats from NYC restaurants – you can buy crack or a Glock on the street corner but rest assured that your fries have been cooked in vegetable oil.