Tuesday, 29 July 2014

A temperance manifesto for 2015

The Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) is planning to hold a 'day of action' on September 5th to raise awareness of the neo-temperance lobby. The 'action' appears to revolve around a few state-funded pressure groups messing about on Twitter. Their slogan/hashtag is #21billion, which refers to the supposed 'cost to the economy' of alcohol misuse. This is a bogus figure. Aside from being created in 2003, when alcohol consumption was considerably higher than it is today, its largest elements are not costs to the economy, but are 'emotional impact costs' and private costs. None of these costs are balanced by any benefits, thereby rendering the figure meaningless. See Full Fact for a breakdown.

Nevertheless, £21 billion is a big number and that's all that matters to the soapbox orators of the AHA. They can be confident that journalists will not check it and will instead portray it as a cost to the taxpayer. In truth, the cost to the taxpayer of alcohol use is significantly less than the £12 billion drinkers pay in alcohol duty, but the AHA won't be mentioning that.

The Alcohol Health Alliance was formed by Ian Gilmore in 2007, modelled on the Smokefree Alliance that had successfully conned the government into introducing the smoking ban. Their debt to the anti-smokers is clear to see. Here are some of their "specific asks for the 2015 General Election"...

Introduce a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol for all alcohol sales, together with a mechanism to regularly review and revise this price

Not a big surprise, this one. For the AHA, the most important aspect is having a mechanism to keep raising the price. If they seize the price lever, you can be sure the minimum price will go up and up and up. You can also be sure that a higher minimum price will be set for pubs, as it has in Canada.

At least one third of every alcohol product label should be given over to an evidence-based health warning specified by an independent regulatory body

A third! This idea is obviously borrowed from their anti-smoking colleagues.

The sale of alcohol in shops should be restricted to specific times of the day and designated areas. No alcohol promotion should occur outside these areas.

The sale of alcohol is already restricted to certain times of day. Presumably what they mean is that they want opening hours to be severely curtailed. The 'designated areas' idea refers to their obsession with having alcohol sold in separate sections of supermarkets to inconvenience shoppers.

Licensing legislation should be comprehensively reviewed. Licensing authorities must be empowered to tackle alcohol-related harm by controlling the total availability of alcohol in their jurisdiction

This will be a one-way street, of course. The AHA is not in favour of local authorities liberalising the sale and availability of alcohol.

All alcohol advertising and sponsorship should be prohibited. In the short term alcohol advertising should only be permitted in newspapers and other adult press. Its content should be limited to factual information about brand, provenance and product strength

Anti-smoking campaigners promised that banning tobacco advertising would not lead to a ban on alcohol advertising. As regular readers will know, this is because they are congenital liars. The AHA's plan is identical to the anti-smoking lobby's plan of days gone by—to ban advertising on TV and radio before banning it completely.

An independent body should be established to regulate alcohol promotion, including product and packaging design, in the interests of public health and community safety

What do you suppose they want to do with the packaging? Could they, by any chance, be planning to make it plain?

What we have here is a plan for the state to control the price, curtail the availability and design the packaging of all alcoholic beverages. It is good old fashioned temperance talk bolstered by a generous helping of policies from the tobacco prohibitionists and a dash of 'public health' rhetoric. Is the AHA trying to widen the Overton window or do they really think that there are any politicians (aside from Sarah Wollaston) who are daft enough to endorse this manifesto?

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The high street is dead, long live the high street

Good grief.

English councils propose 'Tesco tax'

A group of local councils in England is formally asking the government for new powers to tax large supermarkets.

BBC News has learned that Derby City Council has called for the right to bring in a levy as a "modest" effort to ensure supermarket spending "re-circulates" in local communities.

The council wants the right to impose a levy on large supermarkets, retain the money raised, and use it to help small businesses.

Let's set aside the strong suspicion that the money raised will never find its way towards 'small businesses' and will instead be funnelled into the half-baked schemes of the cranks who dominate local government (who, by the way, have done as much as anyone to ruin local retailers by jacking up parking fees and pedestrianising town centres). Instead, let's focus on the basic idea that successful businesses should be looted in order to prop up failing businesses.

It is hard to believe that there are still people - grown, adult human beings - who think that robbing Peter to pay Paul is a sensible way to run an economy. A hundred years ago, they would have been in favour of taxing the electricity companies to subsidise the candlestick makers. Forty years ago, they would have been throwing money at British Leyland. This latest wheeze from (Labour-run) Derby City Council shows that no matter how much the left insists that it has changed - no matter how much it recognises the benefits of the market economy - it still doesn't understand the basic principles of free trade. Hence, they say things like this:

"Research has shown that 95% of all the money spent in any large supermarket leaves the local economy for good, compared to just 50% from local independent retailers"

Perhaps so, but 100% of the goods bought in the supermarket end up in the local community and they do so at less expense than if they were bought in the high street. That is a good thing. Shoppers are part of the local community and the availability of cheap, high quality products is to their benefit. Money is merely a token with which people can buy the things they want. The availability of cheaper products has exactly the same positive effect as giving somebody more more money. It enriches all of us except the handful of people who are running moribund businesses.

Where the money ends up is immaterial. It is what we get for our money that matters. The whole point of trade is that money leaves the 'local economy' in exchange for the best products at the best prices. The market economy does not exist to serve the retailer. It exists to serve the consumer and, like all taxes, the Tesco Tax will ultimately be paid by consumers. They will be forced to pay higher prices in supermarkets in order to help shops charge higher prices in town centres. It is lunacy beyond belief.

And what is the justification for this looting? Essentially it boils down to a rose-tinted nostalgia for high street shopping by reactionaries, protectionists and the kind of people who insist that supermarkets are unpopular despite the fact that they are always full (due to our old friend 'false consciousness', no doubt). These are the people who hated Woolworths and HMV until the day they went bust, at which point they tearfully mourned the end of an era.

Let's face some facts about the high street. Internet shopping and supermarkets mean that the high street you grew up with is dead and it probably isn't coming back. If you can buy it cheaper online, there is no need to have a shop on the high street. The high street of the future will be dominated by businesses that sell services that cannot be bought virtually, such as hairdressers, and the leisure and entertainment industries. Get used to it.

In fact, prepare to enjoy it. Have you been to a high street recently? Aside from a few quaint market towns, British high street are awful. Not only are they awful, but they have been awful for decades. There is no reason to get misty-eyed about these concrete monstrosities and every reason to want them to die and be reborn.

We can have a flourishing high street of pubs, coffee shops, bookies, secondhand goods, specialist services and so on, but let's accept that the general high street retailer has had its day. Let's keep the fun stuff - the successful stuff; the stuff people actually want - in town and let's kick the boring shopping out of town. And if the new face of the high street means that some of the old shops will be turned into residential housing then all the better. The lack of housing is far more urgent problem than the sustainability of Dixons and WH Smith.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Simon Chapman: tedious self-plagiarist

Simon Chapman is on a one-man mission to pretend that plain packaging is working, hardly surprising since he's got a book coming out and the policy represents his last chance to become a footnote in history.

The latest part of his counter-offensive is a letter to the FT in which he argues that although the smoking rate has been falling at roughly the same rate for years in absolute terms, it has sped up in relative terms. This, of course, is just a mathematical inevitability if you have a declining number of smokers. If two per cent of the population give up smoking every three years, that two per cent is obviously going to be a larger proportion of smokers if smokers make up 15 per cent, rather than 40 per cent, of the population.

It's taken as read that Chapman's arguments are going to be fallacious so I'd like to focus on an amusing piece of trivia. He ends his letter thus:

Like Monty Python’s Black Knight talking about “just a flesh wound” after losing all four limbs, this is not likely to be the last round of denials from Big Tobacco.

It's a nice little analogy because it diverts attention from the fact that it is Chapman who is flailing around while his ridiculous idea falls apart in the most predictable way. He must be proud of this line because he used it two days earlier when writing a black-is-white propaganda piece for ABC (in which he introduced yet another layer of wrong, see Dick Puddlecote for details).

Like Monty Python's Black Knight talking about "just a flesh wound" after losing all four limbs, this is not likely to be the last round of denials from Big Tobacco.

In fact, he's very proud of it, because he used it in August 2012 when writing about the legal challenges to plain packaging...

Like the mortally wounded Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Big Tobacco will now be hoping that, despite losing its right arm and buckets of blood (just flesh wounds), two other cases will see off the scourge of plain packs, against all the odds.

And he used it again in October 2012 in a completely irrelevant context...

Professor Chapman says tobacco companies will do anything to create a sense of "intrigue" about their products.

"They're a bit like the Black Knight in Monty Python in The Holy Grail; you cut their legs off, you cut their arms off and they keep on saying, 'it's just a flesh wound, bring it on'."


And we was using it way back in 2001 when writing about the claim that pylons cause cancer (see page 251 of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist to appreciate the irony of Chappers debunking dodgy epidemiology)...

Those in the media who believe that high voltage power lines and pylons cause cancer in children are like the plucky, armless black knight in Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail: they just won't give up.

Maybe he's been using it for even longer than that, who knows? Perhaps he's one of those fellows who quotes huge chunks of Monty Python sketches in public. What a character!

Shouting the same old line over and over again is the characteristic of a tub-thumping campaigner, not a serious thinker, but even the most zealous street corner barker gets tired of repeating themselves eventually. Maybe it's time for Chapman to invest in a new metaphor?


UPDATE

On Twitter, Jon Fell has directed my attention to page 174 of a book published in 2007 titled Public Health Advocacy and Tobacco Control. Can you guess the name of its author?







Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Soda tax chumps

If, like me, you smile inwardly every time a moron uses the term 'Big Soda', you've got a treat in store. In November, the city of San "Ban" Francisco will be voting on whether to bring in a punitively high tax on fizzy drinks. That means four months of deranged campaigning in the Bay Area to look forward to.

As an hors d'oeuvre, check out the Choose Health SF website. Its blog and FAQ sections offer particularly good sport. Anybody with a rational mind left San Francisco years ago, leaving a population of quacks, hypochondriacs, drug casualties and champagne socialists. It shows. There is barely a sentence on this website that does not rely, at best, on logical fallacies. More commonly, it relies on bizarre assertions and free association.

For example, it is well known that indirect taxes are regressive (ie. they take a larger share of income from the poor than from the rich). It also seems to be the case that people on low incomes tend to drink more fizzy drinks than people on high incomes. Taxing these drinks is therefore indisputably regressive, but in the world of Public Health—especially in California—words mean whatever you want them to mean:

Isn't this just a regressive tax that will further hurt people with low incomes?

A: Spending millions to aggressively market cheap sodas to low-income communities—which are most impacted by the diabetes epidemic—is regressive. 

No it isn't. That's not what it means at all. Try using a dictionary.

Soda companies sell sugary drinks at artificially low prices and then pour billions into marketing to get people to drink more and more. That is regressive.

No it isn't—and any company selling something at an 'artificially low price' (whatever that means) whilst spending billions on marketing would go out of business. Soda is expensive. Tap water isn't. Drink that and shut the hell up.

Elsewhere, the valiant supporters of regressive taxation address the slippery slope argument. This is particularly delicious since San Francisco has for decades been at the centre of many novel anti-smoking policies that have—despite the assurances of wide-eyed campaigners—subsequently been applied to other products. It is more than likely that some of the parents of the soda tax campaigners were making assurances in the 1980s about tobacco being a 'unique product' while insisting that anti-smoking policies would never be applied to things like, well, soda.

Won't you just try to tax other things that are unhealthy for us if this soda tax passes? Why not tax jelly donuts and other fattening foods?

A: The beverage industry likes to argue that if you can’t solve every health problem, don’t bother trying to solve any health problem.

That's not their argument here. The argument is that if you tax soda, you'll tax anything with a high calorie content next.

The fact is that sugary beverages are a unique and significant cause of diabetes and other diseases.

But anti-smoking campaigners said that tobacco was a 'unique' cause of disease and scoffed at the notion that anti-smoking policies were the thin end of the wedge. Why should we believe you this time? Why should we think you will stop at soda?

Would anyone ever argue that we shouldn’t tax cigarettes since there are other causes of lung cancer? 

That's right folks. They're arguing that soda taxes won't set a precedent for other products by citing tobacco as a precedent for soda taxes. It's the next logical step, innit?

Informed observers on both sides of the sin tax debate believe that a no vote in San Francisco could kill off soda taxes worldwide. Their reasoning is that if the stoned bunnies of the Bay Area don't vote for it, no one will. I think they have a point so watch this space.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Plain packaging porky pies

In the last post—about the deceitful claim that there has been a "huge drop" in smoking rates since plain packaging was introduced in Australia—I mentioned that no UK newspapers had been dumb enough to report this propaganda. That was true at the time of writing, but, in the end, the Daily Mail and the Financial Times fell for it.

The Mail will print anything, but I expect more from the FT so I was pleased to see that they have at least published a couple of letters to help put the record straight...

Sir, Your report of the fall in smoking rates in Australia (“Australia smoking rates tumble after plain packaging shift”, FT.com, July 17) painted the results as strong evidence that plain packaging is causally linked to smoking prevalence. It quoted advocates who described the new data as “really dramatic and exceptionally encouraging” and likened plain packaging to the discovery of a vaccine against lung cancer.

When the representatives of Imperial Tobacco cast doubts on this interpretation in the penultimate line, my reaction was: “Well they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

But I was troubled that the only data cited were from 2010 and 2013 and not from earlier in the series of data points. Few, I assume, went to the trouble of accessing the survey. It is a pity your report did not include this graph from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which makes it more difficult to make the link between plain packaging and smoking rates.

Readers should be trusted with analysis of data ourselves, instead of having lobby groups do it for us.

Dr Eoin O’Malley, Dublin City University, Ireland

There is also a letter from the managing director of JTI...

Sir, As a director of the second largest tobacco company in the UK, I am concerned by some of the misleading statements by tobacco control lobbyists reported in your article “Australia smoking rates tumble after plain-packaging shift”, FT.com, July 17).

In fact, the recent Australian smoking prevalence data reinforce the fact that plain packaging does not work.

Daily smoking prevalence declined by 2.3 per cent between 2010 and 2013, consistent with the pre-existing trend. The decrease between the introduction of plain packaging in December 2012 and December 2013 cannot be measured because that level of detail is not available. It is wrong to suggest plain packaging has worked, let alone to report that smoking rates have tumbled as a result.

The data also show that underage smoking has increased in the same period, reversing previous declines. While this obviously undermines the claims of the tobacco control lobbyists, it doesn’t necessarily mean that plain packaging led to the increase. Pretending otherwise would be a misrepresentation of the statistics to fit an ideology. Such junk advocacy should not form part of public policy debate and is no substitute for robust evidence.

Daniel Torras, Managing Director, JTI UK

The point about underage smoking is a good one. As Dick Puddlecote mentioned recently, the same data set that shows the - cough - "huge drop" also shows a rise in underage smoking between 2010 and 2013.


It is also worth noting that ASH are also lying when they claim that "Standardised packaging is the only new policy intervention over this time period and is therefore the most likely reason for the significant fall in smoking prevalence." In fact, there was a 25 per cent tax hike on tobacco in April 2010 which the Australian health minister specifically predicted would cause 2 to 3 per cent of smokers to quit.

There has subsequently been another tax hike (of 12.5 per cent) in December 2013 which led to a fall in (legal) tobacco consumption in the first quarter of this year. As mentioned in a previous post, this tax rise spared the blushes of anti-smoking campaigners because the data clearly show tobacco consumption rising in the first year of plain packaging (2013). Naturally, they ignored the 2013 data and claimed that the decline that followed the tax rise was the result of plain packaging.


All in all, just another week of porky pies in the world of tobacco control.



Thursday, 17 July 2014

Dogs bark, cows moo, ASH lies

Even by ASH's standards, this is staggeringly dishonest...

Huge drop in Australian smoking rates attributed to standardised packs
New figures released by the Australian government have shown adult smoking rates have fallen by a massive 15%. Before the measure was introduced in December 2012, daily smoking prevalence stood at 15.1% and has now fallen to 12.8%. Standardised packaging is the only new policy intervention over this time period and is therefore the most likely reason for the significant fall in smoking prevalence.

If the smoking rate has really fallen from 15.1% to 12.8% in the year and a half since plain packaging came in, that would be good prima facie evidence that the policy is working. Smoking rates in Australia have been falling since the 1970s, but a decline of 2.3 percentage points would be two or three times greater than the annual decline.

Impressive stuff, then, and ASH's Deborah Arnott is excited:
Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of health charity ASH said:"The UK government is currently consulting on standardised packaging before deciding whether to proceed and has asked for new and emerging evidence. Well here it is and it demonstrates a massive decline in smoking prevalence in Australia following introduction of standardised packaging. This is exactly the strong and convincing evidence the tobacco industry said was needed."

There's only one problem. She's lying. Almost incredibly, the date ASH describes as being "before the measure was introduced" was not November 2012 (the month before plain packaging came in). It is not 2012 at all. It is not even 2011. The date they are referring to is 2010, more than two years before plain packaging was introduced.

ASH even gives the reference to the Australian report in its press release so that anyone can check it. I urge you to do so. It very clearly shows a steady and gradual downward trend in smoking rates going back to 1993. There is no increase in the rate of decline in 2013 and no effect from plain packaging. The rate has not "fallen by a massive 15%" since plain packaging came in, as ASH claims, and there has not been "a massive decline in smoking prevalence in Australia following introduction of standardised packaging". 

The data show that the smoking rate has been falling by 0.4-0.9 percentage points every year for twenty years and has continued to do so since plain packaging came in. There has not been a "huge drop" in smoking rates since the policy was enacted. There has been, at best, a mundane and totally predictable continuation of the secular decline.

The report that ASH uses as its sole reference says that "daily smoking declined significantly between 2010 and 2013 (from 15.1% to 12.8%)". This is a three year period. There is no mention of a three year period in the ASH propaganda. Their trick is pathetically simple. They are taking a three year gradual decline and pretending that it is a one year "huge" decline. There is nothing more to it than that. It is a piece of transparent mischief that a child could see through.


Use whatever term you want - "spinning", "bending the facts", "twisting the truth" - but ASH are doing what they have been doing for years. They are - quite simply - lying, and they are using the crudest of tricks to do so.


Credit to the British media for doing due diligence on this trash and not reporting it. The same cannot be said for the Sydney Morning Herald which has reported it as fact and included a quote from the parasitic sociologist Simon Chapman that does the unthinkable by making ASH look almost honest. I advise you to sit down before reading it...

"It's almost like finding a vaccine that works very well against lung cancer," said Simon Chapman, a professor in public health at the University of Sydney.
These people are truly amongst the greatest and most brazen charlatans of our time.


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Sin tax interview

I recently talked to David Pakman about sin taxes. Here's the video.




See also The Consequences of Not Mugging You.