Wednesday, 20 August 2014


I'm on my way to Australia to attend the Consilium conference. I'll be on a panel speaking "in praise of contrary opinion". If you are in Sydney, we'll be reprising this discussion on the 25th in a public meeting.

On the 26th, I'll be on an excellent panel with Cassandra Wilkinson and Julie Novak to talk about government snooping and the march of puritanism. That event, organised by My Choice Australia, is also in Sydney and will, I hope, be followed by some binge-drinking.

I'll also be paying a flying visit to Auckland to talk about sin taxes at the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council, but that is, I think, restricted to members of that organisation.

I've had a few things to say about nanny state lunacy on the other side of world in recent years. The cancer of public health totalitarianism seems to be partially in remission in Australia since Gillard was kicked out, but it will be interesting things with my own eyes. It's been eight years since I visited either country.

I'll be back at the end of the month when normal service will be resumed on this blog.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Fat Lie (plus Channel 4 News)

Yesterday, the IEA published my latest report—The Fat Liewhich presents some of the evidence mentioned previously on this blog related to calorie consumption and obesity. The following is a summary of some of the main points, but please read the whole report which can be downloaded free of charge here.

Obesity prevalence has increased sharply in Britain since the 1970s. Many public health campaigners portray Britain’s obesity ‘epidemic’ as being caused by the increased availability of high calorie foods, sugary drinks and larger servings in restaurants. This view has been reflected in television programmes such as The Men Who Made Us Fat (BBC), which focus on the supposed rise in calorie consumption while paying little attention to the other side of the equation: physical activity. Some campaigners explicitly dismiss physical activity as a factor. For example, Aseem Malhotra, science director of Action on Sugar, says that ‘it’s time to bust the myth of physical activity and obesity’.

Today, the IEA has released a briefing paper that demonstrates that this conventional wisdom has no basis in fact. If people are ‘being bombarded every day by the food industry to consume more and more food’, as some claim, then the industry has failed. Consumption of calories - and of sugar and fat - has fallen significantly while obesity rates have risen.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has carried out annual surveys of the British diet since 1974. These surveys are based on diet diaries compiled by a cross-section of the public and are supported by till receipts (DEFRA, 2013). Shown in the graph below, these data indicate a significant decline in daily per capita calorie consumption in the last forty years, from 2,534 in 1974 to 1,990 in 2012. This represents a decline in energy consumption of 21.5 per cent.

This is corroborated by the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) which began in the 1990s, the results of which can be compared to the Dietary and Nutritional Survey of British Adults which holds data for 1986/87. These surveys collect data for food and drink consumed inside and outside the home. Shown below, they indicate that average calorie consumption has fallen by 9.8 per cent for 19-64 year olds since 1986/87.

Both datasets also show a decline in per capita consumption of carbohydrates (including sugar) and fat (including saturated fat).

It is clear that average body weight has been rising for decades while average calorie consumption has been declining. Assuming that the laws of thermodynamics are correct, there can be only one explanation for this: Britons are, on average, burning fewer calories than we used to.

This should not be surprising. The transition from manual labour to office work saw jobs in agriculture decline from eleven to two per cent of employment in the twentieth century while manufacturing jobs declined from 28 to 14 per cent of employment. Britons are walking less (from 255 miles per year in 1976 to 179 miles in 2010) and cycling less (from 51 miles per year in 1976 to 42 miles in 2010). Only 18 per cent of adults report doing any moderate or vigorous physical activity at work while 63 per cent never climb stairs at work and 40 per cent spend no time walking at work.

Outside of work, 63 per cent report spending less than ten minutes a day walking and 53 per cent do no sports or exercise whatsoever. Add to this the ubiquity of labour-saving devices and it is clear that Britons today have less need, and fewer opportunities, for physical activity both in the workplace and at home.

Obesity features so often in the media that it is surprising that the data shown in this briefing paper are not better known. The myth that Britons are consuming more and more food has persisted for the following two reasons:

Firstly, there is a tendency to import narratives from the USA where, in contrast to the UK, calorie consumption rose in line with obesity rates for many years. This dual trend had come to an end by 1990, however, and the role of chronic physical inactivity is beginning to be acknowledged as the driver of rising obesity in the years since.

Secondly, the food supply is a more inviting target for health campaigners than the sedentary lifestyles of the general public. A war against ‘Big Food’ requires no stigmatisation of individuals (other than the individuals who work in the food industry) and there are a readymade set of policies available which have been tried and tested in the campaigns against tobacco and alcohol. Instigating such a war, however, requires the public to believe that food companies have acted unscrupulously by stuffing unwitting consumers full of calories, forcing large portions upon them and spiking their meals with sugar and fat. The data shown in this paper are clearly not helpful to that narrative.

Such is the sensitivity of the public health lobby to this sort of information that when two researchers published a paper showing that sugar consumption had been declining in Australia for thirty years while obesity had been rising, they were branded ‘a menace to public health’ and investigated for scientific misconduct. They have since been exonerated, but the title of their study - ‘The Australian Paradox’ - highlights how deeply rooted is the belief that obesity can only be the result of increased sugar and/or calorie consumption at the population level. As the evidence from the UK - and, in recent times, the USA - shows, it is no paradox at all.

Reposted from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

See also Tim Worstall and James Dellingpole on this topic.


I went on Channel 4 News to talk about this report (you can watch the interview here).  I confess to getting rather irritated half way through, which I regret because it doesn't go down well with viewers, but I had due cause. I had expected that whoever I was up against would say something along the lines of "OK, people are eating fewer calories but they're still eating too many calories considering their sedentary lifestyle". Then we could argue about policy. I wasn't expecting somebody to flat out deny that calorie consumption has fallen at all, let alone insist—without a shred of evidence—that it has actually risen.

That, however, is what Prof. Mike Lean of Glasgow University decided to do. He pointed out that nutritional evidence is self-reported and is therefore prone to misreporting. He also pointed out that obese people tend to misreport more than slim people. If he had read my report he would have known that this was not news to me. From page 17-18 (under the heading 'limitations'):

Measuring the diet of the nation is not an exact science. Researchers rely on individuals keeping track of what they eat over a period of several days and it is well known that people tend to under-report the amount of food they consume due to a desire to deceive or - more commonly - a tendency to forget (over-reporting is also possible, though less common). The alternative method of keeping till receipts to check what food has been purchased is also problematic because some food is thrown away.
Researchers are well aware of these issues and have ways of testing the degree of under-reporting, notably with urine tests using ‘doubly labelled water’ which show how much energy a person has expended (and, therefore, how much energy a person of steady weight has consumed). Nevertheless, it is believed that Britons throw away about 10-20 per cent of the food they buy and under- report how much they eat by around 20 to 40 per cent (WRAP, 2013; Macdiarmid and Blundell, 1998).
When studying dietary trends over time the question is not whether people under-report but the extent to which under-reporting has changed over the years, if at all. Women and the obese are most likely to under-report and whilst the proportion of women in the population has remained stable, the proportion of obese people has clearly increased. It is therefore possible that more obesity has led to more under-reporting, but it is very unlikely that the population has become so forgetful and dishonest that the large, steady and virtually uninterrupted decline in calorie consumption reported in successive studies can be explained by misreporting alone.

So there is no doubt that people misreport. The only question is whether they systematically misreport far, far more today than ten, twenty or thirty years ago. I can find no evidence that they do and the other sources of evidence, such as food purchases, do not suggest otherwise. As I say in the quote above, food purchase data are not perfect either, because people throw away some food, but it defies common sense to believe that people throw away less food today than they did during the three day week or the winter of discontent.

Having knocked the evidence, Lean then dismissed it completely. Indeed, he said that the reality is the polar opposite of what the evidence shows. It's a common tactic with some keyboard warriors and some of the weaker industry lobbyists—skim a paper, look for the limitations, and then claim that the mere acknowledgement of limitations renders the whole paper worthless. Having dismissed the evidence, insert your own subjective opinions as if they were fact. Never mind that the vast majority of epidemiological evidence—including virtually all evidence on nutrition and cancer—is based on self-reporting and, therefore, is subject to misreporting.

When asked for evidence of his own, he started to quote a study, albeit a barely relevant study, from the USA, thereby proving a point I made on page 24 of The Fat Lie when discussing the reasons why the myth of heavier eating has persisted:

Firstly, there is a tendency to import narratives from the USA where, in contrast to the UK, calorie consumption rose in line with obesity rates for many years.

But—what d'ya know?—the myth is falling apart in America too, as shown in the recent study published in the American Journal of Medicine which found that:

Our findings do not support the popular notion that the rise in obesity in the U.S. can be attributed primarily to sustained increases over time in the average daily caloric intake of Americans... Average daily caloric intake did not change significantly [between 1988 and 2010]. BMI and waist circumference trends were associated with physical activity level but not caloric intake.

Lean's policy of point blank refusal to accept any of the evidence from DEFRA, the British Heart Foundation, the Department of Health, the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Office for National Statistics turned the discussion into a question of trust—who do you trust: the professor or the increasingly irate free market think tanker? Obviously, the average viewer has no inclination to dig into the data so is going to side with the professor.

British Heart Foundation, 'Coronary Heart Disease Statistics', 2012

Institute for Fiscal Studies, 'Gluttony in England?', 2013

Krishnan Guru-Murthy helped him out by ending the interview with the tiresome question of whether 'Big Food' funded the IEA report. They didn't, of course. Readers of my books, articles and blog posts over the last five years know which topics spark my interest and I'm lucky enough to be able to write about more or less anything I like within the field of public health policy at the IEA. I don't need any suggestions from commercial interests. As for whether 'Big Food' funds the IEA at all, I honestly don't know and I honestly don't care. I don't really know which companies even make up 'the food industry' but it must be a very broad church (I'm from a long line of farmers so I guess I have 'links' with 'the food industry'). The IEA has always had a policy of donor confidentiality so I wouldn't say who funds it even I knew, which I usually don't. But I'm quite happy to say, as I did in this interview, that people are welcome to assume that we are funded by x if that means that we can move on to talking about the issue at hand.

An appeal to authority and a little innuendo about funding goes a long way with the average couch potato—probably more so on Channel 4 News than on most programmes—so I don't doubt that Mike Lean won the debate in many people's eyes. Hey, ho. Hopefully some people read the report regardless.

Monday, 18 August 2014

The plain packs meta-lie (part two)

The second part of the current plain packaging meta-lie is that "customs and excise data shows [sic] a fall of 3.4% in tobacco sales by volume in the first year of standardised packaging" (Public Health England).

Public Health England gives this webpage from the Australian Department of Health as the source for the claim that sales fell by 3.4 per cent in the first year (ie. December 2012-November 2013). That page says that the treasury has "advised that tobacco clearances (including excise and customs duty) fell by 3.4% in 2013 relative to 2012", but it provides no source and there is no trace of the treasury making such a statement.

We might be tempted to take this claim on trust were it not for the fact that the government has produced detailed figures on tobacco sales. They are published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and can be seen here (table 8).

These data show that seasonally adjusted tobacco sales in the last five years were as follows:

2009: $16,270,000,000

2010: $15,869,000,000

2011: $14,747,000,000

2012: $14,250,000,000

2013: $14,126,000,000

Conveniently, for the purposes of assessing the impact of plain packaging, the 'years' shown above refer to December to November (eg. 2013 is actually December 2012 to November 2013). Mapped on a graph, they look like this:

It should be obvious that plain packaging did not lead to an acceleration of the longterm decline in tobacco sales. On the contrary, it coincided with an unusually small decline. The year-on-year changes are as follows:

2009 to 2010: 2.5 per cent

2010 to 2011: 7.1 per cent

2011 to 2012: 3.4 per cent

2012 to 2013: 0.9 per cent

In case you think that the seasonal adjustment has somehow altered the trend, these are the year-on-year changes based on the unadjusted data:

2009 to 2010: 2.6 per cent

2010 to 2011: 7.0 per cent

2011 to 2012: 3.4 per cent

2012 to 2013: 1.3 per cent

Whichever of the two datasets you use, three things are clear. Firstly, tobacco sales did not fall by 3.4 per cent in the first year of plain packaging. Secondly, the decline in tobacco sales was considerably smaller in the first year of plain packaging than in the preceding years. Thirdly, a decline of 3.4 per cent would not have been unusual even if it had occurred in the first year of plain packaging (the average decline in the previous three periods was 4.3 per cent). But it didn't so it doesn't matter.

You may have noticed that both sets of figures show a 3.4 per cent decline in tobacco sales in the year before plain packaging came in, so perhaps that is the source of the error. I won't rule out deliberate deceit, but routine incompetence is a usually the best explanation for government misinformation. I can't say the same about those who spread this, and other, lies about the alleged impact of plain packaging. They are probably conscious, deliberate liars. They've been doing it for years.

The plain packs meta-lie (part one)

Friday, 15 August 2014

The plain packs meta-lie (part one)

In recent weeks the various dodgy claims made by plain packaging campaigners have coalesced into a single meta-lie which, I suspect, will now be repeated again and again.

The meta-lie has two components. Firstly, that Australia has seen the biggest ever decline in smoking prevalence since plain packaging was introduced. Secondly, that tobacco sales fell by 3.4 per cent in Australia in the first year of plain packaging (with the implication that this is an unusually large drop).

These claims have been repeated by Public Health England...

In Australia, official data is already demonstrating the impact. Its latest national triennial survey shows the fastest decline in smoking rates in over 20 years, and customs and excise data shows a fall of 3.4% in tobacco sales by volume in the first year of standardised packaging... According to the latest official national survey of tobacco use, the daily smoking rate fell markedly from 15.1% to 12.8% between 2010 and 2013 – a record 15.2% decline.

They are also being parroted by ASH Ireland today in the Irish Times...

Latest research results from Australia on its standardised packaging of tobacco products are very encouraging. Official data from its latest national survey show the fastest decline in smoking rates in over 20 years with an 11 per cent relative reduction in the prevalence of smoking. Customs and excise data in the same survey show a fall of 3.4 per cent in tobacco sales by volume in the first year of the legislation.

Let's take the claim about smoking prevalence first. This contains a lie within a lie. The figures that campaigners are referring to compare 2010 with 2013. Plain packaging was only introduced in December 2012 so anything that happened in two-thirds of that period cannot possibly be attributed to olive green fag packets. Moreover, there was a whopping 25 per cent tax hike on tobacco in 2010 which the government predicted would reduce the number of smokers "in the order of 2 to 3 per cent, or around 87,000 Australians."

Using two data points three years apart when plain packaging wasn't in place for most of the period in question is obviously a poor method of assessing the impact of the policy. We do have data that shows annual changes in smoking prevalence, but plain pack campaigners ignore it because it clearly doesn't support the claim they want to make.

Leaving all that aside, the claim about smoking prevalence doesn't stand up even on its own terms. The graph below shows smoking prevalence in Australia since 1995 (in three year increments).

Anyone whose job does not depend on not seeing things can see that there has been a steady, longterm decline in the smoking rate. Prevalence fell in every three year period and did so consistently and predictably within a narrow range of 0.9-2.4 percentage points.

The biggest decline in this period was not—as campaigners are claiming—between 2010 and 2013 (2.3%), but between 1998 and 2001 (2.4%). 2010-13 did not see the biggest decline in smoking rates since records began (as Martin Dockrell claimed on the radio recently). It was not even the biggest decline in the last fifteen years.

So why do they say it was? Simon Chapman seems to be the source of this particular bit of spin. He's keen to focus on the percentage differences between the percentages rather than look at the decline amongst the whole population. Therefore, he's looked at the percentage drop from 15.1% to 12.8% (which is 15.5%) and decided that this is the only number worth talking about. His method has the effect of downgrading what was genuinely the biggest decline in the time series that occurred between 1998 and 2001 (21.8% to 19.4% = 11.0%).

To see why this is a statistical trick, consider the graph below which shows a constant decline of 5 units from 50 to 0.

The decline is completely straight and linear, but if you measured it using Chapman's method you would get the impression that the decline speeds up rapidly and exponentially (see the percentage figures on the horizontal axis). In the early stages of the decline, the percentage drop is quite small (10%, 11.1% etc.), but as the numbers are diminished the same drop leads to much bigger declines in relative terms, ultimately ending in declines of 50% and 100%. Every step down represents the biggest ever decline up to that time even though the drop is always exactly the same.

Therefore, if the number of smokers is dwindling year-on-year (as it is in most Western countries) and there is a constant and steady decline in the smoking rate, it is a mathematical inevitably that you will keep seeing a record decline if you measure it as Chapman does even if the rate of decline of smoking in the population does not accelerate. Of course, the smoking rate does not fall by exactly the same amount every year so it is not a certainty that records will always be broken, but so long as the decline is roughly constant the probability of a record being broken rises as the numbers get smaller.

This is not the way the data are normally looked at, nor is it the way they should be looked at. Chapman resorts to this tactic because it helps disguise the simple fact that the smoking rate has been falling a steady but pedestrian pace for many years and has continued to fall at the same pace since 2010.

Plain packaging wasn't introduced in 2010 or 2011. It was introduced in December 2012, so the question of whether there was a record drop in the smoking rate between 2010 and 2013 is academic so far as that policy goes. Nevertheless, for the record, there wasn't.

To be continued...

Thursday, 14 August 2014

‘We will push for a law if we don’t get support'

This story didn't get much play in the mainstream media but it tells you everything you need to know about the public health racket, from the headline down.

‘We will push for a law if we don’t get support,’ warns health group

Yeah, that's the spirit. If people don't agree with you, force them.

Promoting products such [as] snacks, soft drinks and confectionery could soon become a thing of the past, according to leaked details from a Department of Health (DoH) meeting.

Susan Jebb, who chairs the food network of the DoH’s Public Health Responsibility Deal, warned at a meeting earlier this year that she will “go to ministers” if the industry is not quick to reduce the promotion of “products that people don’t need”.

What, I wonder, are these "products that people don't need"? I spend a lot of money on things that I don't need. They're the ones I like best. Thanks to the miracle of consumer capitalism I can buy lots of things that I don't "need" so why should the people who sell these wonderful products be prevented from promoting them? (Incidentally, if I was in such a perilous situation of near-starvation that I could only afford what I needed, I would be wise to spend my money on energy-dense food, but that's another matter).

Look, Britain wasn't designed for unelected cranks to decide what the public needs and ban everything else. A shop is the property of the shopkeeper and he'll lay it out any way he damn well pleases. If you find that intolerable, I suggest you move to a country that is more to your likely. Saudi Arabia, for example, or Cuba.

She warned that if suppliers and retailers didn’t take voluntary action, there would be mandatory action...

Ah, the famous "voluntary agreement" with government. Imagine mugging somebody with the words "If you don't give me your wallet voluntarily, I'll force you to give it to me". Do you this would be a legitimate defence if you were accused of robbery?

It would not. But when the government does it, it's okay. Threats with menaces are fine if you work for the state.

...on what she described as “an area that lends itself to legislation”.

I don't know Ms. Jebb personally but I doubt that there are many areas that she doesn't think "lend themselves to legislation". And yet, what democratic mandate does she, a "professor of Diet and Population Health", have to bring it about? Surely she is a mere hired hand, a sympathetic academic, not an elected politician?

Indeed she is, but she has been seconded to the Department of Health which, as we have seen, is run by ideological bureaucrats who effectively make laws under the shabby umbrella of 'public health'. So she probably has a good chance.

The move could force convenience stores to remove countertop units and obliterate the opportunity for impulse purchasing in smaller stores, costing retailers thousands of pounds.

A small price to pay to temporarily satiate the whims of Public Health. A step in the right direction if we are to give the people of England "not what they want but what they need" (as that terrible old puritan Oliver Cromwell put it). Put the tasty snacks behind shutters, put them in plain packaging! Won't somebody please, for God's sake, think of the children?

Oxford University professor Jebb is understood to be frustrated that, despite three years of group meetings, there has been no consistent progress towards removing promotions in shops, while reductions on salt and sugar have moved forward.

Despite all those meetings! The poor woman went all those meetings and the yet the government still hasn't banned chocolate advertising! It's a scandal, dear reader. What is the point of sending jumped up academics to meetings if the government doesn't bow down to them? It's so unfair! Clearly, this an "area for legislation".

Despite praising moves from Tesco and Lidl to remove confectionery from the till-point, she is keen for more action.

People like her are always keen for more action. The crusade of the curtain-twitching, chocolate-fearing busy-body never ends. There's no point trying to appease them. They think they know what people "need" and what they don't "need". Take away their state funding and throw them out on the street where they can return to their natural calling of howling at passers-by. Don't feather their nests. Burn their nests, smash their eggs, kick them out of public life. The lot of them.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

CAMRA: Still ignoring the elephant in the pub

With the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) calling for more government intervention to save the British pub, let's remember what they said on the eve of the smoking ban in 2007.

You'd think that the influx of "840,000 people who never go to pubs", combined with six million pubgoers going more often, would have been a real shot in the arm for the pub industry, wouldn't you? Alas, these people didn't exist (it's that old stated preferences versus revealed preferences thing) and 2007 saw the start of the biggest decline in pub numbers in living memory, possibly ever.

CAMRA's new plan is to make it more difficult to turn a pub into a house or a shop. This won't stop pubs closing—it fails to deal with the underlying lack of demand for smokefree boozers—but it will mean that we can look at pubs in a derelict state for a bit longer while Tesco gets planning permission. So that'll be nice.

After supporting the smoking ban, and having said barely a peep about it since, CAMRA's campaign to save the British pub with more state regulation looks like being about as successful as its campaign to rid the country of lager and metal kegs.

More on booze warnings

Further to yesterday's post about health warnings on alcohol, I was on Channel 5 News last night debating the idea with Lord Brooke. His lordship took the unusual tack of talking mainly about sugar and obesity. As it happens, I am not against having calorie labelling on alcoholic drinks, as he would like, but we don't agree on much else.

Further reading:

Peter Oborne: 'Bossy health chiefs, drunk on power'

Pete Brown: 'When will the anti-alcohol lobby stop lying about the "£21 billion" cost of alcohol to society?' 

Daily Mash: 'Nothing you can say or do will stop us drinking, government told'