Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The state of the World Health Organisation

There were more allegations of incompetence and corruption directed at the World Health Organisation over the weekend. After dropping the ball on Ebola and making a few people very rich with swine flu fear-mongering, the WHO are now accused of turning a blind eye to the Zika virus for fear of spoiling the International Olympic Committee's party.

An open letter signed by 150 international doctors, scientists and researchers criticised a secret agreement between the WHO and the IOC and said they​ risk putting public health in further danger.

It says the influx of hundreds of athletes and thousands of spectators into Brazil will accelerate the march of the virus.

.. One of the letter’s signatories, Professor Edwin van Teijlingen , an expert in reproductive health at Bournemouth University, accused the IOC and the WHO of being “too close for comfort” and of operating behind a cloak of secrecy.

The cloak of secrecy sounds familiar. At the peak of the Ebola crisis, WHO director-general Margaret Chan was 'fully occupied' at a tobacco control jamboree in Moscow to which even journalists were not invited. Chan seems to have little interest in infectious diseases in developing countries. She prefers to spend her time micromanaging the lives of affluent Westerners, suppressing e-cigarettes and waging war on the paper tigers of capitalism. Her sixth form view of the world was captured in the 2013 speech in which she said...

'It is not just Big Tobacco anymore. Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda, and Big Alcohol.'

 And so it continues. Today is World No Tobacco Day...

Every year, on 31 May, WHO and partners mark World No Tobacco Day (WNTD), highlighting the health risks associated with tobacco use and advocating for effective policies to reduce tobacco consumption.

And what 'effective policy' is the WHO 'advocating for' on this year?

For World No Tobacco Day, 31 May 2016, WHO and the Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control are calling countries to get ready for plain (standardized) packaging of tobacco products.

That's right, a policy that clearly failed in Australia and has unwelcome side effects not only in terms of the black market but also in terms of the effect on smokers...

Some may argue that the fact that the images create motivations and desires to stop smoking is a public health victory in its own right. If it wasn’t for the unintended consequences, I would agree. But “plain packaging” has been found to create severe feelings of self-blame and disgust which, in turn, cause stigmatisation of smokers.

On the one hand, these side effects are not justified because they are not outweighed by other benefits of the new plain packaging rules. The fact that smokers feel motivated to stop is hardly a net gain when they at the same time are subject to emotional harm, and their chances of quitting aren’t strongly improved.

Worse, though, some studies demonstrate that certain groups of smokers react negatively to shock messages. For some, the feeling of blame and stigmatisation creates an emotional state of disempowerment, which reinforces the belief that it is impossible to stop smoking. In such cases, plain packaging does not only create emotional harm without sufficient justification, it is quite frankly counterproductive.

Given the lack of behavioural evidence and the serious unintended consequences, the introduction of tobacco plain packaging in the UK is an ill-advised decision, which is most likely not to have a significant impact on one of our biggest public health challenges.

None of the unintended consequences matter to the unelected and unaccountable WHO. They won't have to pick up the pieces. But governments should be asking why they are funding an organisation that so often fails in its primary duty of tackling contagious diseases in poor countries and yet always has ample money to spend on quixotic pursuits such as the global erosion of intellectual property rights.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

National Obesity Forum in meltdown

This is most entertaining. The National Obesity Forum is in meltdown thanks to the Malhotra-driven 'fat is your friend' report. From The Observer...

Britain’s leading anti-obesity campaign group is in turmoil after its controversial new dietary advice provoked serious infighting and threats by leading doctors to shun it over its “misleading” views.

Privately, the National Obesity Forum (NOF) is in disarray over recommendations last week that people should eat more fat, reduce carbohydrates and stop counting calories.

That would explain a tweet I saw last week about NOF's chief spokesman, Tam Fry...

It is noticeable that there is still no mention of the report on the NOF website. It was actually published by the Public Health Collaboration, a recently formed group of low carbers who realised that you can get the media interested in any old rubbish so long as you've got the words 'public health' in your name (the 'collaboration' bit is probably intended to invoke the Cochrane Collaboration).

The link with the National Obesity Forum seems to be confined to three men, two of whom will be familiar to regular readers...

Internal NOF emails seen by the Observer reveal anger among board members that none of them was given the chance to approve the incendiary report before publication, except its chair, Dr David Haslam, who co-wrote it with Dr Aseem Malhotra, an outspoken heart doctor who is the NOF’s cardiological adviser, and others, including Robert Lustig, an American expert on sugar. Haslam, a GP, told them on 12 May that he would seek their advice before publishing but did not do so, it is claimed.

And get the popcorn ready because...

The group plans to issue a statement this week disowning the findings, which will leave Haslam facing serious questions.

And get some more popcorn ready for this...

The emails show that a number of renowned authorities on obesity and medical organisations plan to review their links with the NOF because it was “inexcusable to confuse the public with incorrect science”. Concerns are so great that it may be expelled from the Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of 30 health organisations that is urging ministers to take tough action to tackle the growing epidemic of obesity.

And then this...

The “fallout” is so great that the forum’s annual conference, due to take place in November, “is now in jeopardy”, adds Capehorn. Obesity expert Mike Lean, professor of human nutrition at Glasgow University, has already withdrawn from speaking because of the controversy, Capehorn claims.

This is all tremendously funny and yet it is difficult to pick a side to cheer on. It's like having to choose between Assad and ISIS, or Clinton and Trump. On the one hand, you have cretins like Aseem Malhotra whose downfall is long overdue. On the other hand, you have horrible nanny statists like Tam Fry, Mike Lean, Susan Jebb and Simon Capewell who are only an improvement on Malhotra insofar as they understand the laws of thermodynamics.

The standard of debate is much as you might expect from the 'public health' racket. Instead of arguing about the scientific evidence, they have retreated to their comfort zone and thrown ad hominems at one another. Malhotra has accused Jebb of being in the pay of Weight Watchers and Jebb has accused the National Obesity Forum of being in the pay of Big Pharma.

It's like watching children at play. The Observer quotes an anonymous (why?) 'expert' who makes the stupidest criticism imaginable of a report that richly deserves to be criticised.

One of Britain’s leading experts in public health, who did not wish to be named, told the Observer that the report’s authors had inadvertently damaged efforts to educate the public about what they should and should not eat. “The report’s conclusion to opt for a ‘balanced diet’ is a disaster. Because that is exactly the phrase the junk food industry use to justify ‘a little of what you like will do no harm’; that is, ‘eat junk, snacks and soda whenever you want – and make us rich’.”

This is absolutely pathetic. The food industry didn't invent the term 'balanced diet' but even if they did it wouldn't make it invalid. Doctors tell people to eat a balanced diet and so does the NHS. In any case, the problem with the Public Health Collaboration report isn't that it advocates a balanced diet. It does pretty much the opposite, telling people to pile their plates up with unlimited quantities of fatty food and not worry about calories. 

These people are so obsessed with the food industry that even while fighting each other they can't give up the rhetoric. Let's not pick a side in this row. Let's hope they keeping punching each other until they both fall over.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Never Mind The Gap

Ever since I wrote The Spirit Level Delusion in 2010 I've been asked to speak at debates about income inequality. I wasn't interested in inequality when I read The Spirit Level and I'm not particularly interested in it now. My view is that it could be a symptom of a problem but it cannot be a problem in itself. Material living standards, prosperity and growth are what matters, not envy.

Mere indifference to income inequality is enough to make some people angry, but their angry is usually based on a misunderstanding of the basic facts. For example, people think that Britain is one of the world's least equal countries and that inequality is spiralling out of control. These beliefs are simply untrue and so, in a probably futile attempt to bring some facts into the picture, my IEA colleague Ryan Bourne and I have written a mythbuster about income and wealth inequality in Britain. It's called Never Mind the Gap and you can download it for free here.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Brainzero: be the change

Last year, the radical citizen activists from Live From Golgafrincham interviewed me for a video about the importance of a diverse civil society supported by people power (ie. taxpayers). This important film is the fruit of their labour. Please sign a petition.


* May contain satire.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Doctors disagree with Sally Davies about alcohol

Not much pick up in the media for this, which is a shame because it looks as if CAMRA have finally done some worthwhile research...

GPs disagree with Chief Medical Officer’s statement that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption

The majority of GPs disagree with the Chief Medical Officer’s statement that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, according to research undertaken on behalf of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale.

A recent poll conducted by medeConnect showed that 60% of the GPs surveyed disagreed with the statement that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. It also found that almost two thirds (63%) of GPs considered that moderate alcohol consumption can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

The new alcohol guidance published by the Chief Medical Officer in January breaks with international precedent by providing the same guidelines for men and women; adopting a very low threshold of 14 units per week and stating that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

Numerous scientific studies shows that moderate drinking can have a protective effect against numerous health problems including cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, and certain forms of cancer. However, this is ignored in the new alcohol guidelines.

CAMRA’s National Chairman, Colin Valentine said: “We made the observation when the new guidelines were published that the Chief Medical Officer had ignored evidence which showed that moderate drinking can have a beneficial effect.

“Only recently, we commissioned a report with Oxford University ‘Friends on Tap’ which found that those who had a local pub were happier, healthier, and felt more integrated in their communities than those without.

“Furthermore, research has shown that the mortality rate of moderate drinkers is lower than those who abstain altogether.

“It therefore is no surprise that this survey has illustrated that GPs overwhelmingly believe that a moderate consumption of alcohol can be part of a good and healthy lifestyle.’

“CAMRA are calling on the Department of Health to launch a full public consultation into whether the new alcohol health guidelines are fit for purpose and adequately supported by evidence.”

The details:

This survey was conducted in April 2016.

To what extent do you agree with the following statements?

There is no safe level of alcohol consumption:

Strongly agree



Somewhat agree



Neither agree nor disagree



Somewhat disagree



Strongly disagree



Don't Know





Moderate consumption of alcohol can be part of a healthy lifestyle:

Strongly agree



Somewhat agree



Neither agree nor disagree



Somewhat disagree



Strongly disagree



Don't Know






Monday, 23 May 2016

Is this the end for Aseem Malhotra?

Aseem Malhotra has been begging for his comeuppance ever since he started spouting his scientifically illiterate, factually inaccurate rubbish four years ago. He has suffered setbacks before but today he went too far, even for the 'public health' racket. Even his old buddies at Action on Sugar such as Simon Capewell and Jenny Rosborough have finally had enough. Public Health England, the Faculty for Public Health, the Royal Society for Public Health, the British Dietetic Association and more have all lined up to mock his latest headline-grabbing initiative.

I have written what I hope will be an obituary for his narcissistic, attention-seeking career as a TV doctor for the Spectator...

Action on Sugar, a small pressure group set up in 2013, have received a vast amount of media coverage by appealing to the public’s appetite for easy answers. Not only do they focus on a single nutrient, but they have a cartoon villain (‘Big Food’) and an easy answer that absolves consumers from having to take personal responsibility (food reformulation).

In their early days, their chief spokesman was Dr Aseem Malhotra, a Croydon-based cardiologist with a knack for sloganeering. To borrow a phrase from Peter Cook, Malhotra rose without trace. One minute he was writing factually inaccurate articles for the Observer about ‘junk food’, the next minute he was describing himself as a ‘world leading expert in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart disease’ who ‘reigns supreme in his fight to raise awareness about the health benefits of a sugar-free diet’.

Malhotra parted company with Action on Sugar some time ago, but he has remained a fixture on breakfast television ever since. Last year, he was in the news after making the extraordinary claim that there is no link between physical inactivity and obesity. Having fallen under the spell of Dr Robert Lustig, an American endocrinologist who blames obesity on high fructose corn syrup (a type of sugar that is barely consumed in the EU due to quotas), he drifted into the low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) movement via Gary Taubes and Nina Teicholz.

This is where this things start to get weird...

Do read the rest. 

Within a year or two Malhotra will be earning his living selling diet books and delivering cherry-picked presentations to credulous low carb cultists on cruise ships. Mark my words. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Plain packaging is ASH's problem now

So plain packaging in the UK crossed its final hurdle yesterday when the courts ruled it to be legal. From today, cigarette packs will be designed by people who hate smokers.

Plain packaging is ASH's problem now. They are the ones who spent years lobbying for it (with taxpayers' money, natch). They are the ones who made wild claims about it 'protecting' children. Now that it is reality they will be keen to lower expectations with the usual 'no silver bullet' film-flam (see also: the sugar tax). They will want to change the subject and move on to their next crazy idea.

Don't let them. We know from Australia that plain packaging won't make the slightest difference to tobacco sales or smoking prevalence. The only question is how bad the unintended consequences will be. Whatever happens next is ASH's fault and I, for one, will be reminding them of that every chance I get.

As I argue at the Speccie today, this policy - combined with the tax hikes, e-cigarette regulations and Tobacco Products Directive - is another step towards bootleg Britain...

This time next year, any cigarette pack you see that is not in plain packaging will have been bought abroad or on the black market. The same will be true of any menthol cigarette you see after 2020, not to mention all the vaping fluids and paraphernalia that are being outlawed by the EU. By necessity, Britain is becoming a nation of bootleggers. One unintended consequence of plain packaging will be that this becomes visible to all.

Do read the whole article.