Saturday, 28 July 2012

The most "leftie" opening ceremony ever?

You may well have seen the Olympics opening ceremony. Insofar as these things are about whipping up patriotic hysteria and selling Great Britain to the world, I think Danny Boyle did a pretty good job. Certainly he ticked all the boxes, and with £27 million to spend he damn well should have done.

Yesterday I predicted that it would be a "politically correct propaganda-fest" and it did indeed turn out to be something like that at times. If all you knew about Britain came from watching the opening ceremony, you would imagine that at least 40% of the British population were ethnic minorities and another 10% were in wheelchairs. A tribute was paid to CND. Perhaps the most politically contentious part involved the National Health Service which was portrayed—as per liberal left orthodoxy—as the envy of the world. The audience was treated to the sight of dozens of happy children being treated in lovely, clean, MRSA-free hospital beds by attentive and caring nurses. Suddenly, apropos very little, sinister figures in black appeared and attacked the children. (Something to do with Harry Potter. I don't know what they're called. I haven't seen the films or read the books. I'm not ten years old). A hoard of Mary Poppins saved them from the evil intruders. It was that kind of show.

It has been suggested that this was a none-too-subtle allegory for the NHS reforms which the evil Tories are trying to introduce. Within minutes, the following graphic was circulating on Twitter (the words 'NHS' which were beamed up from the stadium during the ceremony—to the bemusement of most of the world, presumably)...

Speaking of Twitter, a Conservative MP called Aidan Burley sparked a 'twitch-hunt' when he described the whole thing as "the most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen" in a tweet that was retweeted more than 2,300 times.

As is the way in the playground of social media, this unleashed a firestorm from, well, "lefties" who are now hoping for an apology/resignation.

Are they right to do so? It seems to me that all that is required to expose Mr Burley as a liar or fantasist is for his accusers to provide an example of an opening ceremony that was more "leftie". Perhaps they are able to give countless examples, but I can't think of a single one. My memory might be letting me down, but I don't recall anything from the Beijing opening ceremony that could be construed as political. Perhaps the Moscow Olympics of 1980 made overt references to Marxism. I don't know, but we are going back quite some years even then and it is for Burley's accusers to demonstrate it if so.

From my limited experience of watching Olympic opening ceremonies I think it is fair to describe last night's event as having more of a political edge than previous efforts and that the politics were of the left. But don't take my word for it. Let's see what some of Britain's foremost left-wing commentators thought of it...

If the people above were giddy with delight about the political content of last night's opening ceremony—and the NHS segment in particular—it seems to me that there is a pretty good prima facie case for saying that it was a tad "leftie". And since opening ceremonies are generally not riddled with political allusions, that gives it a good chance of being the "most leftie opening ceremony" that Mr Burley has ever seen. And since that's all he said, this sounds like just another storm in the Twitter tea cup and we should move on.

Friday, 27 July 2012

I, too, hate the Olympics

Like every true Englishman, I've been deeply moved by the wave of contempt and derision directed at the organisers of the track and field meet that has recently seized (up) our nation's capital. I'm delighted to see that the whole thing has begun in a shambolic fashion and, like Al Jahom, I look forward to many more misfortunes in the future, especially during this evening's politically correct propaganda-fest.

The whole thing needs to be a disaster. Hurricanes must strike, electrical storms must render structures unsafe, events must be abandoned. Visitors must be stranded by our collapsing transport infrastructure, bullied and assaulted by the ragbag of spivs who will be doing event security and victimised for taking photographs by the ignorant thugs of the Metropolitan Police.

There are so many anti-Olympics articles out there that one almost wants to put across a contrary view, but this is one of those rare times when everybody is right and I'm happy to join the consensus. I wish ill on the London© 2012© Olympics© for so many reasons that I find it difficult to condense them into a single burst of rage (the Adam Smith Institute has done a particularly job of this, however). Naturally, I'm disappointed that great companies such as Coca-Cola have lowered themselves to associating themselves with LOCOG's evil empire. Yes, I'm annoyed by the colossal expense of this vanity project. And of course I loathe the vile collaboration between the state and the corporations to turn everyday words into fiercely policed trademarks.

Things got off to a cracking start when, almost unbelievably, the organisers issued what The Times called a "grovelling apology to North Korea" after showing the wrong flag before a woman's football game. (Why are events taking place before the opening ceremony? Why is North Korea allowed to participate at all? Hasn't every North Korean who can run, jump or swim escaped to South Korea?) As much as I want the Olympics to be a catastrophic embarrassment, I worry that the nadir has already been reached. It's difficult to think of what could happen next that would be more humiliating than having to apologise to a country which is one massive concentration camp.

That cock-up was a microcosm of the Olympics in general, involving an obscure sport, logistical incompetence and pathetic subservience to a totalitarian state. As if to demonstrate that this was no one-off, the authorities then removed the Taiwanese flag from the streets of London so as not to offend the sensibilities of the Chinese.

This is all splendid stuff. If the Olympics is to have a "legacy", let it be thousands of foreign visitors returning to their homes with tales of ineptitude, extortion, censorship, surveillance and bureaucratic officiousness. May our visitors go forth into the world with tales of Britain as it really is.

None of this, however, really explains my rampant Olympiphobia. What really gets to me—as it does every four years, regardless of which city is burdened with digging the money pit—is the phony hysteria and the spastic nationalism (see also: diamond jubilee). As a festival of sport, the Olympic 'games' cannot help but under-deliver since most of the events are neither sports nor games. As Doug Stanhope said in one of his routines, running, jumping and throwing are components of sport. They are ingredients. They are not spectator sports in themselves and they can only become watchable if they are combined in a way that requires guile, intelligence and a scoreboard. Without the alchemy that is required to make a game of these individual physical acts, all you have is a test of genetics and patience.

It is true that there are a few actual sports in the Olympics, but these are subject to such random and arbitrary rules that they exist in a world entirely removed from the meaningful contests which take place the rest of the year, eg. football (everyone has to be under 23, except three players), boxing (everyone has to wear headguards and pretend to be amateurs). Of the few sports that people might choose to watch outside the netherworld of the Olympics, only the tennis promises to offer the world's best players under realistic conditions, but as this will take place at a hastily re-turfed Wimbledon, it can only be a peculiar and pale shadow of the tournament that finished a mere three weeks ago.

When major football tournaments take place, those who dislike sport invariably complain about the extensive coverage. Yes, there is a lot of football on television during the World Cup, but it is no more difficult to avoid than the constant, year-round soap operas which infest the schedules of the major TV networks. It is certainly easier to avoid than the Olympics, which blights every medium 24/7 for what seems like an eternity. This, for example, is the top news story on the BBC's website as I write this.

Moreover, football is an extremely popular sport which most men and many women have at least a passing interest in. The same cannot be said of rowing, cycling and the hop, skip and jump. The fact that athletics meets are normally televised on Channel 4 and Eurosport—if they are televised at all—and take place in front of rows of empty seats is a testament to the warranted apathy with which such alleged sports are treated by the vast bulk of humanity.

There are, in short, very good sporting reasons for treating the Olympics with disdain. There is a qualitative difference between being the world's footballer or boxer and being the world's best triple-jumper or pole-vaulter. To be a world-class striker, you need to be better than over a billion other aspiring footballers from every corner of the globe. You need to be truly gifted. To be the world's best triple jumper, on the other hand, you basically just need to stick at it after everybody else has moved on to less silly pastimes. To be the best sailer, you need to live near water and get your father to buy you a boat. To be the best rower, you almost certainly need to have gone to Oxbridge. By pointing this out, I don't seek the downplay the dedication and physical stamina required to be a contender in these events, but the pool of talent is clearly shallower when there are barriers to entry and when persistence, rather than genius, divides the good from the great.

Nevertheless, a festival of quasi-sports and glorified hobbies has a certain eccentric appeal. Obviously most of the events are unwatchable, particularly if they involve swimming or running. (If you ask most self-proclaimed fans of the Olympics what event they are looking forward to, nine times out of ten they will mention the 100 metres. This demonstrates that the Olympics is for people who don't like sport. The 100 metres is the antithesis of sport. Sport is about tension, tactics and the rollercoaster ride of a game swinging back and forth. The 100 metres dash contains none of this. It is over before it has even begun and, like many Olympic spectacles, is an exhibition of nothing more than genetic freakishness and steroid abuse.)

It is not inconceivable that I might find myself watching a bit of ping pong or weight-lifting if I really have nothing better to do. There will surely be stories of triumph over adversity. Records will be broken. Acts of individual brilliance will be witnessed. Alas, no one over here will notice them because all eyes will be on some bloody Brit who's hoping to win bronze in the mixed paint-drying finals.

Remember how we all got excited by the cycling and badminton at the 2000 Olympics? No, nor do I, but then 'Team GB' didn't have any contenders in those sports in 2000 so no one in this country paid the slightest bit of attention to them. This time we do, so expect wall-to-wall coverage of sports that you wouldn't cross the road to watch were it not for the crude nationalism that the Olympics inspires.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with a bit of patriotism in sport, but when the whole nation pretends to be excited by events that are on a par with the egg and spoon race purely and only because one of the competitors was born on the same lump of rock as them, we need to find other ways of boosting our self-esteem.

The great tragedy is that although cynicism about this glorified sports day and its venal organisers has been widespread in recent weeks, it is a certainty that by the time it ends we'll be slapping ourselves on the back and reminiscing about Team GB's plucky performance in the 400 metre canoeing. On the last day there will be a firework display because fireworks mysteriously impress grown human beings. Some bloke you've never heard of will have won a gold medal in some event you didn't even know was in the bloody Olympics and he'll be well on his way to becoming sports personality of the year and receiving his MBE from her majesty (gord bless her!). Meanwhile, the government will be trying to work out what the hell we're going to do with an Olympic-sized water polo pool in London's glittering east end, the athletes can breathe a sign of relief that their new masking drug fooled the authorities and the rest of us can count down the days until the Premiership starts again.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Everything is about the Olympics. Everything.

And the winner for dragging the Olympics into every news story, no matter how unrelated it may seem goes—inevitably—to the BBC...

It's going to be a long month.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

On the importance of defending small liberties

Via Churchmouse Campanologist (whose blog you should follow), Reason has a list of quotes from people fawning over Mike Bloomberg's ban on 'super-size' sodas. The perennially egregious Jamie "none of that low fat malarkey" Oliver makes an inevitable appearance:

We hear a lot about how we shouldn’t be ‘nannying’ people with laws about how they live their lives, but with such a massive problem as the obesity epidemic to deal with, we are way past the point where can trust people to make better choices.

But I was particularly struck by this quote from Prof. Lawrence Weisberg:

"The trivial issues of personal freedom in this case pale before the public health and welfare exigency."

This is a common retort. Bloomberg's ban, we are told, is such a small infringement on liberty that it barely counts as an infringement at all. It only affects enormous bucket-sized guzzlers of fizzy garbage. Anyone who wishes to gorge themselves on pop can buy two smaller cups if they must. That being the case, those who complain must be hysterical libertarians and any protest against the law is self-evidently "ridiculous".

And so Michael Tomasky says...

This talk of “freedom” is absurd. No one’s freedom is being taken away. When the rule goes into effect, probably by September, assuming the city’s board of health votes it through (it's appointed by the mayor), New Yorkers will still be able to buy these beverages. And those who really feel that they will perish unless they have 32 ounces of Mountain Dew Code Red can simply buy two. Nothing is being banned, and no one’s being arrested.

The same argument was made in blunter terms by Drew Magary...

Democracy is not OH MY GOD THESE LAWS WILL MAKE US PUSSIES! Democracy is people working together to sort out just what the rules of society should be. Obviously, this process is labored and often hilariously corrupt, but that's what living in a "free country" is supposed to mean. It doesn't mean that you get to grab a gun and storm City Hall just because you think a soda ban is some kind of sign of the End Times. It's fucking soda. Don't be such a pussy that you can't live without a 42 oz. cup of the shit. If you're the type to flip out just because you can't have that, then who's the real pussy?

As a point of fact, it is untrue to say that Bloomberg has only banned obscenely large sodas which no right-minded person would want to drink. The ban applies to cups containing more than 16 American fluid ounces. 16 fluid ounces is only 480 ml, significantly less than a pint. Many's the time I have bought a pint of Coke in a pub and many's the time I have bought a still larger container in a cinema. I don't think I am alone in this, nor does it make me a glutton.

As for the magnitude of the liberty being infringed, no one is claiming that a ban on large sodas represents the "End Times" and no one thinks anyone is going to "perish" if they can't have an extra-large Mountain Dew. But what are defenders of liberty to do if not defend small liberties? In a liberal democracy, defending small liberties is the only thing civil libertarians should have to do.

How many ageing revolutionaries get misty eyed when they think back to the culture wars of the 1970s, such as the Oz trial or the Gay News blasphemy lawsuit? Where were the 'liberal' pundits scoffing at the notion that producing juvenile pornography was too small a liberty to protect in those days? At whom were the left-wing taunts aimed at when the culture warriors were sticking it to the man by defending some obscure publication? Not at their fellow 'liberals', who could be relied upon to use every legal recourse to protect freedoms that the man on the Clapham omnibus thought "trivial" and unworthy of protection.

What is the Twitter joke trial if not a defence of small freedoms? It is universally agreed that the joke was unfunny, so where are the sneering commentators telling Stephen Fry to "shut the fuck up" and stop being a "pussy"? Where are the people saying "you can still make jokes about blowing up airports in private. Nobody's liberty's being taken away. Get over it"?

Where are the people who will fight to the death to defend the right of Ken Russell and Lars von Trier to release their tedious and puerile films when the multi-billionaire Bloomberg ("the man" by any description) decides on a whim to ban landlords from serving Pepsi in a pint glass? Where are these champions of free expression when the state decides to obliterate the tobacco industry's intellectual property or ban the drinks industry from advertising?

The truth is that we can get along just fine without 32 oz. servings of Sprite, just as we can get along fine without the director's cut of The Devils, smutty Rupert the Bear parodies and lame jokes about terrorism. The reason we protest when the state bans these things is not because we revere them in their own right, but because we hold freedom to have a value in and of itself.

It is inevitable that when the authorities infringe on liberty, they will start by targeting products and activities which have little public support. Free speech is undermined by focusing on extreme pornography and 'hate speech'. Civil liberties are undermined by focusing on terrorism and paedophiles. And the freedom to eat and drink what you want—arguably the most fundamental right of the lot—is undermined by focusing on 32 oz. sodas and wobbly-bottomed gourmands.

In each and every case, the enemy of liberty points to some nebulous definition of the 'public interest' to support his case (public morality, public safety, public health etc.), while the defender of liberty recognises that there is an important issue of principle at stake that goes far beyond the unpopular and perhaps unsavoury test case. We understand that the specific instance may seem "trivial" but the wider principle is not.

It therefore falls to the liberal to defend things which may be unpleasant, unpopular or of interest only to a small minority. It is his job to defend "trivial issues of personal freedom", not least because if he does so, he will never have to worry about bigger issues of personal freedom.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Soda cranks

From the LA Times...

More than 100 health organizations and municipal public health departments, along with more than two dozen scientists, have asked the U.S. surgeon general to issue a report on sugar-sweetened soft drinks – akin to the landmark 1964 report on tobacco.

It never ends, does it?

A surgeon general’s report, the letter says, could evaluate the science and appraise the health effects of sugar-sweetened beverages. And it “would pave the way for policy measures at all levels of government.”

Well, duh. Why else would the swivel-eyed, biscuit-hating, vegan, coffee-fearing cranks of the Center for Science in the Public Interest be involved?

“I think people are coming around to the notion that sugary drinks aren’t healthy, and one of the astonishing things is that per capita consumption of [nondiet] carbonated drinks has gone down by 24% between 1998 and 2011, which is a big under-the-radar change in people’s drinking habits,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an organizer of the letter.

What was that?

"...per capita consumption of [nondiet] carbonated drinks has gone down by 24% between 1998 and 2011..."

Does that not tell you something? How much empirical evidence would you like before you give up on a crusade that blames drinks—which provide just 7 percent of calories to Americans—on your bogus epidemic?

Jacobson said Friday that the “goal isn’t to wipe out sugary drinks completely,” but to return “soft drinks back in the place they were 50 years ago, an occasional small serving.”

Sorry dude. Heard it too many times before. "All we want is non-smoking seats in restaurants, we're not trying to stop people smoking completely." It doesn't work like that with you guys, does it? Not really the compromising kind, are ya?

Besides, who are you to decide that Americans are going to go back to one occasional small serving? Get a job, sir, preferably one that involves minding your own business.

And among the questions that remains in the debate over caloric soft drinks is whether there’s any addictive aspect – a question that remains unsettled. “That’s the blockbuster question – is sugar addictive? It’s certainly controversial.”

It's not controversial. It's not addictive. It doesn't meet any psychiatrist's criteria for addiction, the Center for Science in the Public Interest isn't a serious organisation and this is a non-issue. Next.

Jacobson said. “It may be that it tastes good so people like it.”

Bullseye. That's all it is. Now go away. If you want to know what makes people obese then don't write letters to the Surgeon General. Go see her personally and follow her to the canteen.

Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin

A most peculiar man

The gentleman above is Dr. Gagik G. Melikyan. He has written a book called Guilty Until Proven Innocent which I am aware of thanks to a review in Chemical & Engineering News. I have not read this book and probably never will, but it appears to be an extreme expression of the chemophobia of our times.

According to the review, Dr. Melikyan thinks that "consuming some substances found in nature can be as detrimental to the human body as exposure to hazardous synthetic compounds" and that "people should question the veracity of claims that certain “natural” products will improve their health or extend their lives."

I agree with that. Every substance encountered in the universe is a chemical (to quote Wikipedia.) Most, but not all, of the modern fear of "man made" chemicals is tree-hugging hippy crap rooted in scientific ignorance and appeals to nature. Such fears are particularly widespread in Prof. Melikyan's stomping ground of Californ-i-a. He, however, appears to be more fearful of natural chemicals than of the manmade variety, and he is prepared to take the precautionary principle to ludicrous extremes.

Melikyan firmly backs the notion of precaution, especially in the case of natural products that are complex mixtures of chemicals.

And that includes such everyday items as coffee...

He even examines an aqueous mixture that is almost sacred to many: coffee. He dares argue that people should forgo drinking java until scientists can show explicitly and independently that every chemical in coffee and all metabolites are safe for long-term consumption. He brushes off people’s passion for coffee. “There was life before coffee, and there will be life after it,” Melikyan states.

Such a task could easily take centuries. According to this (not necessarily authoritative) source, there are around a thousand chemicals in a cup of coffee, and proving total safety is not a simple matter. As coffee has been used for millennia, couldn't we just take its safety and efficacy as read? Apparently not, and tea doesn’t get a pass either.

“I am concerned that tea, a physiologically active natural extract, is made readily available to the general public,” he writes. “Maybe its consumption should be more restricted, more controlled, and scientifically monitored?”

As I mentioned, Dr. Melikyan is a resident of California and has absorbed the prohibitionist mentality of the Golden State.

Melikyan’s attacks on coffee and tea are just a warm-up for his mind-boggling policy conclusions, which he acknowledges will invite intense criticism.

"Fools! I'll destroy them all!"

"Once we have established the structures of all food compounds, their behavior inside the human body, the metabolic pathways, the structures of compounds enzymatically formed inside the body, and their physiological properties, we, as a society, can rest assured knowing that the products that constitute the bulk of the consumer basket are truly safe for consumption."

Note how "we, as a society" has become indistinguishable from "I, as a fruitcake".

The dose makes the poison, my friends. Forget that, and madness reigns.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Britain's binge drinking crisis revisited

The success of the neo-temperance campaign depends on repeating the same facts over and over again, even when they don't deserve repetition and they're not really facts.

So I make no apologies for returning to a point I have made several times before: there is not an epidemic of binge drinking, as this document from the House of Commons library reminds us.

The prevalence of binge drinking among young men and women has fallen since 1998. In 2010 the prevalence among young men remained at 24% while among young women it fell to its lowest recorded level at 17%.

"Binge drinking" is defined as having more than 6 units for a woman and more than 8 units for a man on one or more occasions in a week, ie. four or more average drinks in an evening would do the trick for both genders. That is not "binge drinking", that is "drinking". If only one in five of us are exceeding these feeble limits, Britain is not a nation of binge drinkers, we are a nation of lightweights.

Meanwhile, back on Planet Guardian...

The UK Faculty of Public Health (FPH) says harmful drinking has become so common that "no nonsense" warnings displayed in a prominent place on alcohol products are needed to overcome widespread public ignorance about the dozens of medical conditions excessive consumption can cause.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Graphic warnings for alcohol. Fancy that!

I would like to officially announce my retirement from warning about the slippery slope. If non-smokers haven't got the message after this, they never will...

Alcohol packaging should carry graphic health warnings, urge doctors

Cigarette-style images would help public understand excessive drinking's link to diseases and violence, says health body

Bottles of beer, wine and spirits should carry cigarette-style graphic health warnings to make clear that alcohol is linked to cancer, infertility and violence, doctors are urging.

The UK Faculty of Public Health (FPH) says harmful drinking has become so common that "no nonsense" warnings displayed in a prominent place on alcohol products are needed to overcome widespread public ignorance about the dozens of medical conditions excessive consumption can cause.

Arresting images, such as a liver after years of alcohol-related cirrhosis or a victim of violence, could force drinkers to realise the risks they take with their health, says the FPH, which represents 3,300 public health specialists working in the NHS, local government and academia.

And it's not just the UK Faculty of Public Health, of course...

The British Medical Association, which represents 140,000 of the UK's 200,000 doctors, also endorsed the FPH's call. "We support the use of written health warnings on alcohol products", said Dr Vivienne Nathanson, its director of professional activities.

The most ridiculous job title I've ever heard of from the most disgusting trade union in the country. A pox on her and a pox on the BMA, the FPH and every other organisation that goes along with this foul but entirely predictable policy.

"But all we want is non-smoking sections in restaurants. Is that too much to ask?"

Suck it up, suckers. Plain packaging for alcohol in about three years, I'd say.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The open-minded Andrew Lansley

This is Britain's health secretary Andrew Lansley talking about the plain packaging consultation in April this year...

"It is an open question at the moment. This is a particular issue .. we have got a whole range of measures to try and reduce tobacco smoking in this country and control tobacco.

"Would plain packaging of the type you are demonstrating, would it offer a significant additional health benefit? At the moment actually our minds are open on this subject - mine too."

But hello! Who's this on the pro-plain packs website—a website that is largely funded by the government?

They're not even pretending any more, are they?

Truly, this consultation couldn't be more of a farce if it was being run by Inspector Clouseau and Mrs Doubtfire from a Torquay hotel.

The British Medical Association finds dissent "unacceptable"

Extraordinary, but maybe not so extraordinary coming from the British Medical Association...

A retired GP has been suspended from the BMA Welsh Council until 2014 after he questioned the evidence behind the BMA's campaign to ban smoking in vehicles on BBC Radio.

Dr Brendan O'Reilly, a retired GP, has also had his BMA membership suspended until he provides ‘an acceptable written apology' to four named BMA members, including Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of the BMA science and ethics committee.

In a hearing held yesterday a BMA Council panel said they considered Dr O'Reilly's language when describing his opposition to the BMA's use of statistics on the risks of passive smoking in cars as 'unacceptable'.

How I hate that word 'unacceptable'. Like 'inappropriate', it is used by the prim and the passive aggressive to silence anyone who disagrees with them. What I wouldn't give to see these overpaid, sanctimonious quacks knocked off their high horse. Bear in mind that the "evidence" O'Reilly was criticising was later retracted by the BMA for being a complete fiction.

In its determination, the BMA admitted it did, at a later stage, have to publicly revise some of the data in its briefing paper Smoking in Vehicles. But it said Dr O'Reilly's use of the term manipulation was ‘detrimental to the honour and interest of the BMA'.

Well, tough. How detrimental to public discourse has the BMA's repeated manipulation (sue me) of statistics been over the years?

The panel also said it found ‘unacceptable'...

That word again.

...a comparison made by Dr O'Reilly between ‘the statement of Dr Vivienne Nathanson and the dossier that allegedly led to the Iraq War'.

Ha ha! Nice one Dr O'Reilly. Do we have to wait for every GP to retire before they tell the truth in public? Both documents were deeply misleading and factually incorrect pieces of propaganda designed to instigate wrong-headed public policy. Sounds like a fair comparison to me.

But Dr O'Reilly said he was being ‘harangued' by the BMA for simply expressing a difference of opinion.

They've been doing it for years.

‘BMA members should be able to debate differences in opinion without being threatened or harangued for doing so,' he added. ‘There is a massive issue here about free speech.'

That argument may have cut some ice when Dr O'Reilly started practising all those decades ago, but the BMA today has zero interest in free speech, or any other kind of freedom for that matter.

I would rather join the International Pederasts Society than join this vile group of messianic medics, but if by some bizarre misfortune I found myself involved with the BMA I would consider it a badge of honour to be suspended for speaking the truth. Furthermore, I would pray for expulsion in every waking hour of my gardening leave. So well done, Dr O'Reilly. Don't let the bastards grind you down. If anything is unacceptable, it is this jumped up trade union. If they were capable of shame, they should be ashamed of the way they have treated you. They are, alas, not.

My special t-shirts are still available by the way...

Taking Liberties has the full story about this episode which seems to date back to November last year.

Speaking of organisations which shamelessly lie to the public, the FDA has completely abandoned science and should be shut down.


Michael Siegel adds his two cents...

Readers of the Rest of the Story will recognize that Dr. O'Reilly's experience in being expelled from the BMA is similar to my own experience. I was expelled from a number of tobacco control list-serves for expressing dissenting opinions. Interestingly, the opinions which most directly led to my expulsions were also criticisms of exaggerated facts about secondhand smoke.

It appears that secondhand smoke claims are a sacred sacrament in the tobacco control movement and that you absolutely can't criticize them. Doing so represents heresy and you must be ex-communicated from the movement on the spot.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

A shove is not a nudge

A mere five weeks after it happened, Michael Bloomberg's ban on large sodas has attracted the attention of Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian, who thinks it's all a fuss over nothing because the corporations are more powerful than the politicians, man.

The money that Coke spends on advertising and sponsorship surely shape that architecture far more powerfully than anything Bloomberg could ever do.

Er, no. Bloomberg can have the police bust a place and arrest its owner for selling a drink, just like he has the police arrest bar-owners who allow their patrons to smoke. Coca-Cola, by contrast, can put up adverts trying to persuade people to drink their drink. Corporate advertising and state power are in no way commensurate. As big a corporation as Coca-Cola is, its executives do not have the power to caution, fine, arrest and jail citizens on a whim. Bloomberg does, and by God does he use it.

But the reason for this post is not to rake over the coals of Bloomberg's latest piece of draconia (summary: people with principles hate it, everyone else either admires it or doesn't care). It is because Burkeman has committed one of my pet peeves and got Nudge wrong. He is hardly alone in this—many libertarians fear the book because they find it sinister while many, er, 'liberals' like it because they see it as a cute word for illiberalism—but Burkeman is unusual in that he actually seems to have read it and still misrepresents it. makes no sense to see Bloomberg's policy as an incursion on anyone's liberty. The proposal is a classic example of a "nudge", as defined by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their famous book of that name. It doesn't stop you guzzling as much Coke as you like, but it modifies your "choice architecture" – the context in which you decide how much Coke to guzzle – so as to guide you towards the healthier option. Likewise, as Sunstein and Thaler explain, you can transform the dietary choices of school pupils by making salads slightly easier to reach for than fries; nobody's deprived of their right to fries. You can transform savings habits with bank accounts that move a portion of wages into a separate account unless the user opts out.

To see this intrinsically as a restriction on liberty is to misunderstand "choice architecture"...

I wonder who has really misunderstood "choice architecture"? Burkeman or the guy who invented the term?

Oliver Burkeman has offered a sort-of mea culpa here and here.

Later in the year I'll be speaking a Spiked event where I'll be defending Nudge from this kind of thing. Details to follow in a few weeks.

You can read my review of Nudge here. And this was my experience when I appeared on the Moral Maze talking about Nudge in 2010. Everyone got the book wrong then too, except one of the other guests, a certain Richard Thaler.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Dr Aseem Malhotra: Still clueless

Won't someone please think of the children?

You may recall Aseem Malhotra from his numerous ill-informed articles on the subject of obesity. On the last occasion we met him, he managed to attribute every single death from heart disease, cancer and diabetes to diet—a special schoolboy error that managed to get by the Guardian's sub-editor.

Undeterred, Dr Malhotra will be appearing on Newsnight this evening calling for 'junk food' and alcohol companies to be banned from sponsoring the Olympics. As an hors d'oeuvre, the BBC has given him an editorial pulpit from which to spout his views online.

And the song remains the same...

The scale of obesity and diet-related disease around the world is alarming. According to the United Nations, diet-related diseases such heart disease, diabetes and cancer pose the greatest global threat to our health; contributing to a staggering 35 million deaths per year, dwarfing the six to eight million smoking-related deaths each year.

As I said in April, it is disingenuous—indeed it is plain wrong—to suggest that those 35 million deaths are caused by diet, let alone by 'junk food'.

35 million is the total number of deaths caused by "obesity, cardiovascular diseases (CVD), cancer, and diabetes" worldwide, representing 60% of all deaths every year globally. In other words, he has combined the total number of deaths attributable to the diseases of old age and defined them as 'diet-related'. It is true that they can be diet related - just as they can be related to a number of other factors - but that hardly justifies presenting the bald statistic as if all these deaths could all be prevented by modifying diet, let alone drawing the conclusion that 'junk food' is more dangerous than smoking. Doing so suggests either appalling ignorance or a degree of mendacity.

And let's see how that obesity "epidemic" has led to a surge in heart disease in the UK over the last forty years...

Terrifying stuff.

He continues...

In Britain, one in three children are either overweight or obese by the age of nine, with six out of 10 adults in the same category.

Without effective intervention this figure could affect 90% of the UK population by 2050...

Every prediction about obesity has been wildly wrong and the "90%" prediction—which is only endorsed by a few quacks on the fringes of the debate—will be no different.

...and cost the NHS and the tax payer £45bn a year.

Like many a campaigning medic, Malhotra does not understand the difference between social costs and financial costs, nor can he grasp the difference between private and public costs (see also Sarah Wollaston).

For what it's worth, the study he is referring to claimed that obesity would cost the NHS, and therefore the taxpayer, £6.5 billion a year by 2050. A sizable sum, but a fraction of what Malhotra is claiming, and certainly not enough to cripple the NHS as we know it.

Unless we get a grip of this public health emergency I believe it will cripple the NHS as we know it.

Furthermore, as I explained at length in The Wages of Sin Taxes, such calculations never take into account financial benefits. With obesity, as with smoking, premature mortality results in net savings to the taxpayer. That is not a reason to encourage it, but it is a reason not to claim there are negative externalities which require urgent action from the collective. But since Malhotra thinks 90% of taxpayers will be overweight or obese by 2050, they could hardly be called externalities anyway.

So what is the biggest culprit?

More and more evidence is emerging that it is sugars, more specifically High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which is added to almost all processed food.

Oh dear. Yes, there are some people in America who think that High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is somehow worse (more fattening) than normal sugar. It is certainly true that the amount of HFCS in American foods has increased greatly in recent decades thanks to a "near insane system of subsidy". But in Europe we don't use HFCS very much at all, partly because we don't subsidise it and partly because the European Union sets strict quotas on the amount that is allowed to be imported. HFCS makes up less than 2% of the EU's sugar consumption.

Anyone who blames HFCS for Europe's obesity "epidemic" is regurgitating things they heard from the American media and shouldn't be taken seriously. As Tim Worstall pointed out recently when a Guardian writer made a similar claim, they simply don't know what they're talking about...

People are mixing and matching the US and not US experience. Evidence in one place is being used as evidence in the other. But the two experiences are entirely different.

The US has indeed been swamped with High Fructose Corn Syrup: HFCS (actually, sod all to do with the corn industry, it’s the cane and sugar beet industry which maintains the import barriers to the much cheaper world supplies of cane sugar). The rest of the world hasn’t. So almost all of the US panicking about HFCS simply does not apply to the rest of the world.

So where did Malhotra pick up his theories from? Step forward our old friend Robert Lustig...

Earlier this year, paediatric endocrinologist Dr Robert Lustig published a paper in Nature stating that sugar consumption has trebled worldwide in the past 50 years...

However, as was noted at the time, the world's population has more than doubled in the past 50 years and countless millions have been lifted out of poverty, so a trebling in sugar production is neither amazing nor scary.

...and is so damaging to our health that it should be regulated like alcohol.

See here and here for my thoughts about Dr Lustig and his peculiar theories.

As a cardiologist I treat heart disease on a daily basis.

Well you would, you wouldn't you?

Of course the Olympic sponsors cannot be held accountable for Britain's poor health, but their connection with the Games sends a dreadful message.

If they can't be held responsible for Britain's "poor" health (which has never been better, but anyway...), then why does it send a dreadful message? If these companies and their non-existent High Fructose Corn Syrup are not making us fat then there can be no justification at all for restricting their freedom of speech. But clearly you do blame them, so why so tongue-tied? Worried about getting sued?

In the context of an obesity epidemic I find it obscene that the Olympics chooses to associate itself with fast food, sugary drinks, chocolate and alcohol.

Tough luck, sonny. Society has no interest in what you find obscene. The Olympics is a spectator sport. Watching it is an entirely sedentary experience. I have never understood the argument that people who watch sportsmen have to live up to some ideal of physical fitness and nutrition themselves. How did this ridiculous notion take hold?

Labour shadow minister for public health Diane Abbott, whose constituency is in East London close to the Olympic village, is equally scathing:

"I think it's quite shocking that McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Cadbury's, and Heineken are the main food sponsors," she says.

You're seriously quoting Diane Abbot to me?! I'm no more interested in what she finds shocking than I am in what you find obscene, but if I'm going to be lectured on nutrition I'd rather it wasn't by a woman who weighs about twenty stone. Still, it's good to be reminded of what Labour's ban addicts would be doing if they were still in power.

I also believe it is wrong for sporting role models to endorse junk food such as sugary drinks, chocolate and crisps. Of particular concern is the negative impact this has on our children.

You look after your children, Malhotra, and I'll look after mine. In the meantime, I refer you to Grandad's Law...

The first person to mention “the children” in an attempt to sway public opinion has lost their case.

He continues...

And it is naive and ignorant of sports men and women to blame obesity on lack of physical activity.

I encourage the health benefits of regular exercise, but this is not the solution in tackling obesity.

Really? Because that's not what the World Health Organisation thinks:

What causes obesity and overweight?

The fundamental cause of obesity and overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended. Globally, there has been:

- an increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat, salt and sugars but low in vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients; and

- a decrease in physical activity due to the increasingly sedentary nature of many forms of work, changing modes of transportation, and increasing urbanization.

The only reason medics like Malhotra dismiss the importance of physical inactivity is that they have not yet found a way to ban it.

It is time for regulation that has an impact.

A ban on firms such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola from sponsoring major sporting events and the prohibition on the use of celebrities to sell unhealthy food and drink to children would be a good start.

But only the start, eh, Malhotra?

Only the start.


Malhotra's Newsnight report was even worse than the above article implied. You can watch it here.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Not going very well, then?

"I smeared my opponents, bribed the press to be on my side, and threatened to torture the electorate if we lost. I fail to see what more a decent politician could have done. "
— Pitt the Even Younger (Blackadder III)

The government has spent a fortune on billboards trying to persuade us. The Department of Health has engaged in a year-long crusade to push the policy in every corner of the media. Its sock puppets have been out on the street trying to sign people up.

And yet the plain packaging consultation has still not provided the mandate the government wants. So what next?

Over to Anne Milton, the Public Health Minister...

"The Government has been asked to provide more time for people to respond to the consultation. We want to maximise the opportunity that people have to provide their views and evidence. The Government is, therefore, extending the consultation period for an extra month. The new closing date of the consultation is Friday, 10 August 2012."

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Who has "asked"the government to give them more time? Not the Hands Off Our Packs lobby, that's for sure. I wonder if this hasty decision has anything to do with 30,000 retailers putting their names to the NO campaign? Or 34 Conservative MPs writing to Andrew Lansley to express their concerns about the policy? Or 90 per cent of policemen saying that plain packaging would help the illicit trade?

"The Government has an entirely open mind on standardised packaging"

Excuse me while spill my pint, but if the government had an open mind it wouldn't be spending many hundreds of thousands of pounds of our money promoting the policy, would it?

What a Mickey Mouse country this is. Still, it gives you all the more time to tell them to swivel.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Do your own blogging... which I look at all the stories I've been meaning to write about and finally admit that I never will. So instead, here are some webpages that caught my eye last month with some very brief comments. You do the rest.

From the New York Times, an admission that decades of anti-salt propaganda has been based on pathetically little evidence:

“You can say without any shadow of a doubt,” as I was told then by Drummond Rennie, an editor for The Journal of the American Medical Association, that the authorities pushing the eat-less-salt message had “made a commitment to salt education that goes way beyond the scientific facts.”

Still, where's the harm in telling people to eat less salt?

With nearly everyone focused on the supposed benefits of salt restriction, little research was done to look at the potential dangers. But four years ago, Italian researchers began publishing the results from a series of clinical trials, all of which reported that, among patients with heart failure, reducing salt consumption increased the risk of death. Those trials have been followed by a slew of studies suggesting that reducing sodium to anything like what government policy refers to as a “safe upper limit” is likely to do more harm than good.

Oops! And what do you suppose the anti-salt lobby resort to when their hypothesis is questioned?

Proponents of the eat-less-salt campaign tend to deal with this contradictory evidence by implying that anyone raising it is a shill for the food industry and doesn’t care about saving lives. An N.I.H. administrator told me back in 1998 that to publicly question the science on salt was to play into the hands of the industry. “As long as there are things in the media that say the salt controversy continues,” he said, “they win.”

Sound familiar?

In the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, former BMJ editor Dr Richard Smith and colleagues make the obvious, but rarely acknowledged, point that maybe—just maybe—people in public health have ideological and political goals which makes them a teensy-weensy bit biased. An interesting article and one which mentions public choice theory, so hurrah for that.

Our message is simple: we must recognize that we are all conflicted and declare accordingly. A view of the world that sees employees of private for-profit companies as conflicted and doctors, or employees of public or academic bodies, as not, is naïve, potentially deceptive and likely to distort reader response to new information.

Meanwhile, a study has found that, contrary to popular belief, smoking and drinking do not affect male fertility.

Smoking and drinking has 'little effect' on sperm counts

Lifestyle advice given to tackle male infertility may be futile and could delay other options, according to researchers in the UK.

Their study in the journal Human Reproduction said smoking, alcohol consumption and being obese did not affect semen quality.

It's a good job we waited for some empirical evidence before sticking dodgy warnings on cigarette packs, eh?

What? We didn't? Oh well.

Down in New Zealand, a man has been caught growing tobacco worth $2 million. And this is the country that wants to go for all-out tobacco prohibition by 2025? Hey, what could go wrong?

On the related issue of counterfeit cigarettes, ASH Scotland's lie-fest continues with this particularly ill-informed and dangerous remark...

The Transcrime report argues that ‘counterfeit tobacco products have been proved to cause even more serious damage to human health’ than legal cigarettes. This is simply not true, indeed research by the Canadian government has concluded that contraband tobacco poses the same risk of harmful health effects as legal cigarettes.

Utter nonsense, as the briefest fact-checking reveals. These ASH cretins really need to be stopped before they cause any more damage. F2C Scotland has more on this.

In California, Prop 29 has been defeated. It would have added an extra dollar to the price of a pack of cigarettes. In an extraordinarily close contest, it was finally rejected. This was a very interesting outcome as it shows that a large proportion of nonsmokers are prepared to vote against what appeared to be a free ride. The money raised was supposedly earmarked for cancer research, but it seems that Californians realised that what this really meant was that Stanton Glantz and his cronies would be given untold millions to add to their already lavishly funded tobakko kontrol programmes and decided that the dollars would be better kept in the pockets of taxpayers.

Stanton Glantz himself accepted the verdict with good grace and commended the electorate on its collective wisdom. I'm joking of course. He blamed it all on the tobacco industry and the media. He was particularly angry about the LA Times, which approves of higher tobacco taxes but disagrees with giving hundreds of millions of dollars to UCSF to research seventh-hand smoke. Glantz was so lost for words that he started making them up.

The LA Times perseveration reminds me of a kid who knows they did something wrong and is coming up with constantly changing explanations for why.

I guess it's too much for a University professor to know a word like 'perseverance'.

Speaking of the LA Times, here is another of those 'treat food like tobacco' opinion pieces...

Over the last few months, we’ve weighed in on how best to curb the growing obesity problem in this country: peer pressure, educating kids, banning sugary drinks, going retro. Perhaps the solution is simpler than we think. Identify the enemy (sugar, corn) and kill it. Stop eating it, stop subsidizing it, stop promoting it. In fact, slap warning labels on processed foods and put 'em in the same category as tobacco, so that at least consumers will know that microwaveable low-fat creamed corn isn't the good idea they think it is.

And speaking of California, the Golden State has found something else to ban: foie gras...

It is the kind of furtive atmosphere that might have been found in 1920s speakeasies as miscreants knocked back homemade liquor.

But this is California almost a century later – and this time it is not drinkers who are being driven underground, but subversive gourmets who cannot live without a quick fix of foie gras.

From July 1 the golden state will be the first in the US to outlaw this controversial delicacy, made from the livers of specially fattened ducks, but enthusiasts are not letting it go without a fight.

They have dubbed the ban "foie-mageddon" and a final stand has been launched in the form of secret last minute dinner parties.

It's hard not to agree with this gentleman...

"I think in California they just love to ban everything. If someone looks like they're having more fun than them, they'll ban it. I'm going to have to go to Las Vegas or Reno in future."

Over in Alberta, Canada, it looks like the tobacco control snake-oil still isn't working...

Youth smoking on the rise in Alberta, Stats Can says

More young Albertans are taking up the smoking habit, Alberta Health said in its annual report released Thursday, particularly those aged 20 to 24.

While the smoking rate for that age group declined between 2003 and 2009, it started to trend upward in 2010.

Alberta brought in a tobacco display ban in July 2008. This is hardly the first time a rise in youth smoking has occurred after displays are banned — see page 31 of The Dark Market (PDF).

And finally, after it was revealed that the Causeway Cannibal was not on 'bath salts'—or any other strong street drug or legal high—there are questions that need answering.

"There is no doubt in anybody's mind the guy was on something or he was totally insane," Aguilar said Wednesday.

Clue: he was totally insane. But that isn't good enough for some folk...

Although toxicology tests searched for many known drugs and compounds, Aguilar said further investigation may be warranted. "My guess is that this is a drug they don't know the compounds of yet," he said.

Yeah, that'll be it. Don't let science get in the way of your insupportable hunch.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

These aren't real cigarettes

You can see the plain pack campaign's latest use of your tax money in the video below. In addition to treading on Marks and Spencers' intellectual property, it portrays a series of cigarette brands which do not exist and have never existed.

These state-funded shysters presumably think that the public will be more outraged if they believe that cigarettes are sold under such names as 'Rebellion' and 'Allure', rather than actual brands such as 'Lambert and Butler', 'Marlboro' and 'Benson and Hedges'. To compound the deceit, they have sexed up the packs by giving them health warnings which are half the actual size and by not showing the mandatory graphic images at all.

As the public consultation on this risible policy draws to a close, it is fitting that a campaign based on shoddy evidence and innuendo has descended into outright fabrication.

It ends on July 10th. Make sure you give nanny a slap in the face by responding here or here before then. Ta.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The smoking ban is wonderful, says the BBC

On the fifth anniversary of the English smoking ban it is fitting that the two media outlets which did the most to campaign for the ban have published pieces saying how marvellous it's been. The Guardian produced theirs yesterday and today the Beeb has got in on the action.

The BBC's article begins with some outrageous whoppers from Amanda Sandford of the state-funded 'charity' ASH:

"When it started people wondered why we'd waited so long to do it."

I don't remember anyone saying that, but then I didn't work at ASH headquarters at the time.

"Non-smokers always found it unpleasant breathing in other people's smoke."

Some do, some don't. In my experience, most don't care.

"It is one of the most important public health acts in the last century."

A ridiculous statement that reveals an appalling ignorance of medical science and health legislation since 1912. The smoking ban did not lead to a fall in the smoking rate, nor did it help reduce any of the maladies that are claimed to be linked to secondhand smoke. It was always a question of preference rather than health, combined with a failed attempt to coerce smokers into quitting. At best, it pleased some of those nonsmokers who don't like the smell of tobacco smoke, but it has displeased many nonsmokers—such as the Pub Curmudgeon—who lament the closure of thousands of boozers.

The ban was popular with British adults when it was implemented - and a recent poll of more than 12,000 people found that 78% of adults still support it.

Fine. Let's have a smoking ban in 78% of pubs then. Landlords would kill for a smoking license.

We then move onto Linda Bauld of the state-funded Tobacco Control Research Group who wangled the job of assessing the smoking ban for the Department of Health despite having no relevant qualifications in the fields of health, economics or statistics (she is a professor of socio-management, whatever that is).

Prof Bauld's report concluded: "The law has had a significant impact."

"Results show benefits for health, changes in attitudes and behaviour and no clear adverse impact on the hospitality industry."

No clear adverse impact on the hospitality industry. Truly, these people have no shame.

The BBC then parrots the usual tripe about heart attack miracles (discussed in the previous post). All ancient history, but there is one new piece of sophistry added into the mix. The article concedes that "there is no evidence as yet that smokers have given up smoking in huge numbers because of the legislation", but...

While overall levels of smoking among adults in Great Britain remained constant at 21% between 2007 and 2009, the north east of England saw a different trend.

There, the smokefree ban proved to be a trigger for some adults to quit with the largest drop in smoking in England - from 29% in 2005 to 27% in 2007 and down to 21% by 2011.

What's this - the 'Newcastle miracle'? By what magical process was the smoking ban a "trigger" to quit in that region of the country, but not elsewhere?

Now, I'm no Carol Vorderman, but if the national smoking rate did not fall between 2007 and 2009 (and it didn't) and the north east smoking rate fell substantially, then the smoking rate in some other parts of the country must have risen. Are we to assume that in these places the smoking ban acted as a "trigger" for people to start smoking? I think we should be told.

Or is this just another example of the type of cherry-picking and post hoc ergo propter hoc logic that has defined all attempts at rationalising the most draconian, counterproductive and illiberal piece of legislation in living memory?


How did I miss this from the Guardian (via Tim Worstall)? The slippery slope argument made explicitly and shamelessly. After applauding the smoking ban, the newspaper looks to the future...

But the next campaign for better public health is in a different league. Alcohol and obesity – what we eat and how much we drink – these are the stuff of our very souls. From warning of the public implications of personal actions to changing the actions themselves, The campaigners have to cross a boundary more contentious than any they have overcome before. They have to tackle problems linked with poverty without swelling the populist clamour against the poor. They have to frame a debate about the health implications of overeating and problem drinking that doesn't dwell only on a cost-benefit analysis on behalf of the NHS. And they have to do it when most people think Whitehall, far from knowing best, knows little of real life at all. So the complexities of public health are being devolved to local government and the food and drinks industries' own sense of responsibility. It will not be enough. And it must not take 60 years to get it right.

As the first person to comment on the editorial says...

So all the people warning first they'll come for your fags, then they'll come for your booze weren't wrong.

One more time for the world...

We did try to warn you.