Critic: Celebrities in Health Campaigns Could Go Either Way

PHOTO: Gwyneth Paltrow
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Gwyneth Paltrow lent her voice (and tears) to Stand Up to Cancer's United Kingdom launch, prompting almost 200 news articles by noon today, but do celebrities like Paltrow really help the public health campaigns they stand behind?

Two researchers went head to head to answer the question, duking it out as only a public health professor and an honorary research fellow can: in 900-word articles published in the BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal.

Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, argued that celebrities help by way of offering publicity for an issue. Although they are not experts, he wrote, they lend personal stories that bring issues to life for the public.

Chapman preempted criticisms by saying celebrity-boosted public health campaigns are often saddled with unrealistic expectations and criticized when they aren't met. He pointed to the way pop star Kylie Minogue's breast cancer screenings led more women -- including those not in the target age range or risk groups -- to have mammography, leading to false positives and unnecessary radiation.

"The ambivalence about 'the Kylie effect' reflects enduring debate about the wisdom of breast screening, but it should not blind us to the potential value of celebrity engagement in important cases," he wrote. "Playing to the media's appetite for those experiencing health problems, celebrities often speak personally and bring compelling authenticity to public discourse."

Chapman's opponent, Geof Rayner, a research fellow at the City University in London, wrote that celebrities can't help a health campaign because celebrity status is "fleeting" and they aren't ideal role models.

After questioning the unhealthy influences of the public's "fake friendships" with celebrities over social media and pointing out that Ronald Reagan once told Americans what cigarettes to smoke, Rayner concluded that celebrities can't be "saviors" just because they're involved in health campaigns.

When it comes to using celebrities as a shortcut to public health awareness, "You'll never win," Rayner told ABCNews.com in a phone interview.

Other health journalism critics said viewers should weigh celebrity testimony appropriately and consider who is paying for the messages celebrities offer.

Gary Schwitzer, a health journalism critic and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, said celebrity stories are often presented with expert testimony in an unbalanced way, and the celebrity's experience is often not representative of most people with that health condition because the celebrity often has more wealth and better access to health care.

He pointed to an example from May in which Dr. Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, shared a split screen with former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps on CBS News to discuss routine prostate-specific antigen screenings to test for prostate cancer. Brawley argued that over-testing can indirectly kill more people than it saves because it gives false positives 80 percent of the time, while Phelps asserted, "There's nothing wrong with the test."

"I think there was undue emphasis and weight, almost as if they were equal arguments," Schwitzer said.

Dr. Tom Linden, a medical journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, said neither Rayner nor Chapman "won" the BMJ head-to-head. He said he thinks celebrity endorsements can go either way.

"It all depends on the quality of information that the celebrity is purveying," Linden said. "If it's good information, it can inform. If it's bad information, it can promote a lot of harm."

He added that there's no question that when former basketball star Magic Johnson told the world he had AIDS, it was a "turning point" for AIDS awareness.

But just as a celebrity can promote a questionable treatment, he or she can also shower an organization with attention even though another that might be more deserving, Linden and Schwitzer said of Paltrow's support for Stand Up to Cancer, which gets nonprofit status under its parent organization, Entertainment Industry Foundation.

Although it raises awareness and research dollars and has a host of celebrity supporters, Schwitzer asked why Paltrow didn't choose to speak for the American Cancer Society or promote federally funded research through the National Cancer Institute.

"It's a trade-off here of, yes, it can be easy to see that there might be a public good from a broad statement of support for research, but why for that organization and why not for others?" he said. "We should look beyond face value and realize that there are things behind testimonies in health care. There's always another side. There's always another angle. There's always another issue to be thinking about."

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