Friday, 15 November 2019

Charity begins at home for nanny state academics

Last year, I wrote about a peculiar piece of junk science which claimed that a modest change to Chile's sugar tax had a dramatic effect on the amount of sugary drinks consumed. The authors claimed that consumption fell by 22 per cent after the tax rose, despite presenting evidence that quite clearly showed it made no difference whatsoever. Modelling, innit?

In my original blog post I made a throwaway remark about the study being produced by English academics rather than Chilean ones...

For some reason, the tax has been evaluated by some academics at York University...

That little mystery was solved when I read the first draft of Nanny State on Tour, a new report from the IEA written by Mark Tovey, and discovered that the study had been funded out of the UK's foreign aid budget. Moreover, it cost £348,108!

Chile is the richest country in South America. Crackpot modelling of nanny state policies doesn't fit many people's ideas of 'aid'. So what the hell is going on?

Well, it appears that various special interests have got their hands on bits of our massive £14 billion a year foreign budget. The money is supposed to be spent on poverty reduction. Instead, as Mark shows, millions have been captured by the likes of Graham MacGregor (Action on Sugar) to pursue their pet projects.

Highlights include:

  • £6.8 million spent on a ‘research unit’ to reduce the amount of salt housewives add while cooking in China 
  • £130,605 spent researching the ‘acceptability and feasibility’ of taxing sugary drinks in India
  • £1 million spent tightening tobacco control laws in Colombia
  • £800,000 spent training Imans in Bangladesh to preach about secondhand smoke 
  • £207,567 spent on a literature review that found literally nothing

In some respects, this is the old story of UK taxpayers' money being wasted on stupid project overseas, but it's actually worse than that. In many case, nothing is happening overseas. The money and personnel never leave the UK. Well-to-do academics at British universities are pocketing six figure sums for doing one-sided research about issues which have nothing to do with poverty reduction and precious little to do with the pressing health issues of the developing world.

It is yet another gravy train and it has come about, in part, because the government has allowed departments other than DfID to distribute foreign aid cash. The Department of Health, in particular, has turned this into a slush fund for the benefit of the usual suspects (not the only one, as we saw yesterday).

Mark summarised his research for the Sun yesterday and Nick Booth has written a nice little op-ed about it here.

But you really need to read the whole thing so download Nanny State On Tour now.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

The bottomless 'public health' money pit

The IEA has a new report out about money being squandered overseas on 'public health' nonsense. I'll discuss it tomorrow, but today let's concentrate on the millions that are being spaffed up the wall in the UK.

In May, I discussed the ludicrously named Shaping Public hEalth poliCies To Reduce ineqUalities and harM (SPECTRUM) funded to the tune of £5.9 million courtesy of the taxpayer via the UK Prevention Research Partnership. The usual snouts were in the trough...

The list of SPECTRUM's 'co-investigators' features some other familiar faces, including John Britton (director of UKCTAS), Alan Brennan (Sheffield University fantasy modeller), Anna Gilmore (Tobacco Tactics conspiracy theorist) and Mark Petticrew (anti-alcohol crank), plus two senior staff from Public Health England.

The organisation has a 'principal focus on tobacco and alcohol' and its 'partners' include Ian Gilmore's Alcohol Health Alliance and Deborah Arnott's Smokefree Coalition, so expect the usual policy-based evidence, risible computer modelling, confirmation bias, junk economics, conspiracy theories and 'desk bound research' (ie. trawling Twitter for imaginary bots).

The UK Prevention Research Partnership has over £50 million of our money to spend and the elite of the 'public health' racket haven't wasted any time getting their hands on it. Yesterday saw the launch of a very similar organisation with a vaguely sinister name, also funded by the UKPRP, called Systems science In Public Health and health Economics Research (SIPHER).

SIPHER will be run by Petra Meier, who is part of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group best known for shoddy minimum pricing modelling and fiddling the figures to revise the alcohol guidelines. No bad deed goes unrewarded in this racket and so, rather than being shunned by government and the academy, SARG is now rolling in money, including a wedge of cash for turning their silly model towards tobacco taxation.

Everything has gone to plan for Meier, who had 'no clue whatsoever about alcohol policy' when she started working in the field and openly admits that she was just following the money:

My foray into the alcohol world started with taking up a lectureship at the University of Sheffield. Not that anyone there was doing alcohol research at the time, but I was suddenly in a very research-active environment, and there was an expectation that we would identify a niche and quickly bring in grants. My previous research had focused on illicit drug use, but it seemed there were far more opportunities in alcohol research.

My new department was full of systematic reviewers and health economists, so we tried our luck and got funding for a project reviewing and modelling alcohol pricing and promotion policies.

Having literally no clue whatsoever about alcohol policy in the United Kingdom, or elsewhere, I remember how a colleague and I, desperate for some expert input, trawled the web and kept finding the names ‘Robin Room’ and ‘Tim Stockwell’. We fired off a couple of emails and a day later both Robin and Tim had agreed to help, sent copious amounts of relevant reading material, and invited me to come to the next Kettil Bruun Society conference due to start a few weeks later. Once there, Robin and Tim made a real effort to introduce me to all the lovely folk in the field, and with it being such a friendly and supportive scientific community I decided to make it my ‘home’ and build up alcohol research at Sheffield.

Now she has landed £4.9 million for SIPHER. What will SIPHER do? Its website doesn't go into specifics but it mentions 'health inequalities' quite a bit, which seems to be the key to unlocking taxpayers' money. Meier says that it 'our research will aim to create the evidence base to underpin health in all policies efforts by local, regional and national governments.' 

Fortunately, they already know which policies they want the government to introduce so that should make the job easier, and she has pulled together a familiar set of faces to 'create the evidence'. The team includes:

Petra Meier (SARG)
Robin Purhouse (SARG)
Lucy Gavens (ex-SARG)
John Brazier (Sheffield University)
Alan Brennan (SARG)
Liddy Goyder (Sheffield University)
John Holmes (SARG)
Visakan Kadirkamanathan (Sheffield University)
Suzy Paisley (Sheffield University)
Mark Strong (Sheffield University)
Liz Such (Sheffield University)
Aki Tsuchiya (Sheffield University)
Craig Watkins (Sheffield University)
Cheryl Stirr (Sheffield University)

To be fair, not everybody is from Sheffield University. There is also Greg Fell, Sheffield's low IQ Director of Public Health, a few people from government, three from Leeds University and one each from the universities of Manchester, Edinburgh, Strathclyde and Newcastle.

I think the phrase I'm looking for is 'drain the swamp'.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Minimum pricing set for March 2020 in Wales

Last month in the Welsh Assembly, Dai Llyod said of minimum pricing...

You will all recall that we passed this legislation in the Senedd last year. Similar legislation has been operational in Scotland for over a year, and a recent survey, which was published over the past few days, suggests that the policy has been a sweeping success in reducing the amount of alcohol that people in Scotland, even, drink.

This is a lie. There is no evidence that minimum pricing had any effect on the amount of alcohol consumed in Scotland, but it is this kind of garbage that has persuaded Welsh politicians to go ahead with the same regressive measure.

It was announced today that minimum pricing (at 50p per unit) will begin in Wales on March 2nd. Welsh drinkers should therefore stock up at the end of February, but most of the population will not be too far away from alcohol sold at the market price in any case. And the Severn Bridge toll was helpfully abolished last year.

As always those helpful folk at the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group have given some specific predictions of what will happen in the first year of minimum pricing. They include:

  • A 3.6 per cent fall in per capita alcohol consumption
  • 22 fewer units consumed per capita per annum, rising to 69 units for the poorest drinkers
  • 591 fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions
  • 31 fewer alcohol-related deaths
  • 2,093 fewer alcohol-related crimes

Let's sit back, wait, and see if any of that happens, shall we?

Monday, 11 November 2019

Hey buddy, have you got your eating licence?

Pearl Street Mall, a no smoking zone

Smoking was banned across Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado in 2013...

Where is the smoke-free zone?

The ordinance bans all smoking between 11th and 15th streets on the Pearl Street Mall, and on the lawn of the Boulder County Courthouse.

Are there designated smoking areas around the mall?

When considering a place to smoke, there are no specifically designated smoking areas. It's important to know that smoking is not allowed on the Pearl Street Mall, from 11th and 15th street, or on the Boulder County Courthouse property. The Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act and City of Boulder code also require people to be more than 15 feet away from entryways when smoking 

There was even a party to celebrate this progressive victory...

Kick-off Celebration Event

A celebration event will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Friday, April 12, on the 1300 block of the Pearl Street Mall, where county, city and Downtown Boulder Inc. (DBI) staff will be available to answer questions about the smoking ban, hand out mints and information, and provide free resources available for smoking cessation programs.

Those who campaigned for the ban did so in the name of 'public health' and cited the claim that heart attacks fell by 41 per cent in Pueblo, Colorado after the town banned smoking indoors in 2003. That claim is a lie and, in any case, has no relevance to Pearl Street Mall which is an outdoor space.

Quite a large outdoor space, in fact. The ban extends from 11th to 15th and covers about ten streets.

As the risks from secondhand smoke outdoors are nonexistent, the real intention of the ordinance was probably to 'change norms', 'send a message' and make it more difficult for people to smoke. I doubt that those who lobbied for it expected there to be many arrests. Indeed, when the ban was introduced, Molly Winter of the city's 'Department of Community Vitality' (!) insisted that 'Boulder is not taking a hard line in terms of enforcement.'

But if you make petty offences out of victimless crimes, you can expect the boys in blue to take them seriously. The woman in the video below was arrested for not only smoking but having a dog off the leash and littering (dropping a cigarette butt, perhaps?). Faced with such a dangerous criminal, the police weren't going to take any chances, so they tied her to a chair, stuck a bag over her head, tasered her while she was defenceless and locked her in solitary.

As a chaser, watch this video from the even more progressive State of California where it is illegal to eat food on a train platform for some reason. The gentleman below, who is a more demographically typical victim of police harassment, committed his heinous crime at 8 o'clock in the morning while on his way to work.

“You’re eating.” 
“So what?” 
“It’s against the law.” 

Dame Sally would be proud.

If you create stupid, unnecessary laws to police every aspect of people's lives, don't be surprised when the police start throwing their weight around. Many of the replies to the two tweets above express sentiments along the lines of 'rules are rules, if they hadn't disrespected the law they would have been OK'. I find that almost as troubling as the incidents themselves.

Here's an idea. Maybe eating and smoking in the open air shouldn't be a crime? Instead of giving uniformed thugs endless excuses to victimise the public, how about we make laws that are worthy of respect?

Friday, 8 November 2019

Last Orders with Toby Young

The new Last Orders podcast was recorded during a break at the Battle of Ideas with Toby Young. We discuss the miraculous appearance of the original Irn-Bru recipe, Dame Sally Davies' refusal to leave the stage and the Scottish government's exploitation of children.

Have a listen and don't forget to subscribe via the device of your choice.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Did Prohibition work?

Like most Times columnists, David Aaronovitch has a penchant for draconian government action that he can only hide behind his liberal facade for so long. It is most likely to surface when he is looking down his nose at other people's lifestyles, or feeling guilty about his own (see also Nick Cohen).

In a particularly deranged column three years ago, he demanded a ban on the sale of sweets to children, amongst other things...

Ban fast-food outlets from stations and airports. Ban the sale of confectionery and sugary drinks to the under-16s. Ban the sale of over-sugared products in supermarkets (as measured by a ratio of sugar to other nutrients). Ban the bringing into schools of unhealthy foods. Ban the presence in offices (like our own here at The Times) of vending machines that seem to sell mainly crisps and chocolate. Specify a weight-to-height ratio limit on air passengers wishing to avoid a surcharge.

This all seems outlandish and dictatorial at the moment. So too, back in the late 1980s, did the idea that you wouldn’t be allowed to smoke on planes.

No slippery slope, etc.

Last week he was back with an article that attempted, in all seriousness, to portray Prohibition as a success. It's a rarely heard point of view but not wholly unprecedented. People in 'public health' occasionally try to rewrite the history of 1920-33 to justify their own lurch towards prohibition, whether it be with tobacco, vaping or alcohol itself.

The basic argument is that alcohol consumption fell between 1920 and 1933. Well, duh. That is not contested. The reason that the 18th Amendment is the only one to have gone through the difficult process of repeal (requiring the consent of two-thirds of US states) is that there are more important things than per capita alcohol consumption. Murder, for one. Organised crime for another. Thousands of people being blinded, crippled, poisoned and killed for another. I addressed the silly, galaxy brain argument that 'prohibition worked, actually' in The Art of Suppression.

Aaronovitch doesn't bring anything new to the table and seems to have done very little research into the arguments he has microwaved, but let us quickly run through them.

Prohibition showed bans can be good for us

Outlawing alcohol 100 years ago led to a boom in bootlegging but it also had a striking effect on public health

.. Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to all kinds of adverse health conditions. The most obvious is alcoholic cirrhosis (or scarring) of the liver. In 1911 the death rate for cirrhosis among American men was nearly 30 per 100,000. By 1929 that had been reduced by more than 30 per cent. 

There was certainly a steep fall in the mortality rate from liver cirrhosis in the early twentieth century, but the bulk of it took place before Prohibition began in 1920. At no point was the rate 'nearly 30 per 100,000'.

What caused this precipitous decline? Plenty of states had gone dry by the time the US imposed national Prohibition so we can't discount the firm hand of government entirely, but the most likely candidate is the First World War. The same thing happened in Canada, France, Britain and, I dare say, a few other European countries too.

Forgive the mad y-axis, but you get the picture.

You can, if you are inclined, use these graphs as evidence that making alcohol hard to come by reduces alcohol-related mortality, but note that the UK saw liver cirrhosis deaths fall from 9 per 100,000 to 5 per 100,000 before the war began. You don't need rationing, let alone Prohibition, for outcomes to improve.

Registered admissions to mental hospitals for psychosis linked to alcohol more than halved. 

I'm not sure where he got this statistic, if anywhere. The US Census Bureau didn’t start collecting statistics on admissions to mental hospitals until 1923, so we can't compare with the pre-Prohibition era.

One historian has suggested that short-term stays in mental institutions in New York fell prior to prohibition, and then rose after it...

'In 1904, 27.8 percent of the nation's total patient population had been institutionalized for twelve months or less. This percentage fell to 12.7 by 1910, rising to 17.4 in 1923.'

 I don't think the evidence exists to support or debunk Aaronovitch's claim.

Even by 1933, when Volstead was revoked, alcohol consumption had gone down by a third since pre-prohibition. 

Yes. The best guess is that consumption went down by two-thirds when Prohibition began and then rose until it was only a third lower than it had been when alcohol was legal. Not too impressive, really.

The point shouldn't need underlining, but the fact that Prohibition was flouted by scofflaws (a word invented in the 1920s) on such a grand scale is evidence that Prohibition was not wanted. 

Whatever Mark Twain may have written, prohibition saved many, many lives.

Mark Twain died in 1910. Perhaps Aaronovitch is confusing him with one of the tens of millions of Americans who thought that Prohibition was a disaster.

But what about the extra crime and the corruption it caused? In fact there was no big increase in homicide or violent crime in the era of prohibition.

Er, yes there was. The homicide rate rose throughout the era of Prohibition and fell sharply as soon as it was repealed. The increase in crime and violence was well recognised at the time and was one of the main reasons Prohibition was repealed.

Incidentally, the suicide rate - which, unlike the homicide rate, had been falling before 1920 - also rose throughout Prohibition and fell afterwards.
He continues...

True, mobsters — who existed long before the ban — pitched into liquor smuggling, but when prohibition was over they just moved on to other things.

And how lucky they were that the USA had launched the war on drugs in the meantime, thanks to many of the same characters who had given it the war on alcohol. The more opportunities you give organised criminals, the more organised crime you're going to get.

In the meantime arrests for public disorderliness due to drink fell by half, as did recorded complaints of domestic abuse (almost invariably violence by a drunken man against his partner or family).

Domestic abuse (or ‘wife beating’) was made illegal in 1920 in all US states. Ramsey says that...

'.. the likelihood that a wife beater would be incarcerated at least briefly seems to have been high in the 1920s'. 

This doesn’t directly contradict Aaronovitch’s claim, but I can't find support for it in this detailed history of American domestic violence which is surprising if it is true – a halving of domestic violence rates in 10 years would be remarkable.

His factoid about drunk and disorderly arrests also seems dodgy:

'The Volstead Act, passed to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, had an immediate impact on crime. According to a study of 30 major U.S. cities, the number of crimes increased 24 percent between 1920 and 1921. The study revealed that during that period more money was spent on police (11.4+ percent) and more people were arrested for violating Prohibition laws (102+ percent). But increased law enforcement efforts did not appear to reduce drinking: arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct increased 41 percent, and arrests of drunken drivers increased 81 percent.' 

He then notes, correctly, that Prohibition had some positive lasting effects. It changed saloon culture beyond recognition and normalised female drinking in bars, for instance.

Finally, though prohibition was abolished and the renascent drinks manufacturers blitzed the public with booze ads and the film-makers with glitzy party scenes, it has lingered on in reduced consumption, state bans and — as I discovered aged 60, ordering a cocktail in the Lower East Side — stringent age checks.

Maybe, but as Lisa McGirr shows in her book The War on Alcohol, it also revived the Ku Klux Klan, normalised police raids on private property, created the template for the FBI and led to the creation of the modern, heavy-handed American penal state. So, swings and roundabouts.

Aaoronvitch's motive for resurrecting the failed experiment of Prohibition is, as you might have guessed, to push some lesser restrictions on drinkers. He cites Public Health England's amateurish, error-strewn report on alcohol policy that was published at the fag end of 2016.

Although there has been a slight decline in alcohol consumption in England and Wales in the last decade, that followed an increase of more than 40 per cent between 1980 and 2008.

Per capita alcohol consumption is almost exactly where it was in 1980.

In June 2012 the Scottish government began to legislate for minimum alcohol pricing aimed at reducing consumption through incentives. Last year a BMJ study concluded that the effects of a 50p per unit minimum cost had reduced consumption by 1.2 units per week, and two units among the heaviest drinkers.

It wasn't last year. It was six weeks ago and the claims in the study bear no resemblance to the sales figures.

Enough of this. Be gone with you, David, and do some research next time.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Economic illiteracy in The Economist

The Economist published an article about alcohol two weeks ago...

A sober brawl  

Alcohol firms promote moderate drinking, but it would ruin them

The subheading is nonsense, based as it is on a risible study produced by the Sheffield alcohol team and the UK Temperance Alliance t/a the Institute of Alcohol Studies.

In Britain more than 100 producers and retailers have signed a “responsibility deal” and promised to “help people to drink within guidelines”, mostly by buying ads promoting moderation. However, if these campaigns were effective, they would ruin their sponsors’ finances. According to researchers from the Institute of Alcohol Studies, a think-tank, and the University of Sheffield, some two-fifths of alcohol consumed in Britain is in excess of the recommended weekly maximum of 14 units (about one glass of wine per day). Industry executives say they want the public to “drink less, but drink better”, meaning fewer, fancier tipples. But people would need to pay 22-98% more per drink to make up for the revenue loss that such a steep drop in consumption would cause.

The print edition makes things worse with this graphic...

I have written about this study before - see here and here. The authors show such a basic misunderstanding of economics that it should disqualify from from commenting on the alcohol business ever again.

In short, they assume that alcohol revenues would decline by 38 per cent (£13 billion) if everyone drank within the government's evidence-free guidelines. They then assume that the industry would have to raise £13 billion from somewhere to keep its head above water. The figures in the graphic above show what they reckon drinks would cost if the industry were to pass that £13 billion on to customers.

The whole premise of the study is ridiculous. If the industry sold less alcohol, it would have fewer costs. Unless it has very high fixed costs, most industries could withstand a 38 per cent decline in sales (look at the tobacco industry in Britain in recent years, for example). It might become less profitable, depending on whether consumers switched from low margin drinks to high margin drinks, but it would not be not 'ruin them'.

People in Britain drank half as much alcohol in the 1950s than they did fifty years earlier. Did this ruin the booze industry? No. Of course it didn't. Why would it?

It's disappointing to see The Economist falls for this obvious rubbish. I wrote a letter to the editor about it...

Your article about alcohol (October 19th, p. 93) suggested that the price of beer, wine and spirits would have to rise dramatically ‘to make up for revenue loss’ if everybody drank within the government’s guidelines. Revenue is irrelevant. Only a fraction of the amount spent on alcohol goes to the producers as profit. A third goes straight to the government in the form of alcohol duty and VAT, and a significant proportion goes to retailers. Much of the rest is spent on the product itself.

If fewer products were sold, the cost of production would fall. There is no reason to assume, as the study you cite does, that the industry would have to raise prices by £13 billion to compensate for sales falling by £13 billion. The viability of a business depends on profit, not revenue.

It wasn't published.