Sunday, November 29, 2015

PolitiFact-induced heartburn

Back in May 2015, PolitiFact ruled "False" Speaker of the House John Boehner's claim that Americans spend more on antacids than on politics.

We stumbled across this older item while updating our research on PolitiFact's bias in applying its "Pants on Fire" rating. We mention this to emphasize that we don't exhaustively review PolitiFact's fact checks searching out mistakes. It's easier to find material to write about than it is to find the time to do the writing.

But back to PolitiFact and the "False" rating it gave to Boehner.

Sometimes a PolitiFact fact check doesn't look at all suspicious until one starts checking the backing data. PolitiFact found Americans spend $3.7 billion on federal politics and only about $2 billion on antacids. But when we looked at the source data, we found PolitiFact had only looked at over-the-counter antacids.

Do prescription antacids not count?

We looked at Boehner's statement for context. He did not restrict his mention of antacids to over-the-counter varieties.

We sent an email addressed to the writer and the editor of the PolitiFact item. The editor, Aaron Sharockman, responded quickly but only to wish us a happy Thanksgiving.

What's an antacid?

Technically speaking, antacids are chemicals one ingests to neutralize excess stomach acid. But the term also serves as a catch-all for medications used to treat heartburn and acid reflux. Proton-pump inhibitors serve as one example. Proton-pump inhibitors limit acid production instead of chemically neutralizing existing stomach acid. The data PolitiFact used to justify the "False" rating it gave to Boehner included sales statistics for over-the-counter proton-pump inhibitors.  This suggests PolitiFact committed an oversight by omitting sales totals for prescription drugs used to treat heartburn and acid reflux.

What's Nexium?

Nexium is a prescription proton-pump inhibitor. It's a very popular prescription medication. U.S. sales in 2013 reached nearly $6 billion. Another source shows the company responsible for Nexium, the U.K firm AstraZeneca, brought in $3.6 billion from sales of the drug.

Do we spend more on antacids than on politics?

It seems very likely we spend more on antacids than on politics, if we count prescription drugs used to treat heartburn and acid reflux.

PolitiFact estimated $3.8 billion spent on national elections in 2014 and another $3 billion spent on governor's races. But it's worth noting, though PolitiFact did not, that election spending varies considerably year by year. Presidential election years result in the highest political spending. During odd years, when few elections take place, that number drops.

Perhaps during a presidential election year political spending spikes higher than spending on antacids. Averaging the spending over the past 10 years or so may well give antacids the edge.

Our table below offers estimated revenue from some of the top proton pump inhibitors.

2013 Sales
Prevacid SoluTab
Omeprazole/sodium bicarbonate
Pantoprazole sodium

Note that the total, about $8.4 billion, easily outstrips PolitiFact's highest estimate for political spending in 2014. Bear in mind also that political spending in 2013 was likely far lower. Spending on proton pump inhibitors probably did not drop much, if at all, in 2014. Finally, note that there are two more classes of prescription drugs used to treat stomach acid disorders.

The Boehner rating was another PolitiFlub

All of this spells big trouble for the "False" rating PolitiFact gave Boehner. If anything's certain, it's that PolitiFact's effort to check Boehner's claim was inadequate.

We look forward, of course, to the response from the PolitiFact team of Jon Greenberg and Aaron Sharockman.

Happy Thanksgiving, PolitiFact.

Correction, Nov. 29, 2015
We misreported the publishing date of PolitiFact's fact check of Boehner. Our article, relying on memory, said January 2015. The correct month was May 2015.


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