Borrower Defense to Repayment rule to protect students from fraudulent schools – National Consumers League

grads_icon.jpgWritten by Elese Chen, NCL Intern

Countless colleges offer enticing promises such as remarkably high job-placement rates, yet, too often new graduates fail to see these promises being fulfilled. Higher education institutions are now being held accountable for what may amount to fraudulent behavior by the “Borrower Defense to Repayment” law.After the collapse of the for-profit chain of Corinthian Colleges, more and more students are turning their attention to this regulation. Under the law, students who were found to have been defrauded by their schools are eligible for a discharge of their federal direct loans. Over 25,000 claims have been filed with the Department of Education since then, and most of them are from former Corinthian College students.

The current regulation is based on the renewal of the Higher Education Act by Congress, originally created in the early 1990s, which allowed student-loan borrowers to make a claim for “acts or omissions of an institution.” The process of reviewing the growing number of claims has made it obvious that the current rule is too ambiguous. In an effort to update and strengthen the rule, the Department of Education has proposed new regulations to better protect students and taxpayers from fraudulent behavior by colleges found to be making fraudulent claims.

The draft proposal includes a process that would consolidate debt relief for groups of students who were defrauded. Institutions with poor loan outcomes would be required to warn prospective and current students by using clear, direct language. To prevent financially risky schools from escaping responsibility, the new proposal would deny schools the use of pre-dispute arbitration clauses and class action waivers.

A total of 58 advocacy organizations, including NCL, signed a letter to Education Secretary John King, expressing their support for stronger regulations. The following action items were suggested in the letter:

1)    Full loan relief for defrauded borrowers,
2)    Automatic loan relief when there is sufficient evidence of school wrongdoing,
3)    The federal standard for relief as a floor and not a ceiling; the latter process eliminates current borrower eligibility for relief.

In addition, the letter recommends tightening loopholes regarding the use of class action waivers to bar students in court, improving warnings to students regarding concerns about their school, and eliminating new time limits on borrower relief. The letter also recommends that decision-makers involved in borrower relief determinations remain independent.

NCL joined with colleagues in supporting this series of steps because we believe that stronger regulations are imperative to protect students from fraudulent activities and from claims rampant in the for-profit college world. We also want the process to be simpler and more transparent for eligible students seeking relief from fraudulent claims so that they can receive the loan discharges that they deserve.

McDonald’s employees fight for fair wages – National Consumers League

gavel_icon.jpgBy Hannah Rudder, NCL Intern

We were preparing a blog on the issue of McDonald’s workers forming a class to sue McDonald’s when we came across the fact that the fast food chain reported an increase in net income from the first quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of 2016 and attributed this increase to the minimum wage raise. McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook cites lower employee turnover and higher customer satisfaction as a result of the higher wages. While raising the minimum wage has not helped every company increase profits, and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce argue it will lead to higher unemployment and a decrease in profits, McDonald’s shows that it has not hurt the company’s bottom line. Based on the experience of McDonald’s, it appears that paying a living wage is good for the company, the economy, and the worker-and other large chains should follow suit.In relation to McDonald’s wage news, three weeks ago, a District Court in California certified a class of past and present McDonald’s employees to bring certain wage-related claims against the fast food giant. This is the first time a judge has ruled that McDonald’s employees can band together and bring claims against the corporation, rather than just the individual franchisee. We loudly applaud the ruling. Historically, McDonald’s workers have never been granted the right to unionize, and this recent court decision gives workers the ability to petition one controlling body as a group.

Similarly, this decision parts with McDonald’s long-held stance that it is not responsible for franchise workers because it is not a joint employer; McDonald’s argues the franchisee is the sole employer. McDonald’s asserts that it is not fair to hold the franchiser accountable for franchisee’s employment practices. The court did not hold that McDonald’s was a joint employer, but instead agreed with the employees’ ostensible agency theory that posits that the employees are agents of McDonald’s.

The class of current and former employees initially brought 13 causes of action against McDonald’s and its franchisee. These claims included a large negligence claim, failure to pay overtime, failure to pay minimum wage, failure to give appropriate meal or rest breaks, and failure to reimburse employees for time required to maintain uniforms. The court ruled, however, that this class can only bring the claims of unpaid overtime, maintenance of uniforms, and miscalculated wages against McDonald’s; the other claims, including the negligence claim, were dismissed.

The group of employees settled with the franchisee for $700,000. This settlement means that if the class of employees proves McDonald’s violated the California labor laws, then McDonald’s will be liable for all of the damages under those claims.

The implications of this District Court decision certifying former and current employees as a class has far reaching implications, not only for McDonald’s, but for the whole fast food industry. This decision opens the door for fast food employees to introduce labor lawsuits against chains like McDonald’s, rather than just against a single franchisee. As the New York Times reported: “The district judge in California has now given lawyers for the McDonald’s employees the chance to prove in court what should be evident: that McDonald’s is responsible for ensuring that pay is fair and adequate and, as such, must be accountable when workers in its restaurants are stiffed.” If McDonald’s is found responsible for the wage violations, the fast food company will have to change its ways, and be far more aggressive in ensuring that its franchisees are paying workers fairly and adequately, and that the company is abiding by the laws related to all employee wages, hours, and benefits.

Reduce and Recover conference strategizes on how to cut down on America’s food waste problem

I spend a lot of time thinking about food waste and it’s lasting effects on our environment and our communities. While this may be a natural outcome of working on these issues for NCL, I don’t think it will be long before the average consumer also has this topic on the brain on a daily basis.

The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, in partnership with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and Massachusetts RecyclingWorks, coordinated Reduce and Recover: Save Food for the People, a two-day event focused on reducing food waste and preventing food loss on June 28-29. Advocates who gathered ranged from environmentalists, anti-hunger advocates, college activists, foundations, government officials, social entrepreneurs, and in NCL’s case, consumer advocates. Industry was also there in force. A central topic of discussion was, “how do we elevate the food waste movement beyond food and environmental spaces and into the conscious of everyday Americans?”

We are often so immersed in the issues we care about that it can be hard to gauge how the general public perceives the issue. Closing this gap between movers and shakers and everyone else is key to creating lasting change.

Consumer food waste ranks as one of the top sources of food loss in this country. Americans are throwing out $165 billion worth of food, yet studies show that 73 percent of consumers think they waste less than the average person. Clearly there is a disconnect, and consumers are contributing to the problem more than they think.

The multifaceted attendees–including industry trade associations like the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the Food Marketing Institute, the National Restaurant Association, and Sodexo, all seemed to agree that consumers are mostly operating with good intentions when they overbuy and then throw out food. Whether they are throwing a party and don’t want anyone to go hungry or just shopping for fresh produce for their families, consumers mean well. But these behavioral patterns are creating literally tons of waste. Leaders in the food waste movement are now moving focus from naming the problem to employing strategies to change consumer behavior.

Here are some strategies that emerged from the conference:

First, consumers have to be aware that food waste is a serious problem with economic, moral, and environmental ramifications. A clear understanding of the issue will at least prompt consumers to think about their buying decisions as they shop, eat, and dispose of their food. Media campaigns help create awareness about societal issues and consequently shifting behavioral norms.

Think of the great slogans from previous Ad Council campaigns: “Every Litter Bit Hurts,” “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” “Only You can Prevent Forest Fires,” “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,” and  “Click It or Ticket.” All of us know them and they’ve really help to change behaviors on a societal level. Look at the progress we’ve made on seatbelt usage: In 1982, only 11 percent of drivers and front seat passengers wore seatbelts; Today, 87 percent of drivers and passengers wear seatbelts and hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved as a result. The Ad Council’s new “Save the Food” campaign hopes to raise consumer awareness and change behavior.

Then, there is the issue of date labels on food. Adam Rein from ReFED explained, “100 percent of people experience confusion around date labels.” Date labeling on food packaging are all over the map and leads to consumer waste. They are actually a manufacturer suggestion for a product’s peak freshness, and are in no way connected to food safety. Millions of pounds of food are thrown out each day because of our current hodge-podge date labeling system. To the rescue is a bill introduced in the House and Senate entitled the Food Date Labeling Act, which standardizes date labeling, leading to less unnecessary tossing out of perfectly edible food.

At NCL, we believe the pledge by federal agencies to reduce food waste should be a starting point for the federal government getting their own house in order and serving as an example to the nation on how to reduce food loss. The federal government is the largest consumer of energy, with a footprint that includes 360,000 buildings and $445 billion spent annually on goods and services. Federal facilities could potentially save the nation billions of dollars and perhaps even surpass the national goal to cut food waste in half by 2030. NCL plans to ask President Obama to issue an executive order directing federal agencies to develop food waste reduction policies across the agencies as a standard practice in all federal facilities.

As for the consumer, awareness is the first step to changing behavior. Infrastructure to support consumers, such as legislative changes and support from federal agencies, must be in place to sustain lasting behaviors. Large food corporations like Campbell’s Soup Company, Sodexo, Nestle, and others are beginning to implement food waste reduction strategies throughout their supply chain. Many companies are also supporting legislative changes, like the Food Date Labeling Act, which will reduce the likelihood that consumers will toss out perfectly good food because they are confused by a date label.

The Reduce and Recover conference brought together many of the groups that are going to drive the campaign to reduce food waste in America by 50 percent by 2030. The event followed NCL’s May 11 Food Waste Summit, co-hosted by Keystone Policy Center, which focused on the consumers role in the issue of food waste. It was clear from last week’s conference at Harvard Law School that we have a growing and broad based movement to get a handle on food waste.

From a consumer perspective, if we voice concerns and ask companies to help reduce food waste, we believe that will have an impact on industry. The environmental, moral, and societal imperatives are enormous. They demand that we work overtime to meet America’s stated goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030.

Increased utilization of the HPV vaccine critical to preventing cervical and other cancers – National Consumers League

kb_headshot.jpgThe National Consumers League (NCL) has long been committed to fighting for vaccines and advocating for their widespread use. We are grateful to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) for its efforts to educate the public and healthcare providers–especially pediatricians–about the important role the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine plays in preventing cervical and other cancers. In the United States, HPV is estimated to cause nearly 99.7 percent of cervical cancers, 60 percent of throat cancers, 91 percent of anal cancers, 75 percent of vaginal cancers, 69 percent of vulvar cancers, and 63 percent of penile cancers.With these numbers, you would think that the public would be clamoring to get this cancer prevention vaccine. Unfortunately, nationwide usage of the HPV vaccine is alarmingly low. Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation that all girls and boys receive the HPV vaccine at age 11 to 12 years, CDC data show that only 40 percent of teenage girls and 22 percent of teenage boys received the full recommended doses of the HPV vaccine in 2014 (3 doses over the course of 6 months), compared to the 80 to 90 percent vaccination rate for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, and meningitis.

There are several reasons for this low utilization rate. Since the HPV vaccine protects against a sexually transmitted infection, pediatricians have been hesitant to discuss the vaccine with adolescent patients and their parents. Uptake has also been low because only Virginia, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C. have mandates for the vaccine. In addition, parents still harbor misinformation about vaccines. A recent NCL survey found that 33 percent of parents mistakenly believe that vaccines can cause autism, despite numerous scientific studies finding no credible link.

Recognizing the enormous missed public health opportunity, our nation’s cancer doctors are refocusing the discussion on the cancer prevention benefits of the HPV vaccine and urging pediatricians and family physicians to recommend the vaccine to their patients. Studies show that a strong recommendation from a physician is the most important factor in whether children get the vaccine. NCL strongly supports this recommendation to aim the outreach at pediatricians–they alone can make the critical difference in getting millions more young patients vaccinated with the HPV shots.

Additional information on the HPV and other childhood vaccines is available on the CDC’s website. The National Consumers League will continue its work to educate the public about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and their important role in preventing serious and life-threatening diseases.

Stopping robocalls takes a village – National Consumers League

breyault.jpgRemember the days when dinner was routinely interrupted by a phone call from someone trying to sell something? If you had a phone in your house before 2003, chances are that any time the phone rang in the evening it was likely to be a telemarketer on the other end of the line. Unsurprisingly, all those unwanted phone calls generated significant consumer outrage.

Thanks to all those consumer complaints and the diligent work of consumer advocates, Congress passed the Do-Not-Call Implementation Act of 2003. Because of that law, for the first time, telemarketers (with some carefully limited exceptions) were prohibited from calling consumers who registered their phone numbers on the Do Not Call (DNC) Registry. Faced with the opportunity to avoid those dinner time telemarketing calls, consumers flocked to register their numbers on the Registry. As of September 2015, there were over 222 million active registrations in the DNC Registry, making the law one of the most popular consumer protections of all time.

Thanks to another consumer protection law, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA), telemarketers are prohibited from calling cell phones using automated dialers (so-called “autodialers”), under threat of private litigation and other enforcement measures. As anyone who’s gotten a call from “Rachel at Card Services” or received an “urgent message about the status of your auto warranty” on their cell phones can attest, however, annoying robocalls remain a fact of life for many cell phone owners.

Unfortunately, fraudsters are increasingly taking advantage of advanced Internet calling technology to hide the source of their calls. In addition, they often base their operations overseas – beyond the easy reach of U.S. law enforcement. This is a major reason why an estimated 2.3 billion robocalls (or 51,523 calls every minute) made it through to consumers’ phones in January 2016 alone.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced new steps to address the growing threat of fraudulent robocalls. In particular, the FCC clarified that phone carriers are not prohibited from offering robocall-blocking technology to their customers. The Commission also noted that the TCPA protects consumers from auto-dialed text messages sent to their wireless devices in the same way it protects them from auto-dialed voice calls. A number of companies currently offer robocall-blocking technology, and major wireless and landline phone carriers have been investigating ways to address the problem.

At the same time that criminal robocallers are using powerful technology to circumvent protections against fraudulent telemarketing calls, recent legislation has created a loophole in the consumer protections that the TCPA provides. Although the use of so-called autodialers to call cellular phones is generally illegal under the TCPA, language inserted into last year’s federal Bipartisan Budget Act allows debt collectors to use autodialers to call the cellphones of consumers who owe money for student loans, back taxes, and other debts owed the federal government.

In response, and with the support of more than a dozen consumer and civil rights groups, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) and Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) introduced the HANGUP Act, which would repeal the language included in the budget act. That bill is currently stuck in committee, despite vigorous advocacy from our colleagues at Consumers Union.

Between criminal robocalls from technologically savvy fraudsters and legislative weakening of the TCPA, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the chances of putting a dent in the robocall problem any time soon. There is some good news to report on this front, however. The FCC’S proposed rules to implement the Budget Act changes would limit the number of calls or texts that federal debt collectors can make to consumers without consent to three per month. The FCC’s rules would also require federal debt collectors to respect a request by the call recipient to cease calls. In addition, thanks in part to efforts like the Federal Trade Commission’s Robocall Challenge (and its successor contest – “Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back”), innovative startups are emerging that offer consumers technology that can help block unwanted robocalls.

The TCPA is a critical piece of consumer protection legislation for protecting consumers from the plague of unwanted robocalls. However, the TCPA alone won’t solve the problem. A comprehensive solution will take cooperation by the entire ecosystem of stakeholders in the fight against robocalls – consumers, phone companies, regulators and Congress— to make a dent in the problem.

Get smart about caffeine – National Consumers League

ali.jpgMarch is both Caffeine Awareness Month and National Nutrition Month, an appropriate time to take an updated look at the world’s most consumed “pick-me-up.” Caffeine consumption is widespread in the United States, with 85 percent of the population drinking at least one caffeinated beverage per day. This year, for the first time in its 35-year history, the official U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans includes findings and recommendations on caffeine.Here are relevant facts that many Americans might not know about caffeine, including the latest recommendations from the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

  1. Caffeine has been consumed by humans for thousands of years. It is reported that tea was first consumed in China as early as 3000 BC, and there is evidence of coffee consumption as early as the 9th century in Ethiopia. So, humanity has had a caffeine predilection for a long time. Caffeine is found naturally in over 60 plants including coffee beans, cocoa beans, tea leaves, kola nuts, yerba mate, and guarana. It is also produced synthetically and added to other products including soft drinks and energy drinks. However, there is no difference between the naturally occurring caffeine in plants and synthetic caffeine.
  2. Americans are not alone in their enjoyment of a cup of joe! Large parts of the world’s population consume caffeine in one form or another, every day. Countries that consume the most caffeine include places like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
  3. There appears to be widespread agreement regarding the safety of a moderate daily intake level of caffeine for healthy adults of 400 milligrams (mg). The recently released Dietary Guidelines conclude that moderate coffee consumption (up to 400 mg/day of caffeine) can be part of a healthy diet. Health Canada and the European Food Safety Authority have also declared moderate caffeine intake of up to 400 mg/day safe.Graphics_-_CaffeineFacts_2.jpg
  4. The vast majority of Americans consume far less than 400 mg/day of caffeine.  According to the Dietary Guidelines, average intakes of caffeine among adults range from 110 mg/day (for women ages 19-30) up to 260 mg/day (for men ages 51-70).  Average intakes for children (5-32 mg/day) and teens (63-80 mg/day) are lower.
  5. Consumption has remained consistent. Despite concerns expressed by some about proliferation of caffeine in the food supply, U.S. dietary patterns indicate that caffeine intake has remained steady over the past decade.
  6. Most of our intake of caffeine in the United States continues to come from coffee, tea, and soda. This is consistent with a recent FDA-sponsored study that found between 70 and 90 percent of caffeine intake is from coffee and tea.
  7. Consuming 400 mg is probably harder than you think. The Dietary Guidelines confirm that caffeinated beverages can vary in caffeine content. So consumers should be aware of how much caffeine is in commonly consumed beverages. To assist, the following examples illustrate how much you would have to drink to reach 400 mg of caffeine.
    • 16.6 servings of green tea (24 mg caffeine/8 fl. oz.)
    • 11.5 servings of brand cola (average 35 mg caffeine/8 fl. oz.)
    • 8.5 servings of black tea (47 mg caffeine/8 fl. oz.)
    • 5 servings of Red Bull energy drink (80 mg caffeine/8.4 fl. oz.)
    • 4.2 servings of regular brewed coffee (95.2 mg caffeine/8 fl. oz.)
    • 2.2 servings of coffee house coffee (180mg caffeine/8 fl. oz.)
    • 2 servings of 5-Hour Energy (200 mg caffeine/2 fl. oz.)
    • 1 serving of 10-Hour Energy shot (422 mg caffeine/2 fl. oz.)
  8. Surprise! The darker the coffee roast, the less caffeine it has.  For tea, it’s the opposite: the darker the tea, the higher the caffeine content.
  9. Caffeine is one of the most thoroughly studied substances in the human diet. Over time, scientists have scrutinized, studied, and dissected caffeine; it has been surveyed, assessed and analyzed by chemists, toxicologists, and statisticians; and importantly, the effects of caffeine have been examined, discussed, and experienced first-hand by the billions of people that consume coffee, tea, chocolate, cola, or energy drinks on a daily basis. While it has been suspected of various harmful effects, for the most part, it has been exonerated. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines finds strong and consistent evidence that moderate caffeine consumption in healthy adults is not associated with an increased risk of major chronic diseases (e.g., cancer, heart disease) or premature death.
  10. Caffeine isn’t for everyone. There are some people who should limit their caffeine intake.  The Dietary Guidelines recommend that pregnant women, those who may become pregnant, and those who are breastfeeding should consult their health care providers for advice concerning caffeine consumption. Although the Guidelines are silent on other populations, everyone is different when it comes to caffeine. Children and teens should generally consume less caffeine due to weight concerns (and parents should monitor). Health Canada, for example, recommends specific ranges for different age groups. In addition, those who are especially sensitive to caffeine may want to limit their intake, and while caffeine is great to help get your morning started, it shouldn’t be used as a replacement for sleep.
  11. Some animals should not consume caffeine. Dogs, cats, and birds cannot metabolize caffeine, so don’t feed your pets chocolate or anything with caffeine!
  12. Cold brewed coffee products are gaining popularity. Given the extended steeping time during manufacture and processing, these products tend to have higher caffeine concentrations. An example of this is Chameleon Cold Brew, which contains a huge 2,160 mg of caffeine per 32 fl. oz. bottle. While the product label recommends consuming this as eight servings, it is still an excessive amount of caffeine to have in one container, and amounts to 270 mg per serving.
  13. Caffeine is sometimes found in surprising places like orange soda, lemonade, and enhanced water beverages.
  14. Caffeine is caffeine. The Dietary Guidelines treat caffeine holistically, focusing on the ingredient itself, whether naturally occurring, synthetic, or a combination of both–versus individual caffeinated products.  We agree with this approach.  Caffeine is the same, regardless of the food or beverage.

We believe that all products containing caffeine should declare the amount of caffeine per serving–and per container–on the label. To be able to track caffeine intake, using the 400 mg/day moderate level of intake as a maximum for recommended intake, consumers need to know how much caffeine is in the foods and beverages they consume. But, that can be an issue, particularly for products like energy shots and the new wave of highly caffeinated cold brew coffee products.

FDA currently requires food labels to disclose added caffeine as an ingredient, but the label is not required to provide the amount of caffeine. Very few products voluntarily list the amount of caffeine they contain, although some companies, like Red Bull and Monster, and some soft drinks, provide this information voluntarily. Because caffeine is not a nutrient, it is not listed in the Nutrition Facts label. But, would it be so hard to provide caffeine content elsewhere on the information panel?

As in all things, a little common sense goes a long way and sensitivity levels can vary from person to person. We likely all know someone who can drink an espresso after dinner and still fall asleep, while other friends may not be able to drink a Diet Coke in the afternoon without it affecting their sleep quality. Let your individual sensitivity to caffeine be your guide.

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National Nutrition Month is an annual initiative led by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
DISCLOSURE: while researching facts for this blog, approximately 220 mg of caffeine (3 cappuccinos) was consumed.  

Combatting the opioid abuse epidemic – National Consumers League

karinb.jpgIn the midst of a national epidemic of opioid abuse, our healthcare policymakers are trying to figure out how best to combat this intractable problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioids, (which include the prescription painkillers oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and others) and the illegal drug heroin were involved in 28,647 overdose deaths in 2014. Drug overdose deaths are now the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, even surpassing car crashes.A certain laxness in prescribing addictive opioids for legitimate purposes has helped to fuel the current crisis. In 2013, almost 2 million Americans, age 12 or older, either abused or were dependent on opioid pain relievers. Once addicted, it’s incredibly difficult to stop using the drug.

This overprescribing of opioids and resulting increase in addiction, has in turn led to a resurgence in the use and abuse of heroin, which is cheaper and easier to find than prescription opioids.

The policy challenge is this: to ensure that prescribers are not creating a new population of addicts who–when they are unable to refill a prescription–turn to street drugs such as heroin to address the craving created by opioids. At the same time, we also need to ensure that people who are in pain get the relief they need. Balancing these two concerns represents a tough challenge.

The National Consumers League (NCL), which has long been concerned with the safe use of medications, welcomes the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) announcement this month of a series of actions designed to combat the opioid abuse epidemic. Among other initiatives, the FDA will:

  • convene an Advisory Committee before approving certain new opioids
  • expand access to abuse-deterrent formulations to discourage abuse (like not allowing drugs to be ground into powder and combined with liquid to be made into possible injectables)
  • strengthen post-marketing study requirements
  • increase access to pain management training for healthcare professionals
  • work to protect appropriate patient access to needed pain medications.

The FDA’s efforts are part of a larger governmental strategy to address this growing problem. On February 2, the Obama Administration announced that it would ask Congress to spend an additional $1.1 billion next year to expand access to treatment, support programs to prevent prescription drug overdoses, and crack down on illegal sales. For its part, the CDC is currently working on new guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

We hope that these new initiatives will help lessen the burden of opioid abuse, and we welcome the development of better pain management options and alternative treatments for patients.

If you or someone you know has a substance abuse problem, help is available 24/7 at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

European Union’s scheme for airline passengers’ rights – National Consumers League

SG-headshot.jpgIn September 2015, I arrived at JFK airport in New York at 10:30 am for a quick flight to Washington, DC. I had a full day of meetings and was eager to get to the office. To my unpleasant surprise, I ended up arriving home at 6:00 pm. Weather was not a factor for the lengthy delays because the weather conditions were perfect in both DC and New York. Ultimately, American Airlines (AA) noted that it was their own mechanical and crew problems that caused the full day of delays. But, AA did not offer any passengers a dime of compensation for wasting their entire day. This seemed so wrong to me that it sparked my interest in what other countries provide for airline passengers’ rights.The National Consumers League (NCL) is advocating to expand airline passengers’ rights so that consumers are fairly compensated after they are wronged. So while in Brussels this week attending the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TADCD), I jumped at the chance to meet with the EU’s head of airline passenger rights when a European colleague offered to set up an impromptu meeting.

Alisa Tiganj, a Member of the Cabinet of the Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc, who is responsible for overseeing airline passenger rights, was kind enough to welcome me and spend a few minutes discussing the EU scheme.[1] In the US, we have few, if any, passenger compensation obligations for flights that are canceled or delayed, even when the airline is at fault.[2]  By the way, a total of 632 million passengers boarded domestic flights in the United States in the year 2010.  This averages to 1.73 million passengers flying per day.[3] 750 million people used EU airports in 2009.[4]

NCL would like to see that changed along the lines of what the EU provides.

The EU is made up of 28 member states with a population of 508 million.  We in the US, have a population of 300 million.  If you are a citizen of the EU flying on a European airline and your flight is delayed for more than three hours—or if it is canceled—you’re entitled to compensation. I should add that there are of course “extraordinary circumstances” where no compensation is guaranteed if the fault lies with weather or other force majeure. The general schedule for passenger compensation for delayed or canceled flights is below:

  • EUR 250 for all flights of 1500 kilometres or less
  • EUR 400 for all intra-Community flights of more than 1500 kilometres and for all other flights between 1500 and 3500 kilometres
  • EUR 600 for all other flights

The rules also state, “Compensation shall be paid in cash, at the passenger’s bank account, by bank transfer or by check…. The right to assistance also applies to passengers who face long delays.” The right to assistance means that the carrier should offer these items below for free:

  • Meals and refreshments in proportion to the waiting time
  • Hotel accommodation for overnight stay if necessary
  • Transport between accommodation and airport
  • Two free telephone calls or to send two telex, fax, or e-mail messages

The latest rules were developed and adopted in 2013. Not surprisingly, the European airlines are fighting passenger claims and challenging the interpretation of the rules in court. But meanwhile, EU consumers are being compensated. All they must do is apply for compensation through an online form. The process is not onerous.

If airlines have to pay serious compensation for delaying and canceling flights, they will try harder to find a way to get passengers to their destination more efficiently. Right now, American carriers know they can do whatever they want—even keep someone waiting all day—and passengers are left without recourse. That’s a dangerous imbalance in rights and protections and NCL believes that needs to change.

TACD TTIP debate in Brussels – National Consumers League

SG-headshot.jpgThe Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) conference is in full swing in Brussels today in a robust series of panel discussions about the compatibility of trade agreements and consumer protection. The TACD is made up of European and American consumer advocates and the group is laser-focused on the effort by the EU and the US governments to adopt Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP).So far, we have heard from European Union Trade Commissioner Cecelia Maelstrom who supports the trade agreement, US Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill, who takes no position but spoke about the FTC’s enforcement authority and the importance of preserving that authority, and Monique Goyens, head of BEUC, the European consumer organization, who noted that industry sees consumer protection regulations as hindering business.

Consumer groups in the US and Europe have opposed TTIP because consumer protection regulations writ large are subject to being deemed a barrier to trade and therefore subject to repeal or weakening. A recent example demonstrates how this process works. In 2013, the US adopted a rule requiring Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) on beef and pork products, something that 90 percent of American consumers say they want and helps guide them when making purchasing decisions.

The National Consumers League, Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, and the National Farmers Union all support COOL. Well, COOL labeling rules were repealed by Congress this past month because an international court deemed them to be a trade violation and the US was threatened with having to pay fines up to $3.6 billion.  Indeed, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), an opponent of current trade agreements generally, said, “No trade agreement is going to force us to change our laws,” the bill to repeal COOL shows that “trade agreements have a direct effect on our sovereignty.”  Industry makes these claims too about our laws and protections not being under threat. They seem like empty promises since the evidence is pointing in the opposite direction.

On today’s panel in Brussels, Jean Halloran from Consumers Union and Mary Bottari from the Center for Media and Democracy used concrete examples to demonstrate the dumbing down of protections that approval of TTIP would invite. Peter Chase from the US Chamber of Commerce claims that labor and environmental protections would be increased but he offered no concrete examples of how that will work.

So what could help make TTIP acceptable to consumer groups? One suggestion is to take all consumer matters out of the trade agreement; others consumers say we should exclude an international WHO-style court that decides whether countries are in violation of this trade agreement. This debate shows the critical role consumer groups play in raising questions and challenging empty promises that fly in the face of evidence that consumer protections will be maintained in Europe and the US.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, taken with a “grain of salt” – National Consumers League

ali.jpgEarlier this week, as I rode the metro to work, I overheard a woman describe to her friends the new “clean eating” challenge she was trying. I expect she is one of thousands across the country excitedly exchanging New Year diet strategies with other inspired colleagues and friends. In the U.S., we are bombarded with weight loss advice, especially during the holidays. Often, one diet plan contradicts the next, leaving consumers to choose one randomly and then lose momentum quickly afterwards. The Eighth Edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was released in the first week of January, just in time to bring some clarity to our diet woes! Unfortunately, the 2015-2020 nutrition guidelines are not exactly straightforward.Every five years the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) revise dietary guidelines intended to inform federal, state, and local food policy. A committee of nutrition experts and researchers advise federal agencies on the latest nutrition science and information. Historically, the Guidelines have affected American eating habits, how advertisers promote products, and the way public health professionals respond to health problems.

The first edition of the Guidelines, released in 1980, recommended that Americans greatly reduce their consumption of fat. This became one of the most controversial recommendations in the history of the Guidelines. Nutrition scientists weren’t wrong; certain fats, consumed in large amounts, will cause negative health effects. However, the recommendations were released during the tipping point of the national obesity problem, making it seem that inaccurate recommendations were to blame for the surging epidemic. Linking the obesity problem to one tangible document takes responsibility away from the consumer and industry interventions.

Michael Jacobson, President of the Center for Food Science in the Public Interest, explains, “The nutrition scientists who do the long, hard slog of working out details of official dietary advice might only dream of the life-altering powers now being attributed to them. The public has never eaten the diet they recommend, and still does not today.” But consumers are not totally at fault. Many companies replaced fat with sugar and rebranded their products to proudly announce “fat free.” Over-consumption of refined grains and added sugar ensued. Nonetheless, overall consumption of fat didn’t actually decrease. Instead consumers were eating too much fat, sugar, and carbs, calumniating in a major epidemic. Whether the 1980 Guidelines exacerbated the obesity problem or not, they did stimulate discussion over the accuracy and effectiveness of nutritional recommendations.

Critics of the 2015-2020 Guidelines consistently point to its vague recommendations. Still, the Guidelines do offer some concrete advice:

  1. No more than 10 percent of daily calories should come from added sugar
  2. Eating eggs is acceptable again, as limits on cholesterol have been dropped
  3. No more than 10 percent of daily intake should come from saturated fats
  4. Moderate coffee consumption (3-5  8-oz cups/day or up to 400 mg/day of caffeine) can be incorporated into a healthy diet

While these recommendations seem straightforward, nutrition experts are still concerned about the Guidelines’ inconsistencies. Experts recommended that Americans consume less red meat because it has been linked to clogging arteries and heart disease. However, the final version of the Guidelines replaced an explicit warning on red meat with this generalized suggestion: “Some individuals, especially teen boys and adult men, also need to reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meats, poultry, and eggs.” This recommendation is far too broad and contradicts other statements promoting low fat proteins like eggs. Nutrition researchers are also disappointed that the Guidelines only include a limit on added sugar and do not single out soda and sweetened beverages, which are responsible for the most concentrated amounts of added sugar in the American diet.

The USDA and HHS’s avoidance of specific language may stem from a fear of aggravating an existing public health problem (like what happened in the “low fat” era). Another theory, promoted by many nutrition experts, is that pressure from the industry ultimately overrode scientific evidence. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, speculates in a recent Los Angeles Times article, “there was a lot of pushback or interference by the food industry, Congress and special interest groups …That has certainly influenced the translation of the scientific evidence into the policy document.”

Now that the Guidelines have been published, nutrition and food policy experts are providing the pushback. The Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine has filed a lawsuit against the USDA and HHS arguing that pressure from the egg industry led to weakened cholesterol recommendations. Esteemed cardiologist Steven E. Nissen, MD and food policy expert and professor of nutrition and food studies Marion Nestle Ph.D, M.P.H (among many others) have both blamed industry influence for deceptive and confusing language.

On the bright side, the Dietary Guidelines do provide plenty of useful information for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Still, consumers should refer to the Guidelines with a critical lens. The major contention of experts is that recommendations do not go far enough. This puts responsibility back in the hands of the consumer.

Here are some tips to go one step ahead just reading the Dietary Guidelines:

  1. Make sure to read labels and menus ahead of time
  2. Rethink products with too much added sugar, saturated fat, or sodium
  3. Diversify your meals by eating lean proteins and colorful produce
  4. Stay informed and follow nutrition advice that is supported by science, not politics