Thursday, 22 March 2018

What exactly is the tobacco playbook?

A recent Guardian article portrayed bacon as the new smoking...

The meat industry’s tactics in defending bacon have been “right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook”, according to Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University.

No slippery slope there, then! But what exactly is 'the tobacco industry's playbook'? It's a phrase we hear a lot these days when campaigners are trying the poison the well against their perceived enemies. I've done a bit of searching and the tobacco playbook seems to be used by nearly everybody and includes nearly everything. Here's my top twenty...

1. Sporting associations being involved with medical organisations.

NFL’s partnership with CDC on head injuries is straight out of big tobacco’s playbook

2. Soft drink companies 'donating to adversarial health groups':

Big Soda is using Big Tobacco's playbook

A recent review found that in the past five years, Pepsi and Coke sponsored nearly 100 health-related organizations including the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and even The Obesity Society.

3. Booze companies lobbying:

A new study has found that Australian alcohol companies have successfully copied tactics straight out of the tobacco playbook to block the introduction of mandated pregnancy warning labels.

4. Mobile phone companies questioning whether their products cause brain cancer:

They have their response straight out of the big tobacco playbook and they use it. “Although we are constantly exploring the subject, currently there is no direct evidence that links cell phone usage to brain cancer.”

5. Advertising to men:

“That appeal to macho culture is straight out of the tobacco industry playbook. They are using a lot of the same tactics ... it’s targeting your kids, it’s often sexist and designed with the intent of creating the problem gamblers of tomorrow,” he said.

6. Advertising to anyone:

Old tobacco playbook gets new use with e-cigarette advertising 

The electronic cigarette ads push the same themes as old cigarette ads: sophistication, freedom, equality and individualism, said Timothy de Waal Malefyt, a visiting associate professor at Fordham University’s business school and former advertising executive.

7. Advertising e-cigarettes:

“As Big Tobacco corners the e-cigarette market, it is using e-cigarettes as a global PR scheme to gloss over its tarnished image, positioning itself as a‘solution’ to the problem it drives. In reality, the e-cigarette industry is taking advantage of the regulatory vacuum to employ the Big Tobacco playbook to hook a new generation on its products,” said John Stewart of the U.S.-based group Corporate Accountability International.

8. Distributing e-cigarettes:

Thirteen Members of Congress today called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take immediate action to protect young people from predatory e-cigarette marketing and distribution tactics that are straight out of big tobacco's playbook.

9. Hiring public relations firms:

Today, Big Soda faces the same PR challenges as Big Tobacco, and its PR strategy is straight out of the Big Tobacco playbook. In fact, the soda industry taps many of the same PR firms that helped Big Tobacco deceive the public for so long.

10. Taking legal action (about wording in a referendum on soda taxes):

“This lawsuit is straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook that Big Soda is now using,” Martin Bourque, executive director of the nonprofit Ecology Center and a member of the Measure D campaign committee, said in an email.

11. Publishing peer-reviewed studies:

“This comes right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook: cast doubt on the science,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research. “This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It’s shameful.”

12. Partnering with a non-profit organisation:

By partnering with a group that could otherwise be one of its staunchest critics, Walmart is taking a page right out of the Big Tobacco playbook: Buying silence.

13. Funding scientific research:

Taking a page right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook, five major beverage manufacturers are ponying up $67.7 million to prove that a glass of wine, beer or cocktail every day will increase one’s chances of avoiding a heart attack and live longer.

14. Supposedly advertising to children:

“Predatory marketing to children was the hallmark of Big Tobacco nearly two decades ago,” Madhusoodanan wrote in an e-mail. “McDonald’s and the fast food industry have taken a page right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook and are driving an epidemic of diet-related diseases by getting kids addicted to their junk food at a young age and building brand loyalties that last a lifetime.”

Read more here:

15. Paying CEOs a lot of money:

Sabet said the marijuana industry is taking "pages right out of the big tobacco playbook."
"I think no doubt we are going down the path of creating Big Tobacco 2.0," Sabet said. "When you look at the techniques of the marijuana industry, they downplay risks, they produce marijuana candies and other fun items, they fund research and political advocacy and most of all they are corporate CEOs poised to make millions, the comparison couldn't be more perfect."

16. Advertising to people while they do everyday tasks:

The editorial also compared the people behind “pot-peddling” to those who sell cigarettes. “Marketing pot to consumers while they carry out everyday tasks is right out of the old Big Tobacco playbook,” the piece stated.

17. Talking about personal choice:

Out of the tobacco playbook

Tactics employed by the food and drink industry to influence the public health debate are “identical” to those used by the tobacco industry 30 years ago, experts have warned.

“It’s exactly identical to tobacco,” said Professor Timothy Noakes, an authority on nutrition who has witnessed colleagues accepting funding from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

“The only difference is, in the past the public was not as aware as they are today of the dangers and benefits of different products. Now the companies have to be cleverer and they have to target scientists who are particularly influential.”

Both tobacco and junk food companies emphasise the importance of personal choice.

 18. Pointing out that regressive taxes and regressive:
Is the anti-sugar tax lobby taking a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook?

This week, the Institute of Race Relations became the latest organisation to attempt to discredit research showing that taxing sugary drinks could save lives in South Africa. Hofman cautions that attacks on the public health rationale behind the tax may be similar to ploys that health activists, particularly anti-tobacco campaigners, have seen before.

The institute questioned the rationale behind the proposed tax, arguing that it would only be a burden on the poor and would not reduce obesity.

Hofman has hit back, saying that the tobacco lobby spent years trying to discredit scientific research that revealed the dangers of smoking.

“This is a strategy from the tobacco playbook, in which they [the industry] tried to discredit peer-reviewed scientific research."

 19. Having a trade organisation:

Salt Industry Takes Page from Big Tobacco's Playbook

Remember the Tobacco Institute? The "research" organization set up by Big Tobacco that served mainly to obfuscate and distort what they and other scientists knew about the incredibly harmful effects of smoking?

Meet its reincarnation: the Salt Institute.

20. Borrowing from the oil industry:

Evidence Suggests the Oil Industry Wrote Big Tobacco's Playbook, Then Used It to Lie About Climate Change 

It has long been assumed that, in its efforts to deceive investors and the public about the negative impact its business has on the environment, Big Oil borrowed Big Tobacco's so-called tactical "playbook." But these documents indicate that infamous playbook appears to have actually originated within the oil industry itself.

I hope that's cleared things up.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The temperance lobby's problem with supply and demand

With minimum pricing starting in Scotland in a few weeks, state-funded temperance groups are looking for new dragons to slay. Advertising is the number one choice, but our old friend 'availability' is also a priority.

From the BBC...

Scotland's poorest people suffer most from having easy access to alcohol in their area, a new study has suggested.

Researchers at Glasgow and Edinburgh universities found those on the lowest incomes were more likely to drink too much if availability was high.

They have suggested the Scottish government should look at cutting the number of shops selling alcohol - particularly in areas of low income.

Sigh. We have been through it time and time again. As I said when a similar piece of junk was published in 2014...

Look, areas of high demand will have more supply. That is as true of alcohol as it is of any other product. If supply was sufficient to create demand then alcohol retailers would open more and more off licences everywhere until they were evenly distributed across the country on a per capita basis. They don't do that because they follow demand instead. Off licences are more densely concentrated in certain areas for the same reason that bookmakers, coffee shops and Polish food shops are more concentrated in certain areas, ie. because that's where the customers are.

Just as the alcohol retail industry cannot expect to increase aggregate demand by opening a new off licence, temperance activists should not expect to reduce aggregate demand by closing them down. Alas they do expect that because they're simple folk who believe, like every temperance crusader before them, that demand for alcohol is somehow created by the sneaky alcohol industry. Hence their quixotic battle against availability and advertising that flies in the face of everything we know about the workings of markets.

Alas, the BBC couldn't be bothered to ask somebody with half a brain to explain how supply and demand works. 

The team's findings suggested that interventions to reduce drinking which focus exclusively on consumer behaviour - such as media campaigns and warning labels on bottles and cans - were unlikely to make significant improvements to health. 

That's a bit awkward for their 'public health' colleagues given that the third part of their neo-temperance agenda is putting cancer warnings on alcohol, but never mind.

They argued that radical policy changes were needed to address health inequalities in alcohol-related harm. Changes, they said, should include reducing the availability of alcohol. 

Of course they did. What do you expect from these people? Either they are stopped or they continue their whirlwind of destruction until alcohol is illegal.

If they genuinely believe that people drink excessively because they have five off licences within walking distance rather than three then they are profoundly stupid. If they don't believe that, they are deceitful activists. Either way they should not given a platform to spout their obvious nonsense unchallenged.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

More jobs for the boys on the obesity gravy train

Further to my previous posts about the copious studies showing that living near fast food outlets does not make you fat, here's another example of a 'public health' activist-academic ignoring the evidence.

In January, The Times ran a story in which it was claimed that the number of fast food outlets around schools has risen by 67 per cent in the last eight years. Professor Russell Viner of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health was quoted...

Russell Viner, of RCPCH, said that fast-food chains were “cashing in on school-age footfall” and “enticing young people and their pocket money . . . [with] devastating consequences for the overall health of our children.”

... Professor Viner said that fast-food chains “bombarded” children with adverts. “While it’s not surprising that fast food franchises tend to concentrate in poorer areas and those with bigger populations, which means nearer schools, this is even more reason for concern.”

This is not what the evidence says, and words like 'bombarded' and 'enticing' make Viner sound more like a campaigner than a scientist.

It turns out that he has some strongly held views on policy. In the same month, he was using emotional language about children reclaiming their childhood in his efforts to urge the government to ban 'junk food' advertising before 9pm... 

"We urge Government to show it is serious about protecting children’s health by banning junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed. Only then can children reclaim their childhood.”

More recently, in response to the ridiculous Cancer Research claim that overweight/obesity among millenials is rising (it's not), Russell Viner was the lead signatory of a letter to The Times...

The government is considering further measures to reduce childhood obesity. Health leaders are unanimous that protecting children from junk food adverts must be prioritised: last weekend, for example, more than a third of the adverts shown during a popular family-time programme were for high fat, sugar and salt foods. These adverts were seen by more than a million children.

Policymakers from all parties must listen to the sector and to the public. We need to get to grips with obesity now before it is too late.

Viner is entitled to his views and is free to campaign for whatever policies he likes. He's obviously already made his mind up, but hopefully the government will commission some impartial academics to evaluate the evidence and recommend policies.

Oh wait, they already have. A £5 million cheque was written last August for set up a new group...

The Department of Health has announced £5 million of funding for a new obesity policy research unit at University College London.

One year on from the launch of the childhood obesity plan, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Obesity Policy Research Unit has been set up to provide resource for long term research into childhood obesity.

It will give independent advice to policy makers and analysts, and develop understanding on the causes of childhood obesity, looking at social inequalities, the early years of childhood, and marketing to children and families.

Independent advice, splendid! And who, I wonder, has been put in charge of this lavishly funded outfit?

Professor Russell Viner, Policy Research Unit Director and Professor of Adolescent Health who will lead the Unit...

What with all the cash being given to sugar tax campaigners to evaluate the sugar tax, the obesity gravy train/echo chamber is shaping up very nicely for some people, isn't it?

Monday, 19 March 2018

Motivated reasoning - a case study

Last week, the IEA published my report Fast Food Outlets: What is the Evidence? As the title suggests, it is a review of the published evidence on the proximity and density of fast food outlets to obesity. It shows that only 20 per cent of the 74 studies conducted have found a positive association between fast food availability and body weight. Of the studies related to children, only 15 per cent have found a positive association.

This is no secret to those who are familiar with the evidence. Several previous evidence reviews have come to much the same conclusion.

Williams et al. (2014: 372) ‘did not find strong evidence at this time to justify policies related to regulating the food environments around schools’. Gordon-Larsen (2014) found that: ‘Studies of access to fast food and body weight generally showed null results’. Cobb et al. (2015) found that two-thirds of the associations between fast food availability and obesity in the literature were null, as did Mackenbach et al. (2014: 12) who took the methodological quality of the studies into account when conducting their review before concluding that ‘the overall evidence for an association between environmental factors and weight status is weak.’

Public Health England and its minions in local authorities have chosen to either ignore the academic literature or cherry-pick the few studies that appear to support 'zoning laws' (ie. banning new fast food outlets opening in certain areas). If they are not going to be honest about what the evidence says, it is up to people like me to shine a light on it.

This hasn't gone down well with a man called Greg Fell. Greg is Sheffield's Director of Public Health and is on £106,000 plus expenses and benefits (his predecessor was on an almost unbelievable £178,000). He is not some hikikomarxist living in his mum's basement. It is easy to forget that as you read his blog post.

Given the source, I’d guess it’s been funded by KFC, maybe the Colonel himself.

This is Fell's opening gambit. Going straight in with the ad hominem is what the bottom feeders on Twitter do and that is about Fell's level. It's his 'guess' that the IEA report was 'funded by KFC'. I can tell you categorically that it wasn't. The IEA doesn't do commissioned research and I've never heard of KFC, or any other fast food outlet, giving money to the IEA in all my years working for them. I can tell you with 100 per cent certainty that the first time anybody in the fast food industry, from the biggest burger chain to the smallest kebab shop, heard about this report was the day it was published.

But let's pretend for a moment that the IEA is mostly funded by McDonald's and that this particular report was commissioned by Pizza Hut. Hell, let's say it was written by Pizza Hut. Would its findings be any more or less true? Of course not. Leaving aside the fact that the report is only a summary of studies written by other people (mostly 'public health' people), the validity of a study's conclusions cannot be judged by the identity or motivations of its author. If it turns out to be a pack of lies then the motivations of the author might explain why, but these motivations do not automatically make it a pack of lies. This is basic critical thinking.

However, as I say, no such commercial interests were involved in this report so Fell's 'guess' is worthless. But that doesn't stop him putting it at the heart of his blog post's title:

The McKentucky-Hut review of fast food zoning evidence

It is worth noting how casually these people lie. Whether something is true or false seems wholly irrelevant to them. The only thing that matters is the effect that saying it will have on the reader.

Having indicated that evidence is not really his thing, Fell confirms it...

Bluntly, I can’t be bothered to go through it line my line. It seems of pretty poor quality academically speaking – a bit opaque re methods, selective quoting, flawed lines of argument. Of course maybe it doesn’t present to be an academic work, but it will still be presented as evidence to decision makers – who may or may not be able to pick through the flaws.

Not only is Fell not prepared to 'go through the it line by line' (ie. read it properly), he is apparently too busy to explain what the 'flaws' are. What are the 'flawed lines of argument'? What examples can he give of 'selective quoting'? Alas, he can't be bothered to provide a single example.

Or, more likely, he can't find any 'flaws' in a report that is mostly just a list of studies and a summary of their conclusions, but he has seen critiques of other people's work that use these phrases and thinks that he can poison the well by repeating him here. 

Some extracts of the studies reviewed are given. Obviously there’s no way of knowing whether the extract actually represents the conclusion of the original study.

I laughed out loud when I read this. Obviously there is a way of knowing whether the extract reflects the conclusion. You can read the study. To Fell, the idea of reading an academic study all the way through is not just alien, but completely unthinkable.

I don't expect readers to go through 74 studies to check that my conclusion is sound. I know better than anyone what a long and tedious process it is. On the other hand, if you're going to effectively accuse me of lying then the onus is on you to read the evidence and prove it.

What you don't do is say that you can't bothered to read the evidence while showing that you can be bothered to write a blog post implying that I'm making it all up. That would be true of any blogger, but it is doubly true of a Director of Public Health who should be familiar with the evidence anyway.

But who needs evidence anyway?

It is important we don’t become our own worst enemy in the pursuit of evidence.

As I said in a prior blog, Lack of evidence is frequently cited as barrier for not doing something. This is fine, but that must be considered in terms of counterfactual – what’s the evidence for the counterfactual or maintaining the status quo. Is doing noting an option. Establishing a level of burden of evidence proof in a complex system is different. Some say we need to move to a decision logic framework, not hypothesis testing – ie not a criminal burden of proof, but balance of probability and what is happening in the background.

But there is not a 'lack of evidence' in this area. There are 74 studies looking at this specific issue. There may be a lack of evidence to support the policies for which Fell advocates, but that is not remotely the same thing as a lack of evidence. If you have twenty well-conducted, peer-reviewed studies looking at mobile phone use, for example, and none of them found an association with autism, it would be dishonest to claim that there is a lack of evidence or that 'we just don't know'. We would conclude that mobile phone use does not cause autism. If one or two of them found a weak association, we would conclude that, on the balance of probabilities, mobile phone use does not cause autism.

It would obviously be wrong to claim that people who live near fast food outlets were more likely to be obese if no research had ever been conducted. But it is arguably even more wrong to make this claim after dozens of studies had been carried out all over the world for fifteen years and the majority of them had failed to find any such association.

There will always be those who are opposed to a policy proposition, sometimes on the basis of evidence, sometimes on pure ideological or commercial grounds.

Whether the Planning Authority should pay any attention to it is also debatable

The Authority might ask who sponsored the IEA to do this review, and why. 

Accusing someone of being 'ideological' is what Twitter bottom feeders do when ad hominems fall on stony ground. If the IEA presents evidence that free markets are the solution to a certain problem, an imbecile might respond by pointing out that the IEA is a free market think tank and therefore 'would say that, wouldn't they?' The appeal of this line of attack is the same as that of the ad hominem. It allows idiots to dismiss evidence without having to deal with its substance, or even read it.

In the lines quoted above, Fell commits both fallacies. He thereby concludes his blog post in the way he started it, with not a single substantive criticism of the research and with a claim about funding which is simply untrue.

I will leave the reader to judge who is being 'ideological' here but, as my colleague Kristian says, Fell's response is a wonderful example of a dull mind in motivated reasoning mode.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Last Orders returns

The Last Orders podcast is back! Join me, Tom Slater and Brendan O'Neill to discuss Public Health England's calorie crusade, minimum pricing and the absolute filth being propagated by Love Island and Geordie Shore.

LISTEN HERE or subscribe on iTunes.

PS. I was also on the Heartland podcast this week talking about the American Cancer Society's volte-face on e-cigarettes.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Fast food outlets and obesity

I was on the radio last year with some woman from a 'public health' group who wanted fast food outlets banned around schools because there was 'overwhelming evidence' that proximity to these shops increased the risk of obesity.

It's a pretty good rule of thumb that if someone from the 'public health' racket claims that there is 'overwhelming evidence' of something then there is probably little or no evidence of it. So I looked into the literature, expecting to find a dozen studies or so. Instead I found 74 studies and this bit of fact-checking turned into a full blown project.

Today sees the publication of the resulting report: Fast Food Outlets and Obesity: What is the Evidence? You can download it for free but the basic conclusion is easy to summarise. There are far more studies showing no association between both the density and proximity of fast food outlets and obesity among both children and adults. In the case of children, null studies outnumber studies showing a positive association by more than four to one.

My report includes more studies than any previous evidence review in this area and its conclusion is the same as the six evidence reviews published by other researchers. The evidence that restricting fast food outlets will have any impact on obesity is extremely weak. If 'public health' was an evidence-based enterprise, it would have abandoned the idea years ago.

Do have a read of the report or read this short blog post about it.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The futility of divestment

I was in Edinburgh last week at a pensions and investment conference talking about the divestment movement. I have written about this idea before. It suggests that if you disapprove of an activity, you should sell your shares in the industry that facilitates it. In doing so you will achieve, er, absolutely nothing.

As I said at the conference, if you really dislike an industry you might not want to feel that you have to cheer it on because you have a stake in its success. Fair enough. But the divestment movement seems to think that selling off shares has some tangible effect on a company's activities. I see no mechanism by which a private investor selling a share in a fossil fuel company could have the slightest impact on the demand for fossil fuels or the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. The same principle applies to tobacco, guns, alcohol, gambling, sugar or any other 'sin stock'.

If you only want to invest in 'ethical' companies and you are prepared to get potentially lower returns, that is up to you. What I object to is local authorities selling off high-yielding shares from their pensions portfolio for the sake of futile virtue-signalling. These losses ultimately have to make up by taxpayers. That is unethical.

I was on the panel with someone from Tobacco Free Portfolios. If you visit their website or watch their TED talk, you will notice that they do not offer a single reason why divesting from tobacco will have any impact on the number of cigarettes sold or the number of people who smoke. Action on Smoking and Health recently published a briefing paper encouraging local authorities to divest from tobacco. Nowhere in its eight pages is there any indication that divesting will do any good.

Given that there is no theoretical reason to assume that divesting has any effect on the supply or demand for the product in question, and given that proponents of divestment are unable to offer even a bad argument for it, you have to conclude that the whole thing is a pointless gesture.

The ASH document focuses on trying to persuade councils that tobacco stocks are not a good longterm prospect. The woman from Tobacco Free Portfolios made a similar argument. ASH are probably overestimating the efficacy of their anti-smoking policies, but it could nevertheless be true. Who knows?

Either way, that is an investment decision, not an ethical decision. If ASH knew for certain that BAT shares would be the best performing investment of the next decade, they would still encourage divestment. Claiming that tobacco shares - which have been extraordinarily lucrative in the past, despite increasing regulation - are going to head south is a way of wriggling out of giving a single tangible benefit of divestment.

In any case, why would we trust single issue pressure groups over the combined wisdom of investors? As somebody in the audience pointed out, future risks are priced into share prices. You don't have to be a strict believer in the efficient market hypothesis to see that share prices are a better guide to the value of a company than the value put on it by people who hate the company.

Let's remember that anti-smoking groups also claim that it is not in the interest of retailers to sell cigarettes and that tobacco farmers would make more money planting different crops. If either of these claims were true, you would expect retailers and farmers to have worked it out or themselves and changed their business model accordingly. It is hard to believe that organisations with an extreme prejudice against tobacco know more about the economics of the market than people who have got skin in the game.

You can watch the discussion below: