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OpenMarket: Risk and Consumer Freedom

  • BPA Research Funding Linked to Researcher Bias?

    October 9, 2014 5:18 PM

    The number of studies that have appeared in the news during recent years on the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is staggering. Few substances undergo such scrutiny. So why BPA? Mattie Duppler of American’s for Tax Reform’s Cost of Government project answers that question in an article for The Hill’s Congress Blog: Congress has poured millions of dollars ($170 million since 2000) into BPA research for what amounts to little more than a witch hunt.

    Follow the money and you may find a strong statistical association between government funding and the increased number of research studies that link BPA to various health ailments.

    Money goes out to researchers motivated to produce studies that report positive associations that easily get published and that gain more funding. And the more money politicians spend for research studies, the more likely some portion of studies will come up with positive associations between BPA and various health aliments, which is likely to happen by mere accident. In addition, many positive findings appear to be attributable to activist agendas among some researchers who make creative interpretations of largely meaningless data. And the studies that come up negative usually don’t get published or end up in the news either because negative findings as simply not interesting.

    Thus far, the allegedly most damning studies on BPA are extremely weak. Most don’t really find what the researchers claim they do, and they are often poorly designed. Consider the latest BPA study in the news. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics (JAMA Pediatrics), it claims that BPA is associated with wheezing and reduced lung function in children.

  • Must Every Product in the World Be Safe Enough for Children?

    October 6, 2014 10:14 AM

    The New York Times reported Friday on the David-and-Goliath battle of businessman Shihan Qu, the last of the rare earth magnet renegades. Mr. Qu’s company, Zen Magnets, is the last U.S. company selling the popular sets of unusually strong magnets that first became popular when marketed under the name Buckyballs® (named after inventor and designer R. Buckminster Fuller). These sets allow scientifically-curious customers to creatively experiment with different geometric forms. When Craig Zucker and Jake Bronstein started selling Buckyballs® through their company Maxfield & Oberton in 2009, they were immediately successful.

    Magnets this strong do have safety concerns, however, and some children have swallowed them and been injured as a result. This is why the companies selling them covered them in warning labels and didn’t supply the product to stores whose inventory is primarily targeted to children, like Toys R Us. Since the magnets require a fair amount of manual strength and dexterity to use, they were never marketed to children, gaining their following largely from popular science and geek-themed outlets.

  • Journalists Called Out for Bad Reporting on Consumption Data

    October 3, 2014 2:20 PM

    Being a journalist is not an easy job; it demands fast paced and high volume production. For those “wonk” journalists tasked with analyzing data-heavy reports for laymen readers, the task is even more difficult. A new post from Forbes’s Trevor Butterworth scrutinizes some recent articles from The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, highlighting how some journos aren’t exactly rising to the challenge. And the consequences go beyond a misinformed public.

    On September 25, Wonkblog posted an article claiming that 24 million American adults are consuming a shocking average of 74 drinks per week. Butterworth delves into the source of those data and points out the numbers aren’t exactly accurate. The data were pulled from a 2007 report which used information from a survey of Americans’ consumption during 2001-2002. Of course, self-reporting surveys are notoriously flawed. Participants misremember what they ate, miscalculate how much, or outright lie about their consumption habits. Butterworth states that if people really consumed what they tell researchers in self-reporting surveys, “life for almost two thirds of Americans would be biologically implausible.”

    Cook, understanding these flaws, attempted to correct for underreporting by multiplying the reported number of drinks by 1.97 which, as Butterworth noted, “requires us to believe that every drinker misremembered by a factor of almost two. This might not much of a stretch for moderate drinkers; but did everyone who drank, say, four or eight drinks per week systematically forget that they actually had eight or sixteen? That seems like a stretch.”

    Furthermore, the study also requires us to believe that those reporting no consumption didn’t drink a drop and even more significantly problematic that those under 18 years old—who were not included in Cook’s study—never consumed alcohol. Plenty of data demonstrates that even though they aren’t legally supposed to drink, a fifth of 12th graders are consuming alcohol. Additionally, Cook’s study, which was trying to account for a discrepancy between how much people said they consumed versus how much alcohol was sold in America, did not account for waste. As Butterworth points out, “…waste is a huge issue with food, with estimates running from 30-40 percent of calories produced; we do not know how much alcohol is, if you’ll forgive the pun, wasted.” Lastly, he notes that other studies looking at consumption patterns “[a]ll converge on a similar proportion; none come remotely close to Cook’s estimate; none are mentioned in Wonkblog.”

  • Cyanide, Tylenol and How Free Markets Make You Safer

    September 29, 2014 4:43 PM

    Today is the anniversary of one of the most significant food and drug related events in recent memory. Often discussed in college business classes these days, the 1982 Tylenol poisonings is usually heralded as the prime example of how companies should handle a consumer relations disaster. However, it is also a shining example of how the market itself—acting to protect its customers and thus its profits—can improve public safety. The actions that Johnson & Johnson took in the wake of this tragedy, without a doubt, improved the safety of consumers of all over-the-counter (OTC) drugs for the next 30 years.

    Within three days, beginning on September 29, 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died after taking Extra-Strength Tylenol laced with cyanide. More than 30 years later, who committed this crime and why remains a mystery. After an investigation, it was determined that the cyanide was not introduced in the factory, which, according to Grey Hunter, author of True Crime Stories“left only one other possibility. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and law enforcement agencies realized that someone had methodically taken the Tylenol bottles off the shelves at the stores where they were sold, filled the capsules with cyanide and returned them back to the shelves at a later period.”

    The incident triggered nationwide panic and distrust of OTC medicine as well as numerous copycat attempts. Within the next month, the FDA counted 270 incidents of suspected product tampering. However, it was unlikely that any tampering following the Chicago deaths involved Johnson & Johnson products. That’s because the company immediately implemented a protocol to make sure that customers could rest assured that any OTC they purchased from Johnson & Johnson was tamper resistant.

    While advertising genius Jerry Della Femina declared that Johnson & Johnson wouldn’t “ever sell another product under that name,” the company managed to turn the crises into a public relations campaign that would promote Johnson & Johnson products as safer than all others. Tylenol, which had been 37 percent of the analgesic market, plummeted to just 7 percent after the scare, but within a year it bounced back to a 30-percent market share. That is all thanks entirely to Johnson & Johnson’s robust campaign to prove to its customers that its top priority was their safety.

  • Study on Artificial Sweeteners Interesting But Flawed

    September 26, 2014 1:29 PM

    ​A new study out of Israel on the possible effects of artificial sweeteners is making a lot of headlines this week. Unfortunately (and as usual) members of the media from Forbes to NPR’s Diane Rehm are reporting on the study without taking into consideration the growing criticism of its methodology, conclusions, and prior research on the topic. As Stephen O’Rahilly, endocrinologist and head of Cambridge’s metabolic research lab put it, “It would be unfortunate if this data were to influence public policy.” 

    Jotham Suez, a graduate student in the Department of Immunology at the Weizmann institute of Science, led the study. Suez et al. gave doses of water laced with saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame to mice and observed that the mice then developed a glucose intolerance. When they looked at the effects of artificial sweeteners on humans, four out of the seven subjects displayed “significantly poorer glycaemic responses” after consuming the maximum recommended daily limit of saccharin for a week. None of the subjects were regular users of artificial sweeteners prior to the study.

    While the results are certainly interesting, the researchers make quite a leap from their results to the assertion that artificial sweeteners “contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic that they themselves were intended to fight.” That is, they are suggesting a link between the consumption of non-caloric sweeteners, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Yet, this link is dubious. The study may be the start of a significant investigation into how human gut bacteria is affected by artificial sweeteners, but it is preliminary and just one study among a number on the topic—many of which come to wildly different conclusions. Of course, you would never know that from the media coverage.

  • In Memoriam: Elizabeth Whelan

    September 16, 2014 12:21 PM

    I was very sad to hear last week that Elizabeth Whelan, founder and president of the American Council on Science and Health, had passed away. Beth had a great scientific mind—always asking questions, and always seeking new knowledge—not just information, but understanding. And it was that innate desire to know, to better understand, and to share the truth that led her, in 1978, to found an organization dedicated to injecting solid scientific information into public debates and public policy on public health. Under Beth’s leadership, and with her aggressive, no nonsense activism, ACSH became a leading voice in science advocacy and “go to” source of information about a range of science and health issues.

    I came to know Beth many years ago after becoming interested in food and drug safety issues. As a young policy wonk with no formal scientific training, I sought out as many respected scientific advisors as I could find to guide me. It wasn’t long before several of the scientists I consulted directed me to ACSH, and to Beth Whelan in particular. She was a nutritionist by training—having completed an Sc.D. at Harvard and a M.P.H. at Yale—and a greatly respected one at that. But I found her to be both incredibly knowledgeable about a broad range of science and public health issues and eager to teach a budding young scholar like myself.

  • CDC Study: Kids Eat Same Amount of Sodium as Worldwide Average

    September 12, 2014 8:33 AM

    It’s not exactly a blood-pressure raising headline, which is probably why the new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is actually bears the alarming titled, High Sodium Intake in Children and Adolescents: Cause for Concern. The study will no doubt be hailed by public health advocates as proof that something must be done to bring America’s sodium intake in line with the recommendations of the CDC and other health originations. However, the report’s findings, when put into context of 50 years’ worth of research on global salt consumption aren’t alarming at all.

    High sodium intake is associated with all sorts of nasty health problems—as the CDC was careful to note in the opening paragraph of its report. As NBC News put it:

    Studies clearly show that eating a lot of salt can raise blood pressure — not in every single person, but in a significant percentage of the population. The latest survey of what kids eat shows that more than 90 percent of them are eating far too much salt...

  • Cops to Destroy Rare Wine Collection in Pennsylvania

    August 22, 2014 2:12 PM

    In the fifth century BCE, famous Greek tragedian Euripides supposedly said, “where this no wine there is no love.” This certainly holds true in present day Pennsylvania, which has one of the nation’s strictest alcohol regulatory regimes. And according to Tom Wark, executive director for the American Wine Consumer Coalition, Pennsylvania is “the worst state to live in if you're a wine lover." In Philadelphia, one man surely isn’t feeling the brotherly love after police raided his home and seized 2,426 bottles of rare wine—with an estimated value of more than $125,000—that the police reportedly plan to “destroy.”

  • Newsweek’s Cover Story on Internet Gambling Plays Fast and Loose with Facts

    August 20, 2014 4:00 PM

    Newsweek’s recent cover article on online gambling, “How Washington Opened the Floodgates to Online Poker, Dealing Parents a Bad Hand,” by Leah McGrath Goodman, has elicited a wide range of deservedly negative responses. The title alone indicates its blatant bias. However, Goodman’s one-sided article presents a good opportunity to dispel many of the falsehoods and unwarranted fears swirling around the online gambling discussion.

    Until 2011 the Federal Wire Act “had been viewed by U.S. courts—and the DOJ’s own Criminal Division—as prohibiting all forms of online gambling.”

    According to Goodman, in 2011 the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) singlehandedly changed the meaning of a law passed by Congress in the 1960s when she issued an opinion on the Federal Wire Act. Goldman absurdly asserts that the OLC’s 2011 decision “came down to the placement of a comma,” when even a superficial skimming of the 13-page memo demonstrates a careful analysis of the Wire Act’s language and a thorough consideration of legislative and case law history—all of which show that the longstanding understanding of the Wire Act, by the author (Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy), Congress, and the Courts was that it only applied to sports betting. 

    For example, at a 1951 hearing of the Senate investigative committee that came to be known by his hame, Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.), asked Assistant Attorney General Herbert J. if the bill would prohibit the use of telephone for “numbers games.” Miller replied, “This bill, of course, would not cover that because it is limited to sporting events or contests.” [Emphasis added]

    As for the courts, only one published opinion has found that the Wire Act applies to non-sports gambling.

    It’s even questionable as to whether or not the Wire Act should apply to Internet wagering. Obviously, the Internet did not exist when the law was enacted, but importantly, a year after it became law Congress attempted and failed to expand the law to emerging technologies. Despite this, the DOJ under Clinton and subsequent administrations believed the Wire Act applied to online gambling.

  • Honeybee Population in Decline—Or Not?

    August 13, 2014 4:14 PM

    If you read the news about honeybee survival, it’s all very confusing. Some sources sound the alarm by pointing out that the number of honeybee hives has dropped significantly in recent decades. Others say just the opposite: There are more hives today than ever before.

    Which is it? Actually, both.  Some regions of the world have fewer hives, while globally there are more commercial hives now than there were in 1960. The key here is to understand which dataset is more important to the debate about sustaining these helpful creatures.

    The Hoover Institution’s Dr. Henry Miller notes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “The reality is that honeybee populations are not declining. According to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization statistics, the world's honeybee population rose to 80 million colonies in 2011 from 50 million in 1960.” Meanwhile Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council responds in a letter to the editor: “The number of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. has dropped from four million hives in 1970 to 2.5 million today, according to White House statistics.”

    Surprisingly, both of these claims are correct. Miller points to the “global” commercial honeybee-hive count, which has grown considerably. Sass points to domestic colony numbers only, which have in fact declined.

    Miller’s numbers are more relevant because if honeybee survival is really at stake, we would see declines on a global scale. Miller also points out that U.S. and European hive numbers are relatively stable, and Canadian numbers increased. Miller is certainly correct to point out that honeybees are not about to disappear.

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