Fear sells newspapers when fame is the only name of the media game

The desire for national recognition extends to medical writers, whose articles can lead to confusion. Perhaps they shouldn’t be taken so literally?

Years ago, when I was a junior reporter, bylines were eagerly sought and seldom awarded. This led to a kind of frenzied competition, with reporters desperate to devise stories that placed themselves at the centre of the action, first-person accounts being more likely to have the writer’s name attached. One young zealot earned the nickname VC10, because it was generally acknowledged among his colleagues that he would agree to be strapped to the wing of a VC10, should it earn him a byline.

Years later, I am pleased to see that the spirit of VC10 lives on, not in journalism where bylines are now freely bestowed – often as a means of attaching blame rather than praise – but among the medical research fraternity. There it would seem that no endeavour, however trifling or superfluous, can be passed up if, at its conclusion, the author’s name appears in print, first in a learned and obscure professional journal and later – oh glory – in the pages of the national press.

There may, of course, be other reasons for nugatory research finding its way into print – a desperation to fill the pages of a specialist publication, the sense that a project once entered into should be seen through to its conclusion, however indeterminate – but, as in so many other walks of life, fame is the spur.

This would be harmless, if a little silly, were it not, on occasion, the cause of needless anxiety or, in the wrong hands, the excuse for prescriptive meddling and nannying. A recent example was the sensational news, widely covered in the national press, that drinking just two glasses of wine a day increases the risk of contracting bowel cancer by a quarter.

This was indeed deeply shocking and alarming. The Daily Telegraph’s medical editor Rebecca Smith touched exactly the right note. “The warnings will come as a huge worry to millions of middle-class Britons who enjoy a glass or two of wine each night, believing they are not harming their health. Many even think they are doing themselves good after doctors extolled the benefits of a glass of red wine at night, claiming that it could protect against heart disease.”

Wonderful. Here was a medical story with everything: a good scare, a sharp reversal of previously accepted opinion, and, best of all, a “huge worry” for the middle classes who, unlike the working classes who carry on killing themselves regardless of reports in the Telegraph, are sensitive souls for whom bodily well-being is a constant source of anxiety. Better still, it took an ancient pleasure, rightly seen for thousands of years as among the highest glories of civilisation, and made it the subject of guilt and unease.

The perpetrators of this heresy are too numerous to name here, but they include Pietro Ferrari, Paola Boffetta, Sheila Bingham and dozens more accomplices from a variety of 27 different agencies, such as the Public Health Institute of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, and the Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology, University of Athens, Greece. They all came together to study 478,732 subjects who were free of cancer “at enrolment between 1992 and 2000”. They were followed up for an average of 6.2 years during which time 1,833 colorectal cancer (CRC) cases were observed. “Detailed information on consumption of alcoholic beverages at baseline (all cases) and during lifetime (1,447 CRC cases, 69 per cent of the cohort) was collected from questionnaires.

“After adjustment for potential confounding factors,” concludes the report, “lifetime alcohol intake was significantly, positively associated to CRC risk (hazard ratio, HR of 1.08), with higher cancer risks observed in the rectum (HR 1.12) than distal colon (HR 1.08), and proximal colon (HR 1.02).”

None of this makes much sense to me, so I looked up hazard ratio and discovered that, for reasons too complicated to go into here, it is an unreliable statistic. This is what I read: “Most scientists (which includes scientifically-inclined epidemiologists) take a fairly rigorous view of HR values. In observational studies, they will not normally accept an HR of less than three as significant, and never an HR of less than two.”

Robert Temple, director of drug evaluation at the US Food and Drug Administration, says: “My basic rule is if the risk isn’t at least three or four, forget it.”

It would seem, then, that the great wine scare is of as much consequence as a bubble in a glass of Bollinger and the risk of getting bowel cancer from two glasses of a wine a day is of similar statistical significance.

No matter. Pietro, Paola, Sheila and the gang got their names into the International Journal of Cancer – the perfect companion at the end of a tiring day, with a glass of Puligny-Montrachat at your elbow.

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