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  • 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:

  • Fantasy Sports Betting Isn’t a Federal Crime, as No Sports Betting Should Be

    September 22, 2015 5:31 PM

    If you watched football during the open weekend of the NFL season, you probably saw an advertisement for DraftKings or FanDuel. Part of the rapidly expanding industry of daily fantasy sports betting (DFS), each company is worth more than $1 billion and counting, with an estimate 57 million people in North American participating. In addition to being big business, fantasy sports betting has become an integral part of the sports fan’s experience, which even the major leagues seem recognize with individual NFL teams have even forming official “partnerships” with DFS sites.

    However, the aggressive advertising campaigns of DFS sites during week one of football season has raised some eyebrows and now one lawmaker is calling for an investigation into their legal status. While some may see the hearing as a threat to the big business of fantasy sports betting, it may just be a chance for Congress to address the ludicrous federal ban on actual sports betting. 

    New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone (D), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sent a letter last week to Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Texas), the Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade Subcommittee chairman, requesting a hearing to examine the “murky” legal status of fantasy sports gambling, as well as sports gambling and the relationship between the professional leagues and fantasy sports. “These sites are enormously popular, arguably central to the fans’ experience, and professional leagues are seeing the enormous profits as a result,” Pallone said in a statement. “Despite how mainstream these sites have become, though, the legal landscape governing these activities remains murky and should be reviewed.”

  • Proposed Food Label Change Could Make Us Fatter and Sicker

    September 21, 2015 11:07 AM

    There’s a new push to finalize the Food and Drug Administration’s new guidelines for nutritional panels. The changes, which include listing “added sugars” and updating serving sizes to reflect what people actually eat, are intended to make it easier for people to know what they’re eating and make better choices. However, newly published research suggests that the updated labeling guidelines could end up backfiring, causing people to eat more than they normally would.

    Last week, Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) sent a letter to FDA Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff praising the label changes—specifically the addition of added sugars—and urged the FDA to swiftly finalize the rule in order to address health problems such as obesity and diabetes. However, a study published last month in the journal Appetite demonstrates that the changes the new rules make to serving sizes could prompt people to eat more, ultimately making problems like obesity and diabetes worse.

    In an opinion piece published in last week’s Washington Post, the authors of the study—researchers from New York University and Duke University—wrote:

    In our study, we asked consumers what the serving size information on the Nutrition Facts label refers to. Less than 20 percent of people correctly thought the serving size refers to the amount of the product typically consumed in one sitting, while about 80 percent thought it recommended how much of that food they should eat.

    In their study, the researchers asked people waiting in line for a college basketball game to taste-test cookies. They were allowed to eat as many as they wanted after reading a sheet that had nutritional information on it. Half of the subjects received nutritional information as it would appear on a label today, the other half received information as it will be presented under the FDA’s new guidelines. The half that saw the information presented in the updated label, with increased serving size, ate 41 percent more cookies.

  • Time to Throw out Michelle Obama's Lunch Program?

    September 17, 2015 3:45 PM

    As I wrote in The Hill today, Congress this month will decide whether or not to continue funding Michelle Obama’s favorite Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The goal of the program was to address childhood obesity by getting schools to adhere to government nutritional standards in exchange for federal funds. Five years after implementation, we must ask if the program has achieved its laudable goals or if it is time to put those fifteen billion dollars to better use.

    HHFKA, enacted in 2010, requires schools to offer more fruits and vegetables, less sugar, less sodium, and more whole grains in order to receive federal funding supporting free breakfasts and lunches at school. According to a report released last month by the Centers for Disease Control, the number of schools in the nation complying with federal nutrition standards has significantly increased. Since 2000, schools offering two or more vegetables and two or more fruit options with lunch has increased by about 18 and 10 percent, respectively. About 40 and 50 percent of schools switched to low-sodium canned vegetables (instead of regular canned vegetables) and used other seasonings instead of salt since 2000. This sounds like great progress, but it doesn’t tell us if kids are actually eating healthier as a result.

    Obesity among children between two and five years old has declined 3.7 percent from 2010 to 2012. However, for kids between 12 and 19 years old, the obesity rate increased by 2.1 percent. Overall, childhood obesity has remained fairly stable between 2008 and 2012. What does this mean? It means obesity is an immensely complicated and long-term disease that takes years and potentially hundreds of genetic and environmental factors to manifest.

    What these numbers do show us is that the declines and increases occurring now are just part of a trend that has been developing over more than 10 years. Childhood obesity rates for almost all age groups declined between 2008 and 2012 (if temporarily). Only 12-19 year olds saw consistently increasing obesity rates since 1980. But even that group had something of a plateau between 2002 and 2010, seeing only slight increases of 0.3 percent to 0.7 percent. Yet, as I noted, between 2010 and 2012 that rate jumped by 2.1 percent.

  • 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.

  • New York City's Salt Warning: Useless and Potentially Harmful

    September 11, 2015 12:16 PM

    You may have heard on the news that New York City is, once again, on the cutting edge of interfering with consumers and businesses. This time they’ve decided to mandate that chain restaurants add a warning to items that are too high in salt. The rule is supposed to be aimed at informing consumers and helping to reduce hypertension and cardiovascular risk. However, it will not reduce peoples’ overall sodium consumption and may end up putting them at greater risk for disease.

    Unanimously approved by the New York City Board of Health Board of Health, that notorious government body fond of overstepping its legal authority (recall the big soda ban?), the new rule requires chain restaurants in the city to put a symbol—a salt shaker in a black triangle—next to menu items with more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium. Why 2,300? Because that is the recommended daily limit the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to recommend despite the fact that in 2013 researches at the Institute of Medicine, at the request of the CDC itself, found “studies on health outcomes are inconsistent in quality and insufficient in quantity to determine that sodium intakes below 2,300 mg/day either increase or decrease the risk of heart disease, stroke, or all-cause mortality in the general U.S. population.”

    Sodium is an essential requirement for the human body. It regulates blood plasma volume, is used for muscle contractions, nerve transmissions, and pH balance. It is vital in maintaining fluid balance and cardiovascular function. And research seems to show that how much salt we eat is physiologically determined that even extreme interventions do little to alter.

  • 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.

  • What Happens an Hour After Drinking Locally Sourced, Sustainable, Organic Kale Juice?

    August 6, 2015 12:50 PM

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    We’ve all done it: shared a story about some study showing that chocolate is a weight-loss miracle food or a story about how KFC serves deep-fried rat before realizing—too late—we perpetuated an untruth. We spread an inaccurate, viral story and made everyone online a little dumber. Hopefully, such experiences make us a little more skeptical, a little less inclined to take hyperbolic headlines at face-value. You might have seen this infographic making the rounds lately, claiming to show “what happens to your body an hour after drinking a can of coke.” It’s the most recent example of why you shouldn’t always believe what you read.


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