Regulation for Dummies

We were very disappointed by Todd Seavey's review of Protecting America's Health ("Regulation for Dummies," April).

Since it's impossible to detail all of our disagreements in a short letter, we would like to focus on one particular point: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is causing far more harm to the health of Americans than it is preventing. It has cost the lives of more than 1 million Americans since 1994 by prohibiting the inclusion in labels and in labeling (literature that accompanies a product at the point of sale) that omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk of a sudden-death heart attack by 50 percent to 80 percent. At least 150,000 Americans each year were thus prevented from saving their lives with safe, inexpensive fish oil supplements. One million dead because of FDA censorship of truthful health information on one dietary supplement is a severe harm to the public health, far more than those killed by 19th-century patent medicines.

In 1994 the two of us filed suit against the FDA for violating the First Amendment by prohibiting the inclusion of truthful information concerning four health claims. In 1999 a federal appeals court ruled in our favor, and the FDA declined to appeal to the Supreme Court. Thus this decision, Pearson v. Shalala, is the law of the land. Yet for the next two years (until we sued and won again), the FDA continued to prohibit the inclusion of truthful information on the heart- and life-protecting effects of omega-3 fatty acids. In 2001, seven years after our initial suit was filed, the FDA agreed to allow a "qualified" health claim.

The purported 19th-century "free for all" is usually the fallback position of those who approve of FDA controls on foods, dietary supplements, medical devices, and drugs. It is the unrecognized costs, however, such as the FDA's unconstitutional prohibition of truthful information on foods and dietary supplements, that reveal an FDA that does far more harm than good.

Our recommendation is that the FDA be transformed into a certifying agency, so that it can use its standards to certify products for safety and effectiveness, while uncertified products could be marketed with a large-type disclosure that "this product is not FDAcertified" or whatever other warning might be needed.

Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw
via fax

Todd Seavey replies: Even today, the heart benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are not certain, although the results of three recent studies were promising. (Two of them were hampered, unfortunately, by relying on questionnaires rather than precise measures of fish oil intake.) Talking about omega-3 benefits as if they are certain—and were certain as soon as the first studies came out—is exactly the sort of hasty touting of new studies that drives the largely unscientific dietary supplement industry, including many popular but useless potions for longevity and memory enhancement.

To make a full calculation of the effects that eliminating the FDA would have, we would need to imagine not simply a world in which accurate information reached people more quickly but a world in which products and claims based on every preliminary study and dubious, apparent benefit were rushed to market. That world would not look exactly like the 19th century, but it would look all too much like today's health food stores, expanded to displace the more boring but better-tested products of mainstream medicine and agriculture. In such a world more people would be lured away from proper medical treatment to die while hoping for a miraculous tree bark cure for their cancer. I'm all for free speech and the free market, but we must acknowledge that false hope sells and find some way to combat that problem.

Fools for Communism

I hope the rest of Reason is more accurate than Glenn Garvin's review "Fools for Communism" (April), which references me. Garvin says "Foner…denounces 'the obsessive need to fill in the blank pages of the Soviet era.'"

He is referring to an article I wrote after teaching in Russia in 1990. I did not "denounce" the focus on the Soviet past among the people I met in Moscow at all—I reported it, as part of a discussion of a museum exhibition on one of Stalin's prison camps and, more generally, of how Gorbachev's policy of "openness" had unleashed a wide-ranging discussion of history. As a historian I applaud all efforts to uncover forgotten or suppressed aspects of the past. How this qualifies me as one of the historians supposedly "in denial" about Soviet history is difficult to understand.

It is unclear if this misrepresentation stems from the book under review or is the invention of the reviewer. Either way, it does not reflect well on your generally interesting magazine.

Eric Foner
DeWitt Clinton Professor of History
Columbia University
New York, NY

Glenn Garvin writes, "During World War II, when the Soviet Union and the United States were allied against Hitler, [Christopher] Trumbo's Communist father, Dalton, also named names, secretly pointing the FBI to Hollywood figures he believed were suspiciously anti-war. But there was no suggestion during the [2003] press conference [about Hollywood and the blacklist] that his screenwriting Oscar be revoked."

The assertion that Trumbo pointed "the FBI to Hollywood figures he believed were suspiciously anti-war" is a product of Garvin's fecund imagination. There is no evidence to support it. The only reference to Trumbo's speaking to the FBI that I know of can be found in his published letters, Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-61 (M. Evans & Co.). Anybody sufficiently interested in Garvin's garbled thesis can find enlightenment on page 26 of that volume.

Finally, at the press conference Garvin attended, there was no suggestion that anybody's Oscar "be revoked." Revoking Oscars originates with Garvin. And by the way, Dalton Trumbo was given two of them—for motion pictures he wrote using a pseudonym during the time he was blacklisted and unable to find work using his own name.

Christopher Trumbo
Beverly Hills, CA

Glenn Garvin replies: If anything, both the book In Denial and my review soft-pedal the tone of Foner's essay, which appeared in the December 1990 issue of Harper's. The air of bitter disappointment was palpable as Foner described young Russians who admire Abraham Lincoln but "paint the history of the Soviet era in the blackest hues, reclassifying every top leader between Lenin and Gorbachev as either criminal or incompetent." Worse yet, he wrote, the Russians were turning away from distinctions between bourgeois and socialist ideologies in favor of something he referred to, contempt practically dripping from the quotation marks, as "universal human values." Foner sounded like nothing so much as a jilted paramour as he complained of "this love affair with America."

As for Christopher Trumbo, I am astonished to find myself in agreement with him: Everybody, including his father's leftist admirers, should read Dalton Trumbo's 1944 letter to the FBI reprinted in Additional Dialogue. In it, he boasts of having provided the FBI with letters from writers who are "1) anti-war, 2) anti-Semitic, 3) in the process of organizing politically, 4) distributing pamphlets to further their cause and corresponding with persons detained by the Federal government, and 5) of the opinion that the Commander in Chief of American forces is 'the greatest criminal incendiary in history.'" He adds, "I share with the men of your organization a sincere desire to see an end to all such seditious propaganda as criminal slander of the Commander in Chief, defeatism, pacifism, anti-Semitism and all similar deceits and stratagems designed to assist the German cause." He closes by noting that he's including more letters and begging the FBI not to tip off the writers about what he has done, presumably so he can keep ratting on them.

I will concede Christopher Trumbo one technical point. Although he continues to object to the decision to give Elia Kazan a lifetime achievement Oscar, he did not use the word revoke. The importance of the distinction eludes me, but I am inclined to be charitable to a man whose father was not only one of Stalin's loudest apologists but also one of J. Edgar Hoover's pet rats. Talk about a childhood of mixed signals.