Some Flowery Figures, Drug Renegades, Etc.

Much as we’d like to throw a spring bouquet to the nation’s floriculture industry, the data don’t justify it. A consumer-tracking study by Ipsos-Insight finds that retail sales of flowers and plants rose 2.3 percent in 2004 vs. 2003, reaching an estimated $6.1 billion. There was a dip, however, in the percentage of the population making such purchases—from 58.9 percent in 2003 to 57.5 percent in 2004. The annual number of purchases per capita also slid a bit, from 5.8 to 5.7. Total spending rose only because the size of the average flower/shrub purchase increased (by 3.7 percent), from $16.04 to $16.63.

If you want to see workers on strike, better go to an off-off-off-Broadway production of some old Clifford Odets play. In real life, strikes have almost vanished from the national scene. A new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says 17 major work stoppages began in 2004, with one carrying over from 2003. (Including strikes and lockouts, “major” stoppages are defined as those involving 1,000 or more workers and lasting at least one shift.) These involved a total of 170,000 workers and brought 3.3 million worker-days of idleness. If that sounds like a lot, note that the figure during the 1970s (the most recent decade in which strikes were common) never fell below 16 million days of lost work and averaged in excess of 26 million. Given the steady decline in the percentage of private-sector workers who belong to a union, it stands to reason that major strikes have become a rarity.

We can thank the surge in gasoline prices for shrinking one of society’s chronic gender gaps. Consumer-confidence indices routinely find men more upbeat than women. But men also have more emotional investment in their cars, which makes them more sensitive to fluctuations in gas prices. The latest ABC News/Washington Post Consumer Comfort Index (CCI) finds a steep drop in consumer confidence among men in the past month, as well as a modest decline among women. This has left a smaller than usual disparity between the CCI numbers for men (-16 on a scale from +100 to -100) and women (-20). There’s even been some reduction in the gap between Democrats (-43) and Republicans (+10), mostly because confidence among the latter has sagged as gas prices have risen.

We’ve known women have unpredictable taste in heels. (“Take my husband, please!”) Now, a new report from The NPD Group documents the scope of volatility in this area. In the period July-December 2003, shoes with block heels commanded 30 percent of sales, with medium (23 percent), thin (20 percent), stiletto (8 percent) and kitten heels (3 percent) splitting most of the rest. By July-December 2004, significant shifts in heel preferences had occurred. In this period, thin heels (19 percent) and stilettos (18 percent) had the biggest shares of the market; block (16 percent) and medium heels (14 percent) had lost ground. Kitten heels (narrow and low) had tripled their share (9 percent). The study also said decorative ornaments like bows are now all the rage in women’s fashion footwear.

“I want my umami.” If you haven’t yet heard that cry, keep listening. In forecasting that Asian cuisine will gain ground in the U.S. this year, a Packaged Facts report says “one flavor sensation we may hear more about in 2005 is umami—a term identified more than a thousand years ago in Asia, but nonetheless ‘new’ to western chefs. Often referred to as ‘the fifth taste’ (joining sweet, salty, bitter and sour), the Japanese concept embodies the quality of being savory.” In the process, Asian fruits will draw more attention. Among the up-and-comers: yuzu, kaffir lime and lychee.

If you asked Americans to guess how much prescription-drug prices have risen in the past year, I’d bet most of them would pick a number well above 10 percent. The real number is bad enough, but not as bad as people imagine. The AARP’s Public Policy Institute analyzed prices for the brand-name prescription drugs most widely used by older Americans, and it found they rose 7.1 percent last year. Is that an atypically small increase? Quite the reverse: It’s the steepest increase in five years of such reports by the AARP. How much more did consumers age 50-plus pay for a prescription over the course of 2004? The data worked out to an increase of $51.56 for the year. Since people in that age bracket take an average of three prescription drugs, the average increase per capita was $154.68. That’s not chicken feed, but it doesn’t quite seem to justify current depictions of the pharmaceutical industry as the embodiment of evil. Meanwhile, prices for the generic drugs most commonly used by older consumers rose by an average of just 0.5 percent in 2004, vs. 13.3 percent in 2003.

Amid all the sound and fury about drug pricing, a significant fact is often overlooked: Many people fail to stick with a drug that’s been prescribed for them, often for a reason wholly unrelated to its price. In polling by Harris Interactive for The Wall Street Journal Online’s Health Industry Edition, 33 percent of adults who’ve been prescribed a drug to take on a regular basis confessed that they’ve “often” or “very often” neglected to take it. Eight percent said they very often skipped a dose because they “wanted to save money,” with another 6 percent saying they often did so for that reason. Among other reasons for people’s “noncompliant” behavior: “I forgot to take them” (4 percent very often, 8 percent often); “I had no symptoms or the symptoms went away” (3 percent very often, 6 percent often); “I didn’t believe the drugs were effective” (3 percent very often, 4 percent often); “I had painful or frightening side effects” (2 percent very often, 4 percent often); and “the drugs prevented me from doing other things I wanted to do” (3 percent very often, 4 percent often). While the use (and/or neglect) of prescription drugs is most common at the geezer end of the age continuum, you can see from the chart below how common it is these days throughout the population.