Day: January 15, 2021

Storming of Capitol a threat to republican democracy

Last Wednesday, we saw the worst passions of the American republic storm through the doors of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

For hours, people around the world watched as protestors transformed into rioters who ransacked various congressional offices, posed for photos on the House floor, and terrorized hundreds of congressmen and women, senators, staff, journalists, and Capitol Police.

One woman, a protestor and rioter from Arizona, was shot and killed by Capitol Police. Three others died due to medical emergencies, according to Washington Police Chief Robert Contee.

The march outflowed from a “Stop the Steal” rally held by President Donald Trump in the hours prior, decrying the results of the 2020 election and fueling various allegations of voter fraud and manipulation.

He urged his supporters at the rally to turn their attention to Congress, which was deliberating the final tally of the Electoral College votes.

What transpired at the Capitol Wednesday was something no one should tolerate in a liberal democracy. The ransacking of a seat of the federal government, by any force or group of individuals, is an act of aggression that should be prosecuted.

It was, no doubt, a result of demagoguery and a violent urging by Donald Trump.

There are many items of concern that my organization and I have broadly agreed with President Trump: on questioning the role of the World Health Organization early on in the pandemic, dismantling burdensome regulations that quash innovation, pushing for the safe and orderly opening of the economy after devastating coronavirus restrictions, and more.

At the same time, we have opposed the Trump administration when it was needed most: disastrous tariffs that raise prices for all consumers, drug pricing plans that will set back innovation while making drugs more expensive, and a federal vaping flavor ban that will deprive former smokers of the ability to choose a less harmful alternative.

Personally, I have opposed Trump’s desire to severely restrict and reduce immigration. My family immigrated to the U.S. some 30 years ago, and we have enjoyed a much more fruitful life because of it.

But those policy arguments and disagreements are secondary to the very real threat of a violent parade of hysteria through the halls of the Capitol.

We advocate for ideas to improve society based on the rule of law and democratic order. We use the means of free expression, free assembly, and the right to petition our government to ensure that policies that help every consumer and every citizen will be the law of the land.

Seeing a mob trample into the primary seat of one of America’s branches of government achieves none of that, and should be rightly condemned.

Our decentralized republican democracy based on a time-honored Constitution, a system that is unique to the United States and has allowed for some of the most promising economic and social innovation in the world, was threatened. And we cannot excuse these actions in the slightest.

From this point forward, we must restore the rule of law and advocate for liberal democratic principles to advance the American project.

That President Trump should continue to serve out the last two weeks of his term, after this insurrection and rebellion in our nation’s capital, is unacceptable.

Whether it be through his removal from office by the invocation of the 25th Amendment by Vice President Mike Pence and the cabinet, or articles of impeachment in the House and swift conviction by the Senate, something must be done to show to the world what happens when order and liberty are transgressed in a representative liberal democracy.

When the actions of certain individuals go too far, and when demagoguery threatens the very system that allows us to freely enjoy our liberty and pursue happiness how we see fit, that is an appropriate time to use the tools at our disposal to rectify injustice.

Let us hope justice conquers after the events of last week.

— Yael Ossowski is deputy director of the Consumer Choice Center.

Originally published here.

We should not monopolise consumer information

Letting legislators alone decide what consumer information is causes multiple problems…

Expanding consumer access to information is meant to be a cornerstone of informed policy and decision-making. 

Rather than adopting paternalistic rules, lawmakers and regulators in liberal democracies should reflect the will of the people and ensure that consumers and citizens are able to always access more, not less, information on labels and products. 

Obviously, distinguishing what information is “accurate”, especially when it comes to products we buy and sell, is a canard. Let’s look to health and warning labels. Mandated by governments, these serve a distinct purpose: they inform consumers about the dangers of consumption – or of overconsumption – of certain products. 

For instance, for alcohol, the industry has long implemented health warnings for pregnant women. This has been done voluntarily and in a self-regulating manner. Initiatives such as these demonstrate that private industry possesses an instinct towards corporate responsibility, and they should be encouraged to inform consumers on similar health challenges in a variety of ways. 

We believe that more can be done to allow consumers to seek information online. The marked increase in supermarket goers scanning food items, whether it is a bottle of wine or a box of rice, has shown there is a desire to be better informed and conscious about the things we consume. That’s a great development.

When it comes to regulation on this information, we should encourage an approach that avoids overburdening the administrative state with challenges it cannot overcome or solve.

Many legislative proposals on what information must be provided to consumers are laboriously updated and concocted and can have unintended consequences. For instance, while the food pyramid was once a standard model in school curricula for decades, it is now recognised to have been entirely inaccurate in its advocacy for a healthy diet. 

We see a similar problem with mandatory labelling suggestions such as the “Nutri-Score”, which lays out the nutritional value of a product, without necessarily promoting healthy products. The green-to-red scale of the Nutri-Score misleads consumers by signalling that highly nutritious food is automatically healthy food. The same goes for over-labelling. Consumers’ attention should be on the most important aspects and qualities of a product rather than an arbitrary score that simplifies nutritional science. An inflation of health and warning labels could diverge attention of consumers away from the key take-aways of health advice, and lead them to ignore them all together.

When it comes to labelling, public health advocates insist that a plethora of studies prove the effectiveness of specifically pictorial health warnings. But is this true? This assumes that the warning is already being looked at, which is not self-evident. Just as in the case of medicine, for a drug to be effective, it seems obvious that the patient will have to take it in the first place. Take the example of this 2018 study, which examined the amount of respondents who were actually aware of the warning labels for alcohol.

“Eye-tracking identified that 60% of participants looked at the current in-market alcohol warning label […]. The current study casts doubt on dominant practices (largely self-report), which have been used to evaluate alcohol warning labels. Awareness cannot be used to assess warning label effectiveness in isolation in cases where attention does not occur 100% of the time.”

These are people who purchased the product, and were actually not aware of what the warning label said or indicated. But how can that be? How is it possible that people ignore the warning label that has been specifically designed to catch their attention and change or modify their behaviour?

The WHO working document “Alcohol labelling A discussion document on policy options” portends the necessity of “good design” when it comes to warning labels.

“There are four message components that may be considered when developing an effective health label, each serving a different purpose: (i) signal word to attract attention; (ii) identification of the problem; (iii) explanation of the consequences if exposed to the problem; and (iv) instructions for avoiding the problem. The visual impact of the label can be enhanced by using large, bold print; high contrast; colour; borders; and pictorial symbols.”

But bad design alone cannot be the only explanation for decreased awareness among consumers. Take the example of safety instructions on aeroplanes. Frequent flyers know that after 2 flights a week or more, these warnings and indications about the location of life jackets become background noise. An inflation of warning labels can desensitise those who are meant to be aware of them, because of a lack of nuance. The messages “coffee can be bad for your health” and “smoking can be bad for your health” don’t frame a hierarchy of health hazards. In fact, put next to each other, both messages could imply that both are equally damaging and to be avoided. We know that’s not the case.

More than anything, we should not try to make health warnings trivial and overstated. If they become less meaningful to consumers, we run the risk that important health warnings will be ignored by the average consumer. As such, information provided to consumers should never be monopolised by governments alone. Rather, we should allow different brands and products to provide accurate information where necessary, for the consumers’ sake.

Originally published here.

There is an easy way to make medicine instantly cheaper

Exempting drugs from VAT is a great tool to give patients a break.

COVID-19 has heightened public awareness on the question of drug prices. After vaccine prices had been leaked to the public by Belgian minister Eva de Bleeker, questions arose on the costs associated with creating vaccines. This is essentially a similar debate when it comes to the prices of all drugs.

The question of how to reduce the cost of drugs has led some to make interventionist suggestions. Many blame the greed of the pharmaceutical industry for drug prices, when in reality the truth is much more complicated. To some, the question is about intellectual property rights. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is running a campaign on access to medicines that distorts the realities of the drug market, while calling for solutions that would undermine scientific innovation. The “Access to Essential Medicines Campaign” seeks to increase the availability of medicines in developing countries by tackling the issue of price and intellectual property rights. In the eyes of MSF, producers and researchers are getting rich on the backs of those who can least afford it.

In reality, drug prices are a result of many considerations: the development costs, the amount of patients able to receive it, intellectual property rights (though not in the sense that MSF would have you believe), and… taxes!

Informed patients will know that all but one European country charge VAT on over-the-counter (OTC) medicine and prescription medicine. Germany charges as much as 19% VAT on both types of medicines, while Denmark ranks the highest, with rates at 25% – that is a fifth of the total price for a drug! There is only one country that does not charge VAT on prescription or over-the-counter drugs: Malta. Luxembourg (3% each) and Spain (4% each) also show that modest VAT rates on drugs are not a crazy idea but something millions of Europeans already benefit from. Sweden and the UK both charge 0% VAT on prescription medicine, yet 25% and 20% respectively on OTC.

One of the significant roadblocks towards more patient access to drugs is the unfair tax policies of some EU member states. Before talking about eroding intellectual property rights and price setting across the block, we should discuss whether we should have a VAT on medicines.

Especially on prescription medicine, where cancer drugs can reach substantial price levels, VAT rates of up to 25% significantly burden patients and their health insurance. 

On prescription medicine, there is little sense in first charging value-added tax, and then have national health insurance providers pick up the tab. As for OTC medicine, the implication that just because it isn’t prescribed, it, therefore, isn’t an essential good, is a blindspot of policy-makers. Many OTC meds, ranging from drug headache pain relief, heartburn medicine, lip treatments, respiratory remedies, or dermatological creams are not only essential medicines for millions of Europeans; they often act as preventative care. The more we tax these goods, the more we are burdening MDs with non-essential visits.

Zero VAT on medicines is a question of fairness. Everyone is burdened with the costs of the COVID-19 lockdowns. While we have become one-sided in our analysis of which medical problems are important, we need to understand that other medical treatments are needed as we speak, and that they represent a burden on all patients.

It is time for European nations to agree on a binding Zero VAT agreement on medicine or at least a cap at 5%, which would reduce drug prices in the double digits, increase accessibility, and create a fairer Europe.

Originally published here.

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