Saturday, 31 January 2015


From The Guardian (and not, as it might appear, The Daily Mash):

Pedestrians in Spain could soon be breathalysed and made to obey speed limits in proposals by officials hoping to make the country’s streets safer.

The plans have sparked a dispute, with the government’s top advisory council calling it a violation of Spaniards’ rights.

Earlier this year, Spain’s Directorate General of Traffic, the government body responsible for managing traffic, proposed a new “tool to foster better relations and coexistence between pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and vehicles”.

Tucked between suggestions for increased fines for drunk-driving and better regulation of driving schools was a change that would define pedestrians as “users of the road”, putting them on a par with drivers.

Pedestrians could be required to take on-the-spot alcohol and drug tests if implicated in a traffic accident or traffic offence.

The proposal also sets out a speed limit for pavements, limiting the pace to “not surpassing that of a normal stride”.

The Council of State, the government’s top advisory council, in a report seen by Europa Press, urged the government body to overhaul the proposal.

The measures would hinder the freedom and personal privacy of Spaniards as well as their right to circulate freely, it said.

Spaniards, continued the report, “could possibly abstain from fiestas or from attending weddings and celebrations where alcohol is consumed, since they could be subject to an alcohol test if a vehicle near them is involved in an accident”.

As for the speed limits suggested for pedestrians, the report worried it would amount to a “prohibition on jogging”.

If it saves just one life, etc. And the UK is not far behind.

Friday, 30 January 2015

That childhood obesity panic

From the BBC...

Child obesity rates 'levelling off' among under-10s 

The rise in childhood obesity, which has left one in three UK children overweight, may be beginning to level off in the under-10s, a study suggests.

Regular readers of this blog will know that it's not beginning to level off. In fact, it's not just levelling off. It's falling and the fall has been going on for more than a decade, at the same time as the hysteria about the younger generation 'dying before their parents' has become the conventional wisdom.

These are the obesity figures for boys (from the Office for National Statistics):

And these are the figures for girls:

The first line of the BBC article uses the old trick of conflating obesity with overweight, but even if you combine the two measures there has been a clear decline in the last decade. Overweight + obesity peaked at 31.9% amongst 2-10 year olds in 2005 and has since fallen to 25.6%. For 11-15 year olds, it peaked at 25.5% in 2004 and has since fallen to 19.9%. It is simply untrue to say that 'one in three UK children [are] overweight'.

The BBC article is based on a new study which comes up with different figures from those of the ONS. Although it says that obesity/overweight has flatlined amongst 2-10 year olds, it claims that rates have continued to rise amongst 11-15 year olds. Personally, I'll trust the ONS until I'm given a good reason not to. Either way, the hysterical predictions are looking very shaky. The timebomb never went off and it was never going to.

It took years for the BBC to acknowledge that alcohol consumption was in decline from 2004 onwards. Could today's report be the start of the corporation coming to terms with the obesity epidemic not panning out in the way that was predicted?

Don't forget that it is only twelve months since we were told that the obesity 'epidemic' could be 'much worse than predicted'. We were told that 25 per cent of children would be obese by 2050. In fact, childhood obesity has fallen from 17.4% in 2002 to 15.2% in 2013.

Can someone explain to me how a demonstrable decline is worse than a predicted rise? Shouldn't the soothsayers of public health be downgrading their predictions in the light of real world evidence? Or could it be that obesity forecasts are never intended to have any predictive power and are only devised to scare the public into accepting illiberal laws?

"An endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." - Mencken

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

What's in a question?

I missed this when it came out in November, but it's a very interesting example of how subtle changes in wording can yield different survey results. Last year it was reported that a relative majority of smokers now supports plain packaging in Australia. The survey was published as a study in Tobacco Control and these were the results:

Support for PP [plain packaging] increased significantly after implementation (28.2% pre vs 49% post), such that post-PP more smokers were supportive than opposed (49% vs 34.7%).

Although it seems trivial, there was a subtle shift in survey methodology after plain packaging came in. The Tobacco Control researchers asked a slightly different question to smokers after plain packaging was in force.

Before implementation the smokers were asked:

‘Tobacco companies should be required to sell cigarettes in plain packages—that is, in packs without the usual brand colours and symbols, but keeping the warning labels’

After implementation, they were asked:

‘Tobacco companies should continue to be required to sell cigarettes in plain packages, as they are now’.

The difference seems insignificant at first glance and, given the context, the rewording seems reasonable. But the wording of the questions had more of an effect than you might think. Shortly after the Tobacco Control paper was published, the research agency Povaddo conducted a survey in which 500 smokers were asked the first question and 500 smokers were asked the latter question.

Of those who were asked the first question (‘Tobacco companies should be required to sell cigarettes in plain packages—that is, in packs without the usual brand colours and symbols, but keeping the warning labels’) 24 per cent agreed and 46 per cent disagreed (the rest were indifferent).

Of those who were asked the second question (‘Tobacco companies should continue to be required to sell cigarettes in plain packages, as they are now’) 31 per cent agreed and 36 per cent disagreed (the rest were indifferent).

This is quite a swing and it is interesting to speculate on why opposition to plain packs eased off by ten percentage points when respondents were referred to packs 'as they are now'. The most likely explanation is status quo bias, possibly combined with the bandwagon effect.

It seems that the wording of the question in the Tobacco Control study was more important than it appeared. Even without any change in smokers' attitudes towards plain packaging, the wording ensured that they would appear to be less hostile to the policy.

But there is another big difference between the two surveys which cannot be explained by the wording of the questions. In the Povaddo survey, a relative majority of both sets of smokers were against plain packaging. The most it could manage, using the second question, was 31 per cent in favour and 36 per cent against (as opposed to Tobacco Control's 49 per cent in favour and 35 per cent against).

How can this be explained? The Tobacco Control survey was conducted in mid-2013 and it is possible that smokers' attitudes have hardened in the meantime. Possible, but not very likely. A better explanation lies in the other questions that the Tobacco Control survey asked, but the Povaddo survey didn't. These additional questions are listed below:

Desire to quit (‘how much do you want to quit?’: not at all, a little, somewhat, a lot)

Quitting history (none versus at least one quit attempt: since the last survey/in the last year- for new recruits), with being currently quit at the time of the interview constituting a quit attempt. ‘When did your most recent (or current) quit attempt start?’

Quitting self-efficacy (‘If you decided to give up smoking completely in the next 6 months, how sure are you that you would succeed?’ : not at all sure, slightly sure, moderately sure, very sure, extremely sure)

Proximity of intention to quit (no intention or beyond 6 months/within the next 6 months).

Perceived risk of disease (‘if you continue to smoke as much as you do now, what are the chances that you will get a smoking-related disease, such as lung cancer, heart disease, or emphysema?’ : very high, somewhat high, neither high or low, somewhat low, very low);

Realised health damage (‘To what extent, if at all, has smoking damaged your health?’ : not at all, just a little, a fair amount, a great deal).

You will have noticed that all these questions refer either to quitting smoking or to the negative health effects of smoking, thereby framing the question about plain packaging in a context in which any tobacco control policy might seem more reasonable.

It is not clear from the text of the Tobacco Control study whether these questions were asked before or after the plain packaging question, but if they were asked first—and I'll bet you a pig to a pork scratching that they were—then this framing, combined with the changed wording of the post-implementation question, explains why the Tobacco Control researchers got a response that was more to their liking than the more neutral Povaddo survey.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The obesity debate continues

Earlier in the month I wrote an article about soda taxes for Cato Unbound (spoiler: I'm against them). It has now had three full length responses, from Baylen Linnekin, Russell Saunders and Jennifer Harris. Baylen (an attorney) agreed with me, Russell (a paediatrician) partly agreed with me but still wants to see taxes on soft drinks, and Jennifer (a social psychologist) mostly disagreed with me and wants to see tobacco-style polices for food.

I have now written a post replying to them all which you can read here. Here's a taster...

Firstly, I should say that I do not hold some of the opinions that Harris and Saunders consider to be truisms. Saunders says ”that obesity is a major U.S. public health problem is not a subject of much dispute” while Harris says that “All agree that parents cannot solve the childhood obesity crisis on their own.” In fact, I do dispute that obesity is a “public health problem.” I don’t share the currently fashionable view that a public health problem is merely the aggregate of a nation’s private health problems. Obesity differs from genuine public health issues, such as unclean drinking water, pollution, and tuberculosis, in that it is not infectious and it can be prevented and cured without government intervention. It a private health problem – or, more correctly, it is a risk factor for private health problems.

I am loath to start a sentence with the words “as a parent,” but as a parent I reject Harris’s assertion that “parents can’t compete with the overwhelmingly unhealthy food environment surrounding their children as soon as they step outside the front door.” Parents can prevent their children becoming obese, particularly when they are young. Collectively, therefore, parents can “solve the childhood obesity crisis,” if it must be put in those terms. Similarly, parents can prevent themselves from becoming obese. The evidence is all around us. Even in the United States, with its supposedly “obesogenic” environment, two-thirds of adults and 83 percent of children are not obese. Obesity is not rare enough to be called deviant, but nor is it normal enough to be viewed as an unavoidable consequence of forces that are beyond the individual’s control.

In a free society, the question of whether government should introduce legislation to tackle obesity does not depend on obesity being a “pubic health problem” or even a “crisis.” Intervention can only be justified if obesity results from market failure or creates negative externalities for those who are not obese. Harris suggests that both criteria have been met. She uses what is essentially a market failure argument when she talks about the need for “widespread systemic changes to the food environment.” The implication is that consumers are denied real choice because so many products contain sugar, salt, and fat. This is the famous “obesogenic environment” in which healthy choices are supposedly difficult, if not impossible, and consumers are unable to satisfy their latent desire to eat cabbage and broccoli.

But look at the choices on the shelves, even in inner cities. There have never been so many low-fat, low-sugar, and low-calorie options in stores and supermarkets, never so many fruits and vegetables from around the world. You need look no further than the soda market to see the range of options available to the weight-conscious consumer. The Coca-Cola company launched its first low sugar brand (Tab) in the 1960s, and it now produces Diet Coke, Coke Zero, and Coke Life. Diet Coke and Coke Zero contain no sugar, and Coke Life is a low calorie version of Coke, made with a combination of sugar and sweeteners. Nearly all soft drink companies produce similar low-calorie, zero-calorie, and sugar-free varieties. All are widely advertised and all are available on the same shelves, in the same stores, and for the same price as their more sugary cousins. It is very difficult to argue that consumers are nudged, let alone coerced, into buying the high-calorie variants. If they buy them it is because they want them.

Do read the rest.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The scream test revisited

I wrote an article for The Telegraph last week about the public health lobby's 'scream test' and the real motives behind plain packaging.

So much for evidence. With every indicator showing that plain packaging in Australia has been, at best, a damp squib, the campaign for this risible policy was won with the one oft-repeated question: "Why would the tobacco industry spend so much time and money lobbying against plain packaging if it didn’t work?"

Do read the rest.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Will plain pack campaigners put their money where their mouth is?

I don't know if you heard, but Britain's government of nominally conservative and liberal politicians gave the green light to plain packaging this week. The vote in parliament will be a formality.

The surprise announcement on Wednesday night was the culmination of several years of intense campaigning which swallowed up millions of pounds of taxpayers' money and yet the idea remains as futile, silly and counterproductive as it was when I first wrote about it six years ago. More so, in fact, because we have since had real world evidence from Australia proving its ineffectiveness.

The campaign has gone on so long that I suspect the public will expect to see real results this time. It won't be like graphic warnings or the ban on cigarette vending machines, when legislation was pushed through quickly and then forgotten about. The public health lobby has an aversion to assessing its policies in retrospect for obvious reasons—most of them don't work. As I have said many times before, tobacco control is not a results-driven business, but the claims about plain packaging have been so hysterically overblown that I don't think the public will forget them overnight, no matter what fresh campaign is launched to take our minds off it.

We have been told, by none other than the corpulent 'public health' luminary Martin McKee, that the best way to tell if an anti-smoking policy is effective is to watch the markets.

We are also told that plain packaging is a bigger deal in the UK than it is in Australia. We have a larger population and we are regarded as more influential to copycat nations in the West than distant Oz. So how did the markets react to the seismic news this week?

Here's BAT's share price...

Here's Imperial Tobacco's share price...

And here's Philip Morris's share price...

ASH et al. have committed a lot of money to the idea of plain packaging in recent years, most of it belonging to taxpayers. Would they, I wonder, bet their own money on the policy working? Because the people who actually do have money in the game are calling their bluff.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Unsurprising quote of the week

The latest from our friends in the public health lobby...

"Our end game is to bring sugary fizzy drink consumption down to zero in 2025, similar to the end game for tobacco consumption."

See this post for a reminder of who these advocates of "stopping the availability of sugary drinks in New Zealand" are, and see Feminoptimal for further comment.