Thursday 7 December 2023

Food junk round up

 There had been a glut of food-related junk in the news recently. I ponder some of them on my Substack.

Alcohol research - who funds it?

When I mention the vast amount of evidence showing that moderate drinking is good for your health, midwits will occasionally respond with the objection that non-drinkers are inherently less healthy or that the studies showing a protective effect are funded by the booze industry.

The 'sick quitter' hypothesis is a zombie argument that was debunked decades ago. The claim about industry funding is not really an argument. If the science is sound, it doesn't matter who funds the studies.

But, as a matter of fact, very few of the studies are funded by the alcohol industry. An article published this month in Addictive Behaviors gives us chapter and verse on this. Of the 713 primary studies on drinking and cardiovascular disease published between 1969 and 2019, only 8 per cent declared alcohol industry funding. In the last 15 years, there have been hardly any. (NB. The benefits of moderate drinking are mostly related to heart disease.)


One of the article's two authors is Jim McCambridge who has spent his whole career obsessing over the alcohol industry and would love to debunk the J-Curve. In the introduction, he describes the question of whether moderate drinking is good for the heart as "a major scientific controversy" (only in temperance circles) and even resurrects the sick quitter cope. You can tell from the text that has was disappointed not to find more industry funding, but that's just too bad. The facts are the facts.


Wednesday 6 December 2023

Last chance to speak your brains

The public consultation on the government's Tobacco and Vapes Bill closes today at 11.59pm so make some noise. It won’t take you long. Answers are limited to 300 words and you don’t have to answer all the questions. You don’t even have to write anything. You can just tick the ‘disagree’ or ‘agree’ boxes. You can read my response here. Attention vapers: most of the questions involve you.

FOREST have done some polling and found that most people believe that you should be allowed to buy tobacco once you've turned 18. This is interesting because when people are asked if they support the Sunak prohibition, most of them say yes. 

These opinions are obviously mutually exclusive but I suspect most people have simply not thought it through. Smoking is a low salience issue these days and when people hear the government say "14 year olds will never be allowed to buy tobacco" all they can picture is a 14 year old. They don't picture 24 year olds and 34 year olds not being allowed to buy cigarettes in the future. 

No wonder the government is trying to rush this stupid policy through before the public have had the chance to give it some serious thought.



Tuesday 5 December 2023

Paternalism in public health

I was pleased to appear on the Vaping Unplugged podcast recently. Have a watch/listen.

Don't forget the public consultation on the Tobacco and Vapes Bill closes at 11.59pm tomorrow. It includes many questions about new e-cigarette regulations so give the government a piece of your mind.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Prohibition 2.0 - ready to go again?


A new IEA briefing from me was published today looking at Sunak's tobacco ban. You can download it here. In it, I look at the justifications set out by the government and the predictable problems that will ensue if it goes ahead.

I've also written about this for the Spectator.

Prohibition has a bad name for a good reason and you don’t need to go back to 1920s America for the evidence. The tiny kingdom of Bhutan banned tobacco sales in 2004 at a time when its smoking rate was very low. Western public health campaigners applauded the move, but a study in 2011 noted that it was accompanied by ‘smuggling and a thriving black market’.

15 years later, 22 per cent of Bhutanese 13-15 year olds were tobacco users. Among this age group, the World Health Organisation reports that ‘prevalence of current cigarette smoking increased continuously from 2009 to 2019’. So much for the ‘smoke-free generation’. The ban was lifted in 2021 because there were so many people smuggling tobacco into Bhutan that the government was worried that they were spreading Covid-19.

The irony is that Sunak announced the prohibition policy at the Conservative party conference during a speech in which he condemned his predecessors for short-term thinking and portrayed himself as the man to make sensible decisions in the nation’s longterm interests. But this policy will only start to bite after 2026 when Mr Sunak is likely to be long gone. Far from being a departure from short-termism, the generational ban is just another unworkable political gimmick designed to garner headlines. Sunak is essentially opening a new front in the war on drugs and leaving future governments to deal with the consequences.

And we have a panel discussion in that London tonight. All welcome.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

Gambling Commission fiddling the problem gambling statistics

The Guardian's resident anti-gambling correspondent got excited about figures which suggested that there are eight times as many problem gamblers than previously believed last week. I had a look at this stat for The Critic. It seems that the Gambling Commission is usually a notoriously weak methodology to inflate the stats.

There are several reasons why the new survey inflates the statistics, but the main issue is selection bias. All surveys try to get a representative sample of the population, but you can’t force someone to participate. If there are systematic biases behind people’s reasons for participating or not participating, the data will be skewed.

And indeed there are. Firstly, online surveys appeal to people who are very online — and that includes a lot of problem gamblers. Older people, who are less likely to be problem gamblers, are under-represented. The Gambling Commission has acknowledged that an “online methodology means that the sample responding to the survey are more likely to be engaged online, thus skewing the data”. 

Secondly, people who gamble a lot are attracted to surveys about gambling. The Health Survey for England asks about a range of health issues, but the new Gambling Survey for Great Britain is just about gambling. The clue is right there in the name and a study published in 2009 found that “gamblers and problem gamblers are intrinsically more interested in “gambling” surveys and therefore participate at a much higher rate than nongamblers”. If a disproportionate number of problem gamblers take the survey, the survey will naturally identify a disproportionately high number of problem gamblers.

The Health Survey for England has a response rate of more than 50 per cent, but the response rate for the Gambling Survey for Great Britain is only around 20 per cent. Four out of five people simply refuse to take the new survey, leaving a relatively small group of self-selecting individuals who differ from the general population in various ways, not least in being more likely to have gambling problems.


Monday 27 November 2023

The BBC's bitter tears over New Zealand

Three days after New Zealand's incoming government decided to repeal the Labour policy of very slowly banning tobacco, the BBC has finally noticed - and it is not happy
Whenever there is a bump in the road towards further state control, the Beeb finds it difficult to disguise its horror, but as it is supposed to be impartial, their journalists have to find ways of editorialising without explicitly taking a side. One way of doing this is to focus on the reaction of the people they agree with and make that the story. In this instance, a neutral headline would be something like 'New Zealand axes tobacco ban'. Instead, the BBC has gone with...
New Zealand smoking ban: Health experts criticise new government's shock reversal
Is it really a "shock" for a centre-right government to oppose a loony left policy? Are Kiwi prohibitionists really "health experts"? Is there no one praising the "reversal"?

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in New Zealand, and the policy had aimed to stop young generations from picking up the habit.

Health experts have strongly criticised the sudden reversal.

"We are appalled and disgusted... this is an incredibly retrograde step on world-leading, absolutely excellent health measures," said Prof Richard Edwards, a tobacco control researcher and public health expert at the University of Otago.

"Most health groups in New Zealand are appalled by what the government's done and are calling on them to backtrack," he told the BBC.

If you enjoy a bit of schadenfreude, I recommend Richard Edwards' Twitter feed. He's been in full meltdown since Friday.

The legislation passed last year had been acclaimed internationally with research models backing the key reforms.

Ooh, a model! Respect the model! It's not as if public health modelling has ever been completely wrong or anything, is it?

While it has been praised as a public health policy, the Smokefree measures drew opposition from some business groups in New Zealand. Owners of newsagents and corner shops criticised the loss of revenue - even with government subsidies.

These are the only opponents of the policy mentioned in the article, thereby consolidating the usual narrative that policy debates about lifestyle regulation can be boiled down to business versus health experts and people versus profits.

Some lawmakers - including the new Prime Minister Chris Luxon - also argued a ban would lead to a black market for tobacco.

It's not even arguable. Obviously prohibition leads to black markets. New Zealand already has a sizeable black market with cigarettes smuggled into the country in large quantities and convenience stores being robbed at gunpoint for their tobacco products.

However his National party, which won 38% of the vote in the 14 October election, hadn't mentioned the Smokefree laws during election campaigning. The announcement by the new finance minister Nicola Willis on Saturday that the government would repeal the laws shocked health experts who believed the policy would be untouched.

Yes, you've already said that. Prohibitionists are upset that prohibition has been cancelled. We get it.

Both minor parties blocked a flagship National policy to open up foreign property ownership - which the party had been relying on to fund tax cuts for middle and higher-income earners. Ms Willis said on Saturday that had led to the party looking elsewhere.

"The suggestion that tax cuts would be paid by people who continue to smoke is absolutely shocking," Emeritus Prof Robert Beaglehole, chair of New Zealand's Action for Smokefree 2025 committee told Pacific Media Network.

Crocodile tears from an anti-smoking zealot pretending to be sad about smokers being taxed. Call for tobacco duty to be cut, Robert.

A national Māori health organisation, Hāpai Te Hauora, called it an "unconscionable blow to the health and wellbeing of all New Zealanders".

Smoking rates, and associated disease and health issues, are highest among New Zealand's indigenous Māori population, for whom experts had said the policy would have the most positive impact.

That's one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that tobacco prohibition would be racist and neo-colonial in a country where the indigenous people are three times more likely to smoke that the white folk. The smoking rate among rich, white New Zealanders is tiny. They would hardly be affected at all. It is the Maori community that would bear the brunt of the crime and corruption that results from prohibition.

"The government is flying in the face of public opinion and obviously in the face of the vast majority of people who work in this field, health professionals, doctors, nurses," said Prof Edwards.

Good. Cry more.