Shalala draws criticism for joining dairy ad campaign Some observers warn of possible conflict

July 02, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Why is Donna E. Shalala wearing a milk mustache?

The secretary of health and human services has been showing up in full-color ads for months, a line of dairy product etched above her upper lip.

Shalala, with the likes of David Copperfield, Spike Lee and Tyra Banks, is pitching the dairy industry. And some folks are having a cow over it.

Shalala has insisted that her promotion of the milk industry is meant to encourage teen-age girls to get more calcium and prevent osteoporosis later in life.

Yesterday, she helped kick off a national "milk mobile," sponsored by the National Dairy Council and the National Osteoporosis Foundation, which will tour 100 cities and offer free bone density screenings and a chance to be chosen for the next milk mustache ad in People magazine.

Shalala appeared with Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Maryland Republican who wrote Medicare legislation, effective yesterday, that provides for coverage of the cost of bone mass measurement.

"This 'Better Bones Tour' is a great idea," Shalala said. "I always say, if you can't bring people to good health, bring good health to people. That's why I was willing to participate in the 'milk mustache' campaign -- about the benefits of drinking milk."

Some critics, however, point out that a fine line exists between promoting health and pushing a product that happens to have health benefits.

And others note that milk is not healthy for everybody. Many people are lactose-intolerant or allergic, meaning they have trouble digesting the product. Also, most nutrition experts generally recommend against drinking whole milk, because of its high fat content, after the age of 2.

"What if the commerce secretary started appearing in ads for American wheat?" asked Michael Jacobson, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who wrote to the department complaining of a potential conflict of interest when the ads first started appearing several months ago. "While we can't complain nutritionally about it -- as long as she is promoting low or nonfat milk -- I think it's a dangerous precedent for top government officials to appear in corporate advertising."

HHS officials insisted that their legal experts "examined the issues quite carefully," and concluded it was appropriate for her to appear. Moreover, unlike other celebrities in the campaign, such as Cal Ripken Jr., Shalala was not paid.

Shalala maintained control over the text of the ads, saying she would promote only low- or nonfat milk. "Drink low-fat or fat-free milk," reads her ad. "We always keep a full thermos in the Cabinet." And she felt strongly that the way to make her point was through the mass media.

"You don't reach teen-age girls by printing brochures," said Shalala spokeswoman Melissa Skolfield. "You reach them through the mass media, through magazines they read, through people they trust. The secretary very much wanted to be part of this program."

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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