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OpenMarket: Risk and Consumer Freedom

  • Zika Wake-Up Call

    February 4, 2016 11:29 AM

    The spread of the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus should be yet another wake-up call for public officials around the world. As a relatively new threat, Zika has captured headlines in a world where many insect-transmitted diseases continue to wreak havoc on public health. Unfortunately, the ability to control all such vector-borne diseases is hindered by more than our limited scientific understanding. Disease control is limited by the lack of political will to use all tools in our arsenal, including politically incorrect pesticides.

    Zika has long been known to cause mild infections and rashes, but health officials are now investigating the possibility that it can cause birth defects when mothers are infected during pregnancy. The disease appeared in Brazil last spring and during 2015, the nation experienced a dramatic increase of babies born with neurodevelopmental problems associated with unusually small heads, a defect called microcephaly. Researchers are investigating whether the two phenomenon are connected. They are also investigating the possibility that Zika caused an increase of Guillain–Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease.

    Regardless of what they find, we already know that mosquito borne diseases cause a wide range of health effects that include neurological problems as well as immediately deadly infections.  The impact in impoverished nations is devastating with diseases like Malaria and Dengue taking millions of lives every year.

  • CDC Sodium Reduction Efforts: Helpful or Harmful?

    January 19, 2016 1:56 PM

    Most people accept as gospel the nutritional limits set by government organizations. So, when the Centers for Disease Control releases a report saying that 89 percent of Americans are consuming almost twice the daily recommended limit for sodium, we tend to pay attention. In last week’s Morbidity and Mortality WeeklyCDC researchers found that adult men and women in this country are eating about 50 to 100 percent more sodium than the recommended 2,300 mg daily limit, despite more than a decade of telling us to cut it out. And they suggest the way to finally get us to change our sodium munching ways is to convince food manufacturers to do it for us—to lower the content of processed foods. Considering we get on average 70 percent of our sodium from processed or prepared foods, this might reduce the amount of sodium we eat—might. But, the question that few seem to be asking is: will it make us healthier?

    The problem is that, unlike salt and pepper, determining what constitutes a “healthy” sodium consumption range isn’t black and white. In fact, when you look at the levels of sodium consumed around the world, across cultures and economic levels, it becomes apparent that almost nobody on the planet is staying below the maximum sodium consumption levels set by the CDC and other health organizations. In fact, in 2014 The World Health Organization found that people in 181 out of 187 countries surveyed consume at least twice as much sodium as the WHO’s recommended 2 gram (or 2,000 mg) daily limit. So, is this a species-wide pandemic? Or is it possible that the government guidelines are just wrong?

  • Milk, Saturated Fat, and Why You Shouldn't Take Nutrition Advice from Jezebel

    January 14, 2016 9:38 AM

    Growing up lactose intolerant, I was fond of saying that drinking milk post-infanthood was unnatural. Then I found out that humans aren’t the only ones in the animal kingdom to keep and care for another species in order to take its produce. This week, a writer at Jezebel wrote an amusing clickbait article—and an effective one if my Facebook feed is any indicator—echoing my childhood sentiment that adults drinking milk is weird and they shouldn’t do it.

    Setting aside her really bad arguments (e.g., adult humans shouldn’t drink milk because no other animals do so), her “best,” or at least most reasonable, argument centers on the nutritional quality of milk. She contends that its high-fat, nutrient-dense nature makes milk perfect for babies in need of rapid weight gain and nutrition, but inappropriate for adults, especially since most of us already eat too much fat and fat consumption causes heart disease. “If you enjoy living, put the milk down,” she says. It’s funny, but based on current scientific evidence, dead wrong.

    For decades the theory—or rather dogma—was that saturated fats (SFA) in foods caused cardiovascular disease (CVD). This idea that came from observational studies that linked consumption of foods high in SFA to increased CVD risk. And this is at the heart of the nutrition argument Jezebel and even the most recent USDA Dietary Guidelines make. While there is some research to back up the idea that consumption of foods containing saturated fat might increase heart health risks, emerging research has begun to cast doubt on the old wisdom. You may have seen articles with titles like “The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease” and “The Government’s Bad Diet Advice” in major news outlets asserting that the saturated fat myth has been “debunked.” It turns out that it’s not so simple and that not all saturated fats are created equal.

  • New Dietary Guidelines: Some Improvements but Also Fatal Flaws

    January 7, 2016 4:09 PM

    As expected, the nutritional guidelines for 2015-2020 thankfully excised the long-standing warning against cholesterol-laden food in the wake of several decades of research demonstrating that the original warning was neither based on scientific evidence. However, the updated guidelines still advise Americans limit saturated fat and, in attempt to push Americans toward a plant-based diet, limit meat consumption. The consequences of such advice might not only fail to improve Americans’ diets, but may exacerbate the obesity problem in America.  

    While stopping short of recommending that Americans eat a plant-based diet for the health of our bodies and the environment (a proposed recommendation that set off a bit of a firestorm), the recommendations only implicitly advise people to eat less meat (using the euphemism of “saturated fat” and protein) and explicitly advise we eat more vegetables and other “under-consumed food groups.” While the recommendations aren’t as strong as some would like, there’s definite message within them: animal products and processed foods are bad, vegetables and fruits are good.

    That message isn’t terrible. Americans could definitely stand to add more vegetables into their diet. But there’s a fundamental calculus that the dietary guidelines, and in fact most government nutritional advice, seem to not understand. There are only three fundamental macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrate. To reduce one, you must increase one or both of the others. Vegetables are awesome (I’m a pescatarian myself), but they are also expensive and time-consuming compared to other kinds of meals. If HHS and USDA are sending the message that animal products (fat and protein) should be reduced what are Americans most likely to replace those calories with? The hope, of course, is that plant-based foods will replace meat calories, but it is easier and cheaper for families to replace them with carbohydrates. 

    While many assume that Americans eat more meat today than ever before and that this is a driving factor in obesity, this is incorrect. Our ancestors in the 19th century ate almost twice as much meat as we do today. In 1851, Americans ate between 150 and 200 pounds of meat per person per year (even slaves were allocated an average of 150 pounds of meat a year). Compare that to the 100 pounds of meat the average American adult eats now. The dietary recommendations advise that when we do eat dairy, it should be reduced fat and when we eat meat we should eat “lean,” meaning poultry or meat with fat trimmed off. However, Americans in 1851 almost never ate chicken or turkey, which were seen as “luxury” meats eaten only on special occasions. On the other hand, of the 100 pounds the average American eats today, about half is poultry. So, Americans now are eating half (or less) the amount of red meat as Americans in the 19th century and yet we are obese.

  • Craft Brewers "Selling Out" Is Good For Craft Beer Fans

    January 5, 2016 3:00 PM

    This week we learned that U.K. craft brewery Camden Town was the latest in a long string of purchases by the international mega-brewery AB-InBev (makers of Budweiser). Predictably, craft beer “purists” were immediately out on social media calling Camden Town’s owners “sellouts” who are betraying consumers and the craft beer spirit. While fans of the brewery are understandably worried that their beloved beers might change, these kinds of transactions are good and necessary for the continued growth of the craft beer sector.

    The profit motive and ethics aren’t exclusive. It is possible for someone to build a business that follows a strict set of principles and have that business make them money. For entrepreneurs, it doesn’t always make sense to maintain a particular venture indefinitely when they could sell a business, make money, and then use that profit to fund their other creative ideas. In the craft beer market, having one brewery purchased by another larger brewery can sometimes be the only way for that brewery to get to the next level. It often gives their brand more capital for expansion, advertising, and access to a bigger distribution network and a wider consumer base—not just those focused on buying local beer. Also, it makes room for new local artisanal breweries to enter the market and shows investors that craft beer start-ups are worth investing in, meaning more potential craft breweries!

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

    January 1, 2016 1:09 PM

    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.


  • Holiday Liquor Laws: Where to Buy Your Christmas Cup of Cheer

    December 23, 2015 11:43 AM

    Nobody wants to drive an hour over the border just to get booze, especially on Christmas day. However, 27 states in the union still have blue laws—hangover regulations from prohibition—that could cause headaches for those shoppers who failed to finish their alcohol shopping early.

  • Congressional Committee Favors State-Based Legalization of Online Gambling

    December 11, 2015 2:56 PM

    Wednesday’s hearing was not good for those hoping to make a case for a national online gambling prohibition. While the House Oversight Committee hearing was supposed to breathe life into the languishing proposal to ban online gambling, it ended up being more like a group dead-horse beating. Members on both sides of the aisle seemed well-informed and well-opposed to the idea of the federal government intervening where the states have been doing a good job of regulating this nascent industry.

    In his opening remarks, Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah)—who sponsored the bill to create a federal online gaming ban—stated that a the DOJ’s 2011 opinion that the 1961 Wire act applied online to sports betting, resulted in “anything connected to the internet, desktops, laptops, tablets, smart phones—no matter your age—potentially becoming a casino.” He stated that “the internet doesn’t have neat walls around it,” and that “nobody with a straight face is going to come before the American people and say ‘well the internet it’s just for the people of Nevada or it’s just for the people of Rhode Island.” However, that’s exactly what many people during the hearing—witnesses and fellow committee members—did.

  • Deck Stacked at House Oversight Committee Hearing on Internet Gambling

    December 8, 2015 10:08 PM

    Tomorrow the House Oversight and Government Reform (OGR) Committee will hold a hearing titled, “Casino in Every Smartphone – Law Enforcement Implications,” to discuss the ramifications of the legal online gambling market that has arisen in the last two years. As one might glean from the oh-so-objective title, the hearing’s architect, committee Chairmen Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) isn’t exactly keen on letting Americans legally gamble online. As with last March’s Judiciary hearing, the witness list is stacked against anyone hoping to hear a rational discussion of the truly important law enforcement challenges likely to surface in this nascent market. However, unlike the previous hearing, OGR is a far less friendly committee when it comes to Chaffetz’s attempt to create a national online gambling prohibition.

    While about a third of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime signed onto Chaffetz’s bill to ban online gambling, the Restoration of America’s Wire Act (H.R. 707), only three members of the 43-member OGR (including Chaffetz) support his bill. Perhaps worse for Chaffetz, 11 of the 25 Republicans on the Committee are part of the House Republican Freedom Caucus (not including Chaffetz or Jim Jordan, a RAWA cosigner). Freedom Caucus members are usually staunch defenders of the 10th Amendment and will likely rankle at the idea of asking the federal government to come in and overturn the laws of several states.

    Of course, those who speak out in favor of federalism aren’t always consistent.

  • Repealed 82 Years Ago, the Spirit of Prohibition Lives On

    December 4, 2015 6:00 PM

    Tomorrow, December 5, many of us will raise a glass in celebration of Repeal Day—the anniversary of the end of that disastrous experiment of alcohol prohibition in the U.S. For most, the era of prohibition feels distant and forgotten; we assume because it ended more than 80 years ago, every last remnant of it is dead and buried. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

    Despite the passage of the 21st Amendment, which officially repealed prohibition, aspects of the prohibition-era mentality live on in the form of state and local-level bans on alcohol sales on Sundays, Election Days and Holidays like Christmas. There’s also the three-tiered system which was set up after prohibition’s repeal, which forces an artificial separation between the makers, distributors and sellers of alcohol—a burdensome system that serves little purpose at this point other than to protect certain businesses (and about which you can read more here). But the truly important hangover from Prohibition is the temperance mentality—the idea that certain people know what is best and have the right to use the government to force their opinions on others. While the hatchet is gone, public health advocates wage war on all kinds of products with a zeal Carrie Nation would be proud of.


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