This topic generated what was probably a record number of comments in the Fat Head Facebook group awhile back, so I thought it was old news. Apparently not, since several readers sent me links to a news article this week:
The North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition is threatening to send a blogger to jail for recounting publicly his battle against diabetes and encouraging others to follow his lifestyle.
Chapter 90, Article 25 of the North Carolina General Statutes makes it a misdemeanor to “practice dietetics or nutrition” without a license. According to the law, “practicing” nutrition includes “assessing the nutritional needs of individuals and groups” and “providing nutrition counseling.”
Steve Cooksey has learned that the definition, at least in the eyes of the state board, is expansive.
Cooksey, who was hospitalized in 2009 for complications of diabetes, created his Diabetes Warrior blog after a low-carb paleo diet proved so effective, he was able to stop taking insulin and other drugs. In other words, he did what a lot of us have done: after discovering a diet that worked, he decided to share the good news online. That’s the Wisdom of Crowds at work. Bloggers like Cooksey have probably saved more lives than all the dietitians in the country combined.
That’s exactly the problem, of course. As I recounted in my Crisis in Nutrition speech, more and more people are turning away from doctors, nutritionists and dietitians and seeking information on the internet because they’re tired of following advice that doesn’t work. The nutritionists and dietitians don’t like the competition. So at least in this case, they’re trotting out ridiculous licensing laws in hopes of keeping their monopoly. As I wrote in a recent post, that’s often the true purpose of licensing laws: stifling competition.
The article doesn’t say who exactly decided to go after Cooksey, but it does provide us with enough information to make an educated guess:
Jan. 12, Cooksey attended a nutrition seminar at a church in Charlotte. The speaker was the director of diabetes services for a local hospital.
“She was giving all the wrong information, just like everyone always does — carbs are OK to eat, we must eat carbs to live, promoting low-fat, etc.,” Cooksey said. “So I spoke up.”
After the meeting he handed out a couple of business cards pointing people to his website. Three days later, he got a call from the director of the nutrition board.
“Basically, she told me I could not give out nutritional advice without a license,” Cooksey said.
Now why is that, exactly? Cooksey hasn’t claimed he’s a doctor or claimed he holds degrees he doesn’t. Far from it, in fact:
Cooksey posts the following disclaimer at the bottom of every page on his website:
“I am not a doctor, dietitian, nor nutritionist … in fact I have no medical training of any kind.”
That means the people who seek his advice know exactly what he is – and what he isn’t.
[Board director Charla] Burill said the disclaimer may not protect a nutrition blogger from the law.
“If I’ve given you reason to not worry that I don’t have a license because I have all these other reasons I’m an expert, you could still harm the public,” she said.
And what harm would that be, Ms. Burill? How exactly are diabetics going to be harmed by following Cooksey’s advice and restricting carbohydrates? The only potential harm here will be to the bank accounts of dietitians, who may find there are fewer people willing to pay them to be harmed by their crappy advice.
I’ve seen plenty of books in bookstores that offer nutrition advice, but weren’t written by people with degrees or licenses. If any of those authors live in North Carolina, will the state’s dietetics and nutrition board be going after them next? Are those of us who don’t live in North Carolina going to be threatened with fines or jail, since we have readers in North Carolina?
Burill told Carolina Journal she could not discuss the details of Cooksey’s case because his website is still under investigation, but agreed to talk about the law in the hypothetical.
It’s not necessarily against the law to give your sister or your friend nutritional advice, she said.
Not necessarily against the law? You mean it could be?
And it’s not necessarily against the law to use a blog to tell people what they should eat.
Where it crosses the line, Burill said, is when a blogger “advertises himself as an expert” and “takes information from someone such that he’s performing some sort of assessment and then giving it back with some sort of plan or diet.”
So you can give advice to your friend or sister … well, what about a co-worker? A co-worker of mine recently asked me for advice about his diet because his triglycerides are way too high and the low-fat diet he was advised to follow isn’t helping. (Duh.) He gave me a copy of his lab report and a list of his typical meals. I’d say that means I performed an assessment. If we were in North Carolina, could I get around the law by declaring that I consider the co-worker a friend? Would we need to submit pictures of ourselves having drinks together after work to prove we’re friends?
That’s how ridiculous these issues can become.
It’s a fine line between what’s legal and what’s not when it comes to talking about nutrition.
“Anyone can talk about anything they want,” Burill said. “That’s a First Amendment right, so to speak.”
So to speak?
For example, a person could write a blog advocating vegetarianism, she said.
I’ve heard that could happen.
“Now if you advertised that you’d taken classes in nutrition, you’ve worked at [the federal government’s Food and Nutrition Service] for three years, and you say ‘I believe everyone should be a vegetarian, and I’m here to help you if you want to change your diet’ [that could be crossing the line],” Burill said.
No, you flippin’ idiot, the “crossing the line” part would be advertising that you’ve taken nutrition classes or worked for a federal agency if you haven’t. That’s called fraud. Prosecuting fraud is a legitimate function of government. Prosecuting people for stating their opinions about what constitutes a good diet isn’t.
“A vegetarian diet would be a little bit harder [to prosecute] because a vegetarian is not really like a medical diet.”
True, a vegetarian is not really like a medical diet. A vegetarian is more like a person who doesn’t eat meat. But plenty of vegetarians write online about the wonders their diet has done for their health, and plenty of them offer advice too. What the @#$% is the difference?
Declan McCullagh, a CBSNews.com correspondent who writes about online free speech, says the board probably is violating Cooksey’s First Amendment rights.
“In general, I think that as long as someone is very clear that they’re not a licensed dietician, state officials can probably find better uses of their time,” he said.
You’re right about the First Amendment, Mr. McCullagh. But as for state officials finding better use for their time … naw, I don’t think so. This is exactly the kind of petty nonsense they live for. To make better use of their time, they’d have to leave government and get a real job.
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