Day: August 9, 2023

Split up Amazon, Prime and AWS? If Biden’s FTC breaks up Bezos’ company, consumers lose.

FTC and Lina Khan think consumers need to take one for the team when it comes to sacrificing their savings, in both time and money, that Amazon creates.

Lina Khan is not tired of losing. Fresh off her latest defeat in court in pursuit of antitrust enforcement against Microsoft, President Joe Biden’s Federal Trade Commission chair is reportedly ready to launch the fight of her career to break up Amazon.

Since Khan began work in 2021, the FTC has put Amazon on constant defense, but it has all been a prelude to her goal of forcing the company to split. 

To consumers, the entities of Amazon, Amazon Prime and Amazon Web Services are ubiquitous and synonymous. The overall business includes online retail, physical stores, subscription services, advertising services, cloud computing, logistics and third-party seller services. Each component supports and serves the others, resulting in incredible efficiency, lower operating costs and, in turn, steep price cuts for consumers. 

It’s no wonder that Amazon enjoys almost as high of public approval and trust asthe U.S. military, 72% favorable according to a 2021 Harvard-Harris poll. That’s a shocking statistic given the broader trend of institutional distrust in this era. 

Biden’s FTC thinks consumers need to take one for the team when it comes to sacrificing their savings, in both time and money, that Amazon creates.

Khan’s vision of what constitutes a monopoly is not what most people, or the law, recognize. Her antitrust framework, denounced by former Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, as “hipster antitrust,” considers predatory pricing, consumer rip-offs and a lack of competition as an old-fashioned way to think about antitrust.

It’s all well summarized in a 2018 profile in The Atlantic, where Lina Khan observes with disdain the lower avocado prices in an Amazon-owned Whole Foods. Consumers and their revealed preferences are the problem the FTC really seeks to solve in their coming attack on Amazon. 

Amazon has become a part of the American landscape

To most Americans, Amazon is no longer just a company; it’s part of the scenery where they reside. Amazon vans are in each neighborhood, and a box emblazoned with the Prime logo could be due on your own doorstep any minute now. This is what happens when you have 200 million consumers worldwide signed up for a service that makes their lives easier. 

Maybe you’re someone who resents the world that I’ve described; maybe you see Amazon’s omnipresence as dystopian. You’re entitled to that opinion, but fighting on those terms is not what the FTC was created to do.

The FTC of today is engaged in a war on “the curse of bigness,” a sentiment expressed by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1934, and it is true that Amazon’s business is very big.

Even if you’re not a loyal Amazon customer, though, we all know someone who has found work with the company, upgraded to a better TV at a better price on Prime Day, or used Amazon’s web services that power millions of websites for businesses worldwide. 

Khan’s lawyers at the FTC say Amazon “forces” merchants to use its distribution services and requires them to lower their prices to benefit from a coveted spot within the Amazon marketplace. They’ll have to prove it and prove that merchants have no other avenue by which to do business if not for Amazon’s terms. 

Some of Amazon’s practices may appear heavy-handed or self-preferential to regulators, but they don’t constitute anything remotely close to consumer harm, the rubric by which antitrust doctrine has been followed for a century. There are no cartels, no robber barons and no secret deals that raise prices for consumers. If anything, Amazon’s incentive system for vendors on its platform seems purposefully designed to deliver on founder Jeff Bezos’ self-described “obsession” with consumers. 

We’re all the winners here. Why can’t Khan and the FTC let it go? 

Federal Trade Commission should focus on Amazon’s real problems, not its popularity with consumers

Let’s give her agency some credit, however, as there are relevant and concerning issues that the FTC has addressed in cases where Amazon has been in the wrong.

Fake reviews pollute the online commerce platform and deceive consumers into buying things they wouldn’t otherwise buy. The FTC is taking worthwhile action there.

Ring, Amazon’s home security doorbell product, has supplied police departmentswith countless hours of neighborhood surveillance footage, raising important privacy concerns for consumers and unwitting neighbors. 

But rather than focusing solely on how consumers are harmed by specific bad practices, the FTC is overstepping its mandate. It’s part of a broader case against Amazon, with the goal of disassembling the company and its services so many of us enjoy. 

That’s because for Khan the FTC exists to fight “the curse of bigness,” and only sometimes will that overlap with consumer interest – as was the case with her failed bid to block Microsoft from acquiring Activision-Blizzard. 

American consumers deserve a free economy with robust competition, plentiful choices and services that add value to their lives.

If Khan and her fellow commissioners were mindful – rather than disdainful – of the choices that consumers willingly make, they’d focus on bad actors instead of such a trusted brand doing right by its customers. 

Originally published here

Russian propagandists are constantly reinventing reality

Propagandists have proven to be highly adept in constantly reinventing reality in autocratic countries, particularly Russia, where the fact that reality has constantly debunked the Kremlin’s claims could not wholly shake Russian confidence in its war on Ukraine.

“Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially, the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia”, wrote George Orwell in his novel 1984.

This was meant to symbolise a fictional world where those in power are highly successful in engineering their own reality, even when substantial changes occur that would normally be expected to shake the population’s trust in their own propagandists.

Unfortunately, real life has proved to be surprisingly similar to Orwell’s fictional world, as Russian propagandists have been trying to explain events on the battlefield in Ukraine.

On February 26, 2022, two days after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, a (now removed) text on the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti declared Russian victory, praising the Kremlin for restoring Russian unity and ending Ukraine’s existence as an “anti-Russia”.

However, total Russian victory soon became impossible, so there had to be a pivot to a new narrative. After all, based on Russian propaganda, the people at home should have been expecting their soldiers to come home soon.

So, an old narrative about NATO provoking war with Russia via its Ukrainian “subject” was refurbished. It was, in fact, NATO and its support for Kyiv that was leading to “military escalation”. In April 2022, RT head Margarita Simonyan, a key pillar of Russian propaganda, declared on Russian state TV that the country was “waging war against NATO”.

Managing expectations

The situation worsened for Russia when Ukraine launched a highly successful counter-offensive in the autumn of 2022, regaining significant lost ground. Propagandists were confused, blaming security services, Kremlin advisers, and the lack of general mobilisation. They, however, quickly returned to their previous claims about Russia being at war with NATO rather than Ukraine. “Brussels” was accused of prolonging suffering by supporting Ukraine and the West. Some claimed the war was lasting longer than expected because Russia “greatly cares about civilians”.

Elsewhere, actors who claim to support peace—such as Hungary’s government—claim that Ukraine has done “what it possibly could” on the battlefield; it could not advance. It stopped being sovereignbecause it could only function off Western money, so it should return to the negotiating table.

As such, expectations have been constantly redrawn by Russian or pro-Russian propagandists regarding the war. From a three-day battle, the expectations were changed because of an alleged fight with NATO or because Russia was “taking care of civilians”. Setbacks were explained by Russia not putting everything it had into the fight.

As of June 2023, the majority of Russians (73 per cent) support the actions of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine, according to a poll by Levada, and 54 per cent said the “special military operation” was progressing successfully.

However, only 40 per cent supported continuing military actions—down from 48 per cent in May. Even if we consider measuring public opinion in Russia extremely challenging, data suggest that the complete failure of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine still appears to be a success to most Russians, even though many want an end to the war.

Hearts and minds

It must be noted that the West is currently in an information war with the Kremlin for the hearts and minds of the people, especially Western populations; support for governments aiding Ukraine is not collapsing.

The Kremlin meanwhile is playing a long game, waiting for the exhaustion of the West and its abandonment of Ukraine. This war is deeply asymmetric. The West has barely any access to Russia’s information space, while Russia can (mostly) freely broadcast its messages in Europe and North America by circumventing sanctions or via intermediaries.

Additionally, populations of authoritarian regimes might be more resilient to war exhaustion due to their restrictive information environments.

Overall, the West needs to invest more into improving the resilience of its populations, not via repression but—instead—education, media literacy, and proper strategic communications by governments.

This is, of course, going to take longer than it took for the Kremlin to turn Russia into an autocracy. Investment in these strategic actions must start flowing right now.

Originally published here

The 1983 Video Game Crash and a History Lesson for Lina KhanCoke won’t give you cancer

The youngest chair in FTC history should familiarize herself with how the video game industry has survived and thrived since its inception instead of blocking mergers that would benefit consumers.

The video game industry is getting a lot of attention lately thanks to both exciting tech advancements and unprecedented interference by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The sector has witnessed substantial growth in recent years, which is why antitrust concerns are being raised by Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair, Lina Khan. It can often feel like ancient history, but video gaming’s future hasn’t always been so bright in the U.S. In fact, it was almost “game over” for the business at the start of the 1980s.

The 1983 Video Game Crash, as it is known today by industry insiders, left the market for video games with no clear path to recovery. A primary culprit for the industry’s downfall was third party publishers, who were flooding the market with subpar products. Up until this time, Activision was a primary provider of video games, and with interest in gaming growing fast, other opportunistic firms sought to get in on the action by offering lower-priced, lower-quality games to consumers.

Parents would scoop up a handful of these off-brand games for the price of one Activision video game, assuming that their kids would be thrilled. They quickly learn this was not the case.

User reviews didn’t exist at this time and since parents weren’t consulting other children for feedback on the games being sold, it was hard to be clued in on what was worth buying.

Trust in the gaming market dropped, and increasingly risk-averse consumers were hesitant to buy the top-shelf games for fear of being duped again.

It wasn’t until Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985 that interest in gaming rebounded. Super Mario Bros, along with other addictive games like Tetris, Atari’s Gauntlet, and Sega’s OutRun, restored interest and faith in gaming products. Since then, the industry has grown at an impressive rate.

Access and options for gamers have dramatically improved thanks to techinnovations in mobile gaming, as well as the surge of engagement duringthe COVID-19 lockdowns. Consumers were particularly eager for novel in-home entertainment, and multiplayer as well as online-based gaming allowed them to connect and create affinity networks like never before. And though the pandemic was a nightmare for millions of Americans, gaming has been credited as “a positive force in the field of mental health.”

Today gaming is big business, on track to be worth $321 billion by 2026, which is why Lina Khan and the FTC have their sights set on the sector. Since her appointment as FTC Chair by President Joe Biden, Khan has made clear her negative view of corporate growth, which is unfortunate, given that US gaming firms have yet to catch up with the likes of Japan’s Sony Interactive Entertainment Studios.

The Japanese juggernaut’s long march toward market dominancesolidified in 2020 when Sony released the Playstation 5 (PS5), which quicklybecame the global favorite for next-generation gaming consoles.

In response, Microsoft’s US-based Xbox Games Studios went on defense,announcing its plan to purchase Activision-Blizzard in January 2022. The merger brought Guitar Hero, World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Diablo, and Candy Crush Saga all under one roof. Microsoft’s interest, therefore, is unsurprising, but this mutually beneficial business transaction between Microsoft and Activision-Blizzard was enough to draw the attention and legal might of Lina Khan’s FTC.

Instead of allowing Microsoft to improve its competitive stance against Sony, the FTC sought to block the merger. The legal battle turned out to be a huge waste of time and resources at taxpayers expense. What is particularly puzzling is the fact that other jurisdictions around the world were already greenlighting the deal, and yet our own government opposed an American firm’s advancement against a foreign entity with 70 percent market share.

Fortunately for Microsoft, Khan’s claims against the merger carried little weight in court. Unfortunately for Khan, her failed filing has led many to call into question her understanding of business and antitrust law. For instance, the FTC asserted that the merger could result in Microsoft restricting Activision-Blizzard games only to Xbox consoles, an unconvincing claim given Microsoft’s standing commitment to maintain the distribution status quo with Sony.

The hypocrisy was clear to gamers watching the case play out in court, who are most all aware that Sony’s popular title, The Last of Us, is only available on PlayStation consoles. And who is to say there is anything wrong with exclusivity in the first place?

The role of the FTC is to ensure consumer welfare in the marketplace, and right now it seems Khan is willfully overstepping her authority. It’s unclear who exactly she thinks the FTC is protecting in slowing down Microsoft. The FTC’s interference is delaying opportunities for gamers and developers at a time when creativity for gaming content is really taking off. Although the 2020 lockdowns surged interest in gaming users, the ability for developers to collaborate and curate new games has been hampered by remote work and other hardships brought on by the pandemic.

If we have learned any lessons from the Video Game Crash of 1983, it should be that improvements in gaming access and quality should be encouraged, not derailed. Today’s gamers have high expectations for new and innovative experiences, and FTC interference only gets in the way of content development and distribution.

Though the great gaming crash occurred just before Lina Khan was born, the FTC’s youngest chair in its history should familiarize herself with how this industry has survived and thrived since its inception. Gamers call the shots, and like other consumers, they’re the most powerful source of accountability for an industry supported by their hard-earned dollars.

The FTC stepped far outside its lane at the expense of taxpayers, and one can only hope that a lesson was learned.

Originally published here


La compagnie aérienne a interpellé la Commission européenne pour que les contrôleurs aériens français suivent les mêmes règles que leurs collègues d’ailleurs en Europe.

La compagnie aérienne à bas prix RyanAir a récemment présenté à la Commission européenne une pétition de plus d’un million de signatures, dans laquelle elle plaide pour un traitement équitable par le contrôle aérien français.

Au début de l’année, les contrôleurs aériens français ont été en grève pendant une longue période, multipliant par 10 le nombre total de jours de grève de l’année précédente. Instinctivement, on pourrait penser qu’une grève des contrôleurs aériens affecte tous les vols de la même manière, mais ce n’est pas le cas.

Une forme de protectionnisme

Alors que de nombreux vols traversant l’espace aérien français doivent être annulés, les règles protégeant le service minimum des compagnies aériennes au départ de la France permettent à ces opérateurs de décoller et d’atterrir. Ainsi, alors que la compagnie irlandaise a dû annuler 4 000 vols, Air France et ses filiales sont beaucoup moins touchées.

Dans un communiqué de presse, le directeur général de RyanAir, Michael O’Leary, présentait ses arguments :

« A peine 10 semaines après le lancement de notre pétition […], nous avons remis plus de 1,1 million de signatures de citoyens européens fatigués appelant la Commission européenne d’Ursula von der Leyen à protéger les survols lors des grèves répétées de l’ATC. 

Il est inacceptable que des grèves ATC puissent entraîner l’annulation de milliers de vols de passagers européens, alors que la France et d’autres Etats membres de l’UE utilisent des lois sur le service minimum pour protéger leurs vols intérieurs. Les passagers européens en ont assez de subir des annulations de survol inutiles pendant les grèves de l’ATC. 

La Commission européenne doit maintenant donner suite à la pétition de plus de 1,1 million de citoyens européens et insister pour que tous les Etats protègent les survols pendant les grèves nationales de l’ATC, comme cela se fait déjà en Grèce, en Italie et en Espagne. »

Le fait que RyanAir se soit tournée à la fois vers la Commission européenne et vers sa propre clientèle est un signe fort que, d’une part, ils s’alignent sur les intérêts des consommateurs, en particulier pendant la période des fêtes, et que, d’autre part, l’approche française consistant à prévoir des exceptions spécifiques pour ses propres industries s’apparente à du protectionnisme.

Un problème européen

Outre l’argument de la discrimination spécifique du marché, la législation française sur le service minimum pourrait devenir la cible de Bruxelles pour la simple raison pratique que la France est trop centrale et trop grande. Voler du Portugal vers l’Allemagne sans traverser l’espace aérien français ajoute des heures de vol à l’horloge. Cela signifie : plus de kérosène, plus d’heures de travail pour le personnel, et aussi des litiges potentiels avec les consommateurs qui ont réservé un temps de vol plus court au départ.

Certains sénateurs se sont efforcés de résoudre ce problème en proposant d’aligner les règles de grève des contrôleurs aériens sur celles de toutes les autres juridictions européennes, notamment en prévoyant qu’ils devront notifier leur participation à une grève 48 heures à l’avance. Cette mesure aiderait les aéroports à atténuer les perturbations. Actuellement, les aéroports ne savent pas combien de contrôleurs aériens vont se mettre en grève et annulent souvent plus de vols que nécessaire – environ 30%, en moyenne, chaque jour de grève.

« Quelque 12 Mds€ ont été perdus à cause des blocages », « la France [étant] à l’origine de 97% de perturbations aériennes au sein de l’Union européenne », affirme le sénateur Vincent Capo-Canellas, qui a déposé cette proposition de loi. Avec 97%, il ne s’agit pas seulement d’un problème interne que la France doit résoudre, mais d’un problème européen. Il est inadmissible que les passagers européens soient pris en otage par la suffisance de contrôleurs aériens qui n’ont même pas la décence d’annoncer leur intention de grève.

Existe-t-il un scénario justifié dans lequel les travailleurs peuvent revendiquer de meilleures conditions dans le cadre de la loi ? Certainement. Cependant, leur profession doit également s’accompagner d’un certain ensemble d’éthique, de compréhension et d’utilité, raison pour laquelle beaucoup d’entre eux l’ont choisie en premier lieu. C’est pourquoi le législateur français devrait durcir les règles relatives aux conditions des préavis.

La Commission européenne devrait également protéger des conditions de marché équitables au sein de l’Union européenne en n’établissant pas de discrimination entre les opérateurs. Manifestement, le système français ne discrimine pas per se RyanAir parce qu’il s’agit d’une compagnie étrangère, puisque les vols des compagnies étrangères au départ de la France sont aussi peu affectés que ceux d’Air France.

Cependant, les compagnies aériennes françaises bénéficient d’un avantage comparatif : au lieu d’effectuer le vol Amsterdam-Madrid en passant par la France – un vol qui risque d’être annulé en cas de grève des contrôleurs aériens – les passagers peuvent choisir de prendre une correspondance dans un aéroport français avec une compagnie aérienne française pour éviter les tracas. C’est pourquoi la Commission devrait exiger des conditions de concurrence équitables pour le service minimum.

Originally published here

Viktor Orban is not the conservative you are looking for

In one of his most recent Friday morning radio interviews, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban claimedthat “big food chains and multinational companies are behaving like price speculators; they are raising prices even in circumstances when there is no basis for doing so.” 

His government has set price caps on various food products, including chicken breasts, and while that policy is being phased out in exchange for a new regime of government-mandated discounts in grocery stores, one must wonder how Orban became a North Star to so many American conservatives. His price control policies and insinuations that the price of an egg is driven by corporate greed more than market conditions puts Orban closer to American leftists such as Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren than the Republican Party where his fandom resides.

But not even the open socialists of the Democratic Party would follow Orban’s model — because Hungarian anti-inflation policies have been so ineffective that prices are rising more sharply in Hungary than in any other European Union member state.

Such anti-business policies are eerily similar to those advocated by Hungary’s communist-era overlords. In the early 1950s, Hungary’s National Price Office only revised mandated prices three times between 1952 and 1956. It was in 1957 that NPO head Bela Csikos-Nagy reacted to so-called covert price hikes by small businesses that had gained some room to maneuver after the revolution of 1956, warning in an interviewwith Nepakarat that “if we find during a future analysis that the company gets illegal profits from incorrectly setting prices, we will act not only to take away their profits but to cut prices as well.”

Hungary’s first communist leader, Matyas Rakosi, frequently used the word “speculation” in his economic speeches. In 1947, Rakosi told miners in the city of Pecs that the prices of industrial products were rising while wages and expenses were not. “What rose was speculation and illegal work,” he concluded. In the same year, he promised the Communist Party would engage in a “forceful fight” against “speculation and those driving prices up.”

Any casual observer of American politics would pick up on the link between this rhetoric from communist-era Hungary and America’s contemporary left wing. Prices are framed as conspiracies against the consumer, never a result of government mismanagement of the economy. If not for Orban’s right-wing social agenda, Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Jamaal Bowman would be proud.

Rather than acting as the “conservative icon” Orban is sometimes claimed to be, the prime minister is appealing to the remnants of communist Hungary by casting himself as the bulwark between everyday Hungarians and corrupt corporations. Orban and his officials speak regularly of so-called extra profits and levying windfall taxes on these apparently ill-gotten gains.

Of course, the Hungarian government does not articulate what it considers to be an acceptable level of profit, much like Sanders in the United States doesn’t have to define the “fair share” he so often demands of America’s wealthy. Orban can claim at any time that a firm is earning too much in profits and tax them away, including those of American companies operating in Hungary. What American investor or company would want to do business in Hungary under that cloud of vindictiveness and uncertainty?

Anti-capitalist narratives rippling across time from the days of the Soviet Union are not something that Republicans should accept. Hungarians shouldn’t either, as the country is ranked 77th out of 180 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. According to its Global Corruption Barometer, 40% of those surveyed said they believed corruption in Hungary had increased in the last 12 months. Corruption can take many forms, one of which is an arbitrary system such as Hungary’s, where businesses can only succeed when they hold the favor of the government.

The Tucker Carlsons of the world may be enamored with Orban’s ability to articulate a common good with a nationalist spin, but it’s hard to believe the reality of Hungary is what Carlson wants.

The myth of Orban as a conservative icon is just that: a myth. Orban is neither a conservative nor a limited-government advocate but merely another politician in a long sequence of Hungarian leaders who exploit resentment to keep themselves in power. And with power, Orban’s regime can continue to grant billions in state and EU funds to government-friendly oligarchs. It’s understandable that conservatives wish to find a model in the international community by which to explain Trumpism and fit it into the conservative ecosystem of ideas, but Orban is not it — or at least he shouldn’t be.

Originally published here

Government Interference in Energy, Gaming Is Harming PA

Small businesses throughout Pennsylvania have faced many hardships over the past few years, ranging from supply-chain bottlenecks to overbearing bureaucratic mandates. And the toll has not gone unnoticed, as evidenced by President Joe Biden’s visit to the state shortly after taking office. 

During his March 2021 visit, President Biden noted that some 400,000 businesses in the state were facing closure. His policies, however, have not helped: the administration’s 2023 budget proposal does little to alleviate burdens for Pennsylvania business owners. 

In fact, the Biden administration has called for increasing taxes on residents and businesses even though Pennsylvanians already pay one of the nation’s highest tax ratesHigher gasoline prices are also likely, given that Biden is pushing new energy regulations that will inhibit alternative energy supply. Gas prices in Pennsylvania are already among the highest in the U.S., and state residents’ home heating billshit record highs at the end of last year.

All of this explains why the state’s natural gas reserves should be leveraged. A recent Wall Street Journal article credits natural gas for keeping energy bills manageable during this hot summer; and for Pennsylvania residents, natural gas is beneficial not only for lowering energy costs but also for driving economic growth. Pennsylvania’s total natural gas storage capacity is the fourth-largest in the nation, at about 763 billion cubic feet, and fracking generates substantial economic spillover effects, providing jobs and investment opportunities.

In addition to infringing upon energy supply, the Biden administration is also interfering with private business deals – most recently within the gaming sector, another important industry for Pennsylvania. 

Recently, Biden’s Federal Trade Commission chair, Lina Kahn, sought to block Microsoft’s acquisition of game developer Activision-Blizzard. Fortunately, the FTC’s case fell short in court, and Microsoft’s Xbox users can look forward to better options when subscribing to its Game Pass plans.

The Microsoft-Activision deal improves gaming choices for consumers and also helps elevate Microsoft’s status in the global gaming market. Tencent, headquartered in China, and Sony, based in Japan, presently dominate the gaming realm.

Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision-Blizzard is an important step for Pennsylvania’s economy since, according to Fortune magazine, Pennsylvania is one of the top 10 states for video-game development. The state’s gaming sector is thought to be worth over $80 million locally. It is alarming that Khan and the Biden administration sought to stifle America’s competitiveness in this sector, especially when international jurisdictions greenlighted the transaction. When the EU is a better champion for an American firm’s aspirations than our own federal government, something is clearly amiss.

Thanks in part to such restrictive economic policies, Pennsylvania now ranks 44 out of 50 in business environment for economic growth. And, according to the 2023 State Business Tax Climate Index, the state ranks 42 out of 50 for corporate taxes and 33 out of 50 for tax rates overall. Heading into the 2024 presidential election, the Biden administration should recognize Pennsylvania’s political importance and ease regulatory restrictions to allow the state’s residents to prosper.

Originally published here

The Big Artificial Sweetener Debate

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classifiedaspartame as “possibly carcinogenic.” This has sparked a debate over artificial sweeteners’ use, importance and safety.

Consumers need to know that this classification comes with a set of addendums. The agency is not a food-safety agency, meaning it merely looks at agents in themselves, not the amount regular consumers will take in. 

In the case of aspartame, a person weighing 130 pounds would need to drink between 12 and 36 cans of Diet Coke each day for an extended period for the sweetener to constitute a risk. That is way beyond most consumers’ regular consumption level, and it relativizes the perceived risk when reading the headline that “aspartame is possibly carcinogen.” The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives released a reporton the same day stating that within the recommended daily limit, the additive remains safe.

The statements appear contradictory for those who don’t follow the different functions of these health bodies, and they are likely to confuse consumers. Arguably, a lot of nutritional research has a tendency to do that.

In fact, artificial sweeteners have long been surrounded by a set of myths, one of which is that drinking diet soda makes you put on weight. There is a set of research that outlines that some artificial sweeteners may increase your appetite. While more research is needed on the issue, a striking fact in this conversation is that sweeteners are harm-reducing substitutes for the actual problem: sugar. Sugar is directly linked with a long list of dietary concerns, while artificial sweeteners reduce the amount of sugar intake of consumers in a responsible way.

It appears that to some, the discussion on artificial sweeteners is so much about harm reduction or the benefits of sweeteners — as in the case of aspartame for the sweet drink consumption of diabetics — but rather about a larger plan of abstinence altogether. 

In a 2019 piece for the Washington Post, columnist Tamar Haspel writes: “People don’t want to drink water. They want to drink soda. But the attitude in the nutrition community isn’t just that you shouldn’t drink soda — regular or diet — it’s that you shouldn’t even want to drink soda. It’s puritanical, holier-than-thou and breathtakingly condescending.” 

Haspel lays out in her piece that a lot of the pushback on artificial sweeteners and their alleged effect on gut microbiome is approximative at best and relies on a general distrust toward harm-reducing sweeteners.

Instead of pursuing the impossible task of making humans reject the lust for things that taste sweet, we should rather embrace sweeteners for the benefits that they are. Aspartame has prevented countless health problems as a sugar substitute. That in itself is worth celebrating.

Similar to aspartame, but more known for its use in sugar-free gum, is xylitol. This artificial sweetener is commonly used in sugar-free gum, associated with a list of health benefits ranging from improved memory retention to increased focus. When American researchers went to Malawi and analyzed the effects of chewing xylitol-containing sugar-free gum in 10,000 pregnant women, they found that those women who chew gum were 25 percent less likely to experience preterm births.

Interestingly, a food additive with similar advantages to aspartame and xylitol is stevia, which was previously approved by the FDA in the 1980s, only to be reintroduced as a safe sweetener in the 1990s. Stevia was initially believed to cause cancer, yet further studies dispelled those concerns. An animal study later found stevia to reduce the effect of diabetes and protect the kidneys. Unsurprisingly, stevia also faces less pushback because its sweet components are naturally occurring.

The debate on artificial sweeteners often misses the mark and loses sight of their actual purpose: reducing sugar consumption where it does the most damage.

Originally published here


La classification de certaines substances comme plus ou moins dangereuses montre de graves lacunes dans la communication aux consommateurs des réalités scientifiques.

Le Centre international de recherche sur le cancer (CIRC), un organisme associé à l’Organisation mondiale de la santé (OMS), a récemment annoncé qu’il classerait l’édulcorant artificiel aspartame comme « possiblement cancérogène ». L’agence n’a pas encore révélé l’ensemble des données sur lesquelles repose cette décision, mais quelle que soit la teneur de la publication à venir, l’annonce inquiète déjà de nombreux consommateurs quant à leur consommation de substituts du sucre.

En réalité, l’aspartame peut être consommé sans danger. La nouvelle classification de l’OMS en dit plus sur les lacunes de la stratégie de communication des risques de l’agence que sur l’aspartame.

Peut-être, ou probablement ?

Le CIRC classe ce qu’il appelle les « agents » en quatre catégories de cancérogènes.

Le groupe 1 comprend les agents pour lesquels il existe des preuves solides d’un lien avec le cancer – les radiations, par exemple, ou l’opium et le tabac. A l’inverse, les agents du groupe 3 sont ceux qui sont « inclassables quant à [leur] cancérogénicité pour l’homme ». Au grand soulagement de nombreux lecteurs, la caféine est un agent du groupe 3.

Mais deux groupes existent au milieu. Le groupe 2A comprend les agents « probablement cancérogènes », ce qui indique un risque plus élevé que le groupe 2B, qui énumère les agents « peut-être cancérogènes » – ce qui est le cas de l’aspartame.

Pour déterminer si un agent est cancérogène ou non, le CIRC procède à une évaluation basée sur la danger (« hazard », en anglais), c’est-à-dire qu’il examine le potentiel de nocivité d’un agent, et non la probabilité qu’il le soit effectivement. Mais le CIRC n’est pas une agence de sécurité alimentaire et ses conclusions ne disent rien sur la question de savoir si une consommation raisonnable constituerait un risque pour les consommateurs.

Dans le cas de l’aspartame, une personne pesant 60 kg devrait boire entre 12 et 36 canettes par jour de soda édulcoré à l’aspartame pour augmenter son risque potentiel de cancer au-delà des niveaux de base. C’est pourquoi l’utilisation de l’aspartame est autorisée au Canada et dans de nombreuses autres juridictions depuis plus de 40 ans.

Bien que l’on ne sache pas exactement quelle est l’ampleur de l’augmentation à partir d’une consommation de 12 à 36 canettes, elle est probablement inférieure à un centième de pourcent, en termes absolus. En dessous de ce seuil de consommation, les consommateurs ne courent aucun risque.

L’abus de « … » est mauvais pour la santé

Les consommateurs doivent comprendre que les responsabilités du CIRC sont très différentes de celles du Comité mixte FAO/OMS d’experts des additifs alimentaires (JECFA) et que ce dernier utilise des méthodes tout à fait différentes. Le JECFA n’a jamais trouvé l’aspartame cancérogène, alors que le CIRC, dans la longue liste de produits qu’il a évalués, trouve presque toujours des agents potentiellement cancérogènes – parce qu’il ne tient pas compte de la quantité absorbée par un consommateur raisonnable.

Pour que l’aspartame soit inclus dans la catégorie 2B (c’est-à-dire « peut-être cancérogène »), il suffit qu’une seule des caractéristiques suivantes soit remplie : « des preuves limitées de cancérogénicité chez l’homme, ou des preuves suffisantes de cancérogénicité chez l’animal de laboratoire, ou des preuves mécanistes solides, montrant que l’agent présente des caractéristiques clés de cancérogènes pour l’homme ». L’expression « preuves limitées » signifie que l’agence n’a pas besoin d’établir une relation linéaire entre l’agent et l’apparition d’un cancer, comme elle le fait pour le groupe 1. Le « peut-être » dans « peut-être cancérogène » a donc un rôle important à jouer.

Le problème des classifications du CIRC est qu’en fin de compte, elles ne donnent aux consommateurs que des informations très limitées. Si l’on retire de l’équation les niveaux d’exposition, c’est-à-dire la dose, presque tout peut devenir nocif.

Le soleil est nocif par une chaude journée d’été, mais la plupart des consommateurs limitent leur exposition en appliquant un écran solaire ou en se mettant à l’ombre. S’il existe des cas où le soleil peut être considéré comme cancérogène, ce ne serait pas une bonne communication sur les risques que de les étiqueter comme un agent cancérogène, et donc comme quelque chose à éviter à tout prix – pas sans alerter les consommateurs sur le fait qu’il y a une quantité saine de soleil qu’ils devraient se sentir à l’aise d’avoir.

Les dangers du sucre

Tout comme une quantité excessive de soleil peut provoquer un cancer, une quantité excessive d’aspartame peut théoriquement en provoquer un aussi. Toutefois, la plupart des consommateurs ne s’exposent pas au soleil à un niveau cancérogène et ne boivent pas 10 litres de boissons gazeuses sans sucre par jour.

L’aspartame et d’autres additifs alimentaires similaires nous ont aidés à nous éloigner d’un additif que nous devrions probablement consommer avec plus de précaution : le sucre. La surconsommation de sucre peut entraîner des problèmes de santé importants, notamment l’obésité et le diabète. Faire peur aux gens en brouillant les réalités de la perception des risques des édulcorants artificiels risque de les pousser à se rabattre sur des boissons sucrées qui sont en fin de compte pires pour eux.

La classification de l’aspartame comme cancérogène possible ouvre également la voie à un fléau tout à fait différent : les avocats spécialisés dans la responsabilité civile. Aux Etats-Unis en particulier, les évaluations du CIRC fondées sur les risques ont favorisé les actions collectives qui, dans le cadre de procès devant jury, ont permis de soutirer des millions de dollars aux fabricants de produits sûrs. Cela permet peut-être à certains avocats de s’offrir des jolis appartements à New York, mais ne contribue guère à faire progresser la santé publique.

Le cancer est un problème majeur dans notre société et il convient de redoubler d’efforts pour persuader les consommateurs de modifier les comportements qui augmentent le risque de cancer. Cela dit, les décisions consultatives telles que l’avertissement sur l’aspartame ne rendent pas service au débat sur la santé publique en faussant la perception des risques et en alimentant les conspirations sur l’empoisonnement des consommateurs par l’industrie alimentaire mondiale.

Originally published here

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