Popsicles, popcorn and Premarin: Antidote’s favorite health stories of 2009

Published on
December 21, 2009

Antidote started as a way to share innovative investigative ideas in health reporting, in part by highlighting reporters who have done an exceptional job digging for great stories. Starting this week I am going to list 10 of my favorite stories from the year, in no particular order.

"Smart Choices Foods: Dumb as they look? ," Rebecca Ruiz, Forbes, October 2009

Every breakfast eater has noticed that cereal boxes have become crowded with hearts and measuring tape and nice sounding slogans promising a slimmer, healthier you. Ruiz deconstructed one of the more widespread health marketing tools being used today, the "Smart Choices" stamp of approval.

Most people don't consider chocolate popsicles, sugary cereal and bagels filled with cream cheese as healthy foods. But it's no surprise that a new labeling program underwritten by 14 major food companies - including Kellogg, Kraft and Unilever - says otherwise.

There can be no doubt that her reporting helped shut the program down in October 2009. The story also serves as a blueprint for similar examinations of "healthy food" programs.

"Menopause, as brought to you by Big Pharma," Duff Wilson & Natasha Singer, The New York Times, December 2009

This story took some of the documents that have been gathered in the Drug Industry Document Archive and other places and created a narrative of a public health shame. Wilson and Singer also expertly explained how the science and the history of hormone therapy have been so warped by the pharmaceutical industry that we are only now beginning to separate fact from fiction, mostly through documents that have surfaced in lawsuits brought by women who have suffered serious side effects.

Even as evidence mounted of an association of the drugs with cancer - first in the 1970s with Premarin and endometrial cancer, then in the 1990s with Prempro and breast cancer - Wyeth tried to contain the concerns, the court documents show. (A note handwritten in 1996 by a Wyeth employee responding to a new report of breast cancer risks associated with hormone therapy said: "Dismiss/distract.")

This is a carefully written and wonderfully illustrated piece of reporting that should prompt many future stories about how the drug industry has distorted patient-focused medicine. (The story also will forever change your opinion of Lauren Hutton.)

"Flavoring maker fights on to keep safety inspectors out," Andrew Schneider, Cold Truth, February 2009

This story is just one example from Schneider's dogged coverage of food additives, including the butter flavoring called diacetyl. It has been linked to a horrible condition called "popcorn lung," injuring workers in popcorn plants and even killing a few. (To read my interview with him from earlier this year, go here and here.) Part of what has always made Schneider such an incredible reporter is his ability to sort through the science of a topic, explaining tricky subjects clearly with plain language and with the help of well vetted experts.

Dr. David Egilman, a occupational medicine specialist and Clinical Associated Professor at Brown University, who has been examining patients harmed by diacetyl since the first popcorn cases, calls Sensient's position absurd and dangerous.

"If any one is experimenting, it is Sensient and the guinea pigs are their workers. It is just outrageous that this company that has never tested the toxicity of any of the chemicals it puts in our food has gall to block government researchers efforts to determine if they stuff they are adding to food will kill or injure us," said Egilman, who has testified on behalf of the injured workers in many of the lawsuits they brought against flavoring companies.

In addition to his posts on Cold Truth, Schneider is writing for AOL's interesting new venture, Sphere. It's well worth your time to pay attention to his latest finds.

"Cashing in on kids," Raquel Rutledge, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 2009

The Journal Sentinel sets a high bar for watchdog journalism. The paper started this investigation with a two part series in January, and it has published dozens of stories since.

The newspaper spent four months investigating the $340 million taxpayer-financed child-care system known as Wisconsin Shares and uncovered a trail of phony companies, fake reports and shoddy oversight.

The program was designed to give low-wage working parents assistance with child care, encouraging them to get and keep jobs, rather than stay on welfare. While the need in many of the 34,000 cases is genuine, the system allows child-care providers and parents to easily con the system, capitalizing on children for public cash.

Rutledge's work has resulted in criminal indictments, state legislation and federal legislation. And, even late into December, Rutlledge is still breaking significant news, including the fact that some day cares that took millions in state funds had ties to high level drug dealers.

"My mistake: How a factual error in Slate ended up in a White House speech," Timothy Noah, Slate, September 2009

If there were a Polk Award for corrections, Noah would win. What could have been one sentence that a few dozen people read, Noah turned into a full-fledged investigation of his mistake, the noise surrounding health reform and journalism itself. One of the most refreshing things about the story is how Noah gives credit just as freely as he takes blame.

On June 16, the House energy and commerce committee's investigation subcommittee held a hearing (here's the transcript and video) documenting the termination of health insurance policies held by seriously ill people. The hearing received scant coverage in the mainstream media (notable exceptions were the Los Angeles Times, CNN.com, and Time's Swampland blog), prompting Democratic strategist and CNN commentator Paul Begala to chide the press for blowing it off. Begala's complaint was picked up by Media Matters for America, the liberal-media watchdog. In the ever-present media din, I missed all this. But one month later I heard a gripping story based on the hearings on Chicago Public Radio's This American Life. I'd been thinking for some time that I should write about rescissions, and this prompted me to do it.

The story is full of great links to documents that could yield fruit for new investigations, too.

Antidote will post another five tremendous health stories next week.