Friday, 12 February 2016

Vape!

Here's Massey University's Marewa Glover on the case for unregulated e-cigs:
“Vaping is not a public health issue,” she told factasia. It should not attract precious funding away from very real threats to public health. Like many other products, electronic cigarettes and e-liquids are already covered by existing consumer laws. Because of the huge cost involved in assessing, consulting, lobbying and debating new regulations or laws, I oppose the call for regulation of electronic cigarettes, e-liquids and vaping. The money is needed elsewhere – it should not be wasted on this. I do not think it is even necessary to legislate for “safety and product quality”. Existing consumer protection laws should be sufficient.
Prof Glover acknowledged there are “vociferous groups who are opposed to vaping on ideological (not medical or scientific) grounds. They may be scientists and medical professionals, but they are also all ideologically driven to recreate society in their image and or in accordance with their decision about what ‘a better world’ will look like.”
She says vaping (use of electronic cigarettes) “should only receive any attention in terms of the potential for rapidly reducing tobacco smoking prevalence and consumption in New Zealand. No attention at all should be wasted on work effort to regulate, legislate or police vaping. Existing surveys can include questions to enable monitoring of the prevalence of vaping and inform review at a later time.”
Regulatory structures can be pretty fraught if you go beyond the standard Consumer Guarantees Act protections. They all sound nice, but can wind up being a mess.

Put in requirements that each product be approved and you'll kill off any innovation in creating new flavours as each would need a separate costly approval process. Let the public health ideologues lock them up behind prescriptions and you make it that much harder for real-world smokers to make the switch. And taxing them both discourages switching and complicates retail availability.

Watching the public health establishment's response to a massive technological change that promotes harm reduction but that doesn't run through channels where they can clip the ticket along the way, and that also lets people enjoy psychoactive and addictive substances without deleterious health consequences, has been interesting.

Maths shortages

So, a potted history. Or, I suppose, a hypothesis.

The government worried that there weren't enough students in sciences. And so they shifted a pile of tertiary funding into STEM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Disciplines that required numerate students but weren't STEM-funding-preferred suffered: economics, finance, and high school maths teaching.

And there's now a big shortage of potential maths teachers. Good experienced maths teachers are retiring and there isn't much of a cohort following behind them. Meanwhile, jobs for science grads can be hard to come by.

There was a decent-looking workaround. TeachFirst would hothouse university grads so they'd be able to jump into the classroom without a teaching degree so long as they had other degrees that would be useful.

The PPTA won a court case knocking them out: the implementation seemed to run against collective agreements. As of December, the government said there'd have to be a review of TeachFirst.

The government might wish to consider whether its STEM funding push has contributed to declining numbers of numerate Kiwi students considering careers in teaching, and consider hastening the review that would let science grads flip quickly into the classrooms where they are needed.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Industry Insights

The editor-in chief at Public Health Nutrition makes a backhanded case for including industry as referees on academic papers.

As recap: that journal accepted a paper last June titled "Ultra-processed foods have the worst nutrient profile, yet they are the most available packaged products in a sample of New Zealand supermarkets".

Katherine Rich, of the Food & Grocery Council, wrote a letter to the editors of the journal noting substantial methodological problems with the paper. Most importantly, the authors did not seem to understand how the Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criteria works. Breakfast cereals, for example, are poorly treated in the NPSC data: a cereal that is, say, 50% fibre would show up as being 4.7% fibre. Much of the content is then missing in that data. Rich demonstrates how this would bias their figures.

The published letter is far more in-depth than most referee reports I've seen. Rich goes beyond identifying a potential problem to show exactly how that problem biases the results presented. It is not common to have a journal referee replicate part of your work, fix it, and show you the consequences of what you've messed up.

The journal then contacted the Chief Public Health Nutrition Officer at Food Standards Australia New Zealand to check whether Rich were right. And the editorial on it all says:
The subsequent submission of a letter from Dr Mackerras, the Chief Public Health Nutrition Officer at Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), reiterated some of the same methodological concerns(15) and confirmed the value of addressing those concerns in detail.
The editorial notes that had Rich submitted her findings as a peer-reviewed article rather than as a letter, it likely would have "received closer scrutiny or been met with greater scepticism" than one received by an author without an obvious conflict of interest.

The editor goes on to try to justify one-sided scepticism, noting cases where industry has tried to skew things, and impugning Rich's character. But it seems a bit of an odd turn where Rich pointed out a problem that only an industry expert would have caught. Rather than thanking her for correcting errors, they highlight that Rich plays an advocacy role and criticise her for having published her critique on the FGC's website. Nowhere are the academics who wrote the paper criticised for not having checked into their data source.
As a side note, we were concerned that the methodological issues raised by Ms Rich and Ms Mackerras from FSANZ should have been caught during the review process and perhaps were missed because the findings confirmed what the reviewers hoped or expected. In this case, however, the comments raised by the three reviewers appeared to be quite balanced overall. The points raised by Ms Rich and Ms Mackerras were perhaps only obvious to people who were very familiar with and invested in the scoring system used in the paper. Our concern about ‘confirmation bias’ in the review process relates to the possible role of undisclosed, ideological interests – a second pitfall of disclosure statements.
I don't know how many times I've heard public health activists say that industry deserves no place at the table. But leaving them out systematically biases things. You mess things up when you deliberately leave out people who know things that you don't.

Imagine if journal editors considered including as referees industry folks who actually know what's going on in their area. The Editor always can ditch silly suggestions that come of it, and the industry referees would know that. But if an author's doing violence to the data in ways that only someone working with that data would know about, doesn't it make sense to, well, ask one of the industry people who works with that data?

I wonder how many in industry would take the time if asked.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

TPPA reversals

I think it's fair to say that Brian Easton sits to the left of the NZ economist punditsphere, and that Mike Reddell sits to the right of the same. I'm not using punditsphere in any derogatory sense here: they're both serious economists worth taking seriously; they also happen to put their views out there.

In the past couple days, they've both put out their views on the TPPA. Reddell winds up arguing generally against it, though without saying it shouldn't be signed, and Easton in favour, though not that enthusiastically. Both make nuanced arguments. Easton talks about the flow-on consequences of rejecting the deal at this point. Reddell talks about how the layers of bureaucracy to which we may well be signing up will do nothing to improve New Zealand's declining productivity, though he falls short of saying NZ should reject the thing from where we're at. He notes by email that he'd agree with Easton: from where we are, it should be signed. But he's not all that enthusiastic.

I'll remain a fence-sitter as it would take just too much work to come to a strong view on it. My confidence interval on whether the thing's worth signing spans low/mid positive and low negative figures, and it wouldn't be easy to tighten that up. If Congress decided not to pass it and the other partners could then clear out the worse parts on copyright, it wouldn't bother me that much - though the deal on copyright is far better than I'd thought it could have been.

Meanwhile, Stuff polls six celebrities for their views on the thing. Unsurprisingly, Lucy Lawless doesn't like it. News!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Copyright chats

My Tuesday night chat with Bryan Crump at RadioNZ's Nights covered copyright and the digital world. The content will be familiar to readers here, and to those who'd taken my Econ 224 course at Canterbury.

My notes for the chat are up at The Initiative's Sandpit blog. An excerpt:
Consider further what infinite copyright would look like. There was a great sci fi short story in the 80s called Melancholy Elephants. In that copyright dystopia, all works have to be run through a plagiarism engine to make sure nobody is copying any prior ideas. And they’re considering making the duration of copyright infinite.
In the Melancholy Elephants story, a senator’s backing a bill that would extend copyright to being infinitely lived. Our protagonist warns him that this would mean the end of the creative world: the regime checking all works against anything that had been created within the copyright period had already killed new creation, because everything builds on everything and just about nothing is entirely novel. Extending it to infinity would mean that nothing could be new and, worse, nobody rediscovering things anew would have that joy: they’d quickly be told that somebody else had had the idea 40 years ago and that maybe they’d heard a snippet of the tune when they were a kid. Never forgetting would mean never feeling the thrill of (re)discovery.
Now that short story is fiction from the early 80s. But the lawsuit by Larrikin Music from a few years ago was not. There, Larrikin had bought the rights to an old Aussie folk tune. Men at Work payed homage to that piece of Australiana in Land Down Under in an 11-note flute sequence. And they got sued, and lost. And, subsequently, the suicide of one of the band members was attributed in part to his dismay at having been thought a plagiarist.
We also covered copyright provisions in the TPPA.

Healthy subsidies

What happens when you give shoppers a discount on healthy foods? Not very much, according to a new field study by Cawley, Hanks, Just and Wansink.

Their mechanism was neat. Shoppers' purchases at a supermarket were tracked via loyalty card; participating households also received a debit card. Depending on the treatment group, they either got a 10% rebate on all food purchases or a 10% wedge between healthy and unhealthy foods that was either framed as a tax on unhealthy foods, a subsidy for healthy foods, or as both: in all of those treatments, the real effect was a 15% discount on healthy foods and a 5% discount on unhealthy foods. Groups were evaluated relative to their baseline readings before treatment began, during which they all received a 10% rebate on all purchases; they then can run difference-in-difference to get treatment effects.

What did they find? No significant effect on actual purchases, but a lot of perceived effects.
In the survey conducted after the treatment concluded, subjects were also asked whether or not participating in the study influenced their shopping. The unconditional means by group are reported in Table 12. Those in the treatment groups (all pooled) expressed greater agreement with the statements that they were buying more starred (nutritious) foods, more healthier foods, and a higher percentage of healthier foods, but the difference between the treatment and control groups is not statistically significant in any of those cases.
There are significant differences in the mean response to these questions by frame. Specifically, those in the tax/subsidy frame tend to express greater agreement that the study led them to buy more nutritious foods, buy healthier foods, and buy a higher percentage of healthier foods, relative to those in the subsidy frame. Notably, we did not see such a difference in our data in the actual expenditures and quantities purchased.  
Some of the lack of effect is due to low power in a sample of about 200.

But they did run a neat permutation analysis afterwards checking to see whether the effects they did find across the groups made sense: they re-ran everything over a thousand iterations in which each participant was randomly assigned to having been in a different treatment than the participant actually was in. And they there found that 70% or more of the random-draw assortment showed larger effects than the ones found in the main estimates that looked at the effects of the group the person was actually in.

What do the point estimates say in a low(ish) power study? Treatment groups spent $1.11 more on nutritious foods and $1.55 less on less nutritious foods per week. If you look solely at lower income households, they spent much more on both nutritious ($7.03 per week) and less nutritious ($7.11) foods: the income effect of the subsidy mattered. Households in the treatment group increased the share of expenditures on nutritious foods by about a percent. That effect was smaller among poorer households because they spent a lot more on both categories.

The biggest effect they find is when they split things out by treatment frame and by income category: low-income households told that the debit card provided them a subsidy for nutritious food substantially increased purchases of less nutritious food ($21.23 per week), with no statistically significant (but still a large point estimate) increase in purchases of nutritious food of $11.58 per week. We should be careful on this one though as low powered tests will only find large effects to be significant.

They conclude:
Taxes on energy-dense foods are arguably the most commonly-advocated anti-obesity policy. The results of this paper have several implications for such policies to promote more nutritious diets. First, taxes may need to be large to change behavior. In the U.S., taxes on soda pop and snacks average one to four percent (Chriqui et al., 2014), but we find no significant impact on expenditures or purchases from a 10 percent relative price change. Second, price changes may have different impacts by income; we find that subsidies for nutritious food may lead low-income households to buy more of all food, including more of the less nutritious food that the policy is attempting to discourage. 
...while giving the usual caveats about drawing inferences from studies that might not have sufficient power.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Co-morbidity and the irrationality stick

It irritates me when economists reach quickly for the irrationality stick when they see a behaviour that they wouldn't themselves choose and that they don't like.

Here's Frances Woolley's review of Phishing for Phools. She there takes on their argument that alcohol is more harmful than tobacco:
So it's not that hard to show alcohol is more harmful than tobacco. The trick is to focus on total harm, as opposed to harm per user, and on measures of morbidity, rather than mortality.
The belch in Akerlof and Shiller's argument is that they mostly ignore this evidence on disability, focussing instead on a radically different type of harm: "loss of affect" or "loss of capacity for intimacy". Alcohol, they argue, causes "subjective, hard-to-observe changes in personality", and leads to divorce and the break up of relationships.  The major piece of evidence backing up this position is the Harvard Grant Study, which tracked Harvard students from the classes of 1939 to 1944, and found that those abused alcohol at some point in their lives (23%) died young. Moreover, "alcohol wrecked their ability to relate to others."
Making any kind of statement about the psychological impacts of alcohol is hard, because so many people use alcohol to self-medicate. As Eric Crampton has argued here, alcohol abuse can be symptom of depression, anxiety, or other personality disorders, rather than a cause. Akerlof and Shiller argue that the alcoholics in the Harvard Grant study were, at the start of the study, "no different from their more sober peers" in terms of their personalities and family backgrounds. Instead, "alcoholism had changed their personalities." This reading of the evidence seems to seriously underrate the ability of present or future alcoholics, and their families, to lie and dissemble, and seriously overrate the assessment abilities of late-1930s social scientists. I can believe that alcohol use impacts people's personalities. But I find it hard to believe that, absent alcohol use, alcohol abusers would be just like anyone else.
I'd point to this post on alcohol and co-morbidity.

Co-morbidity is complicated and hard. Just comparing the life satisfaction survey figures, or other outcomes, between users and non-users is hardly sufficient: where some substance use is part of self-medication for prior illnesses, attributing the total difference between users and non-users to use is simply wrong. Could be that outcomes are better than you might have expected, if the self-medication works; could be that outcomes are worse. Either way you need to be looking at the marginal increment against the proper baseline rather than just comparing outcomes across users and non-users.

You might think this is just a problem for crappy cost-of-illness studies that nobody should ever take seriously anyway. But look at the psychiatric hospitals that went and banned smoking. Turns out now that smoking behaviours among schizophrenics is very plausibly self-medication. See also here.

People consume psychoactive substances for reasons. Assuming away those reasons and concluding people are irrational or phools...