Think tanks wrap-up

May 22, 2003 at 6:34 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 22 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks. This is the first of two wrap-ups for May 22. Contents: kids –too much sex, not enough TV; Maine's Rx control; Iraq sanctions.

The Reason Foundation

LOS ANGELES -- Kids today: When they should be watching She-Ra, they're having sex

By Sara Rimensnyder

The never-ending campaign to Save Our Children continues. Today's news brings two warning cries, one familiar, the other a bit more surprising.

First, there's a titillating new study out about the sexual habits of kids aged 14 and younger. Apparently, one in five teens under the age of 15 has not only has sex, but gets busy without a parent present. Along with that comes the salacious news that "sexually experienced teens were more likely than virgins to engage in other risky behaviors, such as smoking, illegal drugs, and drinking once a week or more." In other words, kids who have sex really do have more fun.

I'm not a parent and I admit that becoming one might make me less flippant about the mating habits of the training-bra set. And I personally don't think sex at 14 is a good idea, whether or not it results in pregnancy or ends with a post-coital toke. But how helpful are these incendiary studies? This one suggests that teens are particularly randy in the unsupervised after school hours, when parents think they're working algebra problems. It says to parents: "You may think you know her, but that daughter of yours is up to no good."

Will creating legions of newly paranoid and distrustful parents curb teen sex -- or just promote more Villi Fualaau-Mary Kay LeTourneau-style adventurism? Inducing paranoia does produce results in one area: Creating larger budgets for sex education. But it's unclear whether those have any effect on behavior either.

Moving on, another study released today inadvertently suggests a possible answer to the question of why so many young teens are getting it on: They're not watching enough TV! Now here's a new one. We're well acquainted with (and perhaps even moved by) perennial complaints that children are too hooked to the boob tube. But now an Oakland-based group called Children Now is arguing that there's not enough broadcast children's programming.

Because juvenile entertainment is not as profitable as adult fare, networks have been ratcheting back the hours once devoted to cartoons and programs such as Bill Nye the Science Guy. Media mergers, Children Now submits, will accelerate the decline, and things are bound to get worse if the FCC votes June 2 to relax some regulations.

Of all the objections raised with regard to media consolidation, this one seems blatantly disingenuous, a naked attempt to sway a big-league debate with a plea for the Children.

Kids today have it made! My mother really did tell me that when she was growing up, she had to walk four miles a day to school in snow. When I have kids, my sob story is going to be that we didn't have Cable television or a set larger than 17 inches. I had no Nickelodeon, no Cartoon Network, and no MTV.

Life was really rough when I was sick; pretty much everything I knew about sexuality at age 8 came from watching Hot Lips Hoolihan and Frank Burns make out on M*A*S*H. Now there's a way to deter a young girl from sex.

(Sara Rimensnyder is Reason magazine's assistant editor.)

LOS ANGELES -- This is Maine on drugs: If you loved rent control, you'll die for drug price controls

By Ronald Bailey

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Maine can essentially set the prices its residents pay for prescription drugs. The confused court decision -- justices issued four different mutually conflicting opinions -- allows the Pine Tree State to require that pharmaceutical companies offer their drugs to qualifying citizens at the same discounted prices that Maine Medicaid recipients receive.

Ostensibly the cheaper drugs would be available only to the uninsured. In reality, it would be a mug's game for insurance companies to offer coverage that charges a higher price for prescriptions than what you could get by not bothering with insurance at all.

How does Maine Rx work? State Medicaid programs, which buy drugs in bulk quantities, negotiate low volume discount prices with pharmaceutical companies. Of course, private managed care companies do the same thing for their customers. The low-priced drugs are then included in the plans' formularies -- that is, in the lists of drugs that doctors participating in the plans generally prescribe.

These kinds of volume discounts are justifiable because the Medicaid programs and the managed care companies are spending money from their own budgets. In the Maine system, however, the state is not negotiating how to spend its own money, but rather how other programs and individuals should spend their money.

Under the Maine Rx program, the state penalizes pharmaceutical companies that refuse to offer their products at Medicaid discount prices to all qualified state residents. The program does this by requiring that doctors obtain special permission from a state agency each and every time they want to prescribe any of the medications sold by drug companies that refuse to go along with Maine's demands.

Obtaining this "prior authorization" is so onerous and time-consuming that doctors often choose to prescribe drugs that don't require it. This of course means that Medicaid recipients often don't get the drugs that would have been their doctors' first choices. Maine Rx uses the language of negotiation, but there is nothing to negotiate, since the statute requires drug companies to go along or else suffer the consequences of prior authorization.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, contested the Maine system on grounds that it violated the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. Justice John Paul Stevens rejected this argument in favor of the public health rationale that Maine could set drug prices because it has an interest in protecting the health of its uninsured residents.

This stretches the definition of public health way beyond the conventional notions of providing medical information, controlling communicable diseases, applying sanitary measures, and monitoring environmental hazards. If mandated lower prices are a public health measure, surely requiring doctors and hospitals to provide health care for free can be construed to be so, too. That would definitely save states a lot of money.

Another rationale supported by some of the justices is that some low-income Maine residents would be kept off Medicaid if they had access to discounted drugs. Perhaps. But that argument could be used to justify nearly any similar government intervention. Surely some single mothers could be kept off the welfare rolls if they had access to reduced-cost condoms. Indeed, some poor Mainers would be kept off welfare if they had access to state-mandated discounts on groceries, apartments, clothing, and so forth.

It is not the duty of condom makers, grocers, landlords, and clothiers to provide for Maine's poor in order to reduce the state's budget deficit. Neither is it the duty of drug manufacturers to provide cheap medicines to achieve the same goal. Setting ceilings on drug prices will no doubt have the same beneficial effects on the supply of medications that rent controls have had on housing markets.

The drug companies are by no means run by saints. They are, for example, using shady legal maneuvers to try to extend their patents beyond the existing 20-year limits. But the fact is that America's innovative pharmaceutical industry leads the world in developing new drugs. Consider the news from this week alone: One powerful new cancer drug (Avastin, for treating colorectal cancer) was announced and another (Velcade, for treating multiple myeloma) was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This week also saw the preliminary FDA approval of Xolair, a potent new biotech drug to combat allergic asthma.

The pipeline for these and other amazing new medicines is financed by, you guessed it, pharmaceutical company profits. Last year, the private drug makers spent over $32 billion on research, easily outstripping the National Institutes of Health total budget of $23 billion.

"Suppose we seize all pharmaceutical profit," suggested Sidney Taurel, CEO of Eli Lilly & Co., in a speech three years ago. "Drugs are just eight percent of total health care. To simplify the arithmetic, let's stretch and say (profits are) 20 percent of sales. Twenty percent of eight percent equals just 1.6 percent of total health care costs."

Cutting out pharmaceutical profits might make today's drugs slightly more available to people, but it would also certainly make sure that tomorrow's newer, vastly more effective cures are a very long time coming. In other words, cheaper drugs today, mean more disease, disability and death tomorrow.

There is still hope. According to Justice Stevens, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services could rule that Maine Rx is an impermissible amendment to its Medicaid plan, in which case it would likely be eliminated. But will the Bush Administration have the courage to make such a decision in this campaign season of drug-benefit pandering?

The old political maxim is, "As Maine goes, so goes the Nation." For the sake of a healthy future for most Americans, let us hope not.

(Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent.)

The Institute for Public Accuracy

(The IPA is a nationwide consortium of policy researchers that seeks to broaden public discourse by gaining media access for experts whose perspectives are often overshadowed by major think tanks and other influential institutions.)

WASHINGTON -- Ending Iraq sanctions

-- James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, which monitors policy-making at the United Nations, Paul is author of the report "Oil in Iraq: The Heart of the Crisis."

"The United States has bullied support from an unhappy and reluctant Security Council. The resolution ... gives legitimacy to the occupation authorities, accedes to a weak role for the United Nations, fails to provide for a return of the U.N. inspectors, and turns over control of Iraq's oil resources to the occupiers. The Chilean ambassador has been recalled for failing to show sufficient support and enthusiasm for the U.S. positions. Many threats -- and perhaps promises of a few oil fields -- have brought the Council membership into line. The next step: the United States will effectively name the new U.N. representative to Baghdad."

-- Joy Gordon, a professor at Fairfield University, wrote "Cool War: Economic Sanctions as Weapons of Mass Destruction" in the November 2002 issue of Harper's Magazine.

"The U.N. resolution is a defeat for all those who wanted to see a free, independent Iraq, with the level of health, education, and social development that was present before the sanctions devastated the economy and the well-being of the Iraqi population. We have already seen how the United States sets its priorities as an occupying power: the oil fields are protected and put into operation immediately. At the same time, the United States has done little to stop the looting -- or restart the production -- of water purification facilities and electrical generators. The United States has shown a terrible disregard for Iraq's humanitarian situation over the last decade, as we have seen the United States veto essential goods ranging from child vaccines to water purification equipment."

-- Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois and author of "Foundations of World Order."

"Bush is basically getting the Security Council to reverse the long-standing Stimson Doctrine: That the world will not recognize the fruits of an aggressive war. But that is exactly what the Security Council has just done."

-- Sam Husseini, communications director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, Husseini wrote the report "Autopsy of a Disaster: The U.S. Sanctions Policy on Iraq."

"John Negroponte claimed today that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the continuation of the sanctions, but that claim ignores long-standing U.S. policy of maintaining the sanctions regardless of Iraq's compliance with its disarmament obligations. Just as the sanctions were maintained regardless of law, they are being lifted in similar fashion. Similarly, the devastating humanitarian effect of sanctions is recognized the moment it is convenient to do so ... The absence of the Syrian ambassador says a great deal about the Arab regimes: pathetically caught between their people and a U.S. government claiming a desire for democracy."

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