Monday, 30 June 2014

Dispatches' minimum pricing "experiment"

Channel 4 scientist at work

This has to be seen to be believed. Tonight, Antony Barnett (pictured above) will be doing his bit for the cause of minimum pricing by making a programme about 'binge drinking' (a phrase that already sounds like it belongs in a nostalgia show called I Love 2004).

I dare say that you can expect plenty of footage of drunks fighting and falling over in the street, but don't expect to hear that there has been an 18 per cent decline in alcohol consumption in the last decade, or that binge drinking amongst 16-24 year olds has been falling for years, or that there is less violence today than there has been for twenty years, or that alcohol taxes in Britain are amongst the highest in the world.

What you can certainly expect is the most laughable attempt to 'prove' that minimum pricing 'works' that has ever been broadcast. Dispatches—for it is they—have provided this parody of science in its trailer. I had to watch it twice to make sure I wasn't dreaming. Basically, they got some young adults who like to have a few drinks before they go out (so-called 'pre-loading') and brought them to an off licence.

"We set up a little experiment. We mocked up a few shelves at Mr Shiraz's off licence and applied a minimum price of 50p on similar drinks to those they'd bought earlier."


"And we told them they could only spend the same as they'd spent before—up to £8 each."

I beg your pardon?

"...we told them they could only spend the same as they'd spent before—up to £8 each."

Let's get this straight: you get people who are buying cheap alcohol and then you put up the price to see if they buy more or less alcohol, but you prevent them from buying more by capping how much they're allowed to spend.

Are you kidding me? The central question about minimum pricing is whether people will drink less or spend more. If you stop them spending more, obviously they are going to drink less, but it's not very realistic, is it? Or does the minimum pricing policy also involve a dingbat in NHS glasses physically restraining anybody who tries to spend more money on alcohol than they used to?

Having rigged the experiment with an all-important caveat, Barnett concludes with the following triumphant conclusion...

"With the same amount of money there was a difference in the amount of alcohol they bought."

No kidding! It's, like, a miracle or something.

"The results show that a minimum unit price of 50p has led to them buying roughly 30 per cent less alcohol."

Well, that's one in the eye for the sceptics. Get that sucker written up and submitted to the Lancet.

Good grief. If this is the trailer, how bad of the rest of it going to be? Find out on Channel 4 at 8pm.

The price of beer, water and Pimm's

The Sunday Times ran a shocking exposé about the price and strength of Pimm's at Wimbledon over the weekend...

It seems that Pimm's, which should be served so that it is 6.5% alcohol, is being watered down with lemonade (lemonaded down?) meaning that it is, in practice, merely 4% or even 2.5%. Since the stuff is sold at £7.80, the Sunday Times thinks the Great British Public is being ripped off. It may have a point. It quotes a Wimbledon-goer saying "I'm shocked at how expensive the Pimm's is at Wimbledon."

A few pages later, the Sunday Times reported a shocking exposé of how mineral water drinkers are being ripped off, except that it didn't frame it in those terms. Instead, it expressed outrage at how people are able to buy relatively cheap beer and cider from supermarkets.

The 'beer is cheaper than water' meme always reminds me of Eddie Izzard's comment about blood being thicker than water ("it means we should be nice to our relatives, but custard is thicker than blood so should we have more respect for custard?"). It doesn't really mean anything. Since beer is made out of water, you might conclude that someone is making a lot of money selling water to the gullible. And so they are, but most people drink water out of the tap. If clean drinking water was harder to obtain than alcohol (as it was centuries ago), the comparison might be germane, but it isn't so it isn't.

At 6.5% ABV, one pint of Pimm's is enough for someone to reach their 'daily alcohol limit' although I notice that the Sunday Times doesn't caution readers against buying a second one. As a further aside, 6.5% ABV is exactly the figure at which beer and cider become 'super strength' drinks in the eyes of various local councils and are taken off the market. By contrast, all the beers named and shamed in the Sunday Times for being sold at 'pocket money prices' have an ABV of 4% which, in the other story, is "like a soft drink". Super strength for booze for me, but not for thee? 

The Sunday Times thinks that the supermarkets and the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Association are both behaving reprehensibly, but for completely different reasons. The former is selling booze too cheaply, the latter is selling it too expensively. Presumably somebody at the Sunday Times knows exactly how much alcohol should cost. I guess this mystery figure falls somewhere between the 'shockingly cheap' 72p for a pint of Foster's and the 'shockingly expensive' £7.80 for a pint of Pimm's. But where? And how can they possibly judge?

You might say that the boffins and eggheads at Sheffield University (as The Sun doubtless calls them) know exactly how much alcohol should cost and it is 50p per unit, but 50p is only one of a number of options in their model and it is no more 'evidence-based' than a 60p, 70p or 90p unit. On the contrary, from a 'public health perspective' (and what other perspective is there, right?), the higher prices are more evidence-based.

I would argue that the optimum price for alcohol—and every other product in the world—is 'as cheap as possible'. The whole point of economic progress is to make things more affordable through higher wages and lower prices. In paradise, everything would be free, but if things can't be free, they should at least be cheap. The only qualification I would make is that any negative externalities should be captured in the cost of the product with a Pigovian tax. In the case of alcohol, it seems clear that alcohol duty amply covers the financial costs of alcohol misuse and leaves the government with a multi-billion pound profit.

Alcohol tax should therefore be reduced and supermarkets should be congratulated for selling alcohol as cheaply as they can can. The dilution of Pimm's may be a matter for the boys at weights and measures—I don't know—but you are allowed to bring your own alcohol into Wimbledon so my recommendation is to stock up on supermarket beer before you go. As usual, the off-trade can save the day.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

John Dalli's conspiracy theory

Longtime readers will recall that John Dalli, the EU's former health Commissioner, was sacked after his friend, Silvio Zammit, attempted to get a €60 million bribe out of Swedish Match, the snus manufacturer, to overturn the EU ban on snus. Swedish Match recorded an incriminating conversation with Zammit and handed it to the EU's anti-fraud officials at OLAF.

OLAF then looked at Zammit and Dalli's telephone records and noticed that whilst they didn't call each other very often, they called each other a lot on the days that Zammit met with Swedish Match, with another spate of phone calls coming when they found out about OLAF's investigation. OLAF described this as "unambiguous and converging pieces of circumstantial evidence" and Dalli was asked to resign on the grounds that he had failed to report corruption—which he did.

It later emerged that Dalli had also taken "at least two trips to the Bahamas as part of an effort to arrange the transfer of tens of millions of dollars". This, combined with Dalli's weird behaviour and tinfoil hat accusations (which Barroso said were "incomprehensible") can be viewed as being consistent with a man who has something to hide.

Next month—nearly two years after Dalli's resignation—the Maltese politician will be in court to give an account of himself. He is not being taken to court by the EU, rather he is taking the EU to court for wrongful dismissal (despite the fact that he resigned). If a report in the magazine EuroPolitics is any guide, he will claim to be the victim of a remarkably wide-ranging conspiracy.

“The tobacco industry is behind this fraud. They planned and executed it, with the collaboration of the Commission. Swedish Match is connected to Philip Morris. This was not about snus. That was just a façade. It was about derailing the tobacco directive, which they succeeded in doing,” says the elderly Dalli, who does not hesitate to single out senior EU officials.

But, as Barroso has already explained, the directive was not derailed. It has gone through largely unaltered, with no amendment of the snus ban and with some unnecessary and counterproductive regulation of e-cigarettes thrown in. It underwent some amendments, as is usual, but they were mostly minor and had nothing to do with the Dalli scandal. On the contrary, there was pressure for the TPD to be passed quickly and with few amendments precisely because of the Dalli scandal.

Dalli establishes connections among all the protagonists: Swedish Match and Philip Morris had set up a joint venture in 2009 to market snus internationally. So they had common interests. Michel Petite is the Commission’s former legal services director and is today employed by a law firm, whose clients include Philip Morris. He was a very close friend of Commission Secretary-General Catherine Day and President José Manuel Barroso.
“Petite was the connection between the tobacco industry and the high-level Commission officials. [...] He had meetings with the Commission’s legal services about the tobacco directive, and as reported to me by SANCO staff, caused the Commission legal services to change opinions that they had earlier given to SANCO.” 

In other words, some people who work in Brussels know each other. One of them has, at best, a distant connection with a tobacco company.

Dalli asserts that the industry was not happy with his approach to revision of the tobacco directive. Petite therefore alerted Day and Barroso, who arranged to get rid of him.

Really? It's that easy, is it? An obscure, junior staffer tells the EU president to get rid of a Commissioner and the president immediately organises a giant conspiracy to do so?

What was Barroso's motive? He doesn't have one. What was Petite's motive? He doesn't have one either, really. The closest thing Dalli can find to a motive is the fact that Petite now works for a law firm that has a tobacco company on its books. What was Day's motive? She is, supposedly, a 'close friend' of Petite's. Pretty powerful guy, this Petite, isn't he? What is he, a hypnotist?

And how did OLAF become involved in this devious plot?

“They got [OLAF Director-General Giovanni] Kessler involved, I suppose by promising to appoint him as the future head of the European public prosecutor’s office." 

He supposes.

"Kessler was therefore personally out to get me,” says Dalli.

Sure he was. Everyone's out to get him.

He also highlights the connections among all the protagonists: “[Lobbyist] Johan Gabrielsson was hired by Swedish Match in October 2011, when everything began. That was no coincidence. I think he was hired because he knew [lobbyist] Gayle Kimberley [they had both worked at the Council’s legal service on enlargement]. Kimberley had an extra-marital relationship with one of Zammit’s friends, who knew me. Kimberley was possibly also the bait. But I have no proof. That is simply my interpretation.”

This is just a stream of non sequiturs and free association. The only thing missing is a reference to the Freemasons and the 'zionists'. It all sounds bonkers to me, but this could be the trial of the year.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Off to Warsaw

I'm off to Warsaw for the Global Nicotine Forum. I hope to be tweeting, if not blogging, for the duration. In the meantime, I'll leave you with two depressing stories.

This man has had his tobacconist raided by the New Zealand rozzers because the name of his shop—Discount Cigarette Supplies—violates some ridiculous anti-smoking law. He has been forced to paint over the offending word 'cigarette'.

The world is now a safer place.

And then there's this bullshit on the front page of the Daily Mail (and the Telegraph)...

We can take a little comfort from the fact that the UK's "chief obesity adviser" (as the Telegraph describes her despite there being no such role) didn't go quite as far in her comments as the headlines suggest. Nevertheless, it is a sign of these pitiful and puritanical times that people are being encouraged to fear fruit juice. I have always found it goes perfectly well with some spirits.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Siegel on Chapman and Glantz

From Michael Siegel's blog... the anti-smoking movement, you don't need to be honest and truthful. As long as your intentions are good, you can get away with lying and with making false and defamatory accusations. The ends are all that matter, and if you use defamatory means to reach those ends, it's perfectly acceptable.

And he's in the anti-smoking movement!

The subject of his blog post is the latest lies being spread by the Laurel and Hardy of tobacco control, Simon Chapman and Stan Glantz. Go read it.

That Aussie plain packaging data again

More on that plain packaging/tobacco sales controversy—which really shouldn't be controversial...

As Terry McCrann says in the Herald Sun, "the mindless and usually vicious stupidity of the left has been on vivid and utterly dependable display in what might be termed the cigarette packaging war over the last few weeks."

The facts are pretty clear and they can be seen in this graph that shows seasonally adjusted tobacco sales (see previous post for more details).

This really requires no further comment, but I'm happy to let McCrann take it from here for those who need further explanation.

Hell hath no fury like another leftist “feel-good-idea-at-the-time” policy exposed as a failure. A torrent of abuse was unleashed from the left, initiated by former, ahem, Gillard adviser and, in his all-too inadvertently accurate words, “one of Australia’s leading economic visionaries”, Stephen Koukoulas.

... In the usual cocktail of stupidity and dishonesty, the Kouk cited official statistics showing the volume of tobacco consumption in the March 2014 quarter was 5.3 per cent lower than in the December 2012 quarter when the law came into effect. What he did not point out, and as our graph from the Macrobusiness blog shows, virtually the entire fall came in the March quarter itself — which just happened to follow a thumping 12.5 per cent excise increase. What the Kouk is also unable to comprehend is that the ABS figures he cited are merely a proxy for actual tobacco and cigarette volumes; no one who understands statistics would claim they literally measure actual volumes.

... You don’t have to have any particular knowledge of statistics to pick up the clearest signal from the graph. That over the course of 2013 — after plain packaging, the spend on smokes arguably rose and at worst went sideways. This interrupted an equally unambiguous downward trend in the spend. That trend either resumed this year, or because of the big excise thumping.

I don't know why Koukoulas has decided to keep flogging this dead horse (loyalty to Gillard is McCrann's theory) and I was none the wiser after he started a conversation with me on Twitter this week (you can see it here). He seems to have mentally blocked out the whole of 2013 in his analysis. It's remarkable.

There's no helping those who have eyes and fail to see, but if the plain packaging lobby get away with persuading people that the graph above—which shows that tobacco sales were higher in three out of four quarters after plain packaging came in than they had been before—proves that the policy works, then the scoundrels can get away with anything.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Guardian's 10 shocking facts about obesity

In the Guardian, Sarah Boseley has written a useful article about obesity. Useful because it brings a whole bunch of obesity myths together in one place. Let's take her "10 shocking facts" in turn...

1. Nearly two-thirds of the UK population is either overweight or obese

This is true and, to Boseley's credit, she doesn't adopt the sneaky tactic of merging the overweight and obese together as if they were all obese. The overweight live longer than those of 'normal weight' so the obese are the only ones we are interested in from a 'public health perspective'. She doesn't tell us how many are obese (24%), nor does she mention that this number has barely risen for a decade. But she does add this little nugget...

There is a community effect: you are more likely to be overweight if your friends and neighbours are and you see it as the norm.

This is a reference to the Christakis and Fowler study which invented the concept of 'passive obesity'. The study has been comprehensively debunked. It contains errors that are "so egregious that a critique of their work cannot exist without also calling into question the rigor of review process."

2. Obesity is shortening our lives

Moderate obesity (BMI 30-35) cuts life expectancy by two to four years and severe obesity (BMI 40-45) by an entire decade, according to a major study in the Lancet in 2009. This is most likely to affect today's children; more than a fifth of five-year-olds and a third of 11-year-olds are overweight or obese. "Obesity is such that this generation of children could be the first in the history of the United States to live less healthful and shorter lives than their parents," said Dr David S Ludwig, director of the obesity programme at the Children's Hospital Boston

Obesity is certainly a risk factor for diseases that can and do shorten lives. Whether it is actually 'shortening our lives' in absolute terms while life expectancy continues to rise is much more debatable. It is more than likely that life expectancy will rise by more than the 'two to four years' mentioned above by the time today's children reach late middle age and it is almost certainly untrue that these children will live shorter lives than their parents. As I have mentioned before, life expectancy figures keep on rising and the number of babies who are thought to live to the age of 100 continues to go up.

3. Obesity could bankrupt the NHS

The NHS spends £5bn a year on diseases such as strokes and diabetes that are linked to obesity. Within a few decades, that is predicted to climb to £15bn. Type 2 diabetes is a huge problem: 10% of the NHS budget already goes on that alone.

Diabetes is certainly on the rise (though not as much as predicted) and it is certainly obesity-related. Diabetes and its complications can be expensive to treat and it is probably the most concerning aspect of the rise in obesity. But bankrupt the NHS? What does that even mean? Are we going to turn up at A & E one day and find the shutters down and the staff laid off?

No. The government will just tax more and borrow more. The government is borrowing the best part of £100 billion a year already. Scandalously, it spends nearly £50 billion just paying off the interest on the debt. I don't support this and it's clearly unsustainable, but where are all the public health people demanding urgent cuts to stop the country bankrupting itself? There are nowhere to be seen; indeed, they are fiercely against [cough] 'austerity'.

The only time the public health racket ever expresses an interest in fiscal discipline is when they can blame smokers, drinkers and fatties for being a 'drain on the NHS'. Which is nonsense anyway because the healthcare costs of the obese are lower than those of the 'normal weight'.

4. It's an unfair fight

The government spends £14m a year on its anti-obesity social marketing programme Change4Life. The food industry spends more than £1bn a year on marketing in the UK.

Because people wouldn't eat food if it wasn't for marketing, right?

This is such a weak and tedious argument. Firstly, advertising can't make someone buy a product they don't want. Secondly, a large proportion of the £1bn marketing budget is for 'healthy' food. Thirdly, lots of heavily consumed 'unhealthy food' has little or no advertising behind it (chips, pies, pasties, kebabs etc.). Fourthly, the rise in obesity is primarily due to physical inactivity, not increased calorie consumption (the latter has fallen). Fifthly, if you think that people would behave in a significantly different way if the 'anti-obesity social marketing programme' had a billion pounds to spend, you don't understand people.

It's not just the in-your-face bright packaging with happy slogans, but which aisle the product is in. Food companies pay a premium to have their merchandise on end-displays, which account for 30% of supermarket sales. We are not as in control of our shopping as we like to believe. We go in with good intentions – we come out with large bottles of fizzy drinks and packets of biscuits.

In virtually every supermarket I've ever been in, the fruit and vegetables are the first thing you see when you walk in. It doesn't tempt me to buy either. And, by the way, why is it only the manufacturers of 'unhealthy' food that have cottoned on to the power of advertising and promotion in GuardianWorld? Could it be that advertising follows demand and not vice versa?

5. Obesity took off in the have-it-all 80s

But it was unregistered by the government in power. McDonald's moved its headquarters into Margaret Thatcher's Finchley constituency in 1982, three years after she became prime minister. She opened the building in 1983 and visited again in 1989, on the 10th anniversary of her prime ministership, when she congratulated the company on the jobs it had created and its economic success.

I have quoted this section in full in the hope that a reader might be able to tell me what the hell it is supposed to mean. It seems to be a vaguely conspiratorial piece of Guardian anti-Thatcherism thrown in for the sake of it, but perhaps I'm missing something. Oh, and by the way, kids who eat at McDonald's are slimmer than those who don't.

6. Snacking is "a newly created behaviour"

It was virtually unknown before the second world war, according to Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health.

I don't know what research this refers to (although I do know that Popkin is a rum fellow). It seems rather implausible that snacking is a post-war invention. Crisps were invented in the nineteenth century. The Rowntree and Cadbury chocolate dynasties were also founded in the nineteenth century. Cakes, biscuits and pastries have been around even longer. Presumably somebody was eating these snacks at the time. I do, however, agree that if you want to lose weight, cutting out snacks is one of the best ways to do it.

7. The food industry is behaving as the tobacco industry did

Big Food is the new Big Tobacco. Yawn.

Large numbers of scientists advise the food industry and take funding for research because they are focused on the micro, not the macro picture. The "sustaining members" of the British Nutrition Foundation include Coca- Cola, Kellogg's, Mondelez (owner of Cadbury), Nestlé, PepsiCo, Tate & Lyle, Associated British Foods and Unilever. The chair of the government's nutritional advisory committee investigating carbohydrates, including sugar, is Professor Ian Macdonald from Nottingham University, who has been an adviser to Coca-Cola and Mars.

I would be very concerned if the food industry didn't employ scientists. I hope and expect that they are of a higher calibre than the fringe cranks that are involved with Action on Sugar. But what matters is the quality and veracity of their research—a question that Boseley sidesteps.

8. Your brain, not your stomach, tells you when to stop eating

Hunger is in the mind. Dr Suzanne Higgs at Birmingham University carried out a remarkable experiment to prove it. Her team gave a group of amnesiacs a lunch of sandwiches and cakes. When everybody had finished eating, they cleared away and brought in a fresh lunch 10 minutes later. A control group of people with no memory problems groaned and refused any more food. The amnesiac group tucked in and ate the same again.

Cool story, bro.

9. By the age of five, it is almost too late to intervene

The EarlyBird diabetes study of 300 children in Devon showed that they had already gained 70–90% of their excess weight before primary school. It is far harder to get rid of weight than to put it on, even as a child. Some experts think that if we want to prevent obesity, we're going to have to find ways to help parents from, or even before, the birth of their baby.

What does 'almost too late to intervene' mean? Is it too late or isn't it? Let me answer that—it's not too late. If you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. It is obvious that it is 'harder to get rid of weight than to put it on' because putting it on weight requires no thought or effort whatsoever. The question is whether it is possible to lose weight after the age of five, to which the answer is clearly 'yes'.

We think obesity is about adults eating fried chicken and chips.

Do we? I don't. Or does the 'we' refer to Guardian readers who have told for years that it's those ghastly American fast food chains that have created the obesity 'epidemic'?

Those who think children are getting fat because they sit in front of the television too much may also be wrong. Another finding from EarlyBird was that inactivity does not lead to obesity – obesity leads to inactivity.

Yeah, let your kids sit around watching television all day, they won't get fat. You know it's true because you read it in the Guardian. This is exactly the sort of irresponsible rubbish I wrote about a couple of days ago. Of course fat people do less exercise than slim people, but it is dangerous, scientifically illiterate nonsense to claim that 'inactivity does not lead to obesity'.

10. Obese children are increasingly being taken into care

At least 74 in the past five years, according to a Freedom of Information request from the Daily Mirror

It is probably true that numbers are increasing (although Boseley presents no evidence for it), but we are talking about very small numbers in a country of 65 million people. There will always be extreme cases at the far end of the bell curve. Each case is unfortunate and the causes are likely to be complex (including a genetic element in some instances), but a handful of freakishly fat children does not tell you a great deal about the overall trend. Rates of childhood obesity peaked ten years ago and have been falling ever since.

And that's it. The article has produced some classic comments from 'liberals'.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Fat tax video nasty

This video is almost impossible to watch. It features three insufferable talking heads competing to be the most intolerant and ignorant health fascist in Britain. The panel highlights the broad appeal of the nanny state to certain groups of useful idiots. The upper class snob, the know-nothing journalist and the unfunny liberal-left comedian are all united in their desire to make the poor poorer. The only voice of sanity—though heavily outnumbered on this BBC show—is Vicky Beeching.

The main focus of the debate is taxing food, but most of the speakers want to go much further than that. It is a horrifying spectacle.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The irresponsibility of Action on Sugar

More free publicity for the tiny, extremist group Action on Sugar and their inept front man Aseem Malhotra...

Health group calls for 'sugar tax' to cut child obesity

A "sugar tax" should be introduced by the UK government to help curb obesity in childhood, a campaign group says.

Action on Sugar has produced a seven-point plan to discourage children from consuming foods and soft drinks with high levels of added sugar...

The seven proposed measures are:

- Reduce added sugars in food by 40% by 2020

- Ban all forms of targeted marketing of ultra-processed, unhealthy foods and drinks to children

- Disassociate physical activity with obesity by banning junk food sports sponsorships

- Reduce fat by 15% in ultra-processed foods by 2020

- Limit the availability of ultra-processed foods and sweetened soft drinks as well as reducing portion sizes

- Introduce a sugar tax to incentivise healthier food

The scholars amongst you will notice that there are only six points in this seven point plan, which is good indicator of how Action on Sugar handles data.

I've written about Denmark's fat tax fiasco at length and there are clear lessons for anyone thinking about bringing in a sugar tax. The other policy ideas are also contemptible, but I'd like to focus on one aspect which is particularly disgraceful for a group that claims to be interested in health.

Regular readers will know that Malhotra is either a shameless liar or amazingly stupid. He is on usual form today, saying that it is "really quite shameful that the food industry continues to spend billions in junk food advertising targeting children"—this is rather unlikely considering the the UK's entire advertising spend is £14 billion and there are strict rules on 'junk food' advertising, particularly with regards to children.

Worse than this is his ongoing attempt to convince people that physical inactivity doesn't matter.

"It's time to bust the myth of physical activity and obesity and dissociate junk food and sport," he added.

Malhotra wants to absolve people from responsibility by denying that physical inactivity is a large part of the obesity problem so that he can blame Big Food and bring in stupid, ineffective measures like banning advertising. He does so despite the fact that the World Health Organisation says that physical inactivity is the world's fourth biggest killer, and despite the obvious fact that burning off calories is a very good way of staying fit, slim and healthy.

The simple fact is that the rise in obesity has been primarily caused by a reduction in physical activity, not a rise in calorie consumption. Previous generations consumed more calories but were not obese because they were more physically active, particularly at work. A typical Victorian worker consumed many more calories (including lots of sugar and fat), but burnt them off. The big change in the last few decades has been the rise of sedentary working conditions for the masses.

As the British Heart Foundation notes:

Overall intake of calories, fat and saturated fat has decreased since the 1970s. This trend is accompanied by a decrease in sugar and salt intake, and an increase in fibre and fruit and vegetable intake.

I've put that in bold because it should be read, re-read and memorised by anyone claiming to understand the causes of obesity. The BHF has an excellent compilation of statistics which show some important trends. I don't have time to turn them into graphs right now, but I recommend downloading it and perusing it (particularly page 125). It shows quite clearly that consumption of the food products that are most commonly blamed for obesity having been in decline for decades.

The importance of physical activity is not a "myth". Its decline over the decades is the primary cause of rising obesity. The correct response to this social change is to exercise more or consume fewer calories (or preferably both). It is utterly negligent to tell people that physical activity doesn't matter and yet this is exactly what Malhotra—who is a cardiologist, for God's sake—repeatedly tells people in so many words. It is appalling advice for a doctor to give. The man should be struck off.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Simon Chapman: "Devoid of any decency and courage"

It's been a good month for speeches in the Australian parliament. First we had George Christensen's wonderful discussion of sock puppet charities and this week we saw a right royal roasting of the twisted sociologist Simon Chapman.

The speech was delivered by John Madigan of the left-wing Democratic Labour Party. Madigan is concerned about people who live near Australia's growing number of wind turbines. As a metropolitan socialist (who makes fun of Madigan's working class roots), Simon Chapman is naturally happy to see wind turbines spring up everywhere regardless of their effect on rural people which, at the very least, amounts to a form of Chinese water torture.

Despite having no relevant qualifications (no change there), Chapman glibly dismisses all complaints of psychological and physical ill health that are reported. His contribution to the debate has been (a) mocking those who say they have been affected, and (b) scouring the internet for any claim anywhere about the effects of wind turbines. He then compiles them in a list which he puts out as a PDF so he can say 'Ha! They say there are an unfeasibly large number of problems caused by wind turbines - what a bunch of loonies!' This is a trick that could be applied to almost any problem, not least the secondhand smoke that Simple Simon has spent a lifetime obsessing over. Scholars of logic will know that the existence of bogus claims does not prove the absence of legitimate claims.

Senator Madigan has grown tired of Chapman's nonsense and launched into a magnificent tirade in parliament on Tuesday. Aside from the long overdue check on Simple Si's credentials, it was amusing to see that, after years of making ad hominem attacks against those who he imagines to be funded by 'industry', he now finds himself accused—rightly or wrongly—of being in the pay of 'Big Wind'.

You can watch it all here, but these are the highlights.

This academic [Chapman] has a track record of making fun of people in regional and rural communities who are sick. He trades in scuttlebutt. He makes consistent attacks on anyone who makes a complaint against his network of corporate buddies. This academic has become the poster boy for an industry which has a reputation for dishonesty and for bullying.

... The wind industry is about one thing in this country: it exists to make people rich at the expense of many rural and regional Australians, their lives and their communities. My investigation shows it does not decrease carbon dioxide, it does not reduce power costs, it does not improve the environment. And this academic in question stands shoulder to shoulder with the wind industry companies and their colourful—and I use that term deliberately—executives. He promotes their products. He attacks their critics. He attends their conferences. He rubs shoulders with their henchmen. He is, in the words of the former member for Hume, Alby Schultz—who was a great campaigner on this issue, I might add—devoid of any decency and courage.

... So when I spoke with Alan Jones onto 2GB on 27 March, I made one simple point. I told Mr Jones we need to be careful about people who profess to be experts in this area. For the benefit of the Senate I repeat what I said in that interview:
'when we talk about people, using the title, using a title, such as Professor, let us be clear crystal clear here Alan. Most people in the community assume that when you use the title Professor, that you are trained in the discipline of which you speak. And I ask people, look and check. What is the person making these proclamations about other people’s health? What is the discipline they are trained in of which they speak? Because most people in the public assume when you speak of an issue of health, that you are trained in the discipline of which you speak, and there are people making pronouncements and denigrating people who are not trained in human health.'
I stand by this statement. It is fair and reasonable to encourage people to look behind the blatant campaigning done by people like Professor Chapman of the University of Sydney.

But it is the statement that has prompted him to threaten me, utilising a law firm that was instrumental in the set-up of Hepburn Wind. He has threatened to sue me for libel over this statement unless I pay him $40,000 plus costs. He has threatened to sue me for libel unless I organise an apology on the website of 2GB and an anti-wind farm website called Stop These Things. He has threatened me with contempt of parliament and a breach of parliamentary privilege if I raise these matters in the Senate. This reaction by Professor Chapman is something that my more experienced parliamentary colleagues have labelled a blatant try-on. It is another attempt by the wind industry to silence me, to scare me off and to intimidate me. It is a case of a Sydney university academic firing shots across the bow of the blacksmith from Ballarat. This is something he has done before now, tweeting about my position on this issue, always in the context of my background as a blacksmith—a background, I add, that I am enormously proud of. I remain one of the wind industry’s most stubborn and outspoken critics. I will not be silenced. I will not give up on the injustice inflicted on people who claim to be impacted by living near turbines. I will not stop. My comments to Alan Jones were a series of rhetorical statements or questions about the assumptions members of the public should be entitled to make when somebody professes to be qualified to speak about an issue of public health. In other words, I was asking people to check that so-called experts on this issue are relevantly trained and qualified. It is a reasonable request. Our media and the internet are crawling with self-appointed experts. Daily we operate in a cacophony of opinion presented as fact.

Professor Chapman has been an outspoken critic of those who have dared to question the wind farm orthodoxy. But is Professor Chapman a medical doctor? Is he legally entitled to examine and treat patients? Is he qualified in acoustics or any other aspect of audiology? Is he a sleep specialist? Does he hold any qualifications in bioacoustics or physiology or neuroscience? How many wind farm victims has he interviewed directly? How many wind farm impacted homes has he visited? Professor Chapman claims to receive no payment from the wind industry. How many wind industry conferences, seminars and events has he spoken at? How many wind industry events has he attended? Writing on the Crikey website in November 2011, Professor Chapman lamented how many conferences do not pay speaker’s fees, and, when one conference organiser refused to pay his hotel bill, he withdrew. This is the same Professor Chapman who was photographed at a campaign launch in Melbourne by the Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas. Did Vestas pay your hotel bill and other costs, Professor Chapman? These are reasonable questions—they put in context his actions.

... As a public health academic, Professor Chapman displays a lack of compassion for people who claim to be suffering debilitating effects from pervasive wind turbine noise. Professor Chapman’s undergraduate qualifications were in sociology. His PhD looked into the relationship between cigarette smoke and advertising. I question his expertise, I question his qualifications and I question his unbridled motivation to promote and support the wind industry at the cost of people’s lives, homes and communities. I question Professor Chapman’s lack of interest in speaking with wind industry victims. Professor Chapman has a record of public denigration of victims. I refer to his tweet in February this year about ‘wind farm wing nuts’.

... If Professor Chapman proceeds with this action, I look forward to having him answer in court those questions I have raised here tonight—questions about his qualifications, his expertise and his links with the wind industry financial or otherwise. I look forward to his cross-examination under oath as equally as I look forward to mine. I say this: his action, if it proceeds, is doomed in a legal setting or elsewhere for one reason; it is not based on the truth.

I don't know about you, dear reader, but I really hope this goes to court.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Sunshine is not the new heroin

From the Evening Standard...

Sunshine acts like an addictive drug and has a similar effect on the body as heroin, scientists claim.

Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun stimulate the production of endorphins, "feel good" hormones that act on the same biological pathway as opioid drugs, research shows.

Sigh. Lots of things produce endorphins quite naturally. Just because heroin produces endorphins doesn't mean that all the other things are addictive or pernicious.

The study suggests that the desire to bake for hours on a beach involves more than topping up a tan.

Yes, black people like being in the sun too. Weird, huh?

It may appease our craving for a sunshine "fix", in much the same way as an addict satisfies a yearning for heroin or morphine.

It doesn't mean that at all.
Dr Fisher and his team investigated links between UV exposure and the opioid receptor pathway in "naked" laboratory mice.

After a week in the artificial sunshine, endorphin levels in the blood of shaved animals increased.

At the end of six weeks, the mice were given an opioid-blocking drug, naloxone. Abruptly denied the drug-like effects of UV, they suffered an array of withdrawal symptoms, including shaking, tremors and teeth chattering.

Gee, that's just like when we get back from a week's holiday in the sun. You know what it's like. You get back to grey old England and the tremors kick in, the teeth chattering begins and you start shaking like a leaf. Hell, we're just like junkies coming off smack.

No, wait. We don't do any of that, do we? Because sunshine isn't addictive and people aren't shaved lab mice.

Leaving aside the fact that this research is worthless, just imagine being a scientist who has discovered that sunshine—something that is free, natural and relatively abundant—creates the same pleasurable effect as opiates. Wouldn't that be good news? Wouldn't that be nice?

Not in these puritanical times of hypochondria and fear, it isn't...

Lead scientist Dr David Fisher, from Harvard Medical School in the US, said: "This information might serve as a valuable means of educating people to curb excessive sun exposure in order to limit skin cancer risk as well as accelerated skin ageing that occurs with repeated sun exposure.

"Our findings suggest that the decision to protect our skin or the skin of our children may require more of a conscious effort rather than a passive preference."

Or even maybe a little nudging from a benevolent government? After all, you can't expect people who are addicted to be able to make rational decisions for themselves, can you?

"It's surprising that we're genetically programmed to become addicted to something as dangerous as UV radiation..."

It is, isn't it? It would be evolutionary madness and that's another reason to think that it's not true.

"...which is probably the most common carcinogen in the world," said Dr Fisher, whose findings appear in the journal Cell

"Probably the most common carcinogen in the world." There's a catchphrase coined right there. Cancer: It's Everywhere. I bet this guy is a riot at a party.

Refreshingly for a mainstream article about a junk study, the Standard includes quotes from not one but two scientists who basically say that the findings are bollocks. One points out that the study didn't bother using non-UV light for the control group. The other says that "mice are nocturnal animals, covered in fur, which avoid the light", therefore shaving them and putting them on a sunbed for seven days is somewhat unnatural.

This is all reminiscent of the 'biscuits are more addictive than cocaine' nonsense last year.

Child exploitation

At the Free Society, Brain Monteith writes about the prohibitionists' penchant for surveys of children. Asking leading questions of malleable minors is the cheapest of political tricks, but the anti-smokers and anti-drinkers are increasingly resorting to it. We saw it in Peter Taylor's BBC documentary recently, as well as in many other plain packaging promotions. Alcohol Concern even uses a group of chiiiildren to make complaints about alcohol advertising (which are hardly ever upheld).

Brian looks at the latest example in Scotland which involves a charity that is - surprise, surprise - mostly funded by the government.

The seventeen Youth Commissioners were tasked with an inquiry into how a “smoke-free generation” might be achieved by 2034. So there we have it, not tasked with how to extend choice, liberty and freedom for young people in the future – but how to introduce prohibition. The result was self-fulfilling – proposals for one ban after another until there is little freedom to smoke or vape unless you are old and crusty and expected to die anyway… that way smoking disappears. How naïve!

"Youth Commissioners"?! Urgh.

Do read the whole piece.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

When in doubt, call them deniers

There is much rejoicing amongst Aussie anti-smoking zealots at the arrival of new data which, they say, proves that plain packaging is a great success. Simple Simon Chapman and his underlings are urging people to visit this webpage to see the good news of falling tobacco consumption.

The only problem is that it's not new data. It's exactly the same ABS data that people have been discussing for the last few days, including in this blog post. As previously mentioned, the figures only support the idea that plain packaging reduces tobacco consumption if you ignore the whole of 2013 and focus only on the first quarter of 2014 when there was a big increase in tobacco tax. Attributing a decline in consumption that took place in early 2014 to a policy that was introduced in December 2012 is mischievous to say the least.

Nevertheless, the Kouk has taken the nuclear option of calling those who have noticed that the emperor is wearing no clothes 'deniers'. He continues to talk about "a 5.3 per cent fall in the overall volume of tobacco consumed between the December quarter 2012 and the March quarter 2014". His maths are wrong, it's actually a 2.9 per cent fall, but the important point is that this decline did not take place in the year after plain packaging came in. It took place after a 12.5% tax hike was implemented twelve months later. In the June and September 2013 quarters, sales were higher than they had been in December 2012. These were the first increases in tobacco sales for several years.

It doesn't look great for plain packaging, does it? Especially after all that guff about smokers seriously, er, thinking about giving up smoking and calling the quitline in their, er, hundreds.

Simply put, the plain packaging desperados want you to ignore what happened after plain packaging was introduced and instead focus on what happened after the December 2013 tax hike. You can see why they want you to do that. The graph below shows what happened in the first year of the plain packaging regime. Bugger all.

But this is the graph that the straw-clutchers want you to focus on, or rather they want you to focus on the far right hand side and mentally substitute the words 'tax hike' for 'plain packaging'. Yes, tobacco sales were lower in the first quarter of 2014, but there is a pretty obvious explanation for that.

The price elasticity of cigarettes is often said to be -0.4 so we would expect a 4 per cent decline in consumption from a 12.5 per cent tax hike regardless of any other policy intervention (roughly speaking, based on tax making up 80% of the price—and this refers to legal sales; what it does to illicit sales is another matter.) In fact, it fell by less than that (2.5 per cent) so even that policy failed to live up to expectations.

Kouk then offers a wager...

I will wager that when we get the ABS measure for the household consumption of tobacco and cigarettes for the December quarter 2014, it will show lower consumption than for ANY quarter in 2012 or 2013.

Of course, no one will take that bet because of the secular decline in tobacco sales and the tax rise. It's possible that sales might increase, but if he's only offering even money, I'd decline. But although I wouldn't take Kouk's bet, I would have happily taken a bet in 2012 on whether there would be an unusually large dip in consumption after plain packaging. I would have bet 'no' and I would have won.


ABS also has seasonally adjusted tobacco sales figures, shown below. Same story.


Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Who believes in the Total Consumption Model?

Punishing the Majority, the paper John Duffy and I wrote for the IEA, has been well received, but I'd like to respond to one criticism made by James Nicholls when I was on the radio with him over the weekend. The criticism really takes two forms: firstly, that nobody in the alcohol research community believes in the Total Consumption Model any more (and so we are attacking a straw man), and secondly that government policy is not aimed at reducing per capita alcohol consumption.

On the first point, we note in the report that 'Nothing in this paper will seem new or controversial to those who have followed this academic debate in the last forty years.' This is true and it would be great if everybody accepted that reducing per capita alcohol consumption is not the key to reducing heavy and harmful drinking. Unfortunately, there are plenty of influential groups that still endorse the theory, either explicitly or in so many words.

This 2010 NICE document, for example, which was commissioned by the government to advise the government, offers a texbook explanation of the Total Consumption Model and cites its biggest British proponent, Geoffrey Rose.

Population-wide interventions

The PDG believes that most of the recommendations will have a greater impact on those who drink irresponsibly. However, taken together, they are very likely to improve the health of the population as a whole. As indicated by the Rose hypothesis, a small reduction in risk among a large number of people may prevent many more cases, rather than treating a small number at higher risk. A whole-population approach explicitly focuses on changing everyone's exposure to risk (Rose 2008). In this instance, the number of people who drink a heavy or excessive amount in a given population is related to how much the whole population drinks on average. Thus, reducing the average drinking level, via population interventions, is likely to reduce the number of people with severe problems due to alcohol.

And here is Alcohol Focus Scotland, the state-funded temperance group...

Harmful drinking has become so normal and acceptable that the problems it causes to other people are often overlooked. That’s why we need alcohol policies for the whole population. If we all drink less, then harms will come down across the board. Drinking less is in all our interests.

And here is a communication from the European Commission (which advised the Scottish government that minimum pricing would be illegal):

It is worth noting that total alcohol consumption is a key health indicator in the EU (ECHI 46) as a proxy for the level of alcohol related harm in a Member State.

For this reason, the EU has a specific target of reducing per capita alcohol consumption from 10.2 litres to 9 litres per year by 2020. Note that it sets goals for consumption, rather than harm.

Moreover, although we have been told that minimum pricing has nothing to do with the Total Consumption Model, one of its main proponents, Tim Stockwell said (in an report promoting minimum pricing) that it is central to it...

The [Sheffield] model is based on two fundamental elements that are well established in the much larger literature on the relationship between alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harms:  

(i) When the price of alcohol increases consumption by most drinkers goes down, including, critically, consumption by hazardous and harmful drinkers;

(ii) When population alcohol consumption declines rates of alcohol-related harms also.

All subsequent debate about the Sheffield Model has centred on the degree of certainty regarding the size of these effects... High quality reviews confirm that when total consumption of alcohol in the population declines, consumption among heavier drinkers is reduced and, further; rates of alcohol-related mortality also decline [32]. The Sheffield Model applied these general principles specifically to the UK and provided numerical estimates of the benefits.

It should be noted that reference 32 is Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity, a book that revived the Total Consumption Model for the 21st century, complete with the usual policy recommendations with regards to price, advertising and availability. Its summary asserts that "As the per capita consumption in a population increases the consumption of the heaviest drinkers also rises, as does the prevalence of heavy drinkers and the rate of alcohol-related harm".

The Total Consumption Model is therefore not dead, it just smells funny

But is it part of government policy? At the EU level, yes, but the EU has limited authority in this area. In Britain, perhaps not so much (although we are not just talking about Britain in the report). The government is naturally influenced by the influencers, such as NICE, but famously ignores them when they feel like it (eg. with minimum pricing). It is probably fair to say that politicians in the UK are not ideologically wedded to the Total Consumption Model, indeed they probably don't know what it is. But let's look at what they do in practice.

The 'cornerstone policies' of the Total Consumption Model involve raising taxes, restricting advertising and limiting availability. Britain certainly has high alcohol taxes and its advertising regime is more restrictive than most. It can be therefore seen to be following the 'whole population' approach even if it is not ideologically committed to it. I accept that availability has been the exception in recent years. The 2003 Licensing Act liberalised the sale of alcohol and would not have been brought in by a government that was primarily interested in reducing overall consumption.

Nevertheless, overall consumption has fallen since the Licensing Act came in. I don't think this was necessarily the intention, but it shows that the dogma of 'affordability, advertising and availability' doesn't stand up in the real world. Still more tellingly, the decline in consumption (and the rise in prices) has not coincided with a commensurate decline in alcohol-related harm. Thus, the fundamental belief that less per capita consumption = less harm has not been borne out in the UK over the last decade. Why? In large part, because it has been the 'wrong' people who have been cutting down on their drinking.

In conclusion, large parts of the 'public health' community remain wedded to the Total Consumption Model (or some variation thereof) and whilst the government may not be consciously wedded to the theory, it endorses most of the policies that are associated with it. The model, however, does not stand up in theory or in practice.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Plain packaging's battle of statistics

There have been claims and counterclaims about the effect of plain packaging on cigarette sales in Australia. Or rather there been lots of claims that it has coincided with more cigarettes being sold and one counterclaim that it hasn't. The counterclaim is based on this graph, which only supports plain packaging if you pretend that the policy was implemented in December 2013 instead of December 2012.

The dispute revolves around the Australian Bureau of Statistics' sales figures (table 8). The industry says sales rose by 0.3 per cent, or by 59 million cigarettes. The ABS's sales figures do not tell us how many cigarettes were sold, nor do they tell us how many people were smoking, but they do show us the trend in (legal) tobacco sales. As the graph below shows, there was a long term decline (which goes back decades) which appears to have slowed, at best, in the first year of plain packaging.

The rearguard defence of plain packaging, led by The Kouk, relies on the focusing on the first quarter's sales figures for 2014 which show a dip in chain volume to $3,405 million. This is almost certainly the result of a major tax hike in December 2013 of 12.5 per cent, but The Kouk and others have deluded themselves into thinking that it somehow represents the delayed effect of plain packaging.

This is a pretty desperate excuse. The debate is about what effect plain packaging had in its first year, not what effect a price hike had over a year later. The treasury made much more than it expected from tobacco taxes in 2012/13 and expects to make even more in the years ahead (even taking account of further large rises in tobacco duty that are in the pipeline). And, as we saw last month, there is no evidence of a decline in smoking rates. Indeed, Aussie politicians are complaining that smoking rates are on the rise.

All this is nicely explained by the economist Judith Sloan in The Australian. It's a must read if you want to separate fact from fiction in this debate.

So are there any reasons to doubt claims by The Australian’s Christian Kerr that tobacco sales volumes have increased by 59 million sticks since December 2012 (an increase of 0.3 per cent) and consumption of the cheapest cigarettes has risen significantly more? The short answer is: Kerr 1, the Kouk 0.

There is additional evidence to back up the claim that plain packaging is failing to have an impact. Take the chart on imports of cigarettes, which shows a significant rise since December 2012. And then we have the information from the budget papers which shows actual and projected excise revenue from cigarettes. (Note that excise is levied on a per-stick basis.) The data is not quite complete because then treasurer, Wayne Swan, had something of a meltdown in his last budget and refused to release any figures because of supposed taxpayer confidentiality.

The messages from this chart are twofold: actual excise has exceeded projected excise in every year. And the year in which there is the largest gap between actual and projected excise is 2012-13, which includes six months during which plain packaging was in force. Moreover, the government is expecting to rake in large increases in future excise revenue.

Sensing that the game might be slipping away from them, Nanny Xenophon is calling for a floor price on cigarettes. Gosh, that would be a good idea — loading another ill-conceived intervention on one that doesn’t seem to be working.

But the final point should go to Professor Sinclair Davidson of RMIT University, who has interrogated the data in a systematic way. “I have no doubt that the consumption of cigarettes has risen since plain packaging was introduced; we just can’t be sure whether it is by existing smokers or new smokers.”

Do read it all.

Punishing the drinking majority

 Alcohol policy in Britain and many other countries aims to reduce per capita alcohol consumption in the belief that this will inevitably reduce heavy and harmful drinking. Campaigners cite the ‘Total Consumption Model’ as justification for implementing policies that affect all drinkers, rather than just the heavy drinking minority. This theory, which was devised in the 1950s, states that the amount of harmful drinking in a population is a fixed percentage of the amount of overall drinking, so if per capita consumption goes up, harm will go up, and if per capita consumption goes down, harm will go down.

Though it is rarely cited explicitly, this simple theory underpins most of the ‘public health’  approach to alcohol today. For example, the National Institute of Clinical Excellence says that ‘the number of people who drink a heavy or excessive amount in a given population is related to how much the whole population drinks on average. Thus, reducing the average drinking level, via population interventions, is likely to reduce the number of people with severe problems due to alcohol.’ Similarly, the state-funded pressure group Alcohol Focus Scotland says that they ‘aim to reduce harm by bringing about a significant reduction in alcohol consumption across the population.’ Both organisations aim to reduce average consumption by targeting the Three A’s - advertising, affordability and availability.

As John Duffy and I explain in a new IEA report - Punishing the Majority - it has long been recognised in the academic literature that the Total Consumption Model theory is built on sand. It is true that there is often a relationship between per capita alcohol consumption and the amount of alcohol-related harm (liver cirrhosis, alcohol poisonings etc.), but there is a simple reason for this: heavy drinking pushes up the average. A relatively small number of drinkers consume a disproportionately large proportion of alcohol. In Britain, more than 40 per cent of alcohol is consumed by ten per cent of the population. Close to 70 per cent is consumed by one fifth of the population. This distribution is not unusual in markets - it is the Pareto principle - but it indicates the extent to which per capita consumption depends on the drinking patterns of a minority. If you have more heavy drinkers you are almost bound to have a higher rate of per capita alcohol consumption. You are also likely to have more alcohol-related harm, but that is because of the heavy drinking, not because of the average.

The public health lobby take the wrong lesson from a statistical correlation. When they see average consumption rising and falling roughly in line with alcohol-related harm they assume that the answer is to reduce overall consumption. If they attempted to do this by tackling the minority of heavy drinkers, it might be effective, but they do not. Instead, they favour policies around price, availability and advertising which are aimed at the general population. Price rises can have an effect in reducing consumption, but they have more effect on moderate drinkers than on heavy drinkers. Restrictions on availability and advertising have very little effect on anybody. All three policies create problems, including the deadweight costs of taxation, the welfare cost of being unable to drink at chosen times and search costs incurred by limitations on advertising.

If you can reduce the number of heavy drinkers and alcoholics in a given population - or if you can get the heavy drinkers to reduce their consumption - you are likely to see a fall in average alcohol consumption, but there is no reason to think that getting moderate drinkers to reduce their alcohol intake is going to magically reduce levels of heavy drinking.

There are numerous real world examples of alcohol-related harm failing to move in line with overall alcohol consumption when the ‘wrong’ drinkers reduce their alcohol intake. In the UK, per capita consumption has dropped by 18 per cent in the last ten years without any commensurate decline in alcohol-related mortality. If you look at drinking patterns within the UK, it is the poorest socio-economic groups that have the lowest average consumption, but it is these groups that have the highest rates of alcohol-related mortality. By contrast, the richest groups drink the most and suffer the least harm. Average consumption is no guide to the amount of alcohol-related harm between countries or within countries. It’s who’s drinking, how they’re drinking and how much they’re drinking that makes the difference.

Despite the obvious shortcomings of the Total Consumption Model, it continues to influence work not only in the field of alcohol but in other areas of ‘public health’. For example, it was recently reported that ‘the UK population is still eating far too much sugar, fat and salt’. A nutritionist at Public Health England claimed that ‘we all need to make changes to our diet to improve our health’. As evidence for this, we were told that the average man gets 12.6 per cent of his calories from saturated fat, which is more than the recommended limit of 11 per cent. But whilst the national average tells us that some people must be eating too much fat, it is plainly wrong to assume that everybody is. Some people eat less than the recommended limit and some people eat much, much more. It is the latter who ‘need to make changes’, not the whole population.

If enough people cut saturated fat out of their diet completely, the national average would slip below 11 per cent, but this would be a Pyrrhic victory if the obese continued to eating way over their limits. Similarly, a surge of Islam and Methodism would reduce per capita alcohol consumption by creating more abstainers, but it is difficult to see how this would impact alcoholic street drinkers.

H.L. Mencken said that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. The belief that targetting the majority of drinkers somehow helps the at-risk minority does not stand up against the facts. Though wrong, it persists because it is clear and simple. The real reasons why some people drink to dangerous excess are complex and varied. It is not always easy to reach problem drinkers and even those who seek help may find it difficult to tackle their alcohol problems. Targetted interventions, rehabilitation, proper enforcement of the law, and harm reduction policies are expensive, time-consuming and are not always guaranteed to work. By contrast, lobbying for political interventions in the areas of price, availability and advertising offers campaigners achievable goals, a high profile and an identifiable enemy in the drinks industry. Unfortunately, these policies don’t work and they bear significant costs on the majority of responsible drinkers, but like the Total Consumption Model, at least they are clear and simple.

Download the new IEA report as a PDF here.

[Cross-posted from the IEA blog]

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Cocaine decisions

I participated in a radio debate recently on the subject of why London is the cocaine capital of Europe. Actually, it probably isn't, but there is no doubt that there is a lot of cocaine use in the Big Smoke.

The conversation naturally swung round to prohibition. You can listen here.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Enjoy the game

It's an 11pm kick off for England tonight, so if you're planning to watch the game in a pub remember that the public health racket did its best to stop you.

Alcohol industry wins, public health loses at World Cup 2014

Brazil may be favored to win the 2014 World Cup, which begins on Thursday, but the real winner will be the alcohol industry — and the real loser will be public health — according to a troubling article published today in the BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal [er, it still is—CJS]).

Reporter Jonathan Gornall...

Oh dear. You may recall Jonathan Gornall from his EU-funded hatchet job in the BMJ earlier this year. Gornall writes essentially the same article over and over again, all blaming the drinks industry when the government rejects a temperance policy.

... points first to how the British government, under immense pressure from “drink companies” did a “humiliating U-turn over its alcohol policies” earlier this year and loosened its licensing laws to permit pubs in England and Wales to stay open longer during England matches with a late kick-off.

Splendid. According to Gornall, we have the British Beer and Pub Association to thank for being able to watch the football in a convivial atmosphere. Win, lose or draw, the experience will be all the sweeter for knowing that the British Meddling Association will be crying into their cocoa at the thought of people enjoying themselves.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Socialist hypocrite of the week

As reported in the Independent, Alan Bennett has been giving a speech at Cambridge University...

Bennett, who was treated for colon cancer in 1997, said: “Without the state I would not be standing here today. I have no time for the ideology masquerading as pragmatism that would strip the state of its benevolent functions and make them occasions for profit.

“And why roll back the state only to be rolled over by the corporate entities that have been allowed, nay encouraged, to take its place? I am uneasy when prisons are run for profit or health services either. The rewards of probation and the alleviation of suffering are human profits and nothing to do with balance sheets.”

Firstly, it is arrogant and wrong to assume that Britain's healthcare reforms are due to "ideology masquerading as pragmatism" whereas the opinions of this playwright are based on a cool assessment of the facts. As Jonah Goldberg notes in his excellent book The Tyranny of Clichés, it is a common tactic of the Left to portray themselves as pragmatists while their opponents are mere ideologues. Although Bennett claims that he has never been "particularly left-wing", his politics—which include making it a crime to have anyone but the state educate your child—are as ideological as they come.

Secondly, is it really true that Bennett would not "be standing here today" were it not for the wonderful National Health Service? He is, I assume, a wealthy individual who would be able to pay for best cancer treatment available.

And that, of course, is exactly what he did—as he explained in a 2005 interview...

"if there was a queue, I jumped it. There is no gainsaying that. Someone else may have died as a result. I didn't because I could pay, and this showed me up to myself".

When his own life was at stake, Bennett suddenly became much less "uneasy" about health services being run for profit. He says that the experience of paying to get to the front of the queue "showed me up to myself", but this is only a mild rebuke to himself. It was not enough for him to change any of his flat-pack left-wing views about the glory of socialised healthcare. It was not enough to shake his ideology (which he does not recognise as an ideology).

Yes, "someone else may have died as a result", but the champion of the workers can't expect to suffer the same indignities as those of us who have no choice but to give the government our money and hope for the best, can he?

The ice cream van menace

From the Irish Independent...

A government politician has called for ice-cream vans to be regulated.

But of course! How have these purveyors of toxic, addictive sugar escaped the watchful eye of the public health racket for so long?

Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone today warned that the "persistent use of chimes" of ice cream vans represent an "aggressive form of selling".

What could be more aggressive that the persistent use of, er, chimes?

Speaking in the Seanad, Ms Noone admitted that her call for regulation will be met with humour.

You know what they say, Ms Noone. First they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they kick you out of office for being a meddling ratbag.

But she said the impact of these vans on obesity among children is very serious.

"As I talk about it, it does seem frivolous on the face of it. But it relates to an issue of pester power," Ms Noone said.

I quite like the way that she knows that she's blathering nonsense as she says it and yet manages to overcome her pangs of sanity to continue.

"The reality is children are very interested in sugar and very addicted to it in lots of instances. It's not that I'm anti-ice cream but the persistent use of chimes in public streets and in estates is an aggressive form of selling and it wouldn't be countenanced in any other industry."

They're travelling salesmen, Ms Noone. The alternative is that they knock on the door. Knocking on every door would be a less efficient (and more "aggressive") way of selling ice cream, but that is what they would have to do if you ban chimes. Then, of course, you would have to ban knocking on doors.

Loyal readers will recall Catherine Noone from last month when she talked about banning products that contained more than 20 per cent sugar (eg. sweets). Rumour has it that Ireland's unpopular and overweight nanny-in-chief, James Reilly, will soon be losing his job and has introduced plain packaging as a final farewell, knowing that he won't be around to clear up the mess.

Senator Noone—who says she is "personally disappointed that after three budgets we have failed to implement a meaningful fat tax [and] a meaningful sugar tax"—seems to be positioning herself as the Emerald Isle's number one public health nutcase in his absence. Fun times ahead.

Friday, 6 June 2014

"The self-reinforcing taxpayer vortex of control"

Tomorrow I'll be flying off to Denver to speak at this conference so blogging will be light or non-existent for a little while, but I'll leave you on an uplifting note by quoting from a speech from George Christensen in the Australian parliament this week.

Australia, you see, has been quietly getting on with the job of stripping illiberal, whinging, grant-addicted, authoritarian, 'public health' lobby groups of their funding since Tony Abbott was elected prime minister. It is doing exactly what Britain should be doing by cutting away the parasitic sock-puppet state and making the health service focus on health and medicine rather than lifestyle regulation and political activism.

Amongst the agencies that have been effectively demolished by the government is the Australian National Preventive Health Agency, the de-funding of which led to this peerless explanation of how the sock puppet state operates...

I strongly support the Australian National Preventive Health Agency (Abolition) Bill 2014, because it is a removal of duplication and expense that is an unnecessary drain on taxpayer funds and I question why we need to have an agency that tell us exactly what to do. Before the election the Liberal and National parties said that we were going to remove unnecessary red tape and regulation [sound familiar? - CJS], and that is what we are doing. We are doing it here today because the Australian National Preventive Health Agency is a redundant agency. It is funded by the Commonwealth, funded by taxpayers, in addition to the Commonwealth Department of Health, despite the fact that most of its functions actually overlap the functions that are in the Department of Health.

In addition, a range of other Commonwealth research bodies have been funded to work in the same space: the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Productivity Commission and the Australian Law Reform Commission. None of these bodies, though, were ever specifically tasked by government to actually lobby government, but this agency that we are abolishing here today was. One of the legislatively defined functions of the agency is to lobby and advocate for public policy change. The agency is a taxpayer funded lobby group—government giving money to an agency to then lobby the government for particular changes. How crazy is that?

I read a lot from the Institute of Public Affairs. They put out a lot of good stuff. One of the reports they had, which was called The biggest vested interest of all: How government lobbies to restrict individual rights and freedom, said: 'One-third of the submissions to the Preventative Health Taskforce—which established the Australian National Preventive Health Agency—were from bodies which received large amounts of taxpayer funding.'

So, there you go: taxpayer dollars going to agencies that are going to another taxpayer funded agency to recommend that an agency be created that recommends back to government programs that have to be funded out of taxpayer dollars. It is absolutely crazy.

The method of this self-lobbying works something like this: (1) Taxpayers fund an agency to come up with a health-first paternalistic policy; (2) taxpayers fund research to justify the policy; (3) taxpayers pay for the agency to lobby the government to impose the policy; (4) the policy is then introduced; (5) the policy is then measured and evaluated; (6) if the policy was ineffective, a stronger policy is then proposed, because the earlier one failed; and (7) if the policy was effective, a stronger policy is proposed because the earlier one succeeded. And round and round we go on that taxpayer funded merry-go-round. We end up with a self-reinforcing taxpayer vortex of control.

It's good to see that somebody gets it. Let's see some of this in the Westminster parliament please.

Christensen also had something to say about plain packaging, which is rapidly being exposed as the counterproductive farce that some of us always thought it was...

Ultimately, the individual is responsible for their own actions. That is why, when the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government legislated plain packaging for cigarettes, I spoke against that bill. I did not believe then and I do not believe now that inch by inch encroachment into our personal lives is what our society should be about. We, as Australians, have the right to make our own choices and every time the government makes that little bit more regulation to force a particular world view onto the choices we make, our personal freedoms are eroded. At the time I said that, if the regulators and the Labor Party felt so strongly about telling people what they can and cannot do, they should just ban it. If we honestly believe that smoking is that evil we should have the guts to ban it. If we do not feel that strongly about it, then get out of people's lives, let them make their own choices and let them live the way they want to live. We have seen regulation after regulation applied to the tobacco industry and still people smoke. I talk to local shops. They report that the number of people buying cigarettes is increasing.

The previous Labor government attempted to drive smoking underground, so much so that sellers are not even allowed to display their little olive green products. It does not appear to have made any difference because in the three years since the legislation was introduced, the nanny state advocates have produced no evidence to suggest it has changed smoking rates in Australia. That seems a bit odd, given there has very likely been some surveys done in the course of those three years. Surely there are teams of wowsers waiting for the opportunity to tell us, 'I told you so.' Given that smoking rates in Australia have been steadily declining since 2001, even business-as-usual decline could have been twisted into some kind of 'proof' that interfering with people's lives actually works. It is not news the nanny state wants to hear but there is at least some feedback on the Australian experience being presented in the UK. The Times reported on 3 February this year:

'Cigarette plain packaging law a failure, tobacco industry tells UK. Putting cigarettes in plain packs has failed to cut smoking in Australia, led to record levels of smuggling and could be illegal in the UK, the tobacco industry has warned a British government review of the measure.'
Was there an outcry about the claims? No. The usual suspects argued the toss about the sale of illegal tobacco. An article in The Age, on 12 April 2014 read:

'Last week, Fairfax Media visited several retailers in Melbourne's west including gift shops, milk bars and liquor stores, with the ex-Purana Taskforce detective employed by British American Tobacco. Illicit tobacco products were freely available upon requests for 'cheap cigarettes' and pre-rolled 'tubes' of loose tobacco or 'chop chop'. Illegally imported cartons of Marlboro Red and Dunhill Red cigarettes were sold at half the legal retail price, while other brand-named packs of 25 cigarettes cost as little as $8, compared to the normal price of almost $20. One Asian grocery store in Sunshine was asking $90 for a 10-pack carton of Manchester cigarettes—a fake brand manufactured in the Middle East for the black market. None of the illicit cigarettes were sold in the plain, olive-green packs required by Australian law, and many had no health warnings.'

So what is the score on plain packaging? I will tell you what it is: free choice 1, nanny state nil.

This reflects all the evidence that has been reported on this blog in recent months, including the rise of counterfeit tobacco in Australia, rising smoking rates, and open support for plain packaging from cigarette smugglers. And now we have confirmation that legal sales of tobacco have also risen. Is there any amount of real world evidence that can destroy this Teflon-covered, nanny state nonsense?

Reporting the rise in cigarette sales, an editorial in The Australian had a revolutionary thought for puritanical times....

It’s time for a grown-up approach. We don’t support smoking. But if adults wish to indulge, that’s their choice.

Indeed. But let's leave the last word to the splendid George Christensen...

Society is not determined by some herd of hand-wringing heifers and steers in a departmental subcommittee's focus group. Culture is not ordered off a left-wing menu like some half-strength double decaf soy latte in a recycled paper cup. Society and culture are about people. Our culture is the function of our people—all the people, not just a select few. It is a combination of the lives, the actions, the thoughts and the choices of individuals. Some individuals will choose to drink alcohol. Some will choose not to. I do not believe the non-drinkers have any moral right or obligation to enforce their view and their personal choices on to anyone else's. This is not your culture; it is our culture. And our culture evolves individual by individual. We do not need a pseudo health agency to manufacture a culture for us; we need a health department to look after health.

And, sure, there are a lot of things that affect our health—drinking, smoking, eating, sugar, salt, caffeine, fat, carbohydrates, protein, gluten, wheat, vitamin supplements, water and air. If anyone holds strong convictions about any one or more of those things, that is fine. They can choose to consume or not consume. If they have scientific evidence to support it, that is fine. They can report those findings. But if we listened to every bit of advice about what not to consume, we would all be dead. Somewhere in the middle there may be a truth, but the question is this: for whom is it a truth and who has the right to impose their interpretation on everyone else?

A few years ago, Australia seemed to be beyond hope. Now, on this issue at least, it's starting to lead the way.