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Mr Epidemiology

No, I'm not a skin doctor

City of Philadelphia successfully passes a soda tax

Last week, Philadelphia became the first major city to pass a “soda tax.” While other cities have tried and ultimately failed to pass similar pieces of legislation, Philadelphia was successful. So what made Philadelphia different?

Picture from Flickr user Scribe215
Picture from Flickr user Scribe215

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Is plain cigarette packaging just smoke and mirrors?

The Marlboro Man is one of the most iconic advertising images from the 20th century. The cowboy, depicted in some rustic setting, was single-handedly responsible for turning Marlboro’s annual sales from $5 billion a year to over $20 billion a year in the two years after the campaign was introduced. Since the success of that campaign, anti-smoking activists have tried several different ways to limit cigarette advertising. The latest salvo comes in the form of last week’s WHO statement on plain packaging, where they recommended plain packing as part of “comprehensive approach to tobacco control that includes large graphic health warnings and comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.” Plain packing standardizes how cigarettes are sold, keeping the picture health warnings, but making the brand names, pack size, colour scheme all identical to limit their appeal.

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Perhaps there is a drug that can prolong your life. It’s called money

A wise man once said that “mo’ money, mo’ problems” (Wallace, 1997). However, despite increases in supposed problems, one of the major benefits is increased life expectancy.

New research published in JAMA last week examined how big a difference earning more money makes in life expectancy, as well as how this changes by geographic location across the United States. Researchers collected tax records from 1.4 billion individuals from 1999 to 2014 aged 40 to 76. Of these, around 4 million men died, compared to 2.7 million women (mortality rates of 596.3 and 375.1 per 100 000 respectively). They examined these data to look at what predicted life expectancy at age 40, after adjusting for race and ethnicity.

What makes New York different to other US cities? | Photo credit Kah-Wai Lin
What makes New York different to other US cities? | Photo credit Kah-Wai Lin (click for more)

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Tackling obesity needs all of us, not some of us

One of the most important issues facing public health today is obesity. Worldwide, approximately 30% of adults are obese,  and costs around $2 trillion annually. A health concern with complex determinants and many intertwined causes, there’s no single magic bullet solution to the rising prevalence of obesity. A new report by the McKinsey Global Institute studied 74 interventions to see what was effective. They studied 74 interventions that target obesity, which range from subsidizing school meals, adding calorie and nutrition labels, as well as restrictions on advertising high-calorie food and drinks.

The report covers areas one would expect, such as energy balance and changing dietary and physical activity behaviours. While these issues are important and do require study, the authors also looked at the environment and how that impacts obesity. There’s a lot of literature that shows that your environment plays a large role in obesity, and simply telling someone to “eat less and move more” is an ineffective strategy at best, and one that further stigmatizes at worst. It’s something we’ve discussed in relation to poverty, and illustrated with the retailer IKEA.

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Basic Income: A radical idea for eliminating poverty

The Watson Arts Centre in Dauphin, Manitoba (photo from Wikipedia)
The Watson Arts Centre in Dauphin, Manitoba (photo from Wikipedia)

I imagine most of my readers have never heard of Dauphin, Manitoba. A small, farming community in Canada, Dauphin is a town that was part of an experiment back in the 1970s. The “mincome” project was launched in 1974, and offered everyone a minimum income. Unfortunately, the project was shut down in 1979 with a change in the government, and so the effects weren’t long term enough. The purpose of the mincome project was to see what would happen if a “top up” was offered to everyone. Dr. Evelyn Forget has been studying records from those years, and following up on people to see how it impacted their life. Would people stop working? Would there be higher rates of employment? How would people respond?

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The Zika Virus – what do you need to know?

zik-world-map_active_01-26-2016_web_2
Countries and territories with active Zika virus transmission (CDC)

The more I read up on a topic, the more complicated it ends up being. As you start trying to unravel the ball of yarn, every thread leads to three more, and each of those lead to three more. The Zika virus has highlighted that in a very tangible way.

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Why are middle-aged white Americans dying faster than others?

The best findings in science aren’t the ones that make you go “cool!”, they’re the ones that make you go “huh?”

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported a strange and unexpected finding. By looking at data from the CDC, researchers were able to evaluate mortality rates per 100,000 individuals, and compare this between ethnic groups. While there’s generally been a decrease in all-cause mortality, they found an increase in the mortality of middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women in the US between 1999 and 2013 (solid red line below). This finding was unique to middle-aged White Americans – data from other countries also reported a drop in death rates.

So what makes White, middle-aged, non-Hispanic Whites unique?

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Hot time summer in the city (Legionnaires Disease)

1976 was a busy year in Philadelphia. They were holding the Bicentennial celebration, commemorating the two-hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. As part of the year-long festivities, the city had become a hub for events, hosting the championship game of the NCAA Final Four, as well as the all-star games for baseball, basketball and hockey. On the 4th of July, around 2 million people descended on the city for the celebrations, which featured a five hour parade with over 40,000 marchers and floats from every state. But it was to be a small, 2000 person event that would go down in history.

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Image courtesy Flickr user DaveZ

If you play with scorpions, don’t be surprised when you get stung

When I was 6 or 7, my uncle gave me a book of Aesop’s Fables. I liked their imagery, and the idea of talking animals with anthropomorphized human traits appealed to my child sensibilities. Recent news about Turing Pharmaceuticals raising the price of Duraprim, a potentially life-saving drug, from a paltry $13.50 to an astonishing $750 brought one of these fables vividly back to mind: the story of the Scorpion and the Frog.

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