Thursday, 18 September 2014

Calorie consumption revisited (part 1 of many)

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) released new data on British food consumption today. Public health revisionists should look away now.

● Average energy intake based on all food and drink purchases has fallen 8.3% between 2001-02 and 2012.

● Energy intake from food and drink recorded as eating out fell 7.3% in 2012 and has fallen by 29% since 2001-02.

● There is a long term downward trend in energy intake since the early sixties (visible in all components of the chart). Combining year on year changes of estimates on like bases suggests that average energy intake per person is 31% lower in 2012 than in 1974.

● Despite decreasing energy intake, over-consumption of energy relative to our needs is a major factor in increasing levels of obesity

Taking the long view, DEFRA provides this graph. It goes back to 1940 and shows three (or, arguably, four) different datasets.

Initially, from 1940, the figures show per capita calorie consumption but exclude calories from alcohol, soft drinks, confectionery and food eaten outside the home. After rising after the war, the trend is downwards after the 1950s.

In 1992, calories from confectionery, soft drinks and alcohol were included, and, in 1994, calories consumed outside the home were also included. The addition of extra items naturally pushed the line higher up the graph, but in each case the trend continued downwards.

In 1948, 2,387 calories per capita were recorded, but this excludes alcohol, confectionery, soft drinks and eating out.

However, by 2012, despite all of the above now being included in the figures, recorded consumption was 2,209 calories per capita, which is to say it was lower than the 1948 figure.

Obesity prevalence is clearly much higher today than it was in 1948 and it seems clear to me—and should be clear to anybody who has the slightest understanding of the difference in the typical lifestyle of 1948 compared with today—that the primary reason for this is a big decline in physical activity, whether it be in the workplace, in the home or in personal transportation. 'Energy in' has gone down, but 'energy out' has gone down even more.

However, as we have seen previously, the nuclear option for who insist that obesity has risen because people are consuming more and more calories is to dismiss the DEFRA data—and all other data that show the same trend—out of hand on the basis that it is self-reported and therefore unreliable.

Aside from the fact that this is simply not true (there is plenty of evidence on household shopping that shows the same decline in calorie consumption), the 'we're eating more' claim is asserted without evidence and can be dismissed without evidence. Merely stating that people under-report what they eat, although true, is not enough to turn the graph upside down under any plausible scenario.

I have picked 1948 as a reference point here because it falls in a period covered by a British Medical Journal study that I briefly mentioned in The Fat Lie. Published in 1953, the study looked at calorie intake and weight changes amongst the British population during the years of rationing. It shows not only how much people were eating, but how much they needed to eat.

Comparison of the relation between the food-consumption levels and the body weight changes recorded in this paper and the calorie value of total supplies of food moving into civilian consumption (Ministry of Food, 1949, 1951a) shows that during 1944, when the calorie value of the total food supply was just over 3,000 per head per day, adult men and women gained weight; that during 1945, when the calorie value was over 2,900, weight was roughly constant; that during 1946 and the early part of 1947, when the calorie level fell below 2,900 and dissatisfaction over the food supply was voiced publicly, adults lost weight. In 1948, when the calorie level had again risen above 2,900, the trend of 1946 and 1947 was reversed.

The authors concluded that the government of the day's advice that an average British adult should consume 2,800 calories a day was 'probably too low'. They suggested that 2,900 calories a day was closer to what was needed to maintain a healthy weight. This was based on empirical data that showed that people tended to lose weight if they consumed less than that.

By contrast, today the government advises the average Briton to consume 2,250 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight. A diet that would be considered as the bare minimum, or even below the minimum, in the 1940s would be enough to make most modern Britons gain weight.

The very fact that government advice on calorie intake has changed so much over the years is, in itself, a stark recognition that we do not need to eat as many calories as we did decades ago. Why? Because we are considerably less physically active than we were decades ago, not only in the workplace, but also in the home.

Moreover, we do—on average—eat fewer calories than we did decades ago, or even a few years ago. You can argue that we are still eating too much (many people obviously are), but to pretend that we are as physically active as ever whilst eating more than ever is a complete inversion of the truth.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Advertising in a Free Society

The economist Julian Simon once wrote that ‘the economic study of advertising is not deserving of great attention’, ruefully adding that ‘this is not a congenial point at which to arrive after spending several years working on the subject’. Few economists dedicate as much time to advertising as Simon. Most ignore it altogether because its impact on a nation’s economy, though broadly beneficial, is not seen as being terribly important from their perspective. Advertising is certainly important to businesses because it helps decide how much of a given market is taken by each firm, but it does not typically increase the size of the market itself.

This fundamental point is often missed by the critics of advertising who see it as a powerful and malign force that enables businesses to exert control over the hapless public. The most common complaint is that clever marketing manipulates people into buying products that they do not really want while encouraging a culture of rampant consumerism. Some want advertising heavily restricted or even banned.

The general indifference of economists towards advertising means that the popular literature on the subject (if the word 'popular' can be used in relation to this niche field) is often written by those who work in advertising or those who despise advertising. Neither provide a particularly balanced view.

When I first began roaming the staircases of the IEA a few years ago I picked up a copy of a book that was rather different. Advertising in a Free Society, written by Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon and published by the IEA, was written in 1959 and has been out of print ever since. In it, Harris and Seldon weighed up the economic and social criticisms of advertising, as well as the claims made on its behalf, and concluded that advertising ‘has helped to keep markets competitive, tumbled oligopolists and monopolists, kept prices down, and in the long run made the economic system bow to the consumer’s will’.

This year, it has been my privilege to edit and abridge Advertising in A Free Society for a new edition that has been released today (click here to purchase or for a free download). 55 years after the original book was published, much new evidence has been produced and it largely supports Harris and Seldon's view of advertising as a force for good. Studies show that advertising can help develop brand loyalty in existing customers and it might - at best - entice us into trying a particular brand, but it cannot turn us into regular customers and it cannot coerce us into fundamentally changing our behaviour. The weight of economic evidence shows that advertising follows social trends, it does not initiate them, and companies only start spending the big marketing bucks when they are confident that demand already exists. Advertising is overwhelmingly aimed at getting existing users of a product to either switch brands or stay loyal to their current brand.

Although advertising campaigns are often described as ‘aggressive’, the business of advertising is largely defensive. As much as companies want to attract new customers, their priority is to stop existing customers drifting off to the competition. The ubiquity of expensive marketing campaigns in developed countries is not an expression of corporate power, as critics claim, but of corporate vulnerability. We consumers are fickle, disloyal and light-footed.

It is not that businesses wouldn’t like to manipulate us into buying products we don’t want, only that the lever of manipulation has never been invented. As governments soon discover when they use advertising to encourage us to get out and vote or to eat ‘five a day’, it is very difficult make people do things that they are not already minded to do.

'Ah!', say the critics, 'but if advertising is not very important, why do businesses spend so much money on it?' The truth is that, for all its faults, advertising remains a better way of communicating with the buying public than any of the alternatives. Travelling salesmen and discount vouchers might work for some companies, but to reach a mass audience and develop economies of scale, the mass media is required.

Harris and Seldon noted that many critics of advertising ‘seem to have lost their sense of humour about persuasive appeals that exploit vanity and selfishness and shamefully contain no details of chemical or technical performance. The ordinary shopper has kept his head much better.’ Many of advertising's critics do indeed appear to have a low opinion of the public, whom they assume will buy whatever is put in front of them regardless of quality. In fact, people learn to treat advertising messages with scepticism from a very young age. As Harris and Seldon say in Advertising in a Free Society, ‘The sovereignty of the consumer is much greater than many economists who have never understood the market system have supposed.’

Advertising provides information, albeit from a biased source. It saves us time by reducing search costs, and it is generally associated with lower prices and higher quality. Advertising might be an imperfect means to achieve the goals of both the buyer and the seller, but we would all be worse off without it.

Cross-posted from the IEA blog.

It's a free download so stick it on your iPad or whatever, and read it. It's good.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Legends in their own lunchtime

I've started doing a spot of blogging at the Telegraph. Today, it's about a school banning packed lunches...

A new academic year at Milefield Primary School in Grimethorpe, South Yorkshire, gave authorities a fresh opportunity to override the will of parents in the name of heath. As reported in the Telegraph, a ban on packed lunches has so far led to six children being removed from the school by their parents, but the governing body remains unrepentant.

Justifying the new diktat, head teacher Paula Murray applied the newspeak of the public sector, saying that she was "taking a holistic approach to school meals". On the basis that what is not compulsory must be banned, she noted that there is "no requirement for the school to provide an area for children to consume packed lunches" and that the new policy would (in so many words) be based on the pretence that such facilities do not exist. Plenty of seats will be available for those who are prepared to eat school dinners, but they miraculously vanish when a child wants to eat a sandwich.

Do read the whole thing.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Yet more failure in Australia

More awkward news for plain pack campaigners, this time from Cancer Council Queensland:

"New Queensland Health data has found a sharp increase in the prevalence of smoking among Queenslanders aged between 25 and 34 years old over the past two years.

"This trend defies the declines we have seen in other age groups, with 28 per cent of men in the 25-34 age bracket now smoking every day, compared with 19.8 per cent in 2012.

"Among women in the 25-34 age bracket, the rate of smoking has increased from 12.8 per cent to 16.7 per cent.

Alas, the figures for the other age groups are not given, but so much for plain packs making cigarettes taste worse and making smokers rush to the Quitline.

The reason for the Cancer Council talking about the huge surge in smoking prevalence in this key demographic (smoking rates are highest in the 25-34 year age group) is that it wants to ban smoking outside (no need to make up stuff about secondhand smoke at this stage in the game). In this, it echoes the government of South Australia which started a campaign for the same policy back in May by making this crucial admission:

Health Minister Jack Snelling said the new measures would help to tackle an increase in the State’s smoking rates which have increased from 16.7 per cent to 19.4 percent over the past 12 months.

Combine these two states with New South Wales, where the official survey found a rise in smoking prevalence of 14.7% to 16.4% (not statistically significant, but certainly not indicative of a decline), and plain packaging looks like a damp squib once again.


Black market in tobacco booming in the streets of Sydney, with cheap Asian imports flooding the streets

  • Cigarette smuggling on the rise, one in eight cigarettes smuggled 
  • Areas with large migrant populations are prime markets for the trade 
  •  Some smuggled cigarettes contain ‘mould, faeces and even asbestos’ 
  • 500,000 cigarettes and $1m in cash seized in recent raids

    It is emerging as one of the most lucrative illegal trades on the streets of Sydney’s southwest, but it’s not drug dealing or car boosting — it’s smuggling cigarettes. Last month, in seven raids across Fairfield and Bankstown, police seized more than 500,000 smuggled cigarettes and $1 million cash.

The words 'chickens', 'home' and 'roost' spring to mind.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Food wowsers in action

Another 'public health' conference took place this week. This time it was the World Public Health Nutrition Association. Never have those speech marks around 'public health' been more necessary. It was, in truth, a far-left political rally against 'Big Food' and in support of 'Big Government'.

Amongst the speaker was the tree-hugging Trotskyist, Gerard Hastings, and the unctuous brain donor, Aseem Malhotra. The following tweets give you a taste of the conference in all its fanatical glory. Note the intense hatred of business, trade, capitalism and economics. Note also the clear intention to bring about a worldwide treaty in the style of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control so that your diet can be controlled by international law.

Many of these people need psychiatric help, in my opinion.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The dark soul of Prof. John Ashton

Plenty of people have already written about this, but I can't resist covering it again in case anyone missed it.

Professor John Ashton, formerly of the Socialist Health Association and currently the head of the UK Faculty of Public Health, had a funny old weekend. He started Friday in true public health form by putting out a statement about e-cigarettes which began with the whopping lie that there is consensus on this divisive issue:

“The average person on the street could be forgiven for being confused about what health professionals think about e-cigarettes. Fortunately, there is common ground among public health professionals. 

"FPH doesn’t want to ban so-called ‘nicotine sticks’ [no one calls themselves nicotine sticks - CJS]. We do want to be sure that any benefits they may have don’t undo all the hard work that’s been done over decades to save lives by reducing smoking. We are particularly concerned that ‘vaping’ may lead to young people starting to smoke cigarettes. A recent report from the US backs up this concern [no, it doesn't - CJS]

“We agree with the authors of this paper that we should separate opinion and evidence. At the moment, there is very little hard data about e-cigarettes: until we get some solid facts on their impact on people’s health, we need proper regulations of e-cigarettes, and to encourage anyone who wants to quit smoking to get help from the NHS. That’s proven to be the best way to quit the habit for good.”

It got rather worse for him when he turned in an embarrassing performance on the Jeremy Vine show in which he refused to shut up when asked and rambled on about nicotine causing people to go blind. He told smokers to use the (rubbish and inefficient) NHS Stop Smoking service instead (a service that gives me people free, er, nicotine).

As Clive Bates rightly said on the show, he sounded like a bloke in a bar and that it where he may well have spent the following day because when he got home he went on Twitter to abuse vapers, call women c***s and make various bizarre sexual references. Here are some of his pearls of wisdom:

There was much more of this, all of it now deleted. For me, the most troubling aspect of Ashton's Twitter binge was his urge to seek out tweets that vapers had written weeks or months earlier and insult them as pathetic addicts. This, remember, from a man who heads up a major public health organisation and who regularly appears in the media to "separate opinion from evidence".

As Dick Puddlecote says, the mask has slipped. You have to wonder how many people in the public health racket have the same mentality but manage - as Ashton did until Saturday - to keep it to themselves.


Probably for the best.


Thursday, 4 September 2014

What a small world

Dick Puddlecote recently mentioned the latest advocacy-as-science article in BMJ Open. The 'study' is, as he says, nothing more than "a telephone poll of (average) 650 people in just one Australian state which attempted to disprove claims that plain packaging will encourage criminal counterfeiters. A very difficult thing to do considering the Sun newspaper collected video evidence in June of an ecstatic Indonesian fake cig manufacturer describing how his business will benefit from plain packaging legislation."

Only the left-wing media bothered to cover this effort, ie. the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent. The latter managed to balls up its report by using the headline 'Australia shows that plain tobacco packaging significantly cuts smoking' (the study had nothing to do with smoking rates), but the Beeb followed basic journalistic standards by quoting opposing views (FOREST and the Tobacco Manufacturers Association) which gave some semblance of balance.

The Guardian report, in the other hand, was extraordinary one-sided from the outset...

Claims that plain cigarette packaging would hurt small independent retailers and increase use of illicit, unbranded tobacco have formed the core of big tobacco’s argument against plain packaging.

But those arguments have been debunked by new Victorian research, which public health experts have described as a win for science.

It included a quote from the lead author (who, tellingly, is a tobacco control 'policy adviser'), as well as a quote from veteran anti-smoking campaigner Mike Daube and, above all, a lengthy quote from Jurassic wowser Simon Chapman:

A professor of public health at the University of Sydney and tobacco control expert, Simon Chapman, said big tobacco feared a domino effect of plain packaging reforms around the world with nine countries implementing or considering it.

“Canada was the first country to introduce graphic warnings on cigarette packets and within 10 years, 60 other countries had followed suit,” Chapman said.

“California did the first banning of smoking in restaurants and now that has swept throughout the world. There are many examples in tobacco control policy of the domino theory at work.”

The tobacco giant Philip Morris has threatened to sue the British government if it forges ahead with its plain packaging reforms.

The arguments from tobacco companies against plain packaging made no sense whatsoever, Chapman said.

“Of course smokers have always known, even before plain packaging, that cigarettes are cheaper in supermarkets,” he said.

“So the only thing that would drive more people away from small retailers would be if supermarket prices fell even further.”

The only 'balance' in the article came in the form of a brief and cursory quote from the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores, half of which was complimentary towards the group that funded the study.

The words used by the reporter - 'debunked', 'big tobacco', 'discredit tobacco reforms', 'made no sense whatsoever' - as well as the tendency to present opinion as fact - '[cigarette packaging] is used as a way of marketing towards young people' - give the article the feel of an advocacy piece rather than a work of journalism.

So who is this reporter? Step forward Melissa Davey who just happens to be completing a Masters Degree in public health at the University of Sydney where Simon Chapman just happens to be a senior tutor.

I have a feeling that Melissa is going to pass with flying colours.