Sunday, November 28, 2010

How to Have a Happy Holiday

Now that Thanksgiving is past, the holidays are bearing down like a freight train. This is an expensive time of year, and I always wonder how to enjoy the holidays in a way that is both meaningful and affordable.

I like to flip through the catalogs that are arriving by the pound, but I don't really want much that they have to offer. I enjoy the holiday experiences, not the things: family traditions, get-togethers with friends. I was not surprised to run across a WebMD article that backed me up on this.

"In one recent study," wrote WebMD's Katherine Kam, "Cornell University researchers found that purchasing an experience tended to improve well-being more than buying a possession, in part because people are more prone to comparisons and buyer's remorse with material goods" ("Money and happiness: 5 ways your spending style matters"). Memories of positive experiences linger, while things tend to break or wear out over time, wrote Kam.

What else makes people happy? Smaller, more frequent purchases create more happiness than less frequent, expensive purchases, Kam wrote. Buying things for others also makes people happier than buying things for themselves.

So yes, that's me, standing at the skating rink drinking a hot chocolate, or crouched down in a bitter December wind with the kids, looking for hermit crabs and sea anemomes at a local tidepool. I'm just looking for a better balance this holiday season, and hoping to pass it on to the kids: less stuff, more life.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What Spiked Energy Drinks Say About Us

Canned drinks that contain both alcohol and caffeine have been wreaking havoc among young adults over the past year. These beverages, such as Four Loko and Joose, are a health threat because "caffeine masks the effects of alcohol... tricking users into believing they can keep drinking well past the point of drunkenness," wrote Abby Goodnough and Dan Frosch in a recent New York Times article on the drinks ("F.D.A. Expected to Act on Alcoholic Energy Drinks"). The beverages are popular among young adults because they are inexpensive and they come in energy-drink flavors such as lemon-lime, fruit punch, and watermelon.

This week, the FDA sent warning letters to the manufacturers of these "caffeinated alcoholic beverages", stating that the Agency might seize their products as illegal substances if the manufacturers do not change their formulas. The health consequences from consuming these beverages can include alcohol poisoning, car crashes, and even heart attacks in young drinkers.

A Washington Post article about these beverages pointed out that the young adults who consume them sometimes document their drunken exploits on sites such as ("FDA, FTC crack down on caffeinated alcoholic drinks"). The stories there, if they are true, show a wide range of dangerous behavior, including drunk driving and fist fights, and often include the phrase "the last thing I remember...." 

In response, Four Loko manufacturer Phusion Products LLC has (begrudgingly) agreed to remove caffeine from its products. But some manufacturers and many young adults who consume these beverages find the FDA warnings intrusive. "It's time the FDA started treating consumers old enough to purchase alcoholic beverages as adults," Gregory Conko told the Washington Post . Conko represents the libertarian think tank The Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Which raises the question: what makes someone a mature adult? Is it simply being old enough to buy alcohol in a store, at age 21, and hopefully consume it responsibly? Being old enough to vote and join the military, at age 18? Graduating from college? Getting married? Starting a career? Buying a house?

With the start of mature adulthood unclear, it's also unclear how to treat young adults who might, or might not yet be, mature. I would like to trust young adults to avoid or limit the use of dangerous products such as Joose. But I also would like to see these beverages, which clearly target young adults, banned so that they aren't tempted by the wrong choice, while we continue to figure out what it means, exactly, to be a grown-up in this society.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

New Cigarette Warnings Don't Solve the Problem

The new, graphic anti-smoking warnings proposed by the FDA should be chosen by the middle of next year, and run on cigarette packets by the end of 2012. The warning images do give you pause, such as the picture of the very ill woman in  "Warning: Cigarettes Causer Cancer" and the man smoking through his tracheotomy in  "Warning: Cigarettes Are Addictive."

The new warnings might indeed further drive down smoking rates in the United States. Tobacco companies, though, have already shifted their strategies to sell cigarettes to promising markets abroad, such as China (where over half of the men smoke, according to 2010 World Health Organization statistics) and India.  

"Cigarette companies are aggressively recruiting new customers in developing nations... to replace those who are quitting or dying in the United States and Europe, where smoking rates have fallen precipitously," wrote Duff Wilson in a New York Times article on international cigarette sales and legislation ("Cigarette Giants in a Global Fight on Tighter Rules"). "Worldwide cigarette sales are rising 2 percent a year," Wilson wrote.

To protect their markets, some cigarette manufacturers work to suppress what they consider excessive anti-smoking legislation abroad. Wilson wrote that when Uruguay tried to limit cigarette use by covering 80% of cigarette packages with health warnings, cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris International, whose sales exceed Uruguay's gross income, sued the country.

Driving cigarettes out of the U.S. market, as the FDA is doing, is really just pushing tobacco into other countries that have fewer resources to resist it. In response, the World Health Organization is fighting global tobacco use with its Tobacco Free Initiative, but it's clearly a tough battle.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Health Care Reform and the New Congress

The fight over health care reform continues in post-election Congress, as comments from President Obama and from Rep. John Boehner, who will probably become the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, make clear. This week, Kaiser Health News published a transcript of news conference comments that show the divisions between Boehner and Obama over the future of health care reform.

With so many of their constituents concerned about unemployment, Boehner and the Republicans say that the current plan for health care reform is too expensive to implement now. The Republicans have said that their primary goal over the next two years is blocking the implementation of health reform and other agenda items, and unseating Obama in the next presidential election.
Boehner, who called health reform a "monstrosity," said:
I believe that the health care bill that was enacted by the current Congress will kill jobs in America, ruin the best health care system in the world, and bankrupt our country. That means that we have to do everything we can to try to repeal this bill and replace it with common-sense reforms that'll bring down the cost of health insurance.
Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats see substantive health reform as a moral obligation that is worth the investment. Obama explained:
I don't think that if you ask the American people, should we stop trying to close the doughnut hole that will help our senior citizens get prescription drugs, should we go back to a situation where people with preexisting conditions can't get health insurance, should we allow insurance companies to drop your coverage when you get sick even though you've been paying premiums -- I don't think that you'd have a strong vote for people saying those are provisions I want to eliminate.

Republicans who argue that health reform is too expensive tend to ignore the costs of letting the current health insurance system stand. Commonwealth Fund blogger Louise Probst argues that health care has both direct and indirect costs for Americans. Health insurance now averages over $14,000 for a family of four, Probst wrote. "Other leading nations spend half or less of what we do on health care," she wrote, "making it increasingly difficult for American families to retain their standard of living and for American businesses to compete in a global economy." Furthermore, "all Americans pay the nation's health care bill indirectly by way of lower wages, higher taxes, and health benefit costs embedded in the price of non-health-care goods."

Which argument will win: fiscal restraint and job creation, or moral imperative and long-term investment? The outcome will become clear by the next Presidential election.