An ethos of smart science is the often-repeated phrase that “correlation does not imply causation.” Just because two things happen simultaneously, or consecutively once or twice, does not mean one thing caused the other. Carrying an umbrella doesn’t cause rain.
Those of us who consider ourselves “strict causationists” should be very concerned about what we have been seeing lately from our government leaders, especially from the Department of Defense. Military bureaucrats have been making sweeping health decisions based on anecdotal correlations, and taking legal, and widely used products off the shelves of stores on military bases because of hunches and assumed links to negative health effects.
It’s a fact that two members of the military have died in the last year after running long distances in extreme heat, and both men were found to have DMAA, a chemical compound found in several popular dietary supplements, in their bodies. But that’s all we know. We don’t know how much they took, what else they were taking, and what other underlying conditions they may have had. We have no idea whether the presence of DMAA was in any way related to the death of these soldiers, and certainly not enough to warrant the action that DOD hastily took: requiring GNC and other nutritional store to take products containing DMAA off the shelves of military bases while they conduct an investigation.
DOD’s actions in this case don’t make sense. If DMAA was a real threat, surely we would be hearing more about it than two isolated military cases. British author and regulatory expert Christopher Snowdon points out that the most popular product with DMAA, known as “Jack3d,” has sold 440 million servings since 2007. If it was truly dangerous, he wrote, “one would expect an epidemic of deaths to have taken place.” And if the Pentagon is so concerned about the product, why is it allowing service members to continue taking it, and even allowing them to have it shipped onto base from outside vendors? It just can’t be sold in stores on bases.
The fact that both men had DMAA in their system says a lot more about the product’s popularity than it does its dangers. Products with DMAA are some of the biggest sellers at GNC and nutritional stores, which make these two incidents seem all the more coincidental. GNC has steadfastly stood behind the products, and has told reporters it only removed them from military shelves because the Pentagon required it.
We don’t know whether the two service members used the recommended dosage – which produces effects comparable to two or three cups of coffee, according to the informational website for Jack3D’s manufacturer, USPLabs – or whether they took a lot more. We don’t know whether it was mixed with alcohol or other drugs and what else was in their system. Col. John J. Lammie, the director of Health Policy Services at the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army has said as much, acknowledging that “no link between DMAA and the medical conditions reported by military medical providers has been validated scientifically by us.” Then why take it off the shelves?
Congress has given the Food and Drug Administration authority to remove supplements it finds to be dangerous. The FDA hasn’t done so, and there’s no science – no causal link to any negative health effects – that would justify any such action.
As my friend and colleague Gregory Conley, who uses these products, recently pointed out, the Pentagon should not be moving ahead of the FDA. But this is not the first time that the military has made a hasty decision that contradicts the science and deviates from the health experts in our government. In 2010, Air Force and Marine bases labeled e-cigarettes as tobacco products and prohibited their use, based on a study the FDA itself specifically said should not be used to determine whether toxic chemicals were present in the products.
Those of us who believe in science-based policy-making should be concerned that the Pentagon is using the same precautionary principle that regularly serves us so poorly. You don’t need to be a proponent of the consumption of nutritional workout supplements to oppose a regulatory approach governed by anecdote and speculation. Returning to a causation-based approach will not only ensure that our military men and women are safe, but that they’ll have good reason to have confidence in the system in which they serve.