Medical Experts Call on Secretary Leavitt to Tackle Hypertension by Promoting Salt Reduction

Two dozen leading hypertension experts, physicians, and health groups today urged Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt to swing his agency into action to reduce Americans’ salt consumption. The staggeringly high salt levels in countless processed foods and restaurant foods are a major factor in raising Americans’ blood pressure, which in turn is a major contributor to heart disease and stroke. African Americans are disproportionately at risk for high blood pressure, those experts said.

“There is virtual unanimity within the scientific community regarding the contribution of excessive sodium consumption to cardiovascular disease,” the experts write, pointing to various government-funded recommendations, including those of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Institute of Medicine, and the Seventh Report of the Joint National Committee on the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure (JNC-7). In 2004, Dr. Claude Lenfant, then the director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, estimated that 150,000 lives could be saved each year if sodium levels in packaged and restaurant foods were halved.

According to the American Heart Association:

• 40 percent of African Americans are hypertensive, compared to 27 percent of Caucasians. That results in an 80 percent greater rate of fatal strokes and a 50 percent greater rate of heart disease death for African Americans than whites.

• In 2003, the death rates per 100,000 people from hypertension were 49.7 for black males vs. 14.9 percent for white males and 40.8 percent for black females vs. 14.5 percent for white females.

• Hypertension is believed to be the underlying cause of death for 30 percent of hypertensive black males and 20 percent for hypertensive black females.

Last month, the American Medical Association passed a resolution emphasizing the need to achieve 50 percent sodium reductions for processed and restaurant foods and urging the Food and Drug Administration, which falls under HHS, to revoke the “generally regarded as safe,” or GRAS status, of salt. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has filed regulatory petitions with (and lawsuits against) the FDA at several points over the last 25 years urging the agency to do just that. The letter to Secretary Leavitt also points out that Americans spend some $15 billion per year on antihypertension drugs—and that taxpayers and consumers alike would welcome government action to reduce those expenditures.

“Unfortunately, government treats dietary approaches to high blood pressure as a spectator sport,” according to CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “The government’s unwillingness to act—even to encourage voluntary changes by industry—has turned many Americans' hearts into ticking time bombs.”

Signatories to the letter include Frank M. Sacks, M.D., of Harvard Medical School, Myron H. Weinberger, M.D., of Indiana University School of Medicine, L. Julian Haywood, M.D., of the University of Southern California, and Delegate Donna M. Christensen (D), a physician who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands in Congress.

“It's high time that our nation’s leading health authorities began solving one of the nation’s leading health problems,” Dr. Sacks said. “Reducing sodium consumption is critical to preventing cardiovascular disease.”