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 STATS.org 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.
April 9, 2015 2:46 PM
A new study from the University of Florida asserts that because Illinois instituted an alcohol tax increase in 2009 and the rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities have declined 26 percent since 2009, the tax must certainly be responsible for the decline in deaths. Of course, news outlets have begun touting the study as evidence that increasing taxes results in fewer deaths. Are they right?
A team of UF Health researchers discovered that fatal alcohol-related car crashes in Illinois declined 26 percent after a 2009 increase in alcohol tax. The decrease was even more marked for young people, at 37 percent.
So, was it the alcohol tax increase that led to the state’s declining alcohol related traffic deaths? To answer that question, one need only examine the rate before and after the tax increase went into effect and compare it to the rest of the United States. Looking at these numbers (provided by DISCUS), it becomes clear that the rate of alcohol related traffic fatalities was declining faster in the year before the tax increase went into effect. Furthermore, since the state jacked up the alcohol taxes, Illinois has experienced a slower decline than the rest of the nation.
Repeat after me: correlation does not equal causation. The study’s authors claim that since the 2009 tax increase went into effect, Illinois saw a 26 percent reduction in traffic fatalities. That certainly is an impressive decline. But just because two things correlate, doesn’t mean that there is a causal relationship. For example, just because the divorce rate in Maine correlates almost one-to-one with the rate of margarine consumption in the U.S., it doesn’t mean one caused the other.
Furthermore, the whole nation saw a decline in alcohol-related traffic deaths between 2001 and 2011.
March 26, 2015 2:23 PM
Dan Nosowitz in Modern Farmer offers some insights on the recent class action lawsuit filed against California winemakers. The plaintiffs found that some inexpensive wines contained arsenic at levels exceeding the federal drinking water standard for this substance. Nosowitz rightly points out that the standard is for water, not wine and “people don’t, or shouldn’t, drink as much wine as water.”
Well, let’s not go that far… kidding of course! Moderation is surely a good idea when it comes to alcohol consumption. Yet even if you drank as much wine as you do water, there’s still no reason to be alarmed about arsenic. The levels in wine are still too low to have any significant adverse impacts, and ironically, such small amounts might even have health benefits.
Arsenic is an element that naturally occurs in the earth’s crust, so traces of arsenic inevitably appear in food and water. Certainly, high levels of arsenic are not healthy and concentrated exposures can be immediately deadly. But the trace levels found in water and food are rarely an issue. Problems have emerged primarily in developing nations like Bangladesh where poor people drink from untreated water sources with arsenic levels that range in the hundreds of parts per billion (ppb), and sometimes more than 1,000 ppb.
It’s worth noting that the levels allegedly found in wine are reportedly just five times greater (or 500 percent higher as noted in the press) than the federal drinking water standard of 10 ppb. So, some number of samples—we don’t know how many—tested by the plaintiffs in this case had some level of arsenic near the 50 ppb level. But did you know that until 2006, that was the allowable level in drinking water in the United States and it had been for decades?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) changed the standard to 10 ppb in 2001 with full compliance not required until 2006. The 10 ppb standard for arsenic in drinking water is excessively overcautious. When EPA proposed it, it was very controversial because the cost to small drinking water systems was substantial and the benefits highly questionable. EPA’s Science Advisory Board highlighted lots of problems with EPA’s science and maintained that the change could actually undermine public health. The SAB explained that the costs might cause some small communities to disconnect their water systems, forcing people to use untreated well water, but EPA finalized the rule anyway.
If you look at the history, you can see that EPA did not change the standard for safety reasons; they did it for political ones. You may remember, environmental activists attacked the Bush administration for taking time to reconsider changing the standard, which the Clinton administration rushed out during the final hours of the Clinton presidency. Green groups made it sound like the Bush administration was adding arsenic to the water supply. And this bad press made a rational and scientific debate impossible.
February 12, 2015 1:34 PM
Thomas Jefferson once said, “If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” On this issue, TJ seems to have hit the nail on the head.
Since Uncle Sam started telling us what to eat, Americans have steadily grown less healthy in many ways. In the 1970s, we were told to eat less meat and more grains. We listened, but it did little to curtail the oncoming obesity “epidemic” (some claim government recommendations may have actually caused this epidemic). And for decades, we have been told to restrict our consumption of cholesterol in order to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease. That is, until now. The new dietary guidelines will no longer recommend restrictions on cholesterol consumption. This is a great first step, but the best advice is to stop listening to government nutritional advice.
For many people, this will seem like an abrupt about-face after 50 years of lectures about cholesterol. But for those in the medical research field, the shift is long overdue. During the last decade, it has become increasingly clear that there is no real evidence linking dietary cholesterol and blood serum cholesterol (which is used as a stand-in for CVD risk). While many physicians are still wedded to the idea that their patients at risk for cardiovascular disease should limit their egg consumption, it sounds like the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—a joint effort of HHS and USDA—has finally come to grips with the evidence. Unfortunately, the real lesson remains unlearned: the U.S. government shouldn’t be the authority on what is or isn’t a healthy diet.
The DGAC, which consists of “nationally recognized experts,” meets every five years to review medical literature and hash out recommendations for what a healthy diet should look like. Their report to the secretaries ultimately becomes the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is used by policy makers as a guideline in federally administered nutritional programs and assistance. Unfortunately, it sounds like they will still cling to their increasingly suspect beliefs about saturated fat.
February 5, 2015 10:41 AM
A recent article in Wine Industry Insight titled “Micro-Agglomerates: 350 Million Illegal Corks Per Year?” reports: “Agglomerated cork manufacturers and importers are facing scrutiny from two major federal agencies over health concerns about the plastic used to bind bits of cork glued together. The concern is that chemicals in the binding plastic can leach into wine.”
But a closer look at the issue indicates that these agencies are not focused on the corks, there’s nothing illegal about them, and safety concerns are unwarranted.
The two agencies allegedly interested in the issue are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The chemical in question, toluene diisocyanate or TDI, Wine Industry Insight notes, is “listed as a potential carcinogen” with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP).
This sounds scary, but there are many reasons why no one should be alarmed about the closures or the chemical involved. But before going into that, we should be clear as to what the agencies are doing in regard to the corks.
According to an EPA press release, the agency has proposed a rule that would require manufactures to notify the agency if a consumer product they are making will contain more than 0.1 percent of TDI by weight. The EPA does not mention scrutiny of corks that may contain TDI. It’s very possible that these corks don’t contain that much TDI and would not even be subject to this proposed rule.
Nor is the FDA really scrutinizing the issue. Instead, the agency received letter from an outside party asking questions about related FDA law. Wine Industry Insight has posted a link to a letter from the FDA responding to that party, but the name of the party asking questions is either blanked out or never included. But Wine Industry Insight points out that it was an association that represents competitors of agglomerated cork producers—a synthetic cork association—who filed the petition. It notes:
“Competition is fierce for the low-end market which is why a synthetic cork association blew the TDI whistle on agglomerates in a letter to the FDA.”
Obviously, competitors have an interest in making this an issue, but FDA isn’t taking the bait. FDA has authority to regulate “food additives” that might pose a threat to public health and that includes chemicals that might migrate from packaging into food. In its cryptic, bureaucratically written letter, FDA is basically indicating that they have data showing there is no detectable migration of TDI into the wine for the closures currently on the market. Otherwise, they’d be regulating now, but they’re not.
So much for “federal scrutiny.” There really isn’t much because there’s no good reason for it.
February 5, 2015 7:59 AM
“Say goodbye to your favorite sprinkled doughnuts,” warned Clayton Morris, guest host on Fox & Friends. “The [FDA] is now regulating Americans intake of trans fat…the amount needed to make something as small as a sprinkle on your doughnut may be banned.” Morris is referring to the decision announced by the Food and Drug Administration in 2013 to reclassify partially hydrogenated oils—revoking its status as “generally recognized as safe” and creating a de facto ban on the artificial trans fat found in the oils. Fox’s overwrought presentation of the issue led many observers to ridicule the segment as well as opposition to the FDA action. The ribbing is warranted; discussion on both sides of the debate has overwhelmingly relied on emotional arguments and hyperbole. As a result, most people aren’t talking about the real threat this FDA action poses.
“Only Vladimir Putin would deny American children—and adults that need to rethink their dietary life choices—their God-given right to ingest sugar in whatever form they deem fit,” Elliot Hannon at Slate joked. “Your doughnuts are safe from Obama’s grasp” wrote Steve Benen at MSNBC. And Cenk Uygur dedicated almost seven minutes of his show, The Young Turks, to myth-busting/ridiculing the Fox segment. Uygur’s response included all of the primary arguments made by those who support an FDA trans fat ban and demonstrated how useless the Fox & Friends-style argument is.
Uygur takes all of the points made by Morris and shows why it is actually an argument for why trans fat ought to be banned. So what that Americans have almost completely eliminated trans fat from their diets already? “It was the FDA effort to eliminate trans fat in the first place that almost solved the problem and now they’re trying to solve it completely,” he asserts. Almost completely isn’t good enough; according to Uygur and the FDA, trans fat consumption is still responsible for a certain number of deaths so it is completely appropriate for the FDA to act to stop these preventable deaths. “Heart attacks, that’s what the right wing calls freedom,” he jokes. He is similarly unmoved by the argument that most food companies have voluntarily removed trans fat from their products. In fact, he points to this as a refutation of the idea that sprinkles or any other food will be taken off the market if trans fat is reclassified. “Nobody is banning any of these foods. It’s a total lie,” he says.
Uygur is right. Well, at least partially. FDA action in 2003 requiring manufacturers to list trans fat on nutritional labels did contribute to a reduction in consumption. Of course, it was also pressure from public health advocates and consumers’ demand for healthier products that resulted in the drop: from 4.6 grams a day in 2003 to around 1 gram a day in 2012. It’s worth noting, however, that the public health advocates crying out against trans fat now were the same ones who promoted the use of trans fat by vilifying saturated fat in the 1980s. Uygur is also right that the FDA isn’t banning any particular food: not doughnuts, sprinkles, pie crust; they’ll all survive a “trans fat ban.” They may need to be reformulated, may taste different, and be more susceptible to spoilage, but most products, if not all, will remain on shelves in some form or another.
Uygur also right when he argues that almost eliminating trans fat from our diet isn’t an argument against a complete ban. For instance, claiming that Americans consume next to zero arsenic isn’t going convince many people that we should let food companies put arsenic in our food. But this is the part of the discussion missing from both sides: trans fat isn’t arsenic and it’s not a poison: it’s a food. As with any other food or beverage, if you consume it in great enough quantities, there will be negative consequences. But trans fat isn’t “harmful”; it is unhealthful, potentially. So, the question is: when is it okay for the FDA to make decisions about what foods or ingredients can or can’t be part of a healthful diet. And is that something we want the FDA deciding at all?
January 27, 2015 1:43 PM
Alcohol is a favorite target for health nannies and politicians looking to boost revenue. Excessive drinkers, they say, cost society millions or billions of dollars! Because society incurs the costs of the irresponsible minority, they assert, society has the right to try and curtail this voluntary behavior. Of course, whenever campaigners quote figures about the exact dollar-amount alcohol consumption “costs” society, they rarely include estimates of the benefits of alcohol consumption for both individuals and societies. That may have to change in the wake of a new study.
Teetotalers like those over at Alcohol Justice (formerly the Marin Institute) promote the idea of “charging for harm.” That is, they think we should increase the taxes on alcohol—charging all drinkers to pay for the “harms” of the few. The estimates for the exact dollar cost of alcohol consumption to society vary significantly, depending on the region and year. As Christopher Snowdon put it in his Wages of Sin Taxes study:
The studies that produce these figures are dominated by “costs” which are neither financial nor borne by the taxpayer. They include hypothetical estimates of the value of a life year lost, earnings forgone due to premature mortality, and expenditure by the consumer on the product itself. These figures are usually inflated, but even when they are plausible they cannot be used to justify sin taxes because these “costs” affect only the individual; they are not paid by the taxpayer.
This month the European Heart Journal published a study on the effects of alcohol consumption on the heart. As the American Council on Science and Health wrote,
After analyzing the data, Dr. Gonçalves and colleagues reported that, compared to alcohol abstainers, men who consumed up to 7 drinks per week had a significant 20 percent reduced risk of HF. Women in that category of drinkers also had a reduced risk of HF, but only by about 5 percent.
This study provides even more evidence to the growing heap that light and moderate alcohol consumption is not only harmless for most adults, but may be beneficial to health. It is still true that excessive consumption of alcohol can have negative consequences, which is true of almost everything. But it is irresponsible for researchers to continue to ignore the benefits of responsible alcohol consumption or to suggest that total abstinence would be best for individuals or societies. Whether or not a person drinks and how much they drink should be a decision he or she makes on their own, perhaps with the advice of a physician. Certainly, it should not be up to professors, social engineers, or politicians looking to raise revenue.
January 13, 2015 6:39 AM
The trade association, WineAmerica, which represents 600 wineries in the U.S., seems to think so. The group has hired a lobbyists to push the FDA to allow them to provide a range of calories in each variety of wine rather than precise counts for each particular wine.
That would mean, for example, wineries could disclose that a 5-ounce glass of wine with 13 percent alcohol has between 130 and 140 calories, as opposed to testing to find the exact calorie count for every specific wine.
The new rule is part of the same section—4205—of the Affordable Care Act that mandates calorie labeling for restaurants with 20 or more locations. The provision has caused a lot of controversy for some smaller chain food outlets, such as grocery stores and pizza shops. According to the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group representing retail grocery chains, the menu-labeling regulation would cost that industry $1 billion in the first year of implementation.
WineAmerica estimates that it will cost about $500 per wine to conduct calorie testing. That might seem like small change, but for small wineries the cost and time it would take to test each wine just adds to the burden of getting their products to the market, according to trade group.
According to current regulations, which are implemented by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, listing calorie content on wine is voluntary. However, if the new ACA rule may mean that wines hoping to get onto the menu of chain restaurants or grocery stores will have to provide calorie content information.
December 9, 2014 11:59 AM
As the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) approaches an eighth round of negotiations between the United States and the European Union, the debate regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs, or crop plants bred with genetic engineering methods) continues to raise important stumbling blocks. Despite a large and growing body of scientific evidence showing that GMOs are no more risky for consumers or the environment than conventionally bred crops—much of it paid for by the EU and conducted by public sector scientists in Europe, public sentiment in Europe remains worried about them (although there is evidence that this concern is exaggerated).
Consequently, many European governments harbor official concerns about the effects of GM crops on human and environmental health. The EU has imposed arguably the strictest GMO regulations in the world, which it rationalizes on the basis of the precautionary principle, the view that any possible risk, however unlikely, provides grounds for bans or severe restrictions. Because the EU has approved only two GMO crop varieties for planting and has approved only a third of the 100 or so GMO crops grown in the US for import as food or animal feed, the precautionary principle could very well halt what would be the world’s wealthiest trade agreement.
As Pierre Desrochers of the University of Toronto points out in an analysis (written for the new European Policy Information Center) of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA)—an agreement similar to the TTIP between Canada and the European Union—the EU’s use of the precautionary principle to obstruct the import of GMOs is nothing more than a non-tariff barrier to trade, conveniently protecting “otherwise uncompetitive locally produced foods.” Although the ban on GMOs is aimed at protecting the environment as well as the European consumer, GMOs actually cut down on environmental degradation that would otherwise occur with pesticides and herbicides. According to one study by the consulting firm PG Economics, between 1996 and 2012 GMO crops reduced pesticide spraying by 8.8 percent in the countries that planted them, while increasing yields and letting farmers produce more food on less land. And because farmers had to spend less time ploughing, weeding, and spraying their fields, carbon dioxide emissions from tractors and other farm machinery were reduced by 23.1 billion kg in 2011 alone.
November 17, 2014 11:24 AM
The Washington Times points out that Jonathan Gruber, our nation’s most famous sufferer of foot-in-mouth-disease, has profited greatly from the “stupid” American public to whom he felt the need to lie in order to pass his health care reform. In an editorial, the paper details the nearly $300,000 paycheck Gruber received from the Department of Health and Human Services to “sing the praises of the health care scheme.”
And that’s not all. Several states—including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont, West Virginia, Maine, Colorado, and Oregon—used Obamacare grants to pay Gruber millions of dollars for his services.
Outrageous? Yes. But should we really be surprised?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) routinely pays researchers with certain biases to produce “evidence” for positions NIH wants to push on the American public. Essentially, NIH pays to create propaganda with taxpayer money in order to lobby state and federal governments into changing the law as it wants.
For example, Dr. David Jernigan, an admitted “advocate” at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has received upwards of $8 million from NIH since 2009 to produce studies demonstrating the evils of alcohol consumption and marketing (his research has been highly criticized by other public health academics).