Could canned frosting and frozen pizza kill you? The Food and Drug Administration thinks so. The agency moved this week toward effectively banning trans fats - which give many processed foods their taste, texture and expanded shelf life - from the American diet.
The FDA claims that banning these lipids -- deemed a “significant public health concern” -- in the U.S. could prevent some 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths related to heart disease annually. And while that’s a lot of saved lives and healthier hearts, it’s actually epidemiologic chump change when compared to two other substances regularly consumed by Americans: alcohol and cigarettes.
Booze, as it turns out, killed nearly 42,000 Americans in 2010, the latest year for which data are available. The number of alcoholic liver disease deaths totaled 15,990 that year, while alcohol-related deaths – excluding accidents and homicides – topped 25,000. If you add in the CDC’s figures on drunk-driving crashes, that’s another 10,228 people.
Alcohol, unlike trans fats, also has an undeniable connection to crime. Department of Justice figures indicate that some 40 percent of convicted murderers in jail or state prison “were under the influence of alcohol alone when they committed their crimes.” The DOJ also notes that approximately 3 million violent crimes, such as rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated and simple assault, are said to be committed by an offender who had been drinking. Without going too far down the booze-can-kill rabbit hole, it’s easy to drum up data showing a link between drinking and death.
And then there’s tobacco. Cigarette smoking is estimated to cause “more than 440,000 deaths annually,” according to the CDC. That means cigarettes are responsible for about one of every five deaths in the United States each year.
When you compare alcohol and cigarettes – which together result in hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths every year – to the roughly 27,000 annual victims of trans fats, the FDA’s proposal seems like a drop in the bucket. There are far more dire public health risks the federal government could be taking on.
Of course, unhealthy eating has its fair share of periphery health implications: At least 300,000 deaths a year in the U.S. “may be attributable to obesity,”according to the Surgeon General.
And nobody is suggesting that alcohol and cigarettes should be outlawed (the writer is far too attached to her bourbon and Marlboro Reds to make that pitch). But the CDC figures put in question a double standard about which potentially harmful vices the government is willing to weigh in on.
“It’s yet another example where the government is going in and making people’s choices for them,” David Almasi, executive director of the conservative-leaning National Center for Public Policy Research, tells Newsweek. “They’re not looking at a happy medium. They’re just looking at a nanny state where they decide what we can have.”
The FDA’s decision comes more than five years after New York City banned restaurants from serving food with 0.5 grams or more of trans fat per serving, a measure the city’s health officials claim resulted in a 2.5-gram reduction in the average trans fat content of a fast-food meal sold in NYC. But another measure to curtail the waistlines of portly New Yorkers fell flat: Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to put a 16-oz. maximum on sugary drinks sold in the city was overturned in court.
The FDA’s proposal may have its own out clause: By pulling trans fats from an ingredient list the agency calls “generally recognized as safe,” the FDA will allow food producers keen on using trans fats to petition them for permission to do so. Such delicious, trans-fat-filled food would have to “meet ‘rigorous safety standards’ showing that they would cause no harm to public health,” an FDA official told The Washington Post. Good luck, frosting.