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OpenMarket: Health and Safety

  • Has Plain Packaging Reduced Tobacco Consumption?

    September 23, 2015 2:39 PM

    In 2012, the Australian government instituted a plan tobacco packing requirement—that is, a generic package that removes all stylistic aspects of packaging: colors, imagery, corporate logos, and trademarks. In addition to legally required warnings, the only brand specific-print on the package allowed is the brand name in a mandated font size. The purpose of the Soviet-style packaging is to help reduce tobacco consumption by neutralizing any advertising technique used by the companies to woo costumers who’d otherwise avoid tobacco products. Unfortunately, it seems that plain packaging has failed to reduce tobacco use in Australia and might have even slowed the reduction that was already underway.

    In the year following implementation of the plain packaging requirement, reports began to surface that Aussies purchased more cigarettes—59 million more—than in the previous year. Of course, others claimed that those numbers were wrong and that tobacco consumption had fallen post-plain packaging.

    Christopher Snowdon recently shed light on how the interventionist policies are actually affecting consumer behavior. As he explains, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ sales figures don’t show how many cigarettes were sold or how many people were smoking, but they do show the trend in (legal) tobacco sales. There was a long-term decline over the last few decades, which appears to have slowed in the first year of plain packaging. As for those claiming that plain packaging worked, Snowdon says this:

  • Drinkers Give More than They Take

    September 16, 2015 10:42 AM

    Public health advocates love to make the case that “sinners,” those folks who drink, smoke, or eat “unhealthy” foods, cost society money and that gives bureaucrats the right to interfere in their lives. Users and abusers of these products cost taxpayers billions of dollars, they say. If we have to pay for it, that’s argument enough to justify tax increases, advertising restrictions, and sometimes outright product bans. But is it true?

    A new study by Christopher Snowdon, director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairsfound that while drinkers in England cost around 3.9 billion pounds per year, they provide 10.4 billion in annual tax revenue. Therefore, drinkers in England are actually subsidizing non-drinkers to the tune of 6.5 billion pounds per year!

    As with Snowdon’s previous study, The Wages of Sin Taxesa good portion of the paper is dedicated to parsing out the difference between private costs and public costs. While advocates will claim that research shows alcohol use costs England up to 20 billion pounds a year, such statistics include items like lost productivity due to absenteeism, emotional distress, and the money spent on the product itself—none of which are costs borne by taxpayers.

  • Study "Wounds" the Carbohydrate-Insulin Theory of Obesity

    August 24, 2015 3:53 PM

    Last week a very interesting and, by all accounts, very well-done study made waves among the nutritional science community. For many years, the idea that reducing carbohydrates is the most effective way to reduce fat due to its effect on insulin has been rapidly gaining in popularity.

    Prominent researchers like Dr. Robert Lustig (who famously called sugar a “poison”), and Gary Taubes (author of Good Calories, Bad Calories) have promoted the idea that it’s not just about how much you eat, but what you eat, that leads to obesity. Specifically, that carbohydrates and sugar cause a cascade of problems including insulin resistance, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. This new study, however, casts serious doubt on the hypothesized mechanism by which consumption of carbohydrates, in particular, would lead to these problems.

    The study, led by Dr. Kevin D. Hall, was published in the highly respected Cell Metabolism journal on August 13 and found that restricting dietary fat led to body fat loss that was 68 percent higher than a diet that reduced the same number of calories through carbohydrates for obese adults. The study was small, with only 19 participants, and short, lasting only four weeks.

    However, it was a well-designed and tightly controlled study. As neurobiologist Stephan Guyenet put it, “this study's methods were downright obsessive. The overall study design and diets were extremely tightly controlled, and the researchers took a large number of measurements using gold-standard methods.” The participants were randomly assigned to either the low-carb group or the low-fat group. After five days of baseline eating, the participants had their calories restricted by reducing either fat or carbohydrates by 30 percent (sugar was the same in both groups).

  • Back to School Lunch Scares

    August 19, 2015 3:15 PM

    It’s back to school season, which for many parents means spending money on new clothes, shuttling young people from sports games to ballet, and increasingly, worrying about the kind of nutrition their kids are getting when they’re away from the home.

    This is understandable since they are inundated with hyperbolic headlines like “sugary drinks kill,” “death by salt,” and “processed meat causes cancer”. It’s enough to add a few gray hairs to any parent’s head. While it’s important to teach kids about proper nutrition and make sure they’re eating a balanced diet in and outside of the home, this kind of inflammatory rhetoric doesn’t help parents make healthy and realistic choices for their children.

    So, here are a few tips to help you relax as you send your kids off into the great wide nutritional unknown.

    Soda won’t kill your kids. There is no doubt that excessive consumption of sugary drinks through soda or fruit juice can easily lead to a calorie surplus and weight gain. However, the occasional can of sports drink after a soccer game isn’t likely to cause any damage.

    You may have seen the headline announcing that a study says “Sugary Drinks May Kill 184,000 People Each Year.” It’s pretty scary, but it’s also pretty speculative and its methodology is questionable. The researchers used data from 62 self-reported surveys from only 51 countries between 1980 and 2010. They used “sugar availability,” to calculate consumption, presumably to account for the counties without adequate data. Rebecca Goldin, a Professor of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason University and Director of (a group of researchers who work to evaluate and interpret statistical research for accurate reporting in the media) pointed out the many reasons people should be skeptical of this study, including a lack of transparency about how the researchers accounted for missing data such as sugar sources in the diet other than sugary drinks.

    They also failed to say how addressed the uncertainty in the proportion of diabetes/cardiovascular disease caused by sugary drink consumption, and the uncertainty of the proportion of deaths caused by these diseases. When someone goes into the hospital with a heart attack and dies, it’s very difficult to say if it was his five decades of smoking, sedentary lifestyle, or the liter of coke he drank every week.

    As Harry Cheadle over at Vice put it “X behavior causes Y deaths” headlines are always popular because people like numbers, and statements like that at least appear to quantify bad behaviors. Never mind if the numbers don't really make any sense.”

  • Government Nutritionists Wrong… Again

    August 10, 2015 3:40 PM

    Add it to the list of things that the government got wrong when it comes to nutrition: skipping breakfast may not make you fat. It turns out this apparent truism isn’t so true and the idea has only been in circulation for the last five years or so:

    The notion that skipping breakfast might cause weight gain entered the Dietary Guidelines in 2010, during one of the reviews conducted every five years by experts to update its findings… [They] collected research on skipping breakfast. Some of it did, indeed, suggest that breakfast skippers may be more likely to gain weight.

    But the evidence the experts on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee relied on were observational. As Peter Whoriskey commented, “observational studies in nutrition are generally cheaper and easier to conduct. But they can suffer from weaknesses that can lead scientists astray.” And astray they went. When the Advisory Committee decided to enshrine their “breakfast-weight hypothesis” into the Dietary Guidelines, they cited only one randomized controlled trial, which found “no relationship with breakfast alone” and weight gain.

    Last year, however, a team of researchers from Columbia University did a controlled trial to examine this breakfast hypothesis. They divided a large number of people into “oatmeal breakfast,” “frosted corn flakes breakfast,” and “no breakfast” groups. At the end of the trial they found that the breakfast-skippers lost more weight than the other groups.

  • Green Alarmism about Sunscreen Debunked

    August 4, 2015 7:03 AM

    Often spoon-fed alarmist hype by green activist groups, reporters rarely get the science right about the risks associated with trace chemicals found in consumer products. Accordingly, kudos go to the author of a piece published on Fox News (originally published on, which debunks activist-generated misinformation about chemicals used to make sunscreens. In the past, I have pointed out that Fox News has blindly reported misinformation pushed by greens, particularly the Environmental Working Group, so this latest report is refreshing. 

    The story explains:

    [T]he skin experts Health talked to were adamant that we should be more worried about shielding our skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays than about the chemical makeup of the products we’re using to do that.

    “Five million Americans are treated for skin cancer each year, and an estimated 9,940 people will die of melanoma”— the deadliest type of skin cancer— ”in 2015,” Steven Wang, MD, head of dermatological surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Basking Ridge in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, told Health. “The biggest precaution that you should be taking is using sunscreen. There is enough research at this point from various credible bodies that say sunscreens are safe and, when used appropriately, will reduce skin cancer.”

    This reporter appears to understand that we need to consider the benefits of products and weigh them against the risks. And it should be clear to any honest observer, that avoiding the real and substantial risk of skin cancer from sun exposure, is far higher than any theoretical and unproven risks associated with short-term, trace exposures to certain manmade chemicals.

  • Slate Exposes Deceitful Heart of the Anti-GMO Movement

    July 17, 2015 9:13 AM

    Will Saletan has an exhaustively researched and cogently argued piece at Slate on the dishonesty of the anti-biotechnology activists and the harm they have caused. He lays out, for all to see, the naked truth about their efforts. It has nothing to do with the truth. They only care about pushing their agenda, even if it comes at the cost of human lives. As Saletan writes, “[t]hey want more studies. They’ll always want more studies. They call themselves skeptics. But when you cling to an unsubstantiated belief, even after two decades of research and experience, that’s not skepticism. It’s dogma.”

    Saletan describes the tactics employed by activists to hoodwink the public and politicians. Fear-mongering, misinformation, and information-overload are particular effective. Fear-mongering is the easiest one: they can simply say, “We don’t for sure that this thing is safe.” And because science is hard and usually involves reading long, boring blocks of text, few people will bother to dig deeper. Those who do will find plenty of intentional misinformation or manipulation of research. As Saletan points out in this passage:

    Schubert systematically distorted the evidence…Schubert said the study found that “smokers who supplemented their diet with beta-carotene had an increased risk of lung cancer.” He neglected to mention that the daily beta carotene dose administered in the study was the equivalent of roughly 10 to 20 bowls of Golden Rice. He also failed to quote the rest of the paper, which emphasized that in general, beta carotene was actually associated with a lower risk of lung cancer.

    One feature of their methods Saletan left out is the role played by the media. Anti-biotech activists rely on journalists to create an echo-chamber for their baseless claims. In this digital age it’s all about them clicks. And putting up a headline like “Study Finds Golden Rice Causes Cancer!” will get a lot more attention than a title like “Study shows smokers who supplement diet with beta carotene at increased risk for lung cancer, but for everyone else beta carotene has benefits.” For one thing, it is way too long (fire that headline writer), but it is simply not as shocking and therefore less likely to motivate someone to read it. So, most journalists just republish whatever was written in a study’s press release; few have the time to slog through entire research papers.

    And this is what activists count on. They count on individuals and media outlets being too limited in time and interest to actually verify their claims. Sometimes this gets them into trouble, like when a clever journalist published a bunk paper on how chocolate can help people lose weight and then wrote a piece about reporters being gullible. But most of the time, nobody is the wiser and the misinformation gets filed away in the back of peoples’ minds, slowly building a basis for them to “instinctually” share the activists’ bogus claims.

  • More Unintelligible Gibberish on GMO Risks from Nassim Nicholas Taleb

    July 16, 2015 12:47 PM

    A few months ago, statistician and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb, known mostly for his intriguing 2007 book The Black Swan, teamed up with a handful of colleagues to write a “scholarly” diatribe claiming to demonstrate that “what appear to be small and reasonable risks” with GMOs may “accumulate inevitably to certain irreversible harm.” Therefore, the precautionary principle “should be used to prescribe severe limits on GMOs.” The paper received a lot of attention in scientific circles, but was roundly dismissed for being long on overblown rhetoric but conspicuously short on any meaningful reference to the scientific literature describing the risks and safety of genetic engineering, and for containing no understanding of how modern genetic engineering fits within the context of centuries of far more crude genetic modification of plants, animals, and microorganisms.

    Well, Taleb is back, this time penning a short essay published on The New York Times’s DealB%k blog with co-author Mark Spitznagel. The authors try to draw comparisons between the recent financial crisis and GMOs, claiming the latter represent another “Too Big to Fail” crisis in waiting. Unfortunately, Taleb’s latest contribution is nothing more than the same sort of evidence-free bombast posing as thoughtful analysis. The result is uninformed and/or unintelligible gibberish.

    For example: “The statistical mechanism by which a tomato was built by nature is bottom-up”. The tomatoes we eat today are vastly different than those produced by nature. In the wild, tomatoes are poisonous, marble-like berries. The cultivated tomatoes we eat today are the products of vast genetic changes wrought by human hands. More to the point, what does it even mean that tomatoes were built from the bottom up? Surely Spitznagel and Taleb aren’t claiming tomatoes themselves suggested to we humans what genetic changes to make? On its face, the statement may sound profound, but it simply defies meaningful comprehension.

    “... by tinkering in small steps ...” Sure, early farmers tinkered in small steps. Then the 20th Century came along, and breeders began making many giant leaps in genetic manipulation -- long before the advent of recombinant DNA in the 1970s. For six or seven decades, breeders have been making macro genetic changes using tools like induced mutation breeding, protoplast fusion, and wide crossing, all of which result in changes to the genetic composition of plants that are orders of magnitude greater than those which result from genetic engineering. What, I’d like the authors to explain, makes the alteration of a single gene or small number of genes in an organism a bigger step than randomly scrambling whole genomes via mutation breeding?

  • Not So Fast: Fatally Flawed Research Asserts Alcohol Taxes Save Lives

    May 12, 2015 10:52 AM

    Last month, researchers at the University of Florida published a study in the American Journal of Public Health that concluded, “Increases in alcohol excise taxes, such as the 2009 Illinois act, could save thousands of lives yearly across the United States as part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce alcohol-impaired driving.” Their study presented the case that the 2009 tax increase resulted in a statistically significant reduction in alcohol-related deaths in Illinois. However, as I pointed out in a blog post, there only appears to be a reduction in fatalities because of the authors’ selective inclusion and exclusion of data. Rebecca Goldin, Director of and Professor of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason University, found even more flaws in the research.

    In her post, Rebecca takes a bird’s eye view of the crash data in Illinois between 1999 and 2013. She finds a steady decline during this 10-year period with “hardly anything special at all going on at the end of 2009.” Looking closer at the data, she noted (as did I) the curious exclusion of data after 2011. “Results should be resilient to changes in choices, such as whether to use data published 2011-2013,” Goldin notes. When added to the evaluation, this 2011-2013 data shows a small decrease immediately after 2009, but then shows a steady increase in alcohol-related traffic deaths in Illinois. She also found that as a proportion of total traffic fatalities, alcohol-related fatalities on the road have been increasing since 2009 (though only by 2 percent—a statistically insignificant amount).

    Of course, the real story here is that breaking the data at year 2009 may not be an appropriate way of measuring the trends, and certainly it’s not appropriate to “blame” the excise tax for the proportionally increased alcohol deaths in the context of decreasing deaths associated to alcohol. But by the same logic neither is it appropriate to conclude that the excise tax has been saving lives.

    Finally, in addition to the “creative math” and error of conflating correlation with causation (bad scientists, bad!), there’s another potential problem with the study. The grant provided by the National Institutes of Health lists the purpose as “to develop a research program of HIV prevention focused on the intersection of event-level alcohol use… and sexual partner selection among adolescents.” There is no mention in the grant description about taxes or motor vehicle crashes. I say this is a “potential” problem because I have been unable to get answers from anyone at the NIH or the University of Florida researchers who worked on the project. My questions were simple: What was the rationale behind using an AIDS grant for alcohol tax research? And is this sort of change in scope common practice?

    It’s one thing to have public health advocates peddling flawed research in order to advance personal agendas, but it’s another entirely to use taxpayer money to do so.

  • Who Dares Question the Mighty Oz?

    April 24, 2015 11:41 AM

    Yesterday, Dr. Mehmet Oz launched his “counter attack” on several doctors who sent a letter last week to the dean of Columbia University’s medical department complaining about controversial positions and advice that Oz has offered on his show. Oz, who holds faculty and administrative positions at Columbia, exclaimed that he “will not be silenced” by his critics, casting the issue as an attack on his freedom of speech. In an article for Time magazine, Oz stated:

    The dean politely reinforced that the academic tradition of all institutions protects freedom of speech for their faculty, and I assumed the matter was over…. I know I have irritated some potential allies. No matter our disagreements, freedom of speech is the most fundamental right we have as Americans. We will not be silenced. We’re not going anywhere.

    Yet no one is trying to deprive Oz of his right to free speech. The doctors listed on the letter are simply exercising their own right to free speech—and that includes speaking truth to the powerful Oz. They shined a light on Oz’s often questionable, TV-publicized, health advice for good reasons, as many others have done so hereherehereherehereherehere… and the list could go on and on.

    And apparently, shining a light on Oz’s questionable approaches did some good. It prompted eight of Dr. Oz’s colleagues from Columbia University to speak out as well in a USA Today commentary. These doctors note:

    We are members of the Columbia faculty who recognize that the Dr. Oz Show performs a public service by bringing alternative therapies which are generally under-researched and under-regulated into the public forum. However, a 2014 report in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) reported that less than half of the recommendations on his show are based on at least somewhat believable evidence. This report raises concerns that Dr. Oz's presentations of anecdotal therapies as "miracle cures" occur in the absence of what we see as obligatory discussions of conflicts of interest, possible side-effects and evidence-based medicine (or lack thereof). Many of us are spending a significant amount of our clinical time debunking Ozisms regarding metabolism game changers. Irrespective of the underlying motives, this unsubstantiated medicine sullies the reputation of Columbia University and undermines the trust that is essential to physician-patient relationships.

    And last spring, members of Congress also attempted to rein in Oz when they invited him to testify on Capitol Hill about his claims related to “miracle” weight loss supplements. And apparently, it worked to some degree. On his show yesterday, Oz says that he’s backed away from making claims about miracle supplements. In addition, after the rebuke by his Columbia colleagues, he’s even said he regrets comments he has made about such supplements. That’s progress, but there’s more to do.

    While Oz thanked his colleagues at Columbia for speaking up, he attacked the doctors on the first letter because he says they have an “agenda.” And rather than address their arguments, he attacked them personally on his show. Apparently, it’s inconceivable to Oz and his crew that people can disagree with them based on informed, moral personal views.  

    In particular, he focused on the work of CEI friend and scholar Dr. Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institution. Dr. Miller’s writings and research on the topic of genetically engineered food are among the most informed and scholarly in the world (he was also the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology), and his positions are humanitarian. Rather than attack, it’s time for Oz to take a closer look at this issue and reconsider his position, as he has with supplements.

    Genetic engineering allows researchers to precisely modify plant genes in a process that is far more precise and safer than cross-breeding plants. Using GM, researchers have been able to add vitamin A to rice to reduce vitamin-A deficiency, a major cause of blindness and death, particularly among children, in parts of the world were rice is the staple of the diet, although anti-GM activists have fought this “golden rice.” Scientists also use genetic engineering to make food production easier and more affordable, which is essential to feeding a growing world population.

    Dr. Oz says he’s ambivalent about such foods, although his shows are laced with fear-generating suggestions about these technologies, and his “experts” are mostly anti-biotechnology activists. He did, however, allow one biotech apple farmer to appear on his show last week to offer a little balance in that one segment. 


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