Sunday, 19 March 2023

A swift half with Dan Malleck

You may have read that the Canadian government is under pressure to drop the drinking guidelines to two standard drinks per week (yes, week). Dan Malleck, Professor of Health Sciences at Brock University, has been one of the few people calling this out as temperance-driven nonsense. It was a pleasure to talk to him in the latest episode of The Swift Half.

Thursday, 16 March 2023

Sweet Jesus, not plain packaging again!

Oh joy, a new study...

Objective  To examine the association of fully branded and standardized e-cigarette packaging with interest in trying products among youths and adults in Great Britain.


Results  This study included 2469 youths (1286 female youths [52.1%]; mean [SD] age, 15.0 [2.3] years) and 12 046 adults (6412 female [53.2%]; mean [SD] age, 49.9 [17.4] years). Youths had higher odds of reporting no interest among people their age in trying the e-cigarettes packaged in green (292 of 815 [35.8%]; adjusted odds ratio [AOR], 1.37; 95% CI, 1.10-1.71; P = .005) but not white (264 of 826 [32.0%]; AOR, 1.16; 95% CI, 0.93-1.44; P = .20) standardized packaging compared with the fully branded packaging (238 of 828 [28.7%]).


Conclusions and Relevance  The findings of this survey study suggest that standardized packaging measures may reduce the appeal of e-cigarettes among youths without reducing their appeal among adults.


They showed a bunch of people some mocked up e-cigarette packaging, some of which was 'plain'/grotesque, and found that people preferred the normal packaging. Fancy that! 
The people were also less likely to say they would try vaping if the packaging was 'plain'. I suppose they would, wouldn't they?
From this the authors conclude that there would be less underage vaping if e-cigarettes were sold in plain packs.
Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) were straight out of the blocks demanding legislation (without mentioning that two members of their tiny staff had co-authored the study).
Anyone else getting a sense of deja vu? There were literally dozens of survey-based studies like this published before plain packaging for tobacco was introduced. Many of them were authored by the same people who published this new study, including ASH's very own Deborah Arnott. 

They were all wrong! Plain packaging didn't work! 
Has everyone forgotten that already?
It turns out that the stated preferences of people answering leading questions in surveys are a poor predictor of behaviour in real world settings. Who knew?!

Why am I so confident plain packaging didn't work? Partly because I've read the post-implementation review (PIR) that was quietly slipped out last year. The very fact that it was released without fanfare is a bit of a clue that the policy didn't quite live up to expectations.
The authors of the PIR claimed that the plain packaging regulations "had met their original objectives, without producing any significant unintended consequences", but you only had to read it to see that this was outrageous spin. 
The Department of Health commissioned a review from the University of Stirling to explore "the response of consumers, retailers, and tobacco companies to standardised packaging". The lead author was Crawford Moodie, an anti-smoking fanatic who had produced two reviews promoting plain packaging during the course of the campaign for the policy and who wrote many of the studies he was reviewing. 
His PIR review looked at eleven studies, seven of which had been co-authored by Moodie, focusing on issues such as compliance, pricing strategies and self-reported consumer responses. None of them examined smoking trends or cessation.
In a desperate cope, the PIR noted an unusually large decline in smoking prevalence between 2015 and 2016. The authors attribute this to plain packaging despite plain packs not being mandatory in shops until May 2017 and very few tobacco products being sold in plain packaging before January 2017.
The only study mentioned in the PIR that looked at smoking rates is this one which used monthly smoking prevalence data to build a model which found "a statistically significant level decrease in the odds of being a smoker after May 2017 (adjusted OR 0.93; 95% CI: 0.87 to 0.99)". But the decline was even greater when May 2016 was chosen as the start date. Since plain packs were hardly ever sold until 2017, the authors resorted to the laughable speculation that the smoking rate fell because smokers had heard that plain packaging was one its way:
‘the suggestion is that smokers were influenced more by the prospect of standardised packs … than the actual adoption of standardised packaging.’

This is obviously bollocks and since the only study cited in the review that looked at cigarette sales found "no clear deviation in the ongoing downward trend", I'm going to go ahead and say that plain packaging didn't work.

Are we really going to have to gone through this again? Are we going to have to tolerate more years of survey-based junk science being published to promote plain packaging for another product?

Didn't ASH swear on a stack of bibles that this is exactly the kind of thing that wouldn't happen?

Why, yes they did! In 2012, ASH said: 
... the “domino theory” i.e. that once a measure has been applied to tobacco it will be applied to other products is patently false. The same argument was used against the ban on tobacco advertising, but 9 years after the tobacco ban in the UK, alcohol advertising is still permitted with no sign of it being prohibited.
ASH have deleted that webpage now (it's still available thanks to the Wayback Machine), which is just as well seeing as the Scottish government is consulting on banning alcohol advertising and ASH is actively campaigning for plain packaging for be "applied to other products".

The Science Media Centre got some crank from the UCL Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group to comment. I suspect it is a sign of things to come:

“In the UK, plain packaging requirements for cigarettes and hand-rolled tobacco have been in place since 2017 – and data suggest smoking rates have fallen as a result..."

How can they lie like this?

... so there’s precedent for this type of intervention."

A 'slippery slope', if you will, with tobacco being the first domino to fall.

But while cigarettes look very similar across brands (meaning packaging is the main opportunity for branding), e-cigarette devices come in a wide range of shapes and colours which may still appeal to young people once the packaging is removed. So while standardising packaging may go some way towards reduce e-cigarettes’ appeal to youth, it’s likely to only be part of the puzzle.”

So not just standardised packaging then, but standardised e-cigarettes, and all with the backing of the vapers' frenemies at ASH.
It's not the flagrant mendacity. I'm used to flagrant mendacity in 'public health'. It's the tedium and predictability of it all that gets me.

Wednesday, 15 March 2023

Open season on smokers


The tax on a packet of cigarettes will rise by about £1.30 today thanks to the tobacco duty escalator. If recent history is any guide, the Chancellor won't even mention it because smokers don't matter in Britain in 2023. They are second class citizens to be vilified while the state uses them as cash cows. 

With the 'smoke-free 2030' target treated as if it were an eleventh commandment, rather than a feeble attempt by Theresa May to secure a legacy (and wasn't even in the last Tory manifesto), it's open season on smokers. I'll be speaking on a panel about this at the IEA next Thursday. Feel free to come along.

The blurb...

Is the ongoing war on smoking justified? Is there an alternative to creeping prohibition and infringing on an adult’s right to choose? And what are the implications for future generations if the state controls our lifestyle choices, be it smoking, eating or drinking?

Chaired by Simon Clark, director of the smokers’ rights group Forest, panellists are: Henry Hill, deputy editor of ConservativeHome; Reem Ibrahim, a final year student at the London School of Economics and communications officer at the IEA; Kara Kennedy, staff writer at The Spectator World and author of ‘An ode to smoking’; and Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the IEA.

The discussion starts at 19:00 and will be preceded by drinks from 18:15.

Spaces are limited and will be given on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Please RSVP to or call 020 7799 8900

Monday, 13 March 2023

Obesity and personal responsibility

Last week the weight loss drug semaglutide was authorised for prescription from the NHS. It can reduce body weight by around 15 per cent and has been used successfully by various celebrities in the USA. It's not cheap, costly perhaps £1,000 a month but eventually it will be off-patent and could play a significant role in tackling obesity. There is a detailed article about it on Works in Progress.

Meanwhile, in the Observer, Martha Gill makes a good point...

Nesta, the UK’s “innovation agency for social good”, spends a third of its considerable budget on tackling obesity, but treats the jab with suspicion, even though it can cause weight loss of 15%. The risks of “effective weight loss drugs” such as semaglutide, it wrote, was that it “might well deepen the emphasis in the public discourse on a ‘personal responsibility narrative’”, distracting from “the root cause – the food environment”.

This, again, is strange. Let us remember that obesity kills and semaglutide will save lives. Imagine greeting a new treatment for lung cancer with the concern that fewer people coughing their last in hospital might take the pressure off tobacco companies.

That is very easy to imagine. Look at how 'public health' activist groups have tried to shut down vaping in many parts of the world (though not so much in Britain). Look at how neo-temperance groups have responded to the rise of alcohol-free beer. Look at how many food cranks want to get rid not only of sugar but of artificial sweeteners.

The dominant puritanical element in 'public health' doesn't want science to solve problems. They want people to change their behaviour which, in their view, requires changing 'the food environment'.

How much success has Nesta had in 'tackling obesity', despite the millions of taxpayer pounds it has got through over the years? None whatsoever. 
Does Nesta have any policies which would reduce body weight by 15%? No, not even if they were all introduced at the same time. The sugar tax didn't work, the reformulation scheme didn't work (and yet Nesta still supports it) and the food advertising ban won't work either

It is essential for these tax-sponging authoritarians to portray personal responsibility as ineffective. It seems to be like Kryptonite to Nesta...
The arrival of effective weight loss drugs and increasingly personalised nutrition services to the market might well deepen the emphasis in the popular discourse on a ‘personal responsibility’ narrative.
And yet personal responsibility has prevented far more cases of obesity than Nesta or semaglutide have ever done. The reason why the 'personal responsibility narrative' remains popular with the public is that most people are not obese, despite living in a supposedly obesogenic environment, and those who are not obese do not attribute this to sheer luck.
Like nearly everybody, I like chocolate and I could eat it every day if I wanted. The reason I don't is that I don't want to be obese. I like eating cheese and crackers in the evening but I don't do it most days for the same reason. What is that if not taking 'personal responsibility'? And while I don't expect everybody to have the same utility function as me, it's still a choice.

The argument against personal responsibility is sometimes made with reference to the rise in obesity since the 1950s. "Are we to believe that there has been a loss in willpower since 1950?", they ask rhetorically. 

To which the answer is YES! Of course there has! Haven't you seen the state of people these days?! And you're not helping by telling people that they're not responsible for what they eat and that physical activity won't help the lose weight.

Sure, there are genetic factors to take into account and people have different appetites, but the fact that 28% of the adult population is obese does not prove that personal responsibility doesn't work. Personal responsibility is pretty much the only thing that has ever worked.

Last Orders with Matt Ridley

In the new episode of Last Orders, we welcomed back Matt Ridley – co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 – to discuss why the authorities are coming around to the Covid lab-leak theory, what we’ve learned from the Lockdown Files, and the bizarre scandal over tobacco firms donating to charity. 

Listen here

On a different note, I have written about grammar schools for The Critic.

Thursday, 9 March 2023

Scotland's alcohol advertising bluff

I've responded to the Scottish government's public consultation on alcohol advertising (which closes today so if you want to give them a piece of your mind, hurry). 

I found the consultation document to give a very misleading picture of what 'the science' says about alcohol advertising (and advertising in general). Perhaps this is not surprising since it leans heavily on a report from the neo-temperance group Alcohol Focus Scotland.

I've written about this on my Substack, so have a read (and subscribe!)

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

Nicotine Wars event tonight

I'll be speaking at this event this evening. It's at 6pm in the London School of Economics Centre Building on the 2nd floor, in room 2.05.

I don't think you need to be a student to attend and you can sign up here (it's free). We'll be having drinks at the Edgar Wallace afterwards, the pub with the biggest collection of cigarette advertisements in London and quite possibly the world.

Meanwhile, here's a pressure group that lobbies for endless rises in tobacco duty gloating about how much harm they've done.