Friday, 28 September 2012

Minimum pricing to be dropped?

Let's hope this is true.

Cameron's plan for minimum alcohol prices left in tatters after EU legal threat

Officials in Brussels told Scottish ministers they had to withdraw legislation to impose a 50p-per-unit price on alcohol because it was ‘not compatible’ with the EU Treaty.

Spain, Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria are also believed to have concerns about Scotland’s plans as they export drink to Britain.

Eurocrats have now ordered Westminster to wade in to review the Scots’ proposals, as Britain - rather than Scotland alone - is a member state of the EU.

But the verdict also deals a devastating blow to the Prime Minister’s own aim to curb the drinking habits of English and Welsh residents.

Despite being repeatedly warned that the proposals could break EU law, Mr Cameron has always insisted he was confident of passing the legislation.

The Scotsman has a few more details...

Last night, a spokesman at the EC’s Industry and Enterprise Directorate confirmed for the first time that it had identified difficulties over the Scottish Government proposals, which have been presented in an “opinion” submitted to Edinburgh. Five EU wine-producing nations – France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria – have also submitted their own opinions to the EC which are also understood to contain their own objections to the measures.

Of the EC’s own opinion, the spokesman said last night: “The content is confidential, but what we can say is that we have a problem with the compatibility of the minimum pricing plans under Community law.”

He added: “We fully share the political objective to fight against the abuse of alcohol. But the specific measure provided by the draft legislation causes problems with the compatibility with the EU Treaty.”

The spokesman said the EC now wanted to avoid an “infringement procedure” which could see the plans – if they go ahead – ending up at the European Court of Justice.

He added that a three-month period of consultation with the Scottish and UK governments would now commence, with the aim of finding a resolution to the legal problems.

He said: “We want to collaborate with the Scottish and UK authorities to find the best way to fight against alcohol.”

However, it now appears almost certain that if the Scottish Government proceeds with the plans, it will involve a potentially lengthy legal battle within the EU.

They were told time and time again that this was an anti-free trade measure that would not pass muster with the EU. It has, after all, been rejected before (see this post from last year for details.)

So. Leave the EU or drop minimum pricing? The choice is yours, Dave.


The Scotsman is already urging the government to retreat.

Not for the first time, a Scottish administration is learning a hard truth about the realities of government and the aspiration of independence in an interdependent and interconnected world.

No country is an island.

Jamaica? Madagascar? Iceland?

Its deeds and actions need to be compatible with broader inter-governmental treaties... The only certainty in all this is that the battle will drag on for years and at a considerable cost to the Scottish taxpayer.

We did try to warn you, y'know.

Galling through it may be for this administration, particularly given it is right to try to tackle the scourge of alcohol in this way, perhaps a pragmatic retreat is in order. Scottish minimum pricing is not going to go anywhere soon, perhaps the Scottish Government should just wait until it sees what happens with David Cameron’s plans to introduce minimum pricing, which are under way.

So much for the fearless Scots "leading the way".

Why embark on a long legal battle when there might be a very much easier way to gain almost the same end? It is not as if anyone believes minimum pricing will be an instant fix to the problem. It will always take time for the benefits to filter through to the drinking culture.

Better to wait for Cameron’s legislation, even if it does leave a bad taste in the mouth and mean a possible loss of control.

Run away!

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Scottish sock puppet at work

From The Guardian:

Charity to support Scottish government in legal battle over alcohol price

That's very kind of them, but then charities are run buy very kind, selfless people. Which charity has stepped up to the plate, I wonder?

Alcohol Focus Scotland was given permission by the court of session in Scotland to back the government by submitting a dossier of evidence on the harm alcohol can do and the positive impact that unit pricing can have on public health.

Oh, it's a government funded "charity".

As you can see from its accounts, Alcohol Focus Scotland has relieved the taxpayer of the best part of two million quid in the last four years. Last year, its grant from the Scottish Assembly made up half of its income. Most of the rest came from training and consultancy services to government bodies. Having this "charity" support the government's position on minimum pricing is about as impressive as me saying that my right hand supported my left hand when I was typing out this post.

Meanwhile, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Bulgaria have all complained to the EU about minimum pricing.

Plastic bags and the BNP

I've got a couple of blog posts elsewhere in cyber-space this week (do people still use the word 'cyber-space'?)

One is at the IEA and is about state-funding of the BNP. I'm against it (take that, sacred cows!) but I also think that the government should stop funding all political parties and lobby groups.

Read more.

The second is at the ASI and is about the claim that forcing shops to charge 5p for a carrier bag has reduced bag use by 95 per cent. It is a claim that does not seem to stand up.

Read more.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Queensland stands up to the sock puppets

Finally, some encouraging news from Australia, where it seems the Queensland government has got tired of spending taxpayers' money on the astro-turf lobby groups of 'public health'.

Any NGO receiving 50% or more of its funding from the state will be precluded from advocating for state or federal legislative change – even from providing website links to other organisations’ websites that do so.

An excellent idea and not a million miles from what I recommend in Sock Puppets.

The pampered public health NGOs/quangos/fake charities are not taking the news at all well, of course. With delicious irony, these demagogues of public health are now worried about the slippery slope...

NGOs justifiably fear that the 50% figure is just a starting point, and that this censorship may ultimately apply to any funding.

Don't worry chaps. Remember the words of that perennial grant recipient Simon Chapman: "Look, if the slope is slippery, it's the most unslippery slippery dip I've ever seen in my life."

The irony gets sweeter when you consider that the article above was written by Mike Daube, a dyed-in-the-wool nanny-stater and one time director of the original fake charity ASH (UK). Now, thirty-odd years later, is this a sign that the doors to the bank are starting to close?

Not if Daube can help it, it won't, and he's not going down without a fight...

So what justification has the Queensland Government offered for its descent into the dark ages?

A little hysterical that, isn't it, Mike? The article appears on the advocacy website The Conversation and is full of special pleading, but the hyperbole gets worse...

Censorship is the hallmark of a totalitarian regime; censorship in health sends out the signal loud and clear that the government neither understands public health nor cares for the future health of the community.

"Totalitarian"? "Censorship"? "Dark ages"? They don't like it up 'em, do they?

This talk of censorship is nonsense. The reality is that these groups wouldn't have a voice in the first place if it wasn't for the involuntary contributions of the taxpayer. They'll still be free to lobby and campaign as much as they like, they'll just have to do it on their own dime (or 49% of the taxpayers' dime, which is still extremely generous).

First, they [the government] assert that NGOs should focus on their “core activities”, not advocacy. But seeking action that will protect the health of the community is the most fundamental core activity for public health organisations. 

They're politicians, Mike. They do the policy-making. If they want advice, there are plenty of experts who will happily give them it for free. The fact that you think that the core activity of 'public health' is lobbying the government for things like plain packaging and graphic warnings on booze says it all. You have become obsolete, your methods don't work and you are a threat to liberty. The government should not be financing professional wowsers.

Second, they state in relation to funded groups that “we would expect that organisation to conduct itself with the political impartiality of any other government sector.” This verges on the bizarre, given that by definition NGOs are not part of the “government sector”.

The definition lost all meaning when the sector became dependent on statutory funding. I'd say that any organisation that gets most of its money from the government is part of the government sector. Some of these groups are 100% state-funded. They are sock puppets. They are the government in drag. If they insist on being part of an extended bureaucracy they should act with the impartiality of a civil servant and that means not going around demanding that the drinking age be raised to 25 or that the price of wine be quadrupled.

A third rationale now offered is that this condition will prevent abuses, such as the “Fake Tahitian Prince” scandal, and funding of NGOs to pursue political agendas. But any concerns in these areas should be addressed by protocols common to all governments (and indeed other funding agencies) about proper, well-monitored use of funds.

It is entirely an issue of the proper use of funds. Using public money to lobby the government is wasteful, deceitful and unethical. The Queensland government is absolutely right to take a lead on this (isn't that what public health advocates like to see—Australia "taking the lead"?)

The fourth rationale is that the government is seeking “health outcomes, not political outcomes or social engineering outcomes”. The government is entitled to seek health outcomes from activities that it funds: but that is no justification for gagging the non-government sector.

You're not being gagged. The government can grant or withhold money as it sees fit and it has chosen not to give it to political pressure groups. If you wish to continue your political activity, you are free to do so on the back of voluntary donations from the public.

It is desperately depressing that any health minister should use pejorative phrases such as “social engineering” to describe the aims of health organisations, and, by implication, the aims of his own and other health departments around the country.

No, it's not. It's accurate and deeply heart-warming. Well done Queensland, you little ripper.

You can read my IEA report about the glut of state-funded pressure groups here.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

That Tipp-Ex report

Clive Bates has some strong words to say about the alleged public health community's scientific jiggery-pokery on snus. Readers of The Art of Suppression will recall the 'Tipp-Ex report'—the document published by the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention which systematically downplayed the importance of snus in bringing about Sweden's rock-bottom smoking rates. Such was the scramble to uphold the scientifically insupportable ban on the product that the text was changed even after the report had been published. Last week the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet published a photo of one of the doctored pages.

The original text (which can still be read when the text is held up to the light) made the truthful claim that smokeless tobacco has been found to increase the risk of oral cancer in America but that no strong evidence exists for users of smokeless tobacco (oral snuff) in Sweden. This is crucial because chewing tobacco in the USA is fundamentally different from Swedish snus—it has a fraction of the carcinogens, is cured differently, is in a bag and is used in a different fashion.

The sentence was changed from “An increased frequency of cancer in the oral cavity has been seen among snuff users in North America, but not unequivocally in Sweden” to “An increased frequency of cancer in the oral cavity has been seen among snuff users.” This is only the most blatant of the many changes made to this document. As Bates says...

Campaigning by so-called health groups to ban much less hazardous alternatives to smoking is dangerous, unethical, lazy with facts and utterly without regard for the people they are supposedly trying to help – see my detailed post Death by regulation. But they go to a whole new level of awfulness – evil maybe – when it is done with deliberate deception and falsification. When that happens, it becomes something much darker – in fact as bad, and as deadly, as the worst excesses of tobacco industry PR. And that is what happened – they used Tipp-ex to erase inconvenient truths in a report intended to inform science based policy on alternatives to smoking.

It is with real dismay that we have to confront the deliberate falsification of a scientific assessment of smokeless tobacco by a European ‘health’ group, the European Network on Smoking Prevention, as it was known at the time. The use of Tipp-Ex is only the absurd symbolic tip of the iceberg of deliberate knowing rejection of evidence...

I’m disgusted with these people. While you consider what has happened here, just imagine the tsunami of righteous outrage there would be if a tobacco company or those of us who support the widespread introduction of much less hazardous alternative to smoking had done similar.

Bates is, of course, in no way associated with said tobacco companies. He is Deborah Arnott's predecessor at ASH (UK) and has no reason to speak out against the anti-smoking lobby other than a sincere concern for public health. Although I greatly respect him for burning his bridges with the tobacco control lobby on a point of principle, I do not agree with him on every issue, far from it. I don't accept that the UK smoking ban was a proportionate response to the feeble evidence on secondhand smoke, for example, and I reject the whole concept of health being public in the first place.

I support the re-legalisation of snus because individuals have a right to consume any such product, especially one which is vastly less dangerous than the one they are currently consuming. Re-legalisation will almost certainly reduce rates of smoking, lung cancer and heart disease at the population level, and that is a very good thing, but that is not really my business and it is not yours either. However, the distinction between the philosophies of individual sovereignty and public health are almost irrelevant in the case of snus since re-legalisation will clearly benefit both.

Early signs of what will be contained in the forthcoming Tobacco Products Directive strongly suggest that a pro-pharmaceutical/neo-prohibition line will be toed. In May, the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention—who wrote the dodgy dossier above—wrote a letter dismissing the role of tobacco harm reduction in EU policy which is nothing more than a compilation of non-sequiturs. I copy it here from Clive's blog:

Promoting snus will not solve Europe’s tobacco problems

The arguments promoting snus put forward in the letter from Lars Ramström of the Institute for Tobacco Studies in Stockholm (“Cut out the smoke, reduce the risks”, 3-9 May) are all well known. That does not make them more valid. [Nor does it make them invalid. Why not address them?]

Tobacco control specialists in the EU do not consider another tobacco product as the solution to the smoking disaster [Many of them do. Will you address their evidence and arguments?]. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) framework convention on tobacco control (FCTC), ratified by 175 countries worldwide, including all EU member states, contains the broad strategy needed for a continuous reduction of cigarette smoking. An increased use of smokeless tobacco of any kind is not a part of that strategy. [Why not? To state the obvious, smokeless tobacco use is not a cigarette and is not smoked.]

What is included in the FCTC, however, is the fight against tobacco-industry interference on public-health policy [even if the tobacco industry has developed a product which has reduced the smoking rate more effectively than anything else?]. The importance of this fight is demonstrated by the WHO in choosing this topic as the theme for this year’s World No Tobacco Day on 31 May. On this day, the Swedish government should be shamed for its support of the snus manufacturers’ struggle to lift the ban on snus sales in the EU [Really?! You want to "shame" one of your member states—the one with the lowest smoking rate on the continent?]. If Sweden truly respected the FCTC it would not pursue this route, nor would it continue to fight constructive proposals in line with the FCTC in the upcoming EU tobacco-product directive. [This is really just a childish war between the zealous "tobacco control specialists" and the snus manufacturers, isn't it?] 

Francis Grogna Secretary-general, European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP) Brussels

One graphic shows how twisted the mentality of this little clique is (click to enlarge)...

It has been obvious for a very long time that these people care no more about health than they do about liberty. The shame is on them.

I bet this has been changed by the time I get up

Some rare good news from the BBC's health correspondents...

Cancer death rates set for a 'dramatic fall'

This makes a nice change from such BBC headlines as Cancer cases 'to soar', Cancer menace on the rise, Action urged on cancer 'timebomb' and Cancer in over 65s predicted to treble by 2040, but my reason for mentioning it is to place a bet with you, dear reader, that by the time I get out of bed in the very late morning, the third paragraph of this news story will have been changed. It currently reads as follows...

I think not. It would be wonderful if a mere 170 out of every 100,000 deaths were caused by cancer. That would mean only 1 in 588 deaths were caused by the disease. Unfortunately, the figure is closer to 30,000 out of every 100,000 deaths. 

What our hapless BBC rewriter of press releases has done here is mistake the conventional deaths per 100,000 lives ratio with a very unconventional deaths per 100,000 deaths ratio. You would hope that a "health and science reporter" for the world's most trusted broadcaster would not make such a big mistake, but then maybe the press release was written in a small font.

You can see the actual mortality figures for 2010 here.

UPDATE 11:09


Monday, 24 September 2012

Tolerance wins the day Switzerland

This is why anti-smoking campaigners prefer to get their laws pushed through by gullible politicians and unelected international organisations...

Voters in Switzerland have rejected a total ban on smoking in enclosed public places at a referendum.

It was not just rejected, but very soundly defeated everywhere but Geneva...

In some cantons, more than 70% of voters rejected the ban, according to Geneva newspaper La Tribune de Geneve. Geneva itself bucked the trend by supporting the ban by 52% to 48%.

Geneva already has a "comprehensive" smoking ban, so for them it was merely a case of dragging the other cantons down with them.

The Swiss Socialist party "deplored" the result...

Good to see the socialists are as keen on democracy as ever. As Longrider says...

This is what happens when you ask the proles what they want. Which is why it will never happen here. The proles, you see, don’t know what’s good for them. That’s why we need the great and the good of Westminster and the Guardian readers of Islington to decide for us.

With smokers making up a gradually decreasing minority of the population, it is interesting to see nonsmokers rejecting anti-tobacco extremism. Earlier this year, the people of California rejected Prop 29 which would have added a dollar to a pack of cigarettes. As I said at the time, the nonsmoking majority could easily have seen this as a free ride and yet they decided (wisely) that it was better to keep money in the pockets of ordinary Californians than to have it transferred to Stanton Glantz and his tobacco control cronies.

The case of Switzerland is interesting because all the cantons already have fairly extensive smoking bans while making reasonable exemptions for smokers. Nonsmoking environments are the norm and so even those who hate the smell of smoke have nothing much to gain from expelling smokers from their designated areas and cast out into the street.

This why anti-smoking advocates hate reasonable compromises. When everybody is happy, it is difficult to push people towards extremism. At one time, I remember reading a how-to guide from Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights which told campaigners that it is better to have no ban at all than it is to have a partial ban that will accommodate everybody. They know it has to be an all or nothing affair.

As a result of the referendum, Switzerland continues to follow the European path of having extensive smoking bans which provide reasonable accommodation for smokers. You would never guess this from the Independent's report, however:

Europe's 'outsiders' vote to remain one of last Western nations where you can light up

Switzerland joined Romania, the Czech Republic and Germany as one of the handful of European countries to turn down a rigorous ban on smoking in all enclosed public places yesterday after voters rejected the idea in a national referendum.

Rubbish. Just off the top of my head I can add the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Portugal, Croatia, Poland and Austria to the list of places where smokers can light up. Most of the other countries have some form of exemption, including Sweden (as the Independent concedes) and even the more rigorous laws are routinely ignored (eg. Spain, Greece, France). The total smoking ban remains a phenomenon that is largely confined to the Anglo/Protestant countries of the world.

The Independent does, however, mention an important fact which appeared in the BBC's original article yesterday morning but was later removed.

Laurent Terlinchamp, president of Geneva's association of restaurant and bar owners had criticised the proposal as extreme. "In Geneva, where the law came in two years ago, we were told that a new clientele would start to come back to establishments," he said, "But this is not the case because profits are down 10 to 30 per cent depending on the type of business involved."

It's the same story in every country. Never does it change.

Meanwhile, there is a petition doing the rounds to review Scotland's smoking ban. See the reports in the Scotsman and the Scottish Sunday Express. Click here to sign the petition.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist now available on Kindle

It took a while, but finally—finally—my first book Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking is available on Kindle. If you'd like to buy it click here for the UK and click here for the rest of the world.

My other books, The Spirit Level Delusion and The Art of Suppression are also available on Kindle.

The solution to (female) obesity

This letter to a local newspaper has been doing the rounds on Twitter. Hard to tell if it was written in jest or not, but it made me laugh. Mike Bloomberg would be proud.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The world's most regressive tax

One obvious objection to sin taxes and minimum pricing is that they are deeply regressive—they hit the poor much harder than they hit the rich. You might expect left-wing do-gooders to care about this but, with few exceptions, they are remarkably comfortable with it, which suggests that reforming the working classes is more important to them than making the poor wealthier.

When pushed on this issue, advocates often claim that because the poor have less money, they are more likely to change their consumption patterns in the face of price rises and, therefore, their health will benefit more than the rich from drinking/smoking/eating less. Far from being regressive, they say, sin taxes disproportionately benefit the poor. By their logic, in terms of health, such taxes are progressive.

It's a nice piece of rhetoric and there's only one small problem with it: It's bollocks. Real world experience from every corner of the globe throughout history has shown that the poor are less likely to adopt "healthy lifestyles" as a result of tax rises. Instead, they are made poorer.

Smoking is a classic example. In the 1940s, smoking rates were evenly spread across the classes. Today, after decades of increasing tobacco duty, those on low incomes are three times more likely to smoke than those in white collar jobs (as I explain in The Wages of Sin Taxes). This is the exact opposite of what should happen if the poor responded to price hikes more readily than the rich.

This week, a new study found that the sky-high cigarette prices in New York have acted as a massive tax raid on the poorest in society which has done nothing to reduce smoking rates amongst that group.

Poor smokers in New York State spend about a quarter of their entire income on cigarettes, nearly twice as much as the national average for low-income smokers, according to a new study.

The study, conducted by the non-profit research group RTI on behalf of the state's health department, found there was no statistically significant decline in the prevalence of smoking among poorer New Yorkers between 2003 and 2010, even as the habit declined by about 20 percent among all income groups.

The statistics are stark, but they should not be surprising. Smokers who earn less than $30,000 a year are spending 23.6 per cent of their income on tobacco. Those who earn more than $60,000 are spending just 2.2 per cent of their income on tobacco. Low income smokers are spending twice as big a share of their income on tabs than they did in 2003.

You would think that those who claim to be concerned about poverty and inequality would have something to say about this blatantly regressive and ineffective policy. Instead, their paternalism and blind faith in patently absurd 'public health' promises blinds their eyes.


Carl Phillips has more to say on this. Well worth reading.

Is this a nudge?

Many free market liberals are opposed to the 'Nudge' agenda. In my view, most of the objections are based on a false reading of the book, or rather a false hearing, since most opponents seem to have never read it. I am less belligerent because I believe that if the Nudge philosophy was applied to British politics, it would require the repeal of hundreds of laws (as I have argued here and here.)

Nevertheless, I am acutely aware that the concept of nudging has ample potential to be appropriated by the forces of darkness. One of my favourite examples—because it is so brazen—is the ballot paper used by the Nazis to ask the populace whether they supported The Führer's decision to reunite Austria with the German Reich. It was simple 'ja' or 'nein' question....

I was reminded of this subtle nudge when I saw the following poll on an Australian temperance public health website today.

I doubt that anyone wants the government to do nothing about alcohol-fuelled violence so option 1 is out. I am inclined to think that catching and punishing the people who perpetrate said violence should be the priority and yet I am told—without evidence—that this will cost me money, so I guess I should "comprehensively deal with the problem" by supporting neo-temperance policies which will clamp down on the discounting of alcohol which I am told—also without evidence—is "harmful". Option 3 it is then. And I chose that option entirely of my own free will.

Australian temperance public health people hate it when you suggest that they are "anti-alcohol", so much so that the website on which that poll is hosted has a banner that reads "A favourite myth the alcohol industry and its allies like to promote is that their critics are "anti-alcohol" (you might need to refresh the page to see it). 

Far be it from me to suggest that these folk are old school wowsers who believe in teetotalism, but there are articles on the homepage called "Why I Don’t Drink Alcohol Any More", "Abstinence AOK" and "Striving for excellence without alcohol". Of the three other featured articles, one equates drinking with child abuse and two attack the drinks industry. Some people would say that if half of your homepage is dedicated to total abstinence and the other half is dedicated to hysterical attacks on drink and the drinks industry, that kinda makes you a temperance group, but what do I know?

And that quote about the "favourite myth" of the "alcohol industry" being to claim their critics are "anti-alcohol"? That comes from Mike Daube who used to run ASH UK. Back in the 1970s, when he was ASH's director, he probably complained that it was a "favourite myth" of the "tobacco industry" that he and his kind were "anti-smoking". As we have since found out, nothing could be further from the truth...

Meanwhile in that fabulous land of freedom, Australia, the temperance anti-alcohol public health lobby has been enjoying another lovely conference. Judging by the twitter feed, the anti-tobacco blueprint is being followed to the letter...

Time for a display ban?

Let's just ban it!

It's that man Mike Daube again...

OMG! People like Smirnoff! What are we going to do?

How many times do I have to ask you to think of the frickin' children?

(How many children get killed by alcohol anyway?) But at least one Australian politician has got a sane head on him...

Amen to that.


Keeping up with the wowsers is becoming a full-time job...

Australian Medical Association president calls for legal drinking age to be lifted to 25

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The zealots get their teeth into food

Last week, New York City passed the ban on large sodas.

And now, this week...

Plain packaging for junk food? Health experts call for govt intervention

Australia should consider a healthy food rebate, tax on sugary drinks, and regulated portion sizes argue health experts, as New York pushes ahead with government regulation to address the obesity epidemic.

They don't skip a beat, these folks.

The New York City health commissioner behind a proposed cap on the container size of sugary soft drinks has argued government regulation of portion sizes is justifiable and could help fight America’s obesity problem.

Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr Thomas Farley writes governments that do nothing about the marketing of high-calorie sugary drinks are inviting even higher rates of obesity, diabetes and related mortality.

Naturally, this has gone down very well in the Australian super-nanny state, where the vast public health industry is doubtless hoping to "lead the way" once more.

The food and drinks industry is using the same tactics as the tobacco and alcohol industry argues Rob Moodie, professor of global health at University of Melbourne.

Boom! Straight in there with the argumentum ad tobacco.

Professor Moodie said saturated advertising to Australia’s children and sponsorship of key sports created a culture where eating junk food and drinking junk drinks was the norm.

Then I guess we need to denormalise it? Seriously, is there any industry that is fit to sponsor sports events according to these zealots?

Professor Loff said stemming the tide of disciplines dedicated to the marketing of food was a huge ask, but controlling the portion size of sugary drinks was a good start.

But only a start, obviously.

She added that it took 60 years, and a decision by the government to ignore its own guidelines for regulating, to see the plain packaging crackdown on the tobacco industry.

I have no doubt that it will take a fraction of that time to put food in plain packaging (after all, kids are helpless in the face of corporate brands—won't someone think of the children?)

It never ends. In fact, it's barely begun.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Smokers: Not seen and not heard

Dick Puddlecote links to the website of the most recent UK National Smoking Cessation Conference. You can probably guess what the smoking cessation advice consisted of from a look at the conference's three sponsors...

But there was more to this shindig that promoting pharmaceutical nicotine products. There was turning the screw on smokers, for example, including this...

Smokefree play parks: Changing the cultural norm

Research and evidence show that parental and peer smoking are the biggest contributors to children initiating smoking [I thought it was 'glitzy' packs? - CJS]. Some studies show that children are twice as likely to start smoking before the age of 13 if one of their parents smokes. Smokefree Play Parks is just the first step in introducing outdoor smokefree environments where families can enjoy fresh air and reduce the exposure of negative role models to their children.

Smokefree South West is working with partners to introduce voluntary smoking bans in play parks.

Even within the twisted logic of tobacco control, this is a non-sequitur. Children of smokers are more likely to become smokers, but this cannot be solely, or even largely, attributed to them seeing their parents smoke (they both self-evidently come from the same socio-economic group, for example). Even if it was the result of them witnessing parental smoking, forcing parents to refrain from smoking in play parks is not going to make a jot of difference. But then, as they say, this is "just the first step".

More fundamentally, these state-funded* bigots believe that the very existence of smoking is intolerable and that smokers must be kept out of sight of respectable people whenever possible. This is the 'logical next step' after removing smoking from TV and the movies. It is an Orwellian as the phrase "voluntary ban".

Meanwhile, tobacco control is desperately trying to get around the fact that half a million people have signed the petition against plain packaging. Somebody has claimed that he witnessed one of the agency workers who collected the signatures for Hands Off Our Packs writing out fake names and addresses. Who was this concerned citizen? Step forward Andrew Black, head of tobacco control at the Department of Health. What a small world! Dick Puddlecote, Nannying Tyrants and Taking Liberties have more on that.

* This presentation was made by a representative of the Department of Health's über-sockpuppet Smokefree Southwest.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Quote of the week...

...comes from this commenter on a Guardian article about how corporations are, like, evil and how the government should implement protectionist policies to, like, stop evil capitalists putting other capitalists out of business.

The article itself ('Costa Coffee should keep out of book prizes – and town centres') epitomises the bigotry and bossiness of a certain sort of Guardianista. The writer objects to Whitbread sponsoring a literary prize (Whitbread is a brewer—boo, hiss!), but objects even more to Costa Coffee sponsoring the same prize because, er, Costa Coffee competes with the kind of coffee shop the author prefers. She makes the unlikely claim that there are 40 independent coffee shops in Totnes (population: 7,440) and complains that Costa keeps on creating new outlets "even though local people in overwhelming numbers – from Southwold in East Anglia to Cottingham in Yorkshire to Totnes in Devon – make it clear they aren't wanted."

If what the author says is true—and who am I to call her a snobbish liar?—Costa has adopted the insane business model of investing in places where everybody hates them. This is the same business model that has led Tesco and Asda to bankruptcy. If only those corporations had listened to wooly-headed, anti-capitalist nimbys like our author they could have avoided wasting all that money and would never have had to see their stores—many of which are open 24 hours a day—stand empty.

I lived in Totnes for 30 years, and Totnes outdid itself. Three quarters of its population protested against Costa: Totnes already has more than 40 independent coffee shops. That many people agreeing on anything approaches a miracle, a landslide of public opinion. Costa isn't bothered. It hasn't bothered with the populations of other protesting towns either. But isn't this supposed to be a democracy? Here's a corporate giant flouting the fully expressed will of local people. And for what? To boost a profit margin that'll go to build more coffee shops in Russia and Egypt – Costa's largest is in Dubai – at the expense of UK shopkeepers.

Say a prayer for the poor coffee shop owners of Dubai! Dear Lord, are there really people who still think like this in 2012? As it happens, I have never stepped foot in a Costa Coffee or a Starbucks. They serve Starbucks' coffee on the train so I know that it is nice but pricey. If everyone was like me and this Guardian writer there would be no Costa Coffee, but everyone is not like us and that is just fine. If 'democracy' would stop a Costa Coffee opening in Totnes, that only shows how much democracy sucks compared to the free market.

Anyway, the prize comment is the following:

If your idea of 'democracy' is 'a system where me and my condescending arsehole chums get to dictate to other people what kind of coffee they're going to be allowed to drink', then I hope you never develop any kind of inclination towards fascism.

Right on. Democracy does not exist to serve the special interests of incumbent industries, faddists, anti-capitalists, snobs and reactionaries. The fact that it frequently does serve such interests only goes to show that democracy has limited uses in a free society. It does not exist so that a temporary mob can limit the choices of others. If you don't like Costa's coffee, don't buy it. It really is that simple. South Park nailed this one in the nineties with their classic 'Gnomes' episode. Apparently, this episode is now used to to teach students about capitalism. Lucky students.

UPDATE: Just seen that the Devil's Kitchen has written a very similar post on the same subject. Great minds!

Friday, 14 September 2012

Tobacco Product Directive leaked to the press

A draft of the EU's Tobacco Product Directive was leaked to the German press this week. You may recall the EU-wide public consultation on this directive, the results of which were published last year and showed majority opposition to extreme tobacco control measures and a "vast majority" in favour of repealing the scientifically baseless ban on snus.

"A significant majority of (citizen) respondents were against extending the scope of the Directive (ie further regulations).

A vast majority of (citizen) respondents ... were in favour of lifting the ban on snus.

A significant majority of (citizen) respondents disagreed with the regulation of ingredients at the EU level.

A significant majority of (citizen) respondents opposed limiting access to tobacco products."

The 125 page draft document strongly suggests that the European Commission has decided not to listen to the citizens and has instead decided to heed their sock-puppet pressure groups and the gentlemen of the pharmaceutical industry. This may not surprise you. According to European news sources, the directive could be much worse than anybody feared. Lowlights include: -

  • Total ban on all forms of smokeless tobacco across the EU (except Sweden)
  • Total ban on e-cigarettes
  • Ban on menthol and other flavourings (previously rumoured, as I reported in April)
  • Standardised cigarette width, length and colour
  • Ban on shopkeepers displaying more than one variety of each brand
  • Graphic warnings on packs covering 75 per cent of the surface

The ban on smokeless will affect nasal snuff and all forms of chewing tobacco. This will be particularly unpopular with the various ethnic minorities who use Asian-style products. It will also mean a ban on loose snus in Denmark, where it has hitherto been covered by the 'traditional use' clause (see here for coverage of the Danish issue.)

Of course, this means no repeal of the snus ban and therefore no chance for EU citizens to benefit from the 'Swedish experience' of mass switching to a 99% safer alternative. As The Local reminds us...

In Sweden currently only 11 percent of the adult population are smokers compared to the EU average which is 28 percent.

Any government that was serious about health would legalise snus immediately. Alternatively, any government that believed that smokeless tobacco was such a serious threat that it needed banning would remove the Swedish exemption. This transparently isn't about health. It is about money and politics.

The pharmaceutical industry—and, indeed, the tobacco industry—will be even happier to hear that e-cigarettes are in the firing line. The draft directive recommends that only 'NCPs' (nicotine-containing products) which have been authorised as medicinal products should be allowed on the market. Since e-cigarettes make no claim to be medicinal products, this would see them banned. Hundreds of thousands of EU citizens who have successfully quit smoking with these devices would be pushed back to cigarettes. Great work.

Many of the other policy recommendations are petty and trivial, seemingly designed to do nothing more than annoy the tobacco industry. Preventing shopkeepers from stocking more than one variety of each cigarette brand is a new one to me. I can't imagine who dreamt up that policy or what they were smoking at the time. Likewise, the ban on menthol and other flavourings has no scientific justification (see the tedious campaign by the FDA to do likewise) and is only on the agenda because the prohibitionists are itching to ban something and it's easier to ban minority products like menthol cigarettes and smokeless tobacco than cigarettes themselves.

The policy of covering tobacco products with 75 per cent graphic warnings is cut from the same bone-headed cloth. Presumably this is for the benefit of all those people who haven't heard the news about smoking being bad for them. It falls short of plain packaging, but only just, as Die Welt reports:

If one adds the revenue stamp as another element whose size is specified, the manufacturers will be left with approximately ten percent of a pack surface where they can exercise their freedom of design.

Furthermore, the legislation can easily be updated in the future when the unelected European Commission is ready to take the 'next logical step':

The Commission is seeing the restrictions as part of a preliminary stage: five years from the effective date of the directive that is now being planned, it wants to submit additional proposals “in the direction of full plain packaging”, i.e. a ban on the use of any logos, pictures, letterings, and font types.

That's the news as I understand it so far (mainly gathered from foreign sources as the British media haven't shown any interest). Looks like health and liberty will be sacrificed for special interests once again, but that's the European Commission for you—incompetent and rotten to the core.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Some of the worst people in the world

For his sins, Eric Crampton has been following the Twitter hashtag for a 'public health' conference being held in Australia and has produced an amusing compilation of the delegates' tweets for your delectation.

The humour of this sort of thing is increasingly of the gallows variety when you consider the extraordinary wealth and access to power these people have. Two things stand out:

Firstly, that the movement is now almost exclusively political. 'Political' is perhaps too flattering a word for the third-hand, pampered champagne eco-socialism that passes without question at such events, but the gathering is one of activists and activists only. The fact that Richard Wilkinson (of Spirit Level fame) gave the keynote speech probably gives an indication of the near-total scientific illiteracy in the room. Still, what need is there for science, including medicine, at such an event? This is 'public health', remember, not actual health.

Secondly, the concepts of personal liberty and self-determination are not just seen as alien or threatening, they are viewed as artificial constructs created by Evil Corporations. To take an entirely typical example...

It has been like this for years to a large extent, but the scope of these peoples' agendas now extends to everything from the food we eat to how much energy we use in our homes to whether we gamble (recall Gerard Hastings' recent call for a dictatorship of public health.) Moreover, the evidence they use to persuade themselves and politicians of the urgent need for action is of such a dismal standard (telephone surveys, wild extrapolations etc.) that they might as well not bother with it all. "The science"—as they would doubtless call it—is only bunting for a manifesto created in an echo chamber. The whole racket needs shutting down, and soon.

Be sure to read Eric's post and remember: there is no such thing as public health.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Then they came for the meat-eaters

An opening shot in the forthcoming war against meat-eaters has been fired in BMJ Open.

Impact of a reduced red and processed meat dietary pattern on disease risks and greenhouse gas emissions in the UK: a modelling study

The gist of the study is that people who eat red and processed meat are more likely to get colorectal cancer and heart disease, and meat leads to more CO2 production than vegetarianism.

Conclusions: Reduced consumption of RPM [red and processed meat] would bring multiple benefits to health and environment.

Naturally, this means forceful lifestyle modification is on its way...

Climate change mitigation is a far-future benefit that may not directly affect those who must make lifestyle changes now. It is therefore unlikely to be a strong motivator for change. In contrast, health benefits provide near-term rewards to individuals for climate-friendly changes and may thus ‘nudge’ humanity towards a sustainable future.

Dietary recommendations should no longer be based on direct health effects alone. While the UK government has acknowledged the environmental impact of livestock production and is taking action with the industry to improve efficiency, changes in production will be insufficient alone to meet challenging emission reduction targets. Joint producer and consumer responsibility is needed, supported by the use of both production- and consumption-based GHG accounts.

Averting dangerous climate change will require multiple changes at all levels of society, and the potential contribution of reduced RPM consumption should be addressed.

And so it begins. My money's on a meat tax being the first policy recommendation. Governments do like a tax.

We tried to warn you, etc.

Tony Blair's betting slip

Remember all that controversy about 'Las Vegas style super-casinos' in 2004-05? If you live in Britain, you probably do. You may also recall the plans for deregulation of casinos which came to nothing. Gordon Brown abolished the plans for a large casino in Manchester when he succeeded Tony Blair.

Since then, little has been said about casinos. Anti-gambling campaigners have switched their focus to fixed odds betting terminals which offer virtual casino games in betting shops.

Seven year after the Gambling Act was passed into law, it's time to reflect on what was lost and gained. Why are more than a quarter of casino licences still unused? Why have 15 of the 16 casinos created by the 2005 Act still not been built? These are the topics discussed in my new report for the Institute of Economic Affairs - you can download it here.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Old people drink wine and children eat sweets. Quelle horreur!

The Telegraph offers us another taster of tonight's Panorama from the pen of its presenter Joan Bakewell.

It seems the country could be on the cusp of an epidemic of old-age drinking. I admit I was thoroughly sceptical when the idea was first described to me. I thought I knew a good deal about the lives of older people. As the Government’s so-called tsar for the old, I met, talked to and corresponded with many of them. I got to know about care homes and retirement crises, of pension shortcomings and the fears of dying. But I never once came up against the problem of late-onset drinking. 

This is rather revealing, is it not? Bakewell has for years been a professional old person. As she says, she spends a great deal of time with elderly people from all walks of life. If she has not not noticed the "epidemic", she has either been wearing blinkers or the epidemic does not exist.

That’s why I took some convincing. But I now know the evidence is there.

And the evidence is?

Fact: last year more older people were admitted to hospital for alcohol-related injuries and illnesses than those in the 16 to 24 age group.

Apples and oranges. The two groups are of completely different sizes and cannot be meaningfully compared. Besides, elderly people are far more likely to be admitted to hospital for obvious reasons and therefore make up a disproportionate share of 'alcohol-related' admissions thanks to the questionable "attributable fractions" system.

Fact: an estimated 1.4 million over-65s are drinking too much.

That is not a fact. It is opinion. The criteria used by the medical establishment to decide how much is too much is based on figures that were "plucked out of the air. They weren't really based on any firm evidence at all." It is for the individual to decide when they have drunk "too much".

Fact: according to the Alzheimer’s Society, excessive alcohol over long periods of time increases the risk of a dementia-like condition.

Perhaps. But there are several studies showing the opposite—that drinking reduces the risk of Alzheimer's and dementia. This study, for example, found that drinking halved the risk of dementia. This one found that drinking reduced the risk of dementia by half and reduced the risk of Alzheimer's by a third.

These are the three "facts" which have persuaded Bakewell to disregard the evidence of her eyes and abandon her scepticism. The first is irrelevant, the second is untrue and the third is, at best, contentious. How easy it is for the spivs of the temperance lobby to pull the wool over someone's eyes.

There is, however, still room for anecdote...

Barbara is in her seventies and since being widowed has lived alone. She and her husband were enjoying a happy retirement in France’s expat community. But his illness and death plunged her into gloom. Come 4pm, she starts on the wine and downs a bottle a day.

As Tim Worstall says:

Dear God, what horrors! A little old lady widow must not be allowed to have a bottle of wine a day! Think of how productive she could be without it!

Puritanical little tosspots.

Panorama is on at 7.30 pm. Afterwards, you can switch to Channel 4 to see a Dispatches "investigation" into academy schools which are—brace yourself—allowing children to buy sweets!

Out of 108 academies that responded to the requests, 29 were selling chocolate and other confectionery, nine admitted selling fizzy drinks and seven sold energy drinks such as Red Bull.

Expect to see that fat-tongued fool Jamie Oliver weeping.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Get back to your pots and pans, woman

Thanks to Ivan in the comments of the previous post, I am now aware of this crucial piece of data-dredging junk science epidemiology. From the Daily Mail, obviously...

Housework could reduce the risk of breast cancer by 13%

It may sound counter intuitive but housework could be good for your health.

Yes it does and no it isn't.

Researchers found women who spent six hours a day doing household chores, going for a brisk walk or gardening were 13 per cent less likely to develop breast cancer than their sedentary peers.

Even those who managed just two-and-a-half hours of activity reduced their cancer risk by eight per cent.

As mentioned in an earlier post, 13% and 8% reductions in risk are nothing to get too excited about and they very likely are not real, but let's have a stab at this one. I haven't read the study, but we do know that having children reduces breast cancer risk and that the more children a woman has, the lower her risk:

Childbearing reduces the risk of breast cancer and the higher the number of full-term pregnancies, the greater the protection.

Risk of breast cancer reduces by 7% with each full-term pregnancy, and overall women who have had children have a 30% lower risk than nulliparous [childless] women.

A 15% risk reduction has been shown for womenwith a twin birth, compared to women giving birth to a singleton.

The only women who could possibly need to do six hours of housework a day are those who have at least one child running about the place so I'm guessing that the researchers have failed to adequately control for childbirth.

Mind you, that's only speculation. So ladies, why take the risk? Pop the kettle on while you're about it, will you? Chop, chop.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Alcohol Concern on the march again

Quite a bit of booze news in the last 24 hours. "News" is perhaps the wrong word since it implies newsworthiness. "Sloppily re-written press releases" might be a better term. This, from the BBC for example, has no relation whatsoever to current affairs other than the fact that Alcohol Concern Wales are having a conference, no doubt at the taxpayers' expense:

Drink firms 'target young online', Alcohol Concern Cymru claims

Campaigners claim drinks firms are using the internet and social media to evade restrictions on promoting alcohol to young people.

You might assume from this that some sort of research has been published to support allegations of wrong-doing (for it is forbidden to target the 'young' with alcohol advertisements). Alas, there is no mention of it. Instead we get a bunch of quotes from Alcohol Concern which spread unsubstantiated claims designed to advance their campaign for a total ban on alcohol sponsorship. As is typical of the nation's broadcaster when the temperance movement is involved, there are no balancing quotes from drinkers, the drinks industry, freedom-lovers or anyone else who might object to neo-prohibitionism.

And then in the Guardian, we have this:

Minimum alcohol price 'could save 5,000 older people's lives a year'

Researchers say 50p-a-unit minimum price would cut alcohol-related deaths among pensioners in England.

Forgive me if I sound jaded when I discuss these people's crystal balls, but it was only six months ago that a 50p minimum price was predicted to save 2,000 lives a year across the entire population. The government-funded sock puppet website says that it will save exactly 1,000 lives, again across the entire population. Suddenly saving 5,000 lives only amongst pensioners seems to be upping the ante somewhat, no? (The BBC is running the same story, but incorporates the old trick of multiplying the figure over a decade, hence 'Minimum alcohol price 'would save 50,000 pensioners'.)

Academics at Sheffield University produced the estimate for next Monday's edition of the BBC's Panorama programme...

Which is, of course, the natural place to début serious and impartial scientific research.

...which highlights the growing problem of over-65s drinking dangerously.

By my calculation, this is at least the third occasion in the last 18 months that Panorama has been used as a vehicle for temperance campaigning (see here, for the most egregious example). It really is time to put that once-great show out of its misery.

Setting the unit price at 50p would mean that a cheap bottle of vodka would start costing £13 rather than £9 and it would address the fact that alcohol is 44% cheaper now than it was in 1980.

Firstly, alcohol is not cheaper than it was in 1980. Whether measured in cash terms of real terms, alcohol is more expensive than it was in 1980. It is more affordable than it was in 1980, true, but so is nearly everything; as I mentioned on Wednesday, average incomes have doubled in real terms since then. The Guardian has made a mistake that no economist would make of confusing affordability with inflation-adjusted cost. If you want to see if something has become more or less expensive over time, you look at the cost in real terms, nothing more.

Secondly, why would anyone want to "address the fact" that something has become cheaper? Is there some stone tablet lying around upon which it is written that 1980 was the optimum year for prices? And who the hell do these people think they are to be trying to squeeze pensioners of their savings?

A spokesman for Alcohol Concern, the [fake] charity representing alcohol services, said life-changing events such as retirement or bereavement could prompt older people to start drinking too much.

That is absolutely none of your business, you little pipsqueak.

"Most often, it's something that goes on quietly in the home without disturbing anyone."

Yes, that must be intolerable to you curtain-twitching prodnoses, mustn't it?

A planned Home Office consultation on minimum pricing has been delayed but will finally start this autumn, a spokesman said.

Tremendous. A chance for the public to put their views across so the government can hear both sides and come to a carefully considered opinion about whether to bring in minimum pricing or not. Which way will Caesar's thumb turn? It's far too early to tell.

"We will introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol, ensuring for the first time that alcohol can only be sold at a sensible and appropriate price," he added.

Hey ho, at least we know where we stand. Don't think I'll bother responding to that "consultation".

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

"Poverty" is at its lowest level for 30 years

The super-charity Save the Children has decided, for the first time in its 93 year history, to raise funds to help children in the UK.

The charity – founded in 1919 – is now aiming to raise £500,000 amid fears levels of poverty in Britain are “tearing families apart”.

Justin Forsyth, the charity’s chief executive, said the Government must do more to help protect the “poorest and most disadvantaged from further cuts".

Let us leave aside the fact that the "cuts" are so "savage" that the national debt will increase by £600 billion in the course of this parliament. Instead, let us look at Save the Children's definition of the poor, which is based on the conventional measure of relative poverty ie. a disposable income of below 60% of the national median income. On that basis...

The charity defines living in poverty as having a family income of less than £17,000 a year.

Fine. Not everyone would agreed that such an income equates to poverty, and it is surely misleading to describe it as the "bread line" (as Newsnight did last night), but the relative measure is standard in rich countries like the UK.

The trouble is that relative measures tell you very little about material circumstance. In his excellent book, A New Understanding of Poverty, Kristian Niemietz quotes Save the Children saying:

" the UK, 3.9 million children live in poverty. Many don't have access to warm winter clothing, nutritious food, decent housing or education."

As Niemietz notes, this is a non sequitur.

It may, of course, be true that many of those living in relative poverty do not have access to such things, but the relative poverty figures tell us absolutely nothing about the extent to which this is so. Hard data from one measure are being used to imply something about a measure for which these particular data reveal nothing.

He also quotes the following from Oxfam GB:

The UK is the fifth richest country in the world. Until the recession hit in 2008, it had experienced an unprecedented period of growth over the last 10 years. Yet this has not benefited the poorest in society.

This is more than misleading. It is simply untrue. Between 1977 and 2006/07 the bottom quintile (ie. the bottom twenty per cent of earners) saw their disposable incomes rise by 60 per cent in real terms. In the ten year period Oxfam refers to, disposable incomes of the bottom quintile rose by 25 per cent. This represents a "benefit" to the poorest in society, by any objective measure.

But whilst the bottom quintile saw its average disposable income rise by 60 per cent between 1977 and 2006/07, middle earners enjoyed an increase of 92 per cent and the incomes of the top quintile rose by 143 per cent (all in real terms). Consequently, inequality increased and the number of people living in relative poverty rose.

In 1979, 13 per cent of the population had an income below 60% of the median and, therefore, were classed as being in (relative) poverty. By 1990, this had risen to 22 per cent and the figure remained between 18 and 22 per cent for the next 18 years. Disposable incomes of the poor rose rose almost every year in this period, but because average earners continued to get richer too, there was no significant decline in either relative poverty or inequality.

And then something happened that should have gladdened the hearts of those who focus only on relative measures. The financial crisis led to the biggest fall in GDP since 1949. That, combined with rising inflation, resulted in the first drop in average earnings since 1981. As in previous recessions, people on median and high incomes saw their earnings fall the most—a decline of five per cent for the top quintile and 3 per cent for the middle quintile, while the bottom quintile saw a fall of just 1 per cent. The graph below comes from the Office for National Statistics (click to enlarge):

As a result of all this, inequality fell by a full two points (see below) and half a million people were "lifted out of poverty". There are now fewer people living below the official poverty line than at any time since the early 1980s (16 per cent). Quite brilliantly, a measure of poverty has been devised which allows the poverty rate to rise when the poor are getting richer and fall when they are getting poorer.

I won't be celebrating this sharp drop in "poverty" because I consider a drop in the income of the poor to be a Bad Thing. Nor will I be celebrating the decline in inequality, even though The Spirit Level tells us that it will make everything better (I look forward to the big fall in infant mortality and violent crime that their model predicts).

You won't find Save the Children celebrating either, but by their own logic they should. Throughout the good times, they have had a single-minded focus on relative measures despite the poor getting markedly richer by any other standard. By their own preferred criteria, things are now better than they have been for thirty years, which makes it an odd time to start the only UK anti-poverty campaign in the charity's history.

Alternatively, we might conclude that the relative poverty measure is a load of old cobblers that tells us nothing about the material conditions of people on low incomes. Considering that there are now 500,000 fewer people living below the "breadline" than there were before the "savage cuts" began, despite everybody having less money, that's the conclusion I draw.


The Telegraph mentions the interesting fact that Save the Children's CEO used to be a top advisor to the Labour party. The article also has a quote from me, pointing out that the charity did not run similar campaigns when the poor were much poorer than they are today.

A remarkable coincidence

Three weeks ago, when I wrote about the imminent implementation of plain packaging in Australia, I quoted a press release from British American Tobacco (BAT) which said:

As there’s no proof that plain packaging will actually work we expect the Federal Government to impose [on] the industry a large excise increase alongside plain packs to try and get more people to quit so it can say ‘look green packs worked’.

Well, guess what?

Tax rise will cost smokers a packet

The price of cigarettes would rise to $20 a pack under a Gillard Government proposal that would reap an extra $1.25 billion a year in taxes.

The West Australian understands the Government is considering a 25 per cent rise in tobacco excise that would raise $5 billion over four years.

Gosh. I wonder when this massive tax rise will come in?

The excise increase may be timed to coincide with the introduction of mandatory plain-packaging for tobacco products on December 1.

To cynical eyes, this could be interpreted as the start of a desperate arse-covering campaign on behalf of a government that knows it has embarked on a plan that is doomed to fail. Some will say it is a shameless attempt to force down the smoking rate in order to justify plain packaging to the rest of the world.

I couldn't possibly comment.

Monday, 3 September 2012

The dictatorship of public health

An article by Gerard Hastings in the British Medical Journal ('Why corporate power is a public health priority') must be the most jaw-droppingly awful thing that once-great magazine has ever published. Over the course of four pages, Hastings combines every half-baked obsession of the far-left with the God complex of the medical establishment to produce something that goes far beyond the slippery slope and is more akin to a coup d'etat. He begins, as so many do these days, by discussing tobacco.

...tobacco has remained such an intractable problem only because our economic system allows free ranging corporations to market it.

What year is it again? There is no tobacco marketing any more. It was banned 13 years ago. You won, remember, as you always do. Change the record and find another excuse for why people keep smoking.

The same applies to the other two “industrial epidemics” that constitute such a large share of the public health burden: alcohol misuse and obesity.

You might think that this is another "let's treat food and alcohol like tobacco" article, and it is. But it is also much more than that. Get ready.

In each case evocative promotion, ubiquitous distribution, perpetual new product development, and seductive pricing strategies are used to encourage unhealthy consumption. And in each case painstaking research and review have shown the obvious truth that this marketing effort succeeds, especially with the young.

Promotion, distribution, product development and pricing—the basic foundation of any business in a capitalist society. Alas, our cossetted academic is no fan of capitalist society. (Incidentally, the references he provides regarding this "painstaking research" are a bunch of articles written by himself.)

The consequence has been the inevitable escalation of lifestyle illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, cirrhosis, and diabetes.

As I have mentioned before, the "escalation" of "lifestyle illnesses" is very largely the result of communicable diseases being beaten back in the day when 'public health' was a medical, rather than a political, enterprise. The chart below speaks a thousand words.

Hastings then proceeds to regurgitate the usual Green Party/Spirit Level/champagne socialist stuff about how capitalism creates artificial desires and leads to an "unstinting hunt for new needs and wants (or, increasingly, whims) to satisfy". It gives people a "burgeoning sense of entitlement", he reckons, which is the pot calling the kettle black, as we shall see.

Once basic needs are satisfied, the correlation between material possessions and contentment rapidly dissipates...

Blah, blah, blah... keeps us craving more: the paradox of a system devoted to our satisfaction is that it depends on our perpetual dissatisfaction...

Oh, to be 16 again, eh?

...the fiduciary duty of corporations gives them a legal obligation to prioritise the needs, not of the consumer, but of the shareholder.

A legal obligation? It's illegal to prioritise the needs of the consumer, is it? Long-time readers may recall another public health cretin, Anna Gilmore, showing the same pathetic ignorance when she said: "These large corporations, whether they sell tobacco, food or alcohol, are legally obliged to maximise shareholder returns."

Anyone who believes such a thing should really hold their tongue on matters economic, but Hastings wibbles on...

The corporate marketers’ self centred purpose, then, is “to recognise and achieve an economic advantage which endures.” Not an economic advantage for the customer — just for the company.

Oh, for God's sake...

Look, I know this is Econ 101, but for the benefit of the medical profession, a person buying a product gets more benefit from consuming it than he would by keeping hold of the money. The person selling the product gets more benefit from the money than he would from keeping the product. This system of free exchange is to the advantage of both parties. Indeed, it can only exist if both parties benefit. It is for that reason that the Evil Corporations cannot prioritise the needs of the shareholder over those of the consumer. They have to produce something the consumer wants before they can even hope to please the shareholder. I realise that the concept of producing something people want is alien to 'public health professionals' who feed off the productive economy and rely on state power for their income, but that is how it works.

Hastings then goes on to make an unconvincing lament, pretending that public health 'advocates' are not sufficiently media-savvy and are too scientifically minded to make the political demands he believes are required.

Our focus has become increasingly narrow and technocratic. We are, it seems, happier conducting randomised controlled trials of leaflet interventions or calculating algorithms that mean little outside the laboratory than challenging a system that is both deeply unfair and hopelessly unsustainable.

Pull the other one, Gerard. You've never been in a laboratory in your life. You're a professor of social marketing with no scientific qualifications whose every publication is aimed at changing government policy, including the "independent" review into the evidence for plain packaging. Your Stirling University colleague Linda Bauld, who is also an economically illiterate, state-funded political campaigner, produced the "independent" review into the smoking ban. Don't play the violin, sir, you have the whole game stitched up already. Moreover, people like you are the rule rather than the exception in the Mickey Mouse world of public health where anyone with a degree in mechanical engineering, management or sociology can present themselves as a 'professor of public health' and hope the media mistake them for a doctor, which they normally do.

Moving beyond the topic specific, where is the public health contribution to such pressing problems as the corporate takeover of the Olympics—an event that should be a beacon of healthy activity not another shopping opportunity—or the debate about the coalition government abandoning its green agenda; or the financial crisis and corporate greed? Would a journalist even think about coming to public health for a comment on any of these?

On the subject of the Olympics, I vividly recall the BBC devoting 20 minutes of Newsnight to one of your fellow travellers bitching about the sponsors and there were countless column inches written on the same subject elsewhere.

As for the "green agenda" and the financial crisis, why on earth would any journalist think their readers would be interested in what you or anyone else from your cabal has to say about issues which are completely out of your field of alleged expertise? Frankly, it's bad enough having sociologists and 'professors of socio-management' talking about health without them repeating something they heard at a dinner party about the international financial system.

He carries on in this vein for several pages. I don't have time to fisk it all but this should give you an idea...

Thinking more broadly still, the biggest effect that all this remorseless corporate marketing has on public health comes even further upstream — at a planetary level. We have built a system where continuous growth, fed by marketing driven excess consumption by the already well-off, is inevitably coming into conflict with the limits of a finite planet... more than ever people need a champion to speak up for their real needs, rather than the phoney ones teased and tempted by corporate capitalism...

We can and should be offering a geopolitical vision with greater equality as its central pledge...

Public health has to demand a place at the macroeconomic table; it has to contribute to the debate about where corporate capitalism is going...

We have to take the lead in a movement away from a world driven by abeyance to the corporate bottom line and the enrichment of an elite...

Et cetera, et cetera. In short, Hastings endorses the classic bone-headed Bollinger Bolshevik view that people do things he doesn't like because of advertising and so he wants to extend the ban on tobacco advertising not only to alcohol and food, but to practically everything.

If, for example, the advertising of tobacco can be banned because smoking harms the individual, should not all advertising be much more circumscribed because the consumption it engenders harms the planet?

Furthermore, since the puritans and charlatans of public health know what's better for people than they do themselves, their power should be extended to every aspect of political life.

We must demand a seat at the political top table, not just in health but in finance. Recent events in the banking sector confirm an age old lesson that fiscal policy has at least as much effect on morbidity and mortality as anything done in health ministries. Public health is too important to be left to economists and politicians...

For "too important to be left to politicians" read "too important to be left to democracy", so let's bypass elected representatives altogether and allow obscure left-wing academics rule the roost.

Seriously folks, there is no greater threat to freedom in the UK right now than these demagogues.