Why is Donna 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 milk on her upper lip. (Actually, milk is not viscous enough to survive the hot camera lights, so Shalala and other celebrities use a combination of milk, yogurt and ice cream.) Whatever the substance, 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 all for the public health, to encourage teenage girls to get more calcium and prevent osteoporosis later in life. Wednesday she helped kick off a national "milk mobile," sponsored by the National Dairy Council and the National Osteoporosis Foundation, which will tour 100 cities, including Los Angeles, and offer free bone density screenings and a chance to be chosen for the next milk mustache ad in People magazine.
Shalala appeared at the rally with Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), who wrote Medicare legislation, effective Wednesday, 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.
"My mother loves this picture," she added, referring to her photo in the ad. "How times have changed. When I was a child, she would never--ever--let me leave the house with milk on my face."
The mobile has these stops planned for California: Aug. 22-23 in Manhattan Beach, Oct 23 at the Driftwood Dairy in El Monte and Oct. 26 at the Alta-Dena Dairy in City of Industry. The idea is to encourage youngsters, particularly girls, to "reach for milk instead of soda," Shalala said.
Despite these laudable goals--and no one is attacking her intentions--some critics point out that a fine line exists between promoting health with industry's support and pushing a product that happens to have a beneficial health impact.
And others note that milk is not healthy for everybody. Many people are lactose-intolerant or allergic, meaning that 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 had "examined the issues quite carefully" and concluded that it was appropriate for her to appear. Moreover, unlike other celebrities in the campaign--such as athletes Cal Ripken, Amy Van Dyken and Florence Griffith Joyner--Shalala was not paid.
Shalala maintained control over the text of the ads, saying that 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 teenage 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."
Skolfield said that the secretary was approached by the National Institutes of Health, whose research had concluded that milk was the best and easiest source of calcium for young people. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the NIH, reports that calcium deficiency can retard normal growth and development. About 90% of adult bone mass is achieved by age 17. By age 21, or soon after, peak bone density is achieved. And within a few years after that, a steady loss of calcium from bones begins.
The spokesman said Shalala's participation in the milk campaign was no different from the department's involvement with other commercial industries to promote public health messages. As an example, she cited the "Back to Sleep" campaign, a cooperative effort with baby-food manufacturers to place messages on their products advising parents to put babies to sleep on their backs to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. She also said that the department has collaborated with McDonald's in printing immunization schedules on its restaurant tray liners.
"We have to reach people any way we can," Skolfield said.
In addition to Shalala and the athletes, the milk ads also have featured famous teenagers, like Jonathan Taylor Thomas of "Home Improvement" and Neve Campbell of "Party of Five," and have been running in national magazines read by teenagers, such as Seventeen, Sassy, YM and Sports Illustrated.
When people can't drink milk, they frequently turn to beverages derived from soy. But soybean farmers are not too upset by the new campaign, mostly because soy drinks represent a small fraction of the soybean market.
They do admit to being a tad jealous.
"I've never heard any of our leaders express any concerns or anything negative about the milk mustache campaign or anybody who appears in it," said Bob Callanan, a spokesman for the American Soybean Assn. "If anything, they are envious that it's done so well. It's actually taken on its own persona--it's become the 'in' thing to have a milk mustache."
Legally, the department says, Shalala is allowed to endorse products that promote the public health. But traditionally, commercial endorsements by public officials are frowned on. The president, for example, never plugs products or industries, although some chief executives have chosen to lend their names to certain worthy causes.
President Clinton appeared in a series of messages sponsored by the Ad Council more than a year ago pushing the message that the hardest job in the world is being a parent--and encouraging people to do more for children. But even then questions were raised about where politics ended and public service messages began.
Given the active political profile of major business interests, some political scientists think that government officials should err on the side of caution. In the case of milk, the dairy industry contributed more than $2.1 million to congressional candidates in the 1996 election, with 66% of that going to Republicans and 34% to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The industry's total is less than other agriculture concerns, such as tobacco and poultry interests.
"I think we have to be suspicious of anything like this, even if it's a good person and a good cause," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in politics and the presidency. "This is a world in which every interest wants something from the government. And while there's nothing immediately wrong--and a lot of things immediately right--about this cause, how do we know that in 50 years someone won't conclude that milk is bad for us?"
In short, said Hess, "if she didn't have to do it, she'd be better off not doing it."