Month: May 2007

More Focus on China – Pesticides and Food Safety

I begin to wonder how much of this was not known previously, and is coming out now, pushed by US domestic food interests who can suddenly become a little more competitive.

Reuters AlertNet – Pesticides next frontier in China food safety

China’s farmers overuse pesticides, skip protective clothing and have at their fingertips an array of banned and counterfeit products, raising another area of concern in the country’s fragile food chain. Spraying chemicals on crops improperly or using products that may be fake or banned risks the health of China’s hundreds of millions of farmers and could lead to unsafe levels of residues in fruits and vegetables, experts say. “The government has to stop banned or illegal pesticides being available in the market,” said Angus Lam, a Greenpeace Campaign Manager for Food and Agriculture based in the southern city of Guangzhou. China banned five high toxicity pesticides as of Jan. 1, but Lam said old stock was still in the market, in the hands of traders, retailers and farmers themselves. The government pledged last week to step up inspections in its food industry, saying checks on fertilisers and pesticides would be one of the priority areas.

China is not alone in this problem. Pesticides get overused in the US as well. But it’s as if all of a sudden, the mainstream press is waking up to the reality that is China. It is a developing country with high levels of growth in manufacturing, and a burgeoning middle class. But government regulation mechanisms have a long way to go to catch up.

The US surely knows this, and needed to have a more stringent testing regime with food imports from China. But the FDA was not given the mandate or the money. It is very easy to blame the FDA here. The fact of the matter is that any agency is only as good as the money and mandate it’s given. The political will to take a good look at where your food comes from, and how to ensure its safety needs to come first.

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Minnesota passes Smoking Ban

So, that’s now a full 40% of states in the country where smoking in bars and restaurants is prohibited or restricted. North Carolina, c’mon! If people can brave smoking outdoors in January in Minnesota, they can do it anywhere!

Minnesota lawmakers pass smoking ban – Yahoo! News

Minnesota would ban smoking in bars, restaurants and other establishments under a bill approved by the Legislature.

The bill passed the state House by an 81-48 vote early Saturday, hours after the state Senate approved it 43-21. It now heads to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has said he will sign it.

Minnesota would become the 20th state to prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants. Violations would carry fines of up to $300 for smokers and business owners who allow smoking. The ban would start Oct. 1.

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FDA cannot find anything in China

FDA Finds Chinese Food Producers Shut Down – washingtonpost.com

American inspectors who arrived in China last week to investigate the two companies that exported tainted pet food ingredients found that the suspect facilities had been hastily closed down and cleaned up, federal officials said yesterday.

“There is nothing to be found. They are essentially shut down and not operating,” said Walter Batts, deputy director of the Food and Drug Administration’s office of international programs.

Well, we gave them plenty of warning, did we not!

Indian Parliament Discusses Climate Change

India stresses on Kyoto standards-India-The Times of India

The discussion on global warming in Parliament will end with the statement of environment minister A Raja, possibly on Monday. He is bound to restate the country’s position on climate change in the international arena — that countries must bear “a common but differentiated responsibility” for climate change, a phrase that is the central pin of the Kyoto Protocol.

De-jargonised, it means, while every country is adding to the problem, there are some that are more responsible than others, and should, therefore, bear the burden and costs of cleaning up more than the smaller culprits

More highlights…

The US, between 1950-2003, emitted 10 times more carbon dioxide than India did. Europe emitted 8.5 times more. Yet US and Australia, two of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, have refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol (which asks developed countries to reduce their emissions) on the pretext that developing countries like India and China are not undertaking emission cuts.

Worse still, if one looks at per capita emissions from different countries, which is a more equitable way of calculating emissions if one was to go by the principle that each person has as much right to the atmosphere as another, then India ranks a mere 120 compared to US which ranks 6 and Australia 10 on the culprits’ list. This is taking the emission levels of 2003.

Well, they are right, and they are wrong too. The developed world has a lot to more to cut back on and should make the bulk of the cuts. But India and China also need to grow using current state of the art knowledge, not using the 1950s coal intensive, energy inefficient model of increasing supply without paying attention to demand. We have also come to realize that IPCC reports, due to their consensual nature, are conservative. So, they will tend to understate the effects of climate change and overstate the costs. It may not be as expensive in India and China as long as attention is being paid to hw the infrastructure is being developed.

FDA to add warnings on Anemia Drugs

Oncologists are being bribed to over-prescribe these drugs, which seem to cause more harm than good when over-prescribed. The FDA is going to add a “warning” label. Let’s see what it does.

FDA panel urges curbs on 2 anemia drugs – The Boston Globe

Best-selling anemia drugs from Amgen Inc. and Johnson & Johnson should have their use restricted because of dangerous side effects, a US advisory panel said. Amgen shares fell the most in five years.

The panel of expert advisers to the Food and Drug Administration voted 15-2 in favor of new prescribing restrictions and 17-0 for new clinical trials during a meeting yesterday in Silver Spring, Md.

Shares of Amgen fell $5.77, or 9.1 percent, to $57.33 in Nasdaq Stock Market composite trading. J&J shares fell $1.61, or 2.5 percent, to $62.50 on the New York Stock Exchange.

The drugs raised the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and death when used at high doses, studies released in the last six months showed. An FDA warning in March prompted the US health program for the elderly and disabled to stop paying for treatments in certain patients, and doctors cut back on use. The products accounted for $6.6 billion, or 47 percent, of Amgen revenue in 2006.

“Many of us are concerned on the committee and have a lot of questions,” said Gail Eckhardt, an oncologist at the University of Colorado in Aurora, and the advisory panel’s chairwoman.

The questions concerned the design of trials, why regulators have limited access to results from company studies, and why the drugs have been marketed for improving quality of life if there isn’t sufficient evidence for the claim, Eckhardt said.

The FDA usually follows the recommendations of its advisory panels, although it isn’t required to do so.

EPA Faces major Challenges, and no money

At a time when this country faces major environmental challenges, including catching up with the rest of the developed world on global warming, the agency that would have to do the heavy lifting on environmental regulation ain’t getting the money to do diddley squat. A 25% cut in inflation adjusted terms over 4 years is huge, especially considering that the EPA was not a cushy agency even before that.

ES&T Online News: Budget cuts increasingly damaging to EPA

Support for research and development at EPA has declined by 25% in inflation-adjusted terms between the recent high point in 2004 and the proposed 2008 budget, according to figures from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Morale has never been so low here since the days of Ann Gorsuch, and even then there was more money,” says one scientist, referring to the time during the early 1980s when former administrator Gorsuch, who resigned under a cloud, did her best to shrink the agency.

But George Gray, assistant administrator for the agency’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), says he fully supports the proposed budget. “This budget fulfills every presidential environmental commitment and maintains the goals laid out in the EPA’s strategic plan, while spending less,” he says. The budget cuts come on the heels of EPA’s program to cut $2 million from the agency’s fund for specialized libraries.

The scientists’ difficulties are likely to increase if the proposals in a June 2006 memo from Lyons Gray, EPA’s chief financial officer, are carried out. The memo, which was released by the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) directs ORD to reduce laboratory physical infrastructure costs by a minimum of 10% by 2009 and another 10% by 2011. The memo suggests that this will require closing, relocating, and consolidating EPA’s laboratory and field locations, as well as reducing or relocating staff. ORD chief George Gray told Congress that EPA does not intend to shut down any labs or get rid of any scientists during the current administrator’s tenure.

The U.S will pay the price for this deliberate destruction of government infrastructure. You won’t see it now, it will be a little more apparent in a few years.

China takes most of UN clean energy funds

Clean Power That Reaps a Whirlwind – New York Times

That program, the Clean Development Mechanism, has become a kind of Robin Hood, raising billions of dollars from rich countries and transferring them to poor countries to curb the emission of global warming gases. The biggest beneficiary is no longer so poor: China, with $1.2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, received three-fifths of the money last year. And as a result, some of the poorest countries are being left out.

Scientists increasingly worry about the emissions from developing countries, which may contribute to global environmental problems even sooner than previously expected. China is expected to pass the United States this year or next to become the world’s largest emitter of global warming gases.

The controversy is that China, India and Brazil together are gobbling up close to 80% of the UN Clean Development Mechanism Funds. What is the CDM?

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is an arrangement under the Kyoto Protocol allowing industrialized countries with a greenhouse gas reduction commitment (so-called Annex 1 countries) to invest in emission reducing projects in developing countries as an alternative to what is generally considered more costly emission reductions in their own countries.

In theory, the CDM allows for a drastic reduction of costs for the industrialised countries, while achieving the same amount of emission reductions as without the CDM. However, critics have long argued that emission reductions under the CDM may be fictive, and in early 2007 the CDM came under fire for paying €4.6 billion for destruction of HFC gases while according to a study this would cost only €100 million if funded by development agencies.

Source wikipedia.
The Kyoto protocol was supposed to be a starting point for further negotiations. Unfortunately, the U.S pulled out and put negotiations towards a better worldwide mechanism on the backburner.

Back to the issue at hand? This program is supposed to help countries that are expanding their energy use fast to develop clean sources of energy. India and China are both developing at breakneck pace, and every bit of wind energy that goes in there is one less Megawatt from coal. Yes, the money is not going to Africa, but Africa is not developing infrastructure at that pace (the reasons for that have filled many books!). This program is not meant to foster development, it is meant to facilitate clean development wherever development occurs. So, if China is developing the fastest, it has equal rights to access these funds to put in a wind energy infrastructure.

If you want China and India to stop using these funds and use some of their own money to develop clean energy, you have to redesign the program to include a rider that takes into account the affluence of the country. The more money a country has, the less it gets from the CDM, or it has to atleast pony up a bigger share. You also have to put in the infrastructure in poorer countries that can take advantage of these funds. Without a power distribution infrastructure, or a functioning government or bureaucracy, how do you expect a poor country in Africa to take advantage of a complicated credits based funding program?

Development is complicated stuff, and distortions like these happen all the time. When the Kyoto protocol was negotiated, China was not rich, now it has a little more money. Development situations are fluid and demand flexibility in action, and constant monitoring. If the world’s richest country does not participate, and actively trashes the UN continuously, old and imperfect agreements stay in power even longer. U.S disavowal of the Kyoto protocol has the effect of making the protocol’s distortions even stronger and delaying action to fix them.

India turns off Nepal's Oil

BBC NEWS | South Asia | Indian oil supplies to Nepal cut

The Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) supplies all land-locked Nepal’s oil. Many petrol stations in the kingdom are now reported to have run out of fuel.

The state-run Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) said it had been unable to pay the IOC $90m that it owes.

A spokesman said it would soon run out of reserves and the IOC move was causing widespread fuel shortages.

Well, not the greatest PR move. When you’re the superpower in the neighborhood, why piss people off over $90 million? Anyway, the related links on the bbc page will tell you all you ever needed to know about the country that hosts the world’s tallest mountain.

Doctors Take Bribes to Prescribe Drugs

This is the headline I would have used on this story. An incentive scheme to use a paticular product in a situation like this is a bribe.

Doctors Reap Millions for Anemia Drugs – New York Times

Two of the world’s largest drug companies are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to doctors every year in return for giving their patients anemia medicines, which regulators now say may be unsafe at commonly used doses.

The payments are legal, but very few people outside of the doctors who receive them are aware of their size. Critics, including prominent cancer and kidney doctors, say the payments give physicians an incentive to prescribe the medicines at levels that might increase patients’ risks of heart attacks or strokes.

Industry analysts estimate that such payments — to cancer doctors and the other big users of the drugs, kidney dialysis centers — total hundreds of millions of dollars a year and are an important source of profit for doctors and the centers. The payments have risen over the last several years, as the makers of the drugs, Amgen and Johnson & Johnson, compete for market share and try to expand the overall business.

So how does this kickback scheme work?

Federal laws bar drug companies from paying doctors to prescribe medicines that are given in pill form and purchased by patients from pharmacies. But companies can rebate part of the price that doctors pay for drugs, like the anemia medicines, which they dispense in their offices as part of treatment. The anemia drugs are injected or given intravenously in physicians’ offices or dialysis centers. Doctors receive the rebates after they buy the drugs from the companies. But they also receive reimbursement from Medicare or private insurers for the drugs, often at a markup over the doctors’ purchase price.

Medicare has changed its payment structure since 2003 to reduce the markup, but private insurers still often pay more. Combined with those insurance reimbursements, the rebates enable many doctors to profit substantially on the medicines they buy and then give to patients.

The rebates are related to the amount of drugs that doctors buy, and physicians that agree to use one company’s drugs exclusively typically receive higher rebates.

Wow, that’s a scheme that would be illegal in almost any situation. I buy 10 widgets from the manufacturer for $100. The manufacturer then gives me $50 in “rebate”. I charge the person on whose behalf I am buying these widgets $200 even though I am not supposed to make a profit on this transaction, and pocket $150 from a transaction. I also promise to use more of this widget, on people who may or may not need it, but on whom I have such a knowledge gap and power gap that I know that they will use it whether it is actually good for them or not. I also promise not to use a competitor product even though I know that there are cases where one product will be better than the other. Well, who pays, all of us in increased health insurance premiums and healthcare costs so a bunch of rich doctors can drive their Range Rovers around.

The USA is no different from India when it comes to schemes like this. The money involved is greater, and somehow, this is not called a bribe by the media.

What does the pharma spokesperson have to say?

Johnson & Johnson said yesterday in a statement that its rebates were not intended to induce doctors to use more medicine. Instead, the rebates “reflect intense competition” in the market for the drugs, the company said.

Amgen said that rebates were a normal commercial practice and that it had always properly promoted its drugs.

Yes, it’s competitive out there, and to ensure that our product gets used, we will bribe people.

The “consumer” is the person who pays for the product or service. The “consumer” here is the end user, the patient. The patient does not get the rebate, instead having to pay high prices so doctors can add to their six figure incomes. Nice!