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The Fat Hits the Fire Over Cholesterol

September 07, 1989|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Warning : The September issue of The Atlantic is pumping up blood pressure within the federal health Establishment.

The source of this stress reaction is a long, densely detailed report on "The Cholesterol Myth" by Washington investigative reporter Thomas J. Moore. Essentially, Moore argues that most popular notions about cholesterol--the fatty substance that may rival crack cocaine as a perceived threat to the body politic--are wrong. And possibly unhealthy. In a direct jab at bureaucracy, Moore also writes that an expensive, massive, federally promoted education campaign on the dangers of cholesterol may be misguided.

It's the kind of contrary thinking that sparked strong reaction from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the federal agency most deeply involved in both cholesterol research and public education about cholesterol, including backing of a nationwide cholesterol treatment campaign that ultimately could affect 25% of this country's adult population.

"I think there are important errors, omissions and distortions in the article," said James I. Cleeman, coordinator of the institute's National Cholesterol Education Program, the federal umbrella for public education about cholesterol risks. Cleeman charged that Moore selectively sampled "some of the more troublesome" areas in the vast field of cholesterol-related research to produce his challenging assertions.

Among other things, Moore's article purports that there is no convincing evidence that lowering cholesterol will help prevent heart attacks, or otherwise prolong life, despite two decades of clinical trials in five countries. Moreover, cholesterol levels apparently can't be lowered significantly by strict dieting and those who suffer early heart attacks don't eat more cholesterol, saturated fat or total calories than those free of coronary heart disease, he writes, citing government studies.

In addition, Moore reports that cholesterol-reducing drugs have been linked to liver damage, cancer, gallstones, cataracts and increased numbers of heart attacks and that low levels of cholesterol have been associated with increased risk of cancer, stroke and gallstones.

Cleeman said that Moore's article is dangerous because it may "confuse" the public about whether cholesterol is a health risk. As a result, Cleeman said he has tried to persuade journalists who have called his office about "The Cholesterol Myth" not to cover the topic. Two networks dropped planned segments based on The Atlantic article after getting the federal perspective, he claimed.

Despite the article's claims, Cleeman added that that the general thrust of cholesterol-related research supports the "very substantial scientific consensus" that lowering blood cholesterol is good for a person's health and that high blood cholesterol is strongly linked to heart disease. Coronary heart disease, thought to be caused by cholesterol deposits narrowing the arteries that supply the heart, is the leading cause of death in the United States, responsible for 500,000 deaths per year. It costs the United States $110 billion per year in health care costs and lost productivity, he noted.

Not Settled Yet

The official conceded, however, that cholesterol remains a field ripe for investigation. "I don't think that we should pretend just for a polemic reason that everything about cholesterol has been settled. It hasn't," he said.

Moore, meanwhile, is standing by his story. Institute officials, he said, simply cannot believe what cholesterol research--largely funded by the blood institute itself--is finding. "When these trials failed (to find links between cholesterol and threats to health), I think they just couldn't see it and some of them can't see it to this day," Moore said.

When he began researching the cholesterol issue, Moore said that he, too, shared the conventional wisdom about the substance's dangers. "No one was more surprised than me by this," he said, explaining that he now believes the intersecting interests of the federal health bureaucracy and drug firms that manufacture cholesterol treatments are sustaining anti-cholesterol drives.

He suggested that people interested in the issue shouldn't trust his conclusions, or the governments. Rather, he said, they should do their own research, difficult as that might be.

Moore's article is excerpted from his forthcoming book, "Heart Failure," to be published next month by Random House.

A final warning: Moore's article isn't easy to digest. His conclusions are often obscured by the wealth of complicated detail. Some readers may want to take a banana split break.

His True Colors

Lots of folks know that U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich was the conservative Republican point man in the ethics probe that forced Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright out of office earlier this year.

A lot fewer know that his ex-wife is praising a liberal San Francisco magazine for--from her point of view--painting her former husband in his true colors.

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