Extreme COI: The Named Beer University Studying the Health Effects of Beer?

The Petrie-Flom Center recently co-hosted a conference with the Safra Center on Institutional Financial Conflicts of Interest in Research Universities (fCOI), exploring situations where universities get cozy with industry.  My friend, Jonathan Marks, is doing some really interesting work (see e.g., this) on conflicts of interest in the field of food-health research in particular.  And, Michael Sandel also has a new book out called, What Money Can’t Buy, wherein he covers everything from organ sales to stadium naming rights, lamenting the commodification and loss of truly public spaces. (For example, a certain university near me has given their stadium name to Wells Fargo, along with dozens of other universities that have done likewise.)

In that light, this HuffPo story caught my eye:  “Beer May Have Anti-Virus Properties, According To Study Funded By Sapporo Breweries.”  Not only is the study on Sapporo beer funded by Sapporo Breweries, but it was conducted at “Sapporo Medical University.”  That looks like extreme COI, almost as bad as this, one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, where the physician is actually wearing ads like a race-car driver.

Seriously, “Sapporo Medical University?”  Is this an instance of a company department simply calling itself a university, like McDonald’s Hamburger U?  Or, did the brewery actually buy the naming rights to the entire university?  Alas, the answer is no:  “Sapporo” is the name of a large city in Japan, where the public “Sapporo Medical University” is located.

Public Health Extremism

By Max Mehlman

In my new book from the Johns Hopkins University Press, Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering, I observe that the government might try to use its power to protect the public health to regulate human genetic engineering, but that given mistakes such as the eugenics sterilization programs of the early 20th century, we must be on guard against the overzealous use of this power.

 An example of the excessive use of public health powers, although not aimed specifically at the hazards of genetic engineering, can be found in an article in the November 8, 2012, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine by Harvard professors Michelle Mello and Glenn Cohen, in which they state that the Supreme Court’s upholding of the individual insurance mandate as a tax “has highlighted an opportunity for passing creative new public health laws.” They give an example of the laws that they have in mind: higher taxes on people whose body-mass index falls outside of the normal range, who do not produce an annual health improvement plan with their physician, who do not purchase gym memberships, who are diabetic but fail to control their glycated hemoglobin levels, and who do not declare that they were tobacco-free during the past year.

Some of these suggestions seem ineffectual. It’s hard to imagine what the public health benefit would be from rewarding people for making a health-improvement plan without having to follow it or for joining a gym without having to use it. As for making people swear against the use of the “pernicious weed,” aside from being unenforceable, it is too reminiscent of the loyalty oaths of the McCarthy era to be taken seriously.

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Reminder: Abstracts for Petrie-Flom Annual Conference Due 12/14/12

Another reminder: abstracts for the Petrie-Flom Center’s annual conference – this year entitled “The Food and Drug Administration in the 21st Century” – are due one week from today, no later than December 14, 2012.  This one and a half day event will take place Friday and Saturday, May 3-4, 2013, at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For further details, see the Call for Papers/Presentations.

Need Revenue? Taxes that Promote Health

The Congressional Budget Office just released a comprehensive new report investigating the budgetary effects of a hypothetical increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes and small cigars from, $1.01 to $1.51 in fiscal year 2013. The report’s level of sophistication is unprecedented in its ability to evaluate the effects this change could have. Given the federal budget’s current state of affairs, perhaps the most significant finding from the analysis is that increasing the excise tax on cigarettes could reduce federal budget deficits by a total of about $42 billion through 2021. The value of the health costs and lives saved goes without saying.

Of course, the same could be said for some other products that can be harmful to health.  Alcohol taxes also suppress consumption and reduce the harms associated with drinking, and thanks to inflation and the absence of indexing in state tax laws, they are generally now at real rates we had in the ’50s and ’60s. See Alex Wagenaar’s systematic review for more on the subject.

So, if a majority of Americans are seeing a need for revenue, why not raise it, in part, where the result will also include saved lives and saved health care costs?