Topic: General

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.

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.

Enron Execs Go Down

The jury returned guilty verdicts against Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling today. I didn’t follow the case closely, but businesspeople who engage in fraud should obviously be punished. I do fear that the publicity surrounding this case will reinforce the misguided notion that federal prosecutors should be policing the business world. Cato’s new book, Trapped, shows that federal intervention will result in far more harm than good.

For those who would rather listen, than read, Prof. John Hasnas, author of Trapped, delivered an address here at Cato last month.

For still more background, go here.

Boxes, Foreheads, and Price Signals

Russ Roberts at Cafe Hayek has an illuminating post about how to think about jobs:

Some say that a nation should strive to acquire high-paying jobs if it wants a high standard of living. In this view of the world, jobs are boxes that workers jump in and out of. Each box has a bar code that determines how much the job pays. The goal is to get a good box with a high wage attached to it.An alternative view of the world is that the bar code is on the worker’s forehead. The worker gets scanned not the job.The wage depends not on the job title but on the skills of the worker.

Russ goes on to explain why the jobs-as-boxes view leads to error and confusion.

I’d like to add that one of the reasons unions and other forms of subsidy often hurt workers more than they help is because of certain implications of the box view. Unions generally try to get the wages and benefits attached to union boxes as high as feasibly possible.

The first effect is often to limit the number of boxes available for workers to jump into. But a perhaps deeper problem is that heavily subsidized wage and benefit packages can insulate workers from labor market price signals that are trying to tell workers to invest in other forms of human capital – to acquire a more highly valued forehead bar code.

When subsidized boxes disappear, due to mechanization, outsourcing, or plain old business failure, workers are usually dismayed to find that there is a big mismatch between their forehead and their old box, i.e., that the real market value of their skill set is surprisingly and disappointingly small. It can be a harsh blow to your self-esteem to find that the best job you can get pays only half as well as your old one. And you’ll sometimes hear laid-off low-skill workers say, “Why didn’t anybody tell me that I should be learning to do something else?” The answer is that prices were telling them – the signal was out there – but you can’t hear it from inside an insulated box.

If you’ve got to subsidize something, subsidize people’s ability to respond effectively to price signals (e.g., provide them vouchers for job training). Don’t create subsidies, like wage supports, that cut people off from the information they need so that they can invest in themselves wisely and find a good fit in a dynamic market.

Sense and Sensenbrenner

Congressional whining over the FBI raid of Rep. William Jefferson’s office has reached the point of self-parody. Rep. James Sensenbrenner has now called for rare out-of-session hearings on the raid, titled, “Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?”

This would be the same James Sensenbrenner who wants to give federal law enforcement the power to snoop in on your Internet browsing, and who recently introduced a bill that would send parents to prison if they learn of drug activity near their children and fail to report it to authorities within 24 hours.

“Trampling the Constitution,” indeed. Amazing how reverent politicians get for the Constitution and the rights of the accused when one of their own is under the gun.

Little Victories

…in the fight against the Nanny State: in Massachusetts, the state legislature just narrowly rejected ”primary seat belt legislation.”  In English, that’s a law that gives police the power to pull you over simply because someone in your car isn’t wearing their seatbelt (“secondary seat belt laws” allow them to ticket you for not wearing a seatbelt only if they’ve stopped you for some other infraction). 

Last summer, using night-vision equipment on loan from the National Guard, Maryland state troopers scanned passing cars, then swept out and nabbed 111 offenders for the crime of driving without a seatbelt. Scores of people who were driving along, minding their own business, had their evening ruined by an unpleasant encounter with the business end of the law. Law enforcement overreaching caused an outcry in that case, and citizen pressure in Massachusetts seems to have led several lawmakers to back away from the primary seatbelt bill.

It’s good to know that even in Massachusetts there’s still some resistance to the growing crusade to ensure healthy living through coercion. But it’s not coming from the Governor’s office. Mitt Romney, GOP presidential hopeful for 2008, had promised to sign the bill.