Senior Fellow Angela Logomasini debunks scare stories about chemicals in your family’s Thanksgiving dinner, ranging from BPA in canned foods to naturally occurring pesticides in potatoes. Anti-chemical activists forget the cardinal rule of toxicology: it is the dose that makes the poison. Relax, eat well, and enjoy spending time with your family this Thanksgiving.
Health and Illness
While at a conference where participants discussed the wannabe social engineers cum urbanists’ war on automobility and housing affordability, Jane Brody’s broadside against Americans’ “dependence on automobiles” and suburban living was published by the New York Times. Brody, unlike her Times colleague Michael Pollan, isn’t a complete and total kook when it comes to agricultural biotechnology, and she is one of the more thoughtful nutrition writers in America. Unfortunately, Brody has fallen for one of the popular but incorrect urban elitist tropes about cars and the suburbs.
Long commutes are killing us! Urban cores are healthier than the suburbs! Low-density living is just fattening us up for self-slaughter!
Scary stuff, just in time for Halloween! But the “evidence” supporting such fear mongering ranges from flimsy to nonexistent.
In her introduction, she unintentionally sets the stage for an interesting contradiction that drives suburb-hating urbanists crazy. “My son used to work in New Jersey, which entailed a hated commute by car that took 50 to 90 minutes each way,” writes Brody. “He quit that job when his sons were born and, working part-time from home, cared for the boys. He now commutes to work in the city by foot and by subway, giving him time to read for pleasure.”
Despite the fact that many two-income American households don’t have the realistic option to simply leave their jobs for childbirth, Brody fails to mention that the New York City metropolitan area has the longest commutes in the nation. Oh, but that’s just for suburban New York metro commuters. City dwellers avoid those lengthy commutes, right? Wrong. New York City residents who can’t afford to live in Manhattan can have extremely long commutes just like their suburban neighbors — and some of the longest commutes in the metro area are those of Brooklyn and Queens residents. See this handy map that WNYC put together with Census data.
This is to be expected. New York City has the lowest auto ownership in the nation and the highest public transit usage (about 40 percent of all transit trips taken in the U.S. are within the New York City metropolitan area). Those who get to work by transit rather than car generally have longer commutes: you need to walk to the transit stop, transfer, etc. That’s why New York City drivers tend to have lower commute times than transit users. If you’re looking for the shortest commutes, you’ll need to move to auto-oriented, low-density places like Manhattan, Kansas, rather than Manhattan, New York, New York.
No, of course not! However, a coalition of health advocates seems to be making that assertion when they sent her a letter this week asking that she relinquish her sponsorship of Pepsi because, they insist, its deviously effective marketing of soda to children is a cause of childhood obesity.
Never mind that childhood obesity rates are declining around the nation among all socioeconomic levels, the cause of obesity is not and never has been advertising. Additionally, the solution to any health problem our nation faces is not in the marketing of high-calorie foods. The real problem is that adults — specifically those with the responsibility of raising children — have abandoned their responsibility to instruct children about how to make healthy choices. The only way to inoculate a youngster from the relentless and ubiquitous marketing for less-than-healthful foods is to show them how to make overall healthy diet decisions.
On the other hand, quieting the marketing of a single high-calorie product will do absolutely nothing to address the problem of obesity in America. There are a million other options on store shelves; if a brainless zombie teen is at the mercy of commercials featuring pop stars, then they will simply be pushed toward a different ad and a different product with equally high sugar content.
At least, for its part, Pepsi as a company has been slowly making its products healthier and expanding its line of healthier alternatives. Other companies, like Kellogg’s, have used their profits and their celebrity sponsors to fuel campaigns that encourage youth sports. While it’s questionable how much these strategies will address obesity, they are certainly more effective than simply demonizing celebrities who endorse products.
Katy Perry, whose lyrics often promote a positive message of strength and self-confidence, is arguable a better role model for teens than many of the other performers out there. Obviously, she is free to decide which products and companies she wants to endorse. Of course, if and when Perry decides to end her sponsorship, Pepsi will certainly find another celebrity to take her place. Maybe Miley Cyrus would be interested in the job.
Supporters of big government are taking advantage of a Salmonella outbreak linked to raw chicken to condemn Republican lawmakers and scare consumers about the government shutdown. But, despite the outcries from the media, Americans shouldn’t be overly concerned with the shutdown’s effect on food safety. In fact, the shutdown notwithstanding, our food is as well monitored as ever.
How could that be, you might ask? Isn’t this Salmonella outbreak proof that the shutdown has caused things to slip through the cracks? Well, actually, no.
Meat and poultry slaughterhouses are inspected by USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, a division essentially unaffected by the shutdown. Federal law requires slaughterhouses to have an inspector on-site at all times in order to conduct business, so those inspectors were on the job and functioning normally when the tainted chicken made it to market. So, the underlying cause of the Salmonella outbreak has nothing to do with the shutdown, it has everything to do with the long-ago outdated way the FSIS performs its job.
FSIS inspectors mainly rely on a “poke and sniff” test to inspect facilities and products. Although testing for the presence of bacteria and other contaminants is done, it is generally performed by slaughterhouse employees and inspectors look at the result. The primary job of an inspector is to conduct a visual inspection of every single animal carcass and guess as to how clean it is. But, while some impurities can be seen, bacteria and viruses cannot. So, visual inspections can lead to misperceptions about how sanitary a facility really is. That’s why this outbreak could occur even with FSIS on the job.
In Tennessee, Obamacare will triple men’s premiums, and double women’s, in the market for individual health insurance. Nationally, Obamacare will increase men’s premiums by 99 percent, and women’s by 62%.
Kathy Kristof of CBS MoneyWatch describes experiencing a 67 percent spike in her premiums, for a worse policy than she had before:
The promise that you could keep your old policy, if you liked it, has proved illusory. My insurer, Kaiser Permanente, informed me in a glossy booklet that “At midnight on December 31, we will discontinue your current plan because it will not meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.” My premium, the letter added, would go from $209 a month to $348, a 66.5 percent increase that will cost $1,668 annually. . .the things that mattered to me — that I would be able to limit my out-of-pocket costs if I had a catastrophic ailment — got worse under my new Obamacare policy. My policy, which has always paid 100 percent of the cost of annual check-ups, had a $5,000 annual deductible for sick visits and hospital stays. Once I paid that $5,000, the plan would pay 100 percent of any additional cost. That protected me from economic devastation in the event of a catastrophic illness, such as cancer.
Kaiser’s Obamacare policy has a $4,500 deductible, but then covers only 40 percent of medical costs for office visits, hospital stays and drugs. Out-of-pocket expenses aren’t capped until the policyholder pays $6,350 annually.
Meanwhile, some wealthy early retirees have figured out how to qualify for Obamacare subsidies at taxpayer expense. They do this by living on tax-free income and deferring their receipt of taxable income—an option not available to people who have to work for a living. As the commenter Alan Lovchik noted yesterday,
Hey you RICH early retirees who are not on Medicare yet and are buying your own medical insurance!! The Affordable Care Act of 2010 (Obamacare) will give you TOTALLY FREE insurance coverage. You must be rich enough to take advantage, so the poor and middle class are probably left out of this wonderful opportunity.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is gearing up to regulate electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) by early October. These regulations, rather than protecting the public health, will unintentionally push people towards using more dangerous tobacco alternatives.
Smokers all over the world have transitioned to e-cigarettes because they believe them to be a safer and more convenient alternative to tobacco. Users inhale a vapor that contains a mix of nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerin, flavoring ingredients—and no tobacco.
To date, users have been able to enjoy these products without the inconvenience of having to go to designated smoking areas and inhaling the harmful tar from actual smokers’ cigarettes. A recent study conducted by the American Medical Association (AMA) concluded that “although it cannot be said that currently marketed e-cigarettes are safe, e-cigarette vapor is likely to be much less toxic than cigarette smoke.”
However, that doesn’t seem to be good enough for some public health advocacy groups. The American Lung Association , the American Cancer Society, and others have expressed concerned that people are unaware that e-cigarettes contain a potentially dangerous mix of chemicals. The FDA’s tobacco czar has compared the current state of the e-cigarette industry to a “wild west” situation in dire need of regulation.
The proposed regulations will likely have severe ununitended consequences by decreasing the incentives to stay away from more dangerous tobacco alternatives. These regulations will raise the price of e-cigarettes, decrease innovation in the market, and force users to consume them outside around smokers, thereby exposing them to secondhand smoke and the temptation to turn back to traditional tobacco products.
Regulators’ main concern seems to be that e-cigarettes will encourage more people to start using nicotine (and eventually tobacco products) and prevent current smokers from quitting. With a flavored product that doesn’t require users to go outside, has lower health risks, and is less expensive, nicotine use loses many of the costs associated with smoking. Therefore, people will have less incentive to quit or stay away from nicotine products to begin with.
All medical professionals will readily agree that regularly inhaling anything other than the mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide around you is detrimental to your health. Of course, it would be better from a health perspective if people didn’t use nicotine at all. However, as an alternative to smoking, e-cigarettes could save millions of lives.
More troubling is the fact that the FDA has announced plans to regulate the e-cigarette market without conducting any substantial research. And while secondhand vapor may seem like a legitimate concern, the majority of studies conducted show that this is not the case.
Unless new evidence shows that e-cigarettes are comparable to tobacco products in their effects on public health, regulators should be careful of unintentionally pushing users away from a safer mode of nicotine consumption.
Mother may know best, but Uncle Sam certainly doesn’t.
In 1977, the federal government put a warning label on saccharine, claiming it caused cancer. It took only 20 years to to admit this was wrong. Then there’s the so-called Healthy Food Pyramid created by the USDA to advise Americans on the composition of a supposedly healthy diet. Although many still follow the recommendations of the food pyramid, it has since been questioned by researchers and nutritionist and even cited as a potential factor in America’s skyrocketing rate of obesity. Now we have another example of bad advice — government recommendations on sodium intake.
For years, public health advocates, politicians, and government agencies such as the FDA, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been cajoling Americans to cut their salt intake and pressuring food makers to comply with salt-reduction programs. Agencies recommended we cut sodium consumption to less than 2,300 mg a day. In May, the CDC was forced to admit this advice was wrong as well. A report commissioned by the CDC and conducted by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies found no evidence to support this previous advice.
Over the last decade, studies on salt, many with conflicting conclusions, have called into question the commonly accepted wisdom that less salt is better. Some research has even concluded reducing sodium consumption too much might result in increases in mortality for certain groups of people. According to the report brief, the committee of researchers with the Institute of Medicine was tasked with assessing this new body of research on sodium and to come to conclusions about dietary recommendations for the general population.
The study, titled, “Sodium Intake in Populations: Assessment of Evidence,” found higher levels of sodium consumption were associated with increased risk of heart disease. But there was no evidence to suggest that consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium was correlated with any increase or decrease in risk for heart disease, stroke or death. Furthermore the study found that reducing sodium intake to less than 1,840 mg a day could increase the risk of negative health outcomes for certain people.
“Recognizing the limitations of the available evidence, the committee found no consistent evidence to support an association between sodium intake and either a beneficial or adverse effect on health outcomes other than cardio-vascular disease outcomes (including stroke and CVD mortality) and all-cause mortality.” But the committee also concluded that “evidence from studies on direct health outcomes is inconsistent and insufficient to conclude that lowering sodium intakes below 2,300 mg per day either increases or decreases risk of CVD outcomes (including stroke and CVD mortality) or all-cause mortality in the general U.S. population.” The committee’s ultimate conclusion is that for most people, sodium consumption is not all that important a factor in managing their health risks. “We found no consistent evidence to support an association between sodium intake and either a beneficial or adverse effect on most direct health outcomes,” said Dr. Brian L. Strom, George S. Pepper Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who chaired the committee that released the report.
So what does this mean? Many people will, undoubtedly, become frustrated with the repeated reversals on dietary recommendations. But this is simply the nature of scientific research. It takes years of good research and rigorous academic debate to come to conclusions about how the human body operates. And even then, those conclusions are –or at least they should be—readily re-evaluated and amended when new evidence is found. This lack of perfect knowledge isn’t a problem when individuals are allowed to examine the current body of evidence and choose whether the recommendations are appropriate for their unique situation. Problems arise when politicians or health advocates assume that one research paper constitutes gospel truth for every person and then attempts to coerce the entire population into complying with those recommendations. One person’s magic potion could be another person’s poison, and both should be free to make that determination for themselves.
Earlier, we wrote about the U.S. government’s de facto ban on the commonplace, perfectly healthy, normal-smelling French cheese mimolette (which I once confused with cheddar while eating it in France). It is banning the cheese from the U.S. due to the presence of harmless cheese mites in its rind. As The Washington Post notes:
For centuries, microscopic mites have been part of the process for making Mimolette, a mild-tasting cheese shaped like a cannonball and electric orange in color. For decades, the cheese has been imported from France and distributed to shops and grocery stores across the United States.
That is, until this spring, when the Food and Drug Administration began blocking shipments of the Gouda-like product at U.S. ports, leaving thousands of pounds of it stranded in warehouses from New Jersey to California.
The FDA says inspectors found too many cheese mites per square inch crawling on the cantaloupe-like rinds of Mimolette, raising health concerns. But it hasn’t explained exactly why it began holding up the cheese shipments after decades of relatively few problems. “The only thing we can do is cite our regulations, which show very clearly that our job is to protect the food supply,” FDA spokeswoman Patricia El-Hinnawy said.
Cato Institute scholar Simon Lester says the ban may violate treaties designed to protect international trade from attacks rooted in ignorance of science. He discusses the WTO agreement that “deals with ‘Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures,’” noting that it is likely
that the FDA actions would be covered by these terms, and thus the agreement applies here. . . . Among other things, it requires that governments “shall ensure that any sanitary or phytosanitary measure is applied only to the extent necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health, is based on scientific principles and is not maintained without sufficient scientific evidence … .” It also says that governments “shall ensure that their sanitary or phytosanitary measures are based on an assessment, as appropriate to the circumstances, of the risks to human, animal or plant life or health, taking into account risk assessment techniques developed by the relevant international organizations.” What these and related provisions mean, in a nutshell, is that these kinds of government actions have to be backed up by science . . . if there is a complaint under the agreement, a WTO panel hearing a claim under these provisions will consult with scientific experts to figure out what the science is, and then reach a conclusion on whether the measure violates the agreement (that is, if it is based on sound science). What does the science say here? . . .there is the following from the Post article:
“Rachel Dutton, a microbiologist who runs a cheese research lab at Harvard University, said people who handle cheese and come into contact with large amounts of mites have been known to have occasional allergic reactions. But she said she’s unaware of anyone getting sick from eating mites in cheese, which itself is full of various microbes that provide distinct textures, flavors and aromas. ‘I understand their desire to protect the consumer,’ Dutton said of the FDA’s caution. But ‘it’s true that these cheeses have been consumed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years with no apparent link to disease from the mites.’”
It’s a rare occasion that we get to praise government agencies. While the federal agency governing alcoholic beverages certainly took it’s time to make a ruling on nutrition labeling on alcoholic products — a topic it has been considering since 2003 — it appears the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax, and Trade Bureau (TTB) ultimately made the right decision to allow, not require, companies to add a “serving facts” nutrition panel to their labels. According to a press release dated May 28, 2013, the TTB reviewed the issue of having a “serving facts” statement on beer, wine, and spirits — something that the spirits suppliers have been asking for — and it concluded that it will allow, but not require the use of nutrient analysis in labeling as well as advertisements.
Happily, companies will not have to apply for approval for a new label, so long as the added nutritional facts panel follows the example provided by TTB and they may include information regarding the serving size, number of servings in a container, calories, carbs, protein, and fat per serving.
This is good news because there had been some talk in the past about requiring all suppliers of alcohol to add this nutritional information to all of their products, a change that could have been disastrous for some smaller producers of alcohol and consumers who like variety. As I wrote back in 2011:
“Craft brewers on the other hand, produce a wider variety of beers, and far fewer barrels of each one, so they will struggle with the cost of testing and labeling the nutritional contents of their many beers. In its 2008 comments on the TTB labeling requirement proposal, the Brewers Association, which represents more than 1,400 U.S. small brewers, estimated that the annual cost of compliance with the proposed labeling requirement could be as high as $18,000 for brewers producing less than 1,000 barrels a year and more than $350,000 for brewers making more than 100,000 barrels a year.”
Requiring all suppliers of alcohol to label their entire line of products would almost certainly mean that smaller wine makers and brewers would have to reduce the range of products they sell and/or raise their prices. While this guidance issued by the TTB is a stop-gap until it issues regulations regarding nutritional labeling, let’s up that the voluntary aspect remains part of the plan.
Does austerity kill? In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu claim that fiscal austerity leads to a worsening of health outcomes, using higher suicide and disease rates across Southern Europe as their case-in-point. But there are problems with this formulation.
First, the authors make the mistake of linking fiscal austerity with less health spending. Greece, Spain, and Italy chose to cut health spending even though there were better choices for cuts. And health spending didn’t put them into deep debt to begin with. Borrowing at cheap interest rates and spending it on pet projects and political patronage — which includes the welfare state, but not so much in health — put them in deep debt. Estonia swiftly and severely began to reduce the size of government in 2009, but it increased health spending during that period and suffered no health declines.
Second, Stuckler and Basu point to high unemployment and trimmed social services as the sources of increased depression and suicide in Southern Europe. But this is not an argument against austerity; it is an argument to make people less dependent on the social welfare system. In Southern Europe, labor markets are broken. That’s why the IMF gave each country a failing grade in labor market efficiency in 2010. In Italy, it’s illegal to fire employees for poor performance and difficult to dismiss them for outright negligence. Layoffs also are a long and expensive process. So,when recession comes, employers can’t hire at lower wages and don’t want to hire because of these factors — which makes matters even worse. Droves of Italians and Spaniards wouldn’t be dependent upon state welfare today if labor markets were more flexible. That’s why austerity should regard not just cutting spending and revenues, but also shrinking the regulatory state. Job protections, a hidden cost of the welfare state, are the real killer.
The narrative with which the authors open their op-ed—in which an older Italian family commits suicide because Italy’s increasing the pension eligibility age forced the main breadwinner back into a workforce with meager opportunities—tells us to abandon not austerity but the level of commitment to current welfare-state policies. If businesses had more flexibility to hire and fire workers, if the implicit tax rate on labor wasn’t the highest in all of Europe, and if Italy’s court system was more efficient in resolving labor disputes, this family wouldn’t have been so reliant on receiving a state pension in the first place. Finding work would not have been such a hopeless proposition that it ended in such tragedy.
Third, the authors bring up Estonia’s experience with poor health outcomes during its transition from communism but conveniently fail to mention its success with real austerity from 2009 to the present. After making deep cuts to both spending and revenues beginning in January 2009 (unlike any other country in the Euro Area), Estonia experienced positive economic growth by the third quarter of that year — more than 2 percent growth in 2010, and 7.6 percent growth in 2011. Unemployment began to decrease by the sixth quarter after austerity and is now below the Euro Area average. And most importantly to Stuckler and Basu, neither the change in the rate of suicides nor the change in the total death rate were statistically significant relative to Estonia’s previous 10 years. See my in-depth statistical report for more information: http://cei.org/web-memo/separating-european-austerity-fact-and-fiction.
Painting austerity as the grim reaper is more than a stretch. “Austerity” need not mean a reduction in health spending. And focusing on the short-term effects of trimming the welfare state ignores the long-term causes behind why some citizens’ lives depended so heavily upon it. Does austerity “kill”? It doesn’t have to.