Thursday, 25 November 2021

It's a sin

In my column for City AM, I wrote about a shocking statistic about sin taxes...

According to an economic study published last month, 90 per cent of all “sin taxes” on tobacco, alcohol and soft drinks in the US are paid by just 20 per cent of households. Eighty per cent of the taxes are paid by just ten per cent of households. This tax burden tends to fall disproportionately on low income households.




Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Boris Johnson's corona victory?

Another article from me for the Telegraph about the Covid situation which is worsening at a bad time in Europe. France and Germany (to name but two) are making a mockery of the idea that face masks and vaccine passports can keep the virus under control and Boris Johnson's decision to 'let it rip' in summer is looking increasingly sound.

We shouldn’t count our chickens yet, but as restrictions come back into force across Europe, it is becoming increasingly obvious that delaying “freedom day” would have made a winter lockdown more likely, not less. While many countries are facing their first major wave of the delta variant against a backdrop of waning immunity and cold weather, England built up a wall of resistance to Covid in the mild summer and autumn months, which has now been fortified by twelve million booster shots.

This was always the plan, a fact some Government critics conveniently seem to have forgotten. Back in July, the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, said: "There is quite a strong view by many people, including myself actually, that going in the summer has some advantages, all other things being equal, to opening up into the autumn when schools are going back and when we’re heading into the winter period when the NHS tends to be under greatest pressure."

In the first year of the pandemic, those who favoured more restrictions could usually rely on Whitty and most epidemiologists to support them. But not any more. “We are not behind Europe in this wave, they are behind us,” Professor Paul Hunter told the Guardian earlier this month. “We are not currently seeing a surge of the same magnitude as Europe at present largely because of the high case numbers over recent months, which most of Europe missed out on.”

The “slight gamble” of opening up in July – as Professor Neil Ferguson put it – seems to be paying off. Although the number of Covid cases has been rising for the last two weeks, rates have continued to fall among the over-60s, and the number of people in hospital with Covid has dropped by a fifth since the start of November. In France and Germany, the number of cases reported each day has doubled in a fortnight. In England, cases have fluctuated at a relatively high level but have not doubled since early July, and there have been periods of sustained decline.

In short, the virus is finding it harder and harder to find susceptible individuals to infect. Those who have had their booster shot have strong immunity against symptomatic infection, while those who are unvaccinated have mostly been infected by now and have a similar level of protection.

What’s more, anyone who wants to enjoy a normal life has been able to do so for the last four months. This was a major benefit of “freedom day” that is rarely acknowledged by critics of the Government.


Paywalled but do read it if you can.


Thursday, 18 November 2021

A swift half with Henry Dimbleby

A new episode of The Swift Half has dropped. This week's guest is Henry Dimbleby, founder of the Leon restaurant chain and author of the National Food Strategy. Regular readers will know that we don't agree on everything.






Friday, 12 November 2021

Corona-centrism is the only game in town

AstraZeneca has said it will start making a profit on its Covid vaccine. The company said that they would sell it as cost during the pandemic but that the pandemic is now over. I quite agree, as I say in Spiked today...
 

In the six months between October 2020 and March 2021, there were 3.8million recorded cases of Covid in the UK and 85,000 deaths. In the following six months, during which restrictions were reduced to nothing, there were 4.8million recorded cases and 14,000 deaths. Based on these figures, the case fatality rate fell from 2.2 per cent to 0.3 per cent. Since around half of all infections are not recorded, the infection fatality rate is now around 0.15 per cent, not much different to seasonal influenza. And remember that these statistics include a large number of deaths among the unvaccinated. For fully vaccinated people, the risk of dying if you catch Covid is lower still.

A glance at the Covid mortality figures shows us that we are more or less where we expected to be. After two surges of the epidemic – in spring 2020 and winter 2020-21 – we have reached endemicity. A graph of hospital occupancy looks very similar. The numbers go up a little, they go down a little, but it is nothing a half-decent healthcare system couldn’t handle. Covid will remain a health issue for many years – possibly forever – but it is no longer a civil-liberties issue. Arguably, it should only be a minor news story from now on.

 


Wednesday, 10 November 2021

NHS England's ignoble lie

The head of the NHS claimed that there are 14 times as many people in hospital with Covid than there were this time last year. Many people on social media knew immediately that this was not true but several news outlets apparently did not realise.

The health lobby is not averse to the 'noble lie', as regular readers know, but this was in a different league. I wrote about it for Cap-X and spoke to Tom Harwood about it yesterday.
 


Tuesday, 9 November 2021

The Bloomberg Health Organisation

 

The International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations (INNCO) has published an excellent document about the WHO, vaping and the malign influence of evil billionaire Mike Bloomberg. It gives a good overview of how the WHO and its COP meetings on tobacco are subverted by anti-nicotine prohibitionists and looks at the dodgy dealings of Bloomberg's myriad front groups. It also collects a lot of handy quotes and sources in one place.

I strongly recommend reading it all, but for now here are its eight recommendations for reform.

1. All recipients of funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies (NGOs and journalists) should disclose their funding as a potential conflict of interest, because the funding is from a known anti-vaper and opponent of tobacco harm reduction

2. We endorse the creation of an FCTC Tobacco Harm Reduction Working Group, in line with Article 1 (d) of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which defines tobacco control as a “range of supply, demand and harm reduction strategies that aim to improve the health of a population by eliminating or reducing their consumption of tobacco products and exposure to tobacco smoke”.

As the APPG for Vaping in the UK has proposed, such a group needs to look at all the science and evidence for new and emerging products. It should comprise both independent experts and informed consumers, including scientists and academics from countries leading the way in the use of, and research on, electronic nicotine delivery systems and other safer nicotine alternatives. It should also include former smokers who use safer nicotine. These individuals should not be affiliated with organisations with a vested interest (e.g., vaping or tobacco firms, Bloomberg or the WHO).

3. All member states of the FCTC Treaty should, in an open letter to the WHO, collectively question this UN agency’s prohibitionist approach to safer nicotine alternatives, challenging the evidence-base and demanding a more open mind to the possibilities of new nicotine alternatives.

In its recent report, the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction says that parties to the FCTC have largely been content to follow the direction of travel set out by the WHO on tobacco and nicotine policy pointing out that this is not the same with other significant global issues such as trade and climate, where national governments fight strongly for national positions and leadership.

If nothing changes at COP9 and WHO remains steadfast in its position on such low risk products and continues its hardline stance on vaping and other ENDS (Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems) products, despite the mounting evidence and growing recognition of the positive impact of ENDS to public health across the world, we propose the strongest action possible to ensure the message gets through and puts the organisation in a very isolated and difficult position, namely:

• those countries funding its existence should look to withdraw its financial support as British politicians have called for;

• that the Parties to the Convention (the 181 countries that have signed and ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the international agreement response to the international nature of the public health crisis caused by tobacco use and smoking) seriously consider boycotting future COPs until WHO demonstrates a much more open minded stance on vaping and other ENDS products.

This might come across as too heavy-handed and disrespectful to the World Health Organisation, but every government across the world has a duty of care to its people, and shutting the door on new nicotine products that have the potential to change the lives of so many who currently smoke, would be akin to neglecting that duty.

As Christopher Snowden [sic] concludes in the Institute of Economic Affairs report on COP9: “The FCTC Secretariat should be put on notice. COP9 is its last chance to mend its ways and operate as a transparent and evidence-based organisation. If it cannot be reformed, it should be disbanded.”

4. An agreement needs to be put in place with WHO and Bloomberg Philanthropies that they are transparent in relation to their collaborations on tobacco control and implement the recommendations proposed by Wellcome Open Research as highlighted earlier in this document.

5. The Parties to the Convention need to force future COP meetings to be far more transparent and inclusive so that they are truly representative and take on board wide ranging perspectives from different stakeholders. In both the UK and USA, policy decisions that affect people living with HIV/AIDS are made with representatives from that community at the table. This should be no different.

Meetings should be open to all those that can provide vital perspectives on tobacco control including the role of ENDS products, such as leading independent scientists and academics, health protection bodies and adult former smokers who have quit their habits by switching to an ENDS product.

6. A full international review, involving an independent body with no vested interests, needs to look at the reported influence that Bloomberg Philanthropies has on low to middle-income countries (LMICs) in the wake of related allegations in the Philippines.

7. The WHO must immediately review its Q and A on vaping, which is seriously misleading and inaccurate and doing a disservice for the 1.1bn smokers worldwide who may be thinking about quitting their habit through using ENDS devices. The Q and A should be based on the wide ranging evidence that has been provided by some of the most respected healthcare protection bodies, academic institutions and scientists in the field of harm reduction. This could, for example, be done in consultation with past-Presidents of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco.

8. More responsible and balanced reporting in the media - whilst some high profile media outlets have questioned and challenged the anti- vaping stance by WHO, most notably The Times (Anti-Vaping Advice by WHO “Risks Lives Of Millions”), Forbes (The War on E-Cigarettes is Profoundly Wrong) and the Spectator (WHO’s bizarre war on E-Cigarettes), many are content on running sensationalist, clickbait-led reports on vaping that have very little, if any, foundation.

There are many occasions that the media has turned a blind eye to pro-vaping reports such as the peer-reviewed publication from 15 past-Presidents of the world’s top professional society in the field of tobacco control, the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco (SRNT). It is by far the most important publication in the field of tobacco harm reduction since the 2015 report from the UK’s Royal College of Physicians. Yet not one major media outlet has covered it. A more responsible media should investigate evidence fully, consult independent experts who favour tobacco harm reduction (not just opponents), and give equal air to research findings and claims from academic researchers, vape firms, the tobacco industry, and all Bloomberg grantees including the WHO.

Download it and read the whole thing. Also, read this by Clive Bates.



Monday, 8 November 2021

The secret tobacco conference starts today

The WHO's secretive international tobacco conference COP9 starts today, online only and with the public barred from watching, let alone participating. COPWATCH will be doing its utmost to find out what's going on. Keep an eye on it.

In the meantime, I'd like to share an excellent article I recently came across in the Fordham International Law Journal called Administering the Mark of Cain: Secrecy and Exclusion in the FCTC Implementation Process. The author, Gregory F. Jacob, looks at the issue from the perspective of democratic accountability and fair representation. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here are some of the more important passages.

On exclusion...

The FCTC’s stated objective is to progressively reduce tobacco consumption “by providing a framework for tobacco control measures to be implemented by the Parties at the national, regional, and international levels.” That goal has significant economic implications that impact groups ranging from tobacco farmers to wholesalers to importers - yet blanket bans on public and media access have wholly excluded impacted groups from having any voice in, or even the ability to monitor, ongoing deliberations. In a clear and unabashed exercise of viewpoint discrimination, only favored NGOs that uniformly espouse swift and universal eradication of all tobacco products without regard to economic consequences have been exempted and allowed to participate in implementation proceedings. Even more extraordinarily, the FCTC’s “Conference of the Parties” (“COP”)—the international lawmaking body charged with elaborating and implementing the FCTC2—has advocated increasingly strident measures designed to render tobacco interests, and all who associate with them, international pariahs who are not merely excluded from deliberations but also incapable of speaking: to international negotiators, to domestic lawmakers, or even to the consumers of their products.

On secrecy...

.. You might be thinking that if all this has really been happening, surely you would have heard of it before. But the truth is that the aforementioned public and media bans have proven very effective at discouraging mainstream media coverage of FCTC proceedings. What news organization has the cash to spare to send a reporter overseas to cover an event into which the reporter will not be admitted, to write a story that is virtually guaranteed to be limited by a near-total lack of access, concerning a treaty that few among the reading public even know about? 

While meetings of the General Assembly are, on rare occasion, closed to public observation for security reasons, the UN has demonstrated its commitment to transparency in recent years by using modern technology to stream nearly all General Assembly meetings on the Internet.

Nor is the UN the only relevant example; openness and transparency have also proven effective for implementing multilateral framework conventions. COP21 of the Climate Change Framework, for example, has been lauded as an immense success, in no small part because it employed a process that valued inclusion, debate and diversity of opinion. Proceedings were entirely open to journalists and accredited intergovernmental bodies,100 and the COP allowed thousands of organizations to be accredited, including industry groups representing a wide variety of viewpoints. In addition, a large space called the Climate Generations Area was set up at COP21 so that civil society could openly share opinions, debate, and even (gasp!) attempt to influence the Parties who were actively involved in the negotiations. 

On the dubious need for an international treaty on tobacco...

.. as my I argued in my previous article on the subject, the FCTC is peculiar among multilateral treaties in that it “has remarkably little to do with international relations, and primarily covers matters pertaining purely to domestic law. Virtually every provision of the treaty could be enacted into law by willing countries, even in the treaty’s absence.” The individual work of the sovereign parties to the Convention at the national level is thus necessarily the primary driver of treaty implementation.

.. As it turns out—and as Putnam might have predicted— this collection of public health ministers has shown a marked proclivity to use the treaty-making and implementation process to achieve domestic policy goals that they have previously proved unable to convince their home governments to adopt through domestic lawmaking processes. Some delegations have even expressly stated this intention, arguing that various treaty provisions should be tightened or strengthened so that their home governments could not interpret their way out of them. These delegations, in other words, are (at least occasionally) using the COP implementation process to impose international law obligations on the nations they represent that their home governments would on balance prefer not to have.

.. Like the COP delegations, the Secretariat and the NGOs are dominated by public health advocates. These advocates have extensive scientific knowledge concerning the medical and sociological consequences of tobacco use and the relative effectiveness of various cessation strategies, but they have little or no training in or knowledge of regulatory law, trade policy, intellectual property, job creation, or other economic impacts of tobacco control measures. Those, of course, are precisely the competing interests that domestic governments typically must grapple with, analyze, and balance in developing workable tobacco policy. From the perspective of the Secretariat and the NGOs, the COP thus represents a unique opportunity to sidestep the turbulent cut and thrust of domestic lawmaking, and to instead make their case to an international supra-legislature composed primarily of public health ministers that fundamentally agree with them on all core issues.

On the silencing of opposing views...

.. In light of this tripartite, homogenous, coalition of the willing— health minister delegates, partisan Secretariat, and aligned NGOs— the one thing that might threaten to disrupt a steadfast march toward adoption of their preferred policy agenda would be a reintroduction of the voices of those economically impacted interests that have historically provided a policy counterbalance in domestic politics. Like many embattled interest groups before them, the anti-tobacco coalition determined at the outset of the FCTC implementation process that one of the easiest ways to ensure achievement of their policy goals would be to simply ban all of the groups they perceive to be “the opposition”—ban them from participating, ban them from watching, ban their domestic governments from talking to them, ban the public (which just might after all have been infiltrated by the forces of the opposition!), and ban the media from covering the vast majority of FCTC proceedings.

.. Perhaps most troubling of all, Article 5.3 of the FCTC, which received scant attention during the drafting of the Convention, has been weaponized and transformed into something it was never intended to be: a mandate that anyone who dares even to associate with tobacco interests be treated as pariahs who must be completely excluded from participating in international and domestic lawmaking processes relating to tobacco control. Even Interpol (yes, Interpol!) has been prohibited from providing input to the COP on combating illicit trade in tobacco products, for the sole reason that it has the temerity to work with the tobacco industry to track tobacco shipments.

..At COP5, however, the proceedings of virtually all subsidiary body meetings were conducted in a manner that did not conform to these authorized formats. Without amending the governing Rules of Procedure, the COP implemented a new and unauthorized meeting format that excluded the public and the media, but permitted favored observers and NGOs to attend and participate. The justification given for this departure from the rules was that the tobacco industry might otherwise send observers to watch (yes, watch!) the proceedings. Exclusion of the public and the media was thus the only way to ensure that the tobacco industry could reliably be kept out.

.. Dr. Vera da Costa e Silva, Head of the Convention Secretariat, made this approach plain in her opening speech to COP7:

There is another observer here too, although its representatives may not always wear badges. The tobacco industry takes a very keen interest in COP meetings and makes every effort to insinuate itself into delegations and proceedings. If anyone doubts the importance of what we do here, always remember the industry’s malevolent presence and the strong need for transparency.

(Transparency for tobacco interests, that is—not for the Secretariat, the NGOs, or the COP.) The Framework Convention Alliance echoed a similar sentiment in its closing words for COP7, lamenting “delegates who are faced with tobacco industry interference in their home countries”—“interference” being the term that the Alliance regularly use to describe any expression of opposing viewpoints.

On the use and misuse of Article 5.3. of the treaty (which says health policy should be protected from the 'vested interests of the tobacco industry')...

.. In recent years, Article 5.3 of the FCTC has emerged as the primary international law weapon of those seeking to gag and exclude tobacco interests. As one NGO put it, “the FCTC includes a critical provision—Article 5.3—that recognizes the tobacco industry’s irreconcilable conflict of interest with public health. The article is the backbone of the treaty; the treaty cannot succeed if industry interference is not rooted out.” Not expressly stated, but implicit in these strategies, is the knowledge that it is far easier to win a policy debate if there is no opposing interest—for example, no poor tobacco farmer whose livelihood is at risk of being lost if policy changes are implemented without due regard for transitional needs—to express economic, due process, free speech, liberty, or other similar concerns.

.. No delegation participating in the INBs ever suggested that Article 5.3 should be read to mandate a general ban on all tobacco industry participation in (or even passive observation of!) international and domestic policymaking relating to tobacco control. Such a provision could never have been adopted, and the final text says nothing of the sort. The final language of Article 5.3 is, however, not a model of clarity, and advocates (led by the Secretariat and the NGOs) have stepped into the interpretive void and twisted the nebulous provision’s meaning beyond recognition to serve their own ends.

.. Economic interests should of course always be transparently disclosed so that conflicts of interest can be identified and considered when crafting policy, but it is senseless for policymakers to cut themselves off entirely from useful sources of data and information. And while advocates such as Dr. da Costa e Silva and the Convention Secretariat are of course free to label tobacco farmers a “malevolent” force if they wish, even such disfavored groups have civil rights of participation and association that are guaranteed by (among other treaties and conventions), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These fundamental international law guarantees have been given next to no weight in COP proceedings, however; when a group of tobacco farmers showed up outside of the COP7 meetings in Delhi to peaceably protest their continuing exclusion from deliberations, the Convention Secretariat called upon security to round them up and bus them miles away, to a location where COP delegates could neither hear nor see them.

And so, in conclusion...

.. While I am sympathetic to the core public health goals being pursued by the anti-tobacco coalition, this article sounds a clarion call of warning for those who care about the process by which international law is made. Dislike of the tobacco industry should not blind us to the deeply problematic means increasingly being employed by the dominant FCTC interest groups to warp international and domestic lawmaking processes in ways they believe will help them achieve their short-term policy goals. 

.. After years of observable practice, it is now also clear that the radical campaign of secrecy and exclusion that the Convention Secretariat and like-minded NGOs have been pursuing is, at times, producing decidedly perverse policy outcomes. When efforts to end child labor and to provide employment to refugees are sacrificed at the altar of isolating and stigmatizing tobacco interests, when Interpol is banned from participating in discussions about ending illicit trade because of its perceived taint from innocuous collaboration with tobacco companies on tracking their products, and when a resolution urging that governmental regulations of e-cigarettes and vaping devices should be supported by evidence-based science is voted down out of concern that science would not support the desired regulatory outcomes, a re-examination of the implementation process that is currently being employed is clearly called for. Indeed, it is demanded.