Topic: Science & Technology

Diet Wars: The Wall Street Journal, PCRM, PETA, and the Atkins Attack
(2/11/2004)

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals make some good and important arguments now and then, but like all true believers, they are prone to trampling on others in their zeal to change the world. Now it has spear-headed the media mugging of a dead doctor, Robert Atkins of Atkins Diet fame, for the crime of advocating a protein rich diet that eschews carbohydrates while encouraging the ingestion of meat. A "medical group" known as The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) received the late Dr. Atkins medical records "by mistake" (hmmmm…) and sent them to the Wall Street Journal, which dutifully revealed that before the doctor's death, he had suffered a heart attack, congestive heart failure and hypertension, and noted that at 258 pounds and six feet tall, the diet guru qualified as "obese."

How unethical is all this? Let us count the ways:

  • First of all, PCRM is a front organization for PETA that has been censured by the American Medical Association for unethical practices, which now includes sending private medical records to the press. The AMA has pronounced PCRM a "fringe" group that has made "irresponsible" recommendations that are "potentially dangerous to the health and welfare of Americans." Meanwhile, PCRM shares office space, staff and board members with PETA. Thus this was an organized hit by PETA, using a surrogate organization to mask its obvious motives. It sought to use private information that it had no right to disseminate in order to attack the reputation and work of a man who, it should be noted, died after being in a coma from a fall that left him with a serious head injury. (Though PETA and its medical beard might not want to concede the fact, bashing in your head is worse for your health than any diet.)

PCRM presented its information under false pretenses. The medical records, even if not obtained illicitly, should not have been given to the press. If the people making up PCRM are indeed physicians, they should have appreciated and respected the confidential nature of such records.

  • The Wall Street Journal and all the other papers that jumped on the story, including the London Times, should be ashamed of themselves. They printed the contents of private records in a context designed to discredit a deceased doctor's life's work without checking out the group involved: the PETA connection appears nowhere in the story. Moreover, the papers pronounced Doctor Atkins obese at the time of his desk, which does not appear to be the case. The press release from the Atkins Physicians Council states:

    Dr. Atkins' weight was consistently and frequently documented in the years and months prior to his fall; as he was suffering from cardiomyopathy, his health was monitored closely. Due to water retention, this robust 6-foot plus man, who competitively played tennis frequently during the week, had a weight that varied between 180 and 195. During his coma, as he deteriorated and his major organs failed, fluid retention and bloating dramatically distorted his body and left him at 258 pounds at the time of his death, a documented weight gain of over 60 pounds. How and why the Journal reported that he was obese, remains the only unanswered question in this pathetic situation.

    Any implication that Dr. Atkins was obese or fat prior to his coma, shows a blatant disregard or even worse, lack of understanding of the medical facts surrounding this case, or of the physiology of severe heart failure and the degree of fluid retention that occurred during this hospitalization.

Okay, the Atkins people have their biases too; at this point we don't know what the truth is, and whether Dr. Atkins may have suffered some adverse effects from his own diet. We do know that private information was obtained by an axe-grinding advocacy group that shielded their identity behind a captive quasi-medical organization. We do know that it was given to the press, when it shouldn't have been, and printed, with inadequate research into what it meant and the circumstances surrounding it.

And we do know that a man, his name, reputation and legacy have been meanly smeared, without sufficient cause. If the Atkins Diet is unhealthy, the PETA folks and their doctor familiars are free to prove it. What Dr, Atkins himself weighed and how he died proves nothing. The actions of PETA were calculated to cause harm, on the ethically indefensible theory that discrediting the founder of the Atkins Diet would save a cow or two.

PETA can accomplish its goals without deception, without character assassination, without invading people's privacy, and without distorting the facts. If it can't, then it should go out of existence.

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