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The Good the Bad and the Big: Top 3 Consumer Policy Stories of 2015

2015 was a big year for health and consumer news. Unfortunately, many of the biggest stories were viral in the true sense of the word: spreading misinformation and unscientific rumors like a disease, leading journalist Christopher Snowdon to title his year-end roundup “the Limitless Stupidity of 2015.” That said, there were a handful of positive developments for consumers and those championing science-based policy. Below, I list what I consider to be the best, worst, and biggest consumer developments during 2015.

The Good: After more than three decades of pushing the idea that diets high in cholesterol lead to high blood serum cholesterol (and increased risk of heart disease) the panel of experts that sets U.S. government guidelines for what a healthy diet is finally woke up to what nutritionist have been saying for years: there’s no evidence that cholesterol in foods increases heart disease risk.

Back in February, news broke that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Panel was planning to alter the recommendations on limiting cholesterol in the diet. The final report noted that it would not recommend limiting cholesterol in the diet to 300 mg/day as in previous years because “available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol…Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” This is a big win for reason, but it doesn’t seem like it’s part of an overall trend (see added sugars note below).

The Bad: While the FDA putting added sugars on nutritional panels and banning trans fats could potentially have serious deleterious effects on the nation’s health (depending on what food makers replace the fats with and how consumers judge total sugar in their foods) and certainly sets the stage for FDA to limit uses of other additives like sodium and caffeine, the continued attacks on electronic cigarettes earns the title of worst consumer development of 2015.

The jury is still out on the long-term health effects of vaping nicotine, but what we do know is that it is far safer than traditional tobacco products like cigarettes. According to a study by Public Health England, e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than tobacco products. Yet, health advocates around the nation continue to push for strict regulation of the products, believing (among other things) that e-cigs are a gateway to real cigarettes, are a way for tobacco companies to create a “new generation” of smokers, and will “normalize” smoking again after the hard-won battle to make smoking a social taboo.

With support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Department of Public Health kicked off a campaign on social media, using the hashtag “vapingtruth” to warn people about “the highly addictive nature of nicotine” and the “toxic chemicals and poison found in e-liquids.” Similarly, the California Department of Health labelled e-cigs “a public health risk,” and launched a TV and online advertising blitz as part of its “Wake Up” campaign which makes claims like nicotine is as addictive as heroin and paints e-cigs as just another ploy by the traditional tobacco industry to hook people on their products.

Unfortunately, these overzealous advocates are succeeding. According to this lengthy Rolling Stone article, a study last year found that a third of people who stopped using electronic cigarettes and went back to traditional tobacco cigarettes—which kill 480,000 people a year—cited “concern for the health effects of vaping.”

The Big: While it’s certainly big news, it remains to be seen whether or not Congress’s failure to reauthorize Michelle Obama’s school meal program will have overall positive or negative effects. Like most complicated issues, it’ll probably be a mix of both and depend on how individual school districts choose to move forward. As I wrote back in September, the Healthy, Hungry-free Kids Act (enacted in 2010) was intended to address childhood obesity by getting schools to adhere to government nutritional standards in exchange for federal funds—schools participating in the program had to offer more fruits, veggies, and whole grains, along with foods lower in sodium and in return the feds would fund “free” lunches and breakfasts for students. After five years, the results of the program were mixed. While a larger percentage of schools had healthier meals on offer, it was unknown if kids were actually eating healthier or were healthier—within the various age groups, obesity seemed to follow the exact same trends they were on prior to the program’s implementation. Worst of all, studies found increases in food waste at participating schools, with students simply throwing out uneaten fruits and vegetables forced onto their tray. Additionally, varying standards among school districts for which students qualified for the free meals often meant that kids who’d otherwise purchase their meals instead got them for “free” and the schools lost out on revenue.

On the plus side, of course, students who’d otherwise not eat had access to healthy and nutritious meals. As I wrote before, a federal school meal program is a blunt tool that, apart from providing meals to those truly in need, likely had no positive affect on student health and potentially harmed the financial well-being of certain schools. Hopefully, in the absence of the federal mandate, individual districts will find more effective ways to get meals to those students who are truly in need and to encourage healthy eating among the student body.