We haven’t seen the quickly-infamous “hot dogs cause butt cancer” billboard on the Eisenhower itself, but we have seen it in lots of media. Which, of course, is the point of such stunts, to get free publicity that far outstrips what you spent to show off your butt billboard up for all to see, thus greatly increasing the penetration of your message into the public’s consciousness. But who is the Physicans Committee For Responsible Medicine, who’s ramming this hard-to-take-in message home? Sounds like some sober association of solid physicians who, having long watched their patients succumb to hot-dog-induced butt cancer, are now determined to lift the lid off this problem and expose it to the world. Well, not exactly.
The PCRM claims 150,000 members and lists a number of physicians (most notably, Henry Heimlich, of maneuver fame, and author Dr. Andrew Weil) on its “advisory” board. As those with non-profit experience know, the real management is never a squishy-sounding board like that but the paid staff, who are headed by Neil Barnard, M.D. And Barnard is an M.D., but not in anything especially related to nutrition health— he’s a psychiatrist. (That didn’t prevent Barnard from expressing his medical opinion that fast food is addictive in the documentary Super Size Me.) In fact, in the fine print PCRM acknowledges that only a small percentage (around 5-10% according to different estimates) of its members have medical training at all.
What PCRM is, in fact, is the same thing that PETA and similar groups are— a fairly extreme vegan/vegetarian and animal rights advocacy group whose primary activity is “education,” which is to say using media to get across a catchy, but medically overheated, message against any form of meat-eating or animal exploitation (including dairy). According to Activistcash.com, here’s some of the messaging that PCRM has used on past occasions that you are unlikely to hear coming out of the mouth of a trained, practicing general practitioner or nutritionist:
• A 1994 print ad was headlined “Last year, over a million people left the same suicide note.” Under that headline a handwritten note that said: “Shopping list: Butter, eggs, mayo, potato chips, ham, bacon.”
• In a 2005 TV spot advocating a vegetarian diet, the narration claimed that “the most dangerous thing our kids have to deal with today isn’t violence. It isn’t drugs. It’s unhealthy food.”
• Public pronouncements have called school lunches with meat and cheese “weapons of mass destruction,” called cheese “dairy crack” and “morphine on a cracker,” and told policymakers they “should think of drinking milk the same way we think of smoking cigars” and pursue tobacco-style lawsuits against the industry to shut it down.
All great stunts guaranteed to get publicity, but well beyond what an, ahem, responsible physician would say with a straight face. (There’s lots more at the above-linked site.)
They’ve also urged donors to stop giving to most of the major medical research charities, on the grounds that they support or use animal testing, and in return the AMA, which you do actually have to be a doctor to belong to, has called them a “fringe organization” that uses “unethical tactics” and is “interested in perverting medical science.”
The “butt cancer” billboard went up at the same time as more sedate versions in other cities— supposedly because of Chicago’s centrality to the hot dog industry, but surely also because they get more media attention in this market… and were less likely to have trouble with the provocative language. That doesn’t mean we should pay attention to it, though, as anything more than a shock-tactic attention-getter. Although just this week the Harvard School of Public Health announced a link between colorectal cancer and red meat consumption, to jump from that to a specific food serving as the sole, identifiable cause of cancer is sensationalist BS, not responsible medicine.
In the end, as a commenter at one site put it, “If hotdogs cause butt cancer, perhaps they are being improperly used.”