Archives: 05/2006

Europe’s Public Health Crowd Hunkers Down to Fight the Scourge of “Secondhand Drinking”

Via the excellent Spiked Online:

The campaigns to combat the effects of ‘passive smoking’ are widely credited for Europe’s growing number of smoking bans. Now alcohol is in the sights of the public health lobbyists, and they have invented the concept of ‘passive drinking’ as their killer argument.I have seen a leaked draft report for the European Commission, which is due to be published some time in June. It makes claims about the high environmental or social toll of alcohol, the ‘harm done by someone else’s drinking’. The report is likely to inform proposals for a European Union alcohol strategy later this year.

[…]

By October 2004, the theme was established in a Eurocare submission to the Commission. ‘Alcohol not only harms the user, but those surrounding the user, including the unborn child, children, family members, and the sufferers of crime, violence and drink-driving accidents: this can be termed environmental alcohol damage or “passive drinking”.’

This of course is a replica of the roadmap the prohbition movement used at the beginning of the last century, though Spiked author Bruno Waterfield does draw one distinction, invoking John Stuart Mill:

Once the temperance movement believed man could be saved. Today, it joins with the public health lobby to treat drinking as a form of social pathology rather than a question of moral redemption. Once, public health had the aim of protecting society against disease. Today, the ‘new public health movement’ seeks to protect society against people themselves.

Today’s public health outlook on drinking dovetails neatly with other powerful contemporary trends that emphasise human vulnerability or undermine trust between individuals. Linking drinking to free-floating risks, independent of the intentions of individuals, is a characteristic of today’s anti-humanist climate. But 200 years after his birth, we can take heart from the works and legacy of Mill. He stood against the tide in his day and won. We owe him a debt and we owe the future of freedom a duty to make our own stand against the new public health alliance of the twenty-first century.

I warned in a Cato paper a few years ago about the rise of the neoprohibition movement here in America.  Think it couldn’t happen again?  Consider this little nugget, pulled from the DEA’s website:

A word about prohibition: lots of you hear the argument that alcohol prohibition failed—so why are drugs still illegal? Prohibition did work. Alcohol consumption was reduced by almost 60% and incidents of liver cirrhosis and deaths from this disease dropped dramatically (Scientific American, 1996, by David Musto). Today, alcohol consumption is over three times greater than during the Prohibition years. Alcohol use is legal, except for kids under 21, and it causes major problems, especially in drunk driving accidents.

Mark Thornton took on apologists for alcohol prohibition in a Cato paper way back in 1991.

An Otherwise Helpless Consumer Public?

In 1971, a federal court expressed the rationale behind the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act when it wrote that the law was “enacted for the protection of an otherwise helpless consumer public” [United States v. Lit. Drug Co., 333 F.Supp. 990, 998 (D.N.J. 1971)]. But would consumers be helpless without the Food and Drug Administration certifying the safety and effectiveness of drugs, biologics, and medical devices? A recent National Public Radio report suggests the answer is no.

The one area where Congress has reined in the FDA’s regulatory authority has been dietary supplements. The FDA has no authority to regulate the content or safety of dietary supplements before those products are sold. Since the FDA doesn’t require testing, there is no testing. Right?

Wrong. A for-profit firm called ConsumerLab.com tests dietary supplements with an eye toward catching unsafe or mislabeled products in the lab before they harm anyone. ConsumerLab.com provides reports on its findings to consumers who pay an annual fee, but it provides information on product recalls at no charge. 

According to the firm’s web site:

ConsumerLab.com, LLC (“CL”) is the leading provider of independent test results and information to help consumers and healthcare professionals evaluate health, wellness, and nutrition products. It publishes results of its tests at www.consumerlab.com — which receives nearly 2 million visits per year, in its acclaimed book ConsumerLab.com’s Guide to Buying Vitamins & Supplements, and in special technical reports. Its research is cited frequently in the media, books, and at medical meetings. As a certification company, CL enables companies of all sizes to have their products voluntarily tested for potential inclusion in its list of Approved Quality products and bear the CL Seal. In the past five years, CL has tested more than 1,200 products, representing over 250 different brands and nearly every type of popular supplement.

ConsumerLab.com was launched by William Obermeyer, a former FDA official whose job it was to test these products after problems emerged. When Obermeyer realized he could do more good by testing these products ex ante, he quit his day job and helped create ConsumerLab.com. 

Some have argued that allowing dietary supplement manufacturers to pay for the review that determines whether the CL Seal will go on a product creates a conflict of interest. Yet the value of the “CL Seal” depends on ConsumerLab.com’s reputation for independence. NPR reports, “There are no indications that this has created any bias.” (Besides, many see indications of bias at the FDA itself, even when the agency’s funding does not come from private parties.)

So it is not the case that the FDA is an indispensable agency. It performs an indispensable function. But if it disappeared tomorrow, private organizations would meet (1) consumers’ demand for independent product reviews and (2) producers’ demand for credible quality signals. And those private organizations would have to compete with each other on the basis of thoroughness and integrity. As NPR reports:

ConsumerLab.com isn’t alone in testing supplements. Another logo beginning to appear on labels is a blue NSF mark, which signals that a product has been certified by the National Sanitation Foundation.

And it doesn’t stop there. Other private organizations that set quality standards or evaluate the quality of various goods and services include:

Read more about a world without the FDA.

Doha Round: Curb Your Enthusiasm

In a sure sign of how desperate negotiators are to get a signal that something—anything—is going to come of the Doha Round of global trade talks, there has been much ado this week about the revised “offer” that the European Union has made on agricultural market access, one of the necessary elements in a successful deal.

Even the Australians—usually one of the most reliable critics of European agricultural policy—have welcomed the sign of flexibility.

But what would this offer mean exactly? There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to get excited about. For a start, no numbers were mentioned. The message from EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson, delivered by David O’Sullivan, director general of the EU’s trade directorate, merely said that “if, and only if, key partners also put something worthwhile on the table—the EU will be prepared to enhance further its current agricultural offer.”

The EU’s current agricultural offer would certainly benefit from some enhancing. Its last substantive offer in October 2005 proposed cuts to developed country farm tariffs that fall far short of the demands of the United States, the Cairns Group of agricultural exporting countries, and even the more modest demands from the G-20 developing countries. In a press interview prior to the official statement, O’Sullivan was somewhat more detailed about the EU’s bottom line, saying that they would be willing to “move towards, but certainly not as far as, the G-20 position.”

The lack of numbers was no deterrent to deputy U.S. trade representative and WTO ambassador Peter Allgeier expressing his indifference. According to him, the EU’s proposal “would not be nearly sufficient…for there to be new trade flows.” That benchmark seems a sensible one: surely new trade flows should be the ultimate aim of trade liberalization talks.

I wonder if O’Sullivan talked to French president Jacques Chirac before he made his tentative and conditional offer of flexibility. The French have been blamed for the obstinacy so far shown by the EU, and their attitude can be gleaned from this comment from President Chirac to Brazilian television: “[The] three areas to which we’ve attached the greatest importance [are]: industry, services and, above all, the aid and interests of the poor countries with which Europe has very strong ties and who could be the victims of the WTO’s actions.”

Even overlooking the unnecessary and inflammatory swipe at the WTO, Chirac’s comments must be seen as a cynical attempt to exploit former colonies’ so-called “dependence” on non-reciprocal preference rates. Despite research from the World Bank and the WTO that shows that most of the risks from preference erosion (the loss of competitive advantage, enjoyed by preference beneficiaries, that results from non-disriminatory—or “most-favoured-nation”—trade liberalization) are limited to a few items in a few markets and that developing countries will gain significantly from reducing their own tariffs, many preference recipients, encouraged by some NGOs, are threatening to block consensus on a final agreement if their “needs” are not addressed.

Instead of issuing statements that inflame such tensions, maybe President Chirac should step up consultations with French services and manufacturing bodies and find out how they would feel about the failure of the trade talks. Then he should pick up the telephone and call Mandelson.

Maybe then we’ll see an offer to get excited about.

EPA Witchdoctors Get No Peace

A coalition of unions representing U.S. EPA scientists and other specialists sent a letter to EPA chief Stephen Johnson on Wednesday asserting that agency managers and pesticide industry officials are exerting political pressure to allow the continued use of organophosphates and carbamates, which are used in many industrial pesticides. The letter complains that EPA scientists are being pushed to skip steps in their regulatory testing of the chemicals, arguing that ”the integrity of the science upon which agency decisions are based has been compromised.”

This is rich. The methodology being employed by the EPA to ascertain human health risks for these and other chemical substances has long been discredited by academics, who, at best, suggest that it holds promise but has a long way to go, or, at worst, suggest that it is akin to astrology or palm reading. If the environmental Left were serious about allowing scientific concensus to dictate federal policy (a proposition they ardently embrace when the topic turns to global warming), the tests at issue would have been junked long ago.

But by all means, let’s not disturb the witchdoctors!   

Minn. Taxpayers Make Gophers Golden

If you’re a fan, like I am, of a small college that tries to play big time sports, you know how tough it is for your school to compete against gargantuan state universities that have tens of thousands of students, hundreds of thousands of alums, and a seemingly endless supply of professional quality facilities.

 Well, things just got a bit tougher: On Wednesday, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty signed legislation authorizing the construction of a new, $248 million, on-campus football stadium for the University of Minnesota. Of course, one more academically essential football stadium at a state mega-versity only marginally hurts most smaller institutions (except for Northwestern). The people it’s really throwing for a loss are Minnesota taxpayers, who are being forced to pick up 55 percent of the tab—or more than $136 million—for the Golden Gophers’ new gridiron.

Not only do big state schools have an unfair advantage over small private colleges, it seems they have one over state taxpayers as well.

Conservatives Say: Politics Above All

The Washington Times brings news this morning that conservatives are “expressing concern and outrage” about House Speaker Denny Hastert’s strong objections to the FBI’s raid on Rep. William Jefferson’s House office.

Perhaps such “conservatives” ought to recall what the real conservative libertarian who designed the U.S. Constitution once wrote:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to controul the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controuls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to controul the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to controul itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary controul on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Hastert is acting in the spirit of Federalist 51. To be sure, there are other considerations in this case, but Hastert is doing what Madison expected congressional leaders to do: stand up for his branch of the government against an encroachment from an ambitious executive. Those who are criticizing Hastert are trying to make corruption a bipartisan stain or to raise public approval of Congress by a point or two. They are ignoring the constitutional dimension of all this.

I’ll take the timeless logic of Federalist 51, thanks.

Ezra Klein, Libertarian?

Since I’ve disagreed with Ezra Klein in the past, I am pleased to report that we agree on what to do about the 7,000 Americans who die every year while waiting for transplantable organs. In a recent post, Klein notes that the shortage of organs is due to a ban on payments to organ providers. Klein advocates lifting that ban.  My favorite line:

We’ve stupidly disallowed payment for organs (if money can’t buy you life, why keep it around?)…

Klein brought to mind an observation made by Prof. Richard Epstein last week in the Wall Street Journal:

Only a bioethicist could prefer a world in which we have 1,000 altruists per annum and over 6,500 excess deaths [to] one in which we have no altruists and no excess deaths.

In Healthy Competition, Mike Tanner and I argue for repeal of Sen. Orrin Hatch’s 1984 National Organ Transplant Act, which prohibits payments to organ providers. 

In a recent issue of Cato’s Regulation magazine, Prof. Lloyd Cohen throws up his hands and issues a challenge to those opposed to such payments. Cohen has re-written his will to ensure that when he dies, his organs cannot be harvested unless his estate is paid $864.27 per organ. Why? Because that requirement will create a real-life situation where paying up will generate more transplantable organs. That will force the bioethicists to explain to four, maybe five families who have their checkbooks in hand, We’re sorry, but your loved one must die for our principles. Cohen urges others to insert similar clauses into their wills, just to get the message through the bioethicists’ heads.

Cohen and other powerful presenters will speak at a June 12 conference on organ markets at the American Enterprise Institute.