Friday, 15 June 2018

The Lancet has become a laughing stock

Richard Horton, the Marxist victim of a midlife crisis who has turned The Lancet into a student rag, holds forth in the current issue on the World Health Organisation's failure to endorse fizzy drink taxes as a 'best buy'. WHO's 'best buys' require a modicum of evidence showing that they do what they are supposed to do (not much, admittedly, but some). Leaving aside the question of whether the WHO should really be getting involved with the price of soft drinks, it is beyond dispute that sugary drink taxes have never reduced obesity anywhere in the world and so it is right that its committee rejected them.

It is not known how many countries objected to them being included, but one of them was certainly the USA. The USA has more experience with taxing soda than any other country, so it knows that they don't work.

Cue Richard Horton who bemoans the lack of a sugar tax in the final list of best buys while consoling himself that the sessions 'flushed out the chief opponent of political progress—the US Government'...

As Jamey Keaten and Maria Cheng reported for the Associated Press, it was the US representative on the Commission, Eric Hargan, who “torpedoed” efforts to add a recommendation on taxing sugar-sweetened beverages. Now we have a target: the US administration, which has adopted an anti-science position [!!!] on fiscal interventions and whose raison d'être is to defend health-harming industries. Second, the controversy over the Commission's report highlights the context of the debate about NCDs [noncommunicable diseases]—namely, the pervasive and escalating dangers of neoliberalism.

You have to remind yourself that you're not reading The Canary or The Morning Star. Let there be no doubt that the ludicrous battle against NCDs is part of a war on what Horton calls 'neoliberalism' but what most people call a market economy in which people get what they want rather than what arrogant elitists think they should have.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

The EU's taxpayer-funded racket

FOREST EU have recently published an interesting report about the army of NGOs in Brussels who exist solely to make smokers' lives miserable. You won't be surprised to hear that they are mainly funded by the EU (ie. by taxpayers). The four most vociferous anti-tobacco groups are shown below:

This is a racket, as the report suggests...

...the European Commission is proposing a particular policy framework and then funding groups to lobby them for the introduction of those very same policies.

The sums involved are far from trivial. The four groups listed above get more than €1.5 million a year between them and millions more are dished out to other supposedly 'non-governmental' organisations with similar agendas.

For example, I was interested to see that a group called TackSHS gets 100 per cent of its €750,000 budget from the EU. Their mission seems to be to get smoking banned in every conceivable place. Ever ready for the next logical step, they have moved beyond SHS (secondhand smoke) and are now looking at 'e-cigarette emission exposure'. In one of several studies they presented at the recent anti-tobacco conference in Cape Town, they claim that such secondhand vapour 'contains various toxic chemicals' and 'has potential adverse health effects in non users'. Your tax money at work.
This racket isn't confined to anti-smoking zealots, of course. As I outlined in Europuppets, single-issue campaigners of every hue can fill their pockets with our money so long as they say what the European Commission wants to hear. Can we leave yet?

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Junk polling

Last week I argued that people who are in favour of a ban on 'junk food' advertising before 9pm don't know what they're supporting. When useful idiots like Jamie Oliver talk about 'junk food', they really mean HFSS food (high in fat, sugar or salt) and this is an extremely broad category that includes things like raisins, butter, mustard, yoghurt, jam, breakfast cereals and cheese.

Add this ignorance to the fact that most people don't care for advertising in general and it's no surprise that a majority supports such a prohibition. I mentioned a YouGov survey which found that 65 per cent of people surveyed support a watershed ban but I couldn't find the raw data on the YouGov website.

Yesterday, the Mirror reported that 76 per cent of Britons support a ban...

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who has led calls for a ban through his #AdEnough campaign, said: “It’s great to see the support of the British public when it comes to the very logical idea of simply extending the current 6pm junk food advertising ban to 9pm."

This time I was able to find the survey results on the ComRes website. I suspected that the question would use the pejorative term 'junk food' rather than 'food that is high in fat, sugar or salt' and I wasn't wrong, but the survey question was even more misleading that I expected...

Do you agree or disagree with this statement? There should be a ban on junk food adverts targeted at children before 9pm.

How did 'targeted at children' get squeezed in there? The proposed ban has nothing to do with whether the ads are deemed to be 'targeted at children' nor will it only apply to programmes that are targeted at children (hardly any programmes shown between 6pm and 9pm are targeted at children in any meaningful way). The ban will apply to all programmes shown before 9pm and will apply to the vast range of products that are defined as HFSS by the puritanical Nutrient Profile Model (which is currently being revised so that it includes pure fruit juice, amongst other things, as a 'junk food').

This is dishonest polling. The proposal being considered by the government would ban an advert for Anchor spreadable butter during the Channel 4 News. No reasonable person would consider that to be a 'junk food advert targeted at children'.

There is no way the government could ban 'junk food adverts targeted at children' because there is no legal definition of 'junk food'. It would also be very difficult to decide if an advert was targeted at a child but this obstacle is not an insurmountable as the meaninglessness of the term 'junk food'. In any case, that is not what is being proposed.

By making emotive but irrelevant references to 'children' and 'junk', the survey is pushing respondents towards supporting a ban without giving them any idea of what it will entail. Indeed, they are being actively encouraged to believe that the ban will be far more limited in scope than is being proposed. As I said last week, they are being sold a pig in a poke.

Monday, 11 June 2018

The Truthiness about Carbs

I've written about carbohydrates for Spectator Health. I know it's an emotional subject for some, but do have a read. The article is a review of a programme that appeared on BBC1 last week, ludicrously titled The Truth About Carbs.

Forgotten moonshine

I've been reading Kevin R. Kosar's Moonshine: A Global History which I commend to you. It is easy to for those of us in rich countries to forget how much illicit, homemade and unlicensed alcohol is consumed in low and middle income countries. A report published by IARD today gives some estimates and they are pretty staggering.

45 per cent of the alcohol consumed in low income countries is unlicensed. In places like Uganda and Mozambique, it exceeds 60 per cent. Rates in middle income countries are lower but still surprisingly high: 28 per cent in Brazil, for example, and 38 per cent in Russia.

Among the problems with moonshine is its tendency to kill large numbers of people all of a sudden. The IARD report various examples from Indonesia to the Czech Republic. In some cultures, homebrew and moonshine are part of the culture and are relatively harmless, but it is fair to say that most illicit alcohol is consumed because people are unable to acquire the commercial product. In some instances this is because of prohibition, but generally it is because of the lack of affordability, which is driven by a combination of poverty and taxation.

I recently wrote about how the World Health Organisation has become a vehicle for the concerns of middle class white people in the first world. This is evident in its response to alcohol abuse. It wants every country to raise taxes on booze despite the clear link between taxation and illicit alcohol. It demonises 'Big Alcohol' despite the fact that it would be a jolly good thing if alcohol manufacturers and their regulated products took a larger share of the market in most countries.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

It's not junk food and it's never about the children

With the government seemingly minded to crack down on the advertising of junk food to children, it's worth remembering that is isn't 'junk food' and it is never about the children.

As I say today at Spectator Health...

In the public’s mind, ‘junk food’ is synonymous with American fast food chains, an impression reinforced by the media’s tendency to illustrate every story about it with a picture of a burger. If McDonald’s has to wait until 9pm to tell us about their new limited edition bacon burger, it seems a relatively trivial encroachment on freedom.

But ‘junk food’ has no legal definition. The nearest equivalent is HFSS food – food that is deemed to be high in fat, sugar and/or salt. For the purposes of advertising regulations, Ofcom uses a definition of HFSS food that encompasses a much broader range of products than the colloquial term ‘junk food’ implies.

They use a fiddly and rather puritanical system known as the Nutrient Profile Model which condemns almost everything except raw food and health food. The model was devised by our old friend Mike Rayner who literally believes that God told him to bring about a sugar tax in Britain. All the obvious stuff gets a black mark under Rayner’s model: pizza, crisps, biscuits, confectionery, milkshakes and sugary drinks. It also rules out lots of products that are not typically considered to be ‘junk’ but which can be expected to get caught up in a system that focuses on sugar, salt and fat: ice cream, clotted cream, jam, marmalade, honey, bacon, pretzels, salted peanuts, sweetened fruit juice, smoothies and most sausages.

But then there are the foods that hardly anyone would consider ‘junk’ but which still fail the test: cheese (including half-fat cheese), raisins, sultanas, soy sauce, mustard, most tinned fruit, most yoghurts, most breakfast cereals (including high fibre varieties), peanut butter, Marmite, mayonnaise (light and regular), tomato soup, most cereal bars, many pasta sauces, all butter, fat spreads and olive oil.

All of this and more will be treated like soft porn if the campaigners get their way.

Do read it all.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Sarah Wollaston is wrong on so many levels

Almost unbelievably, the Tories are planning to ban retailers from offering multi-buy discounts on half the food sold in Britain, amongst other ridiculous measures. As I argued this week, these policies are essentially plucked out of the air with no thought given to whether they might work or what damage they will cause.

Sarah Wollaston has hit back at critics, saying...

This is bad logic, bad economics and bad philosophy.

For a start, there is no reason to compare these particular costs, and such a comparison does not imply that any particular course of action should be taken. The same figures could be equally be cited as evidence that we should spend more on the police.

Secondly, the figures are simply wrong. The UK spends £15.5 billion on police and fire services whereas the gross cost of obesity to the health service is estimated at £6 billion. Wollaston is almost certainly referencing a discredited McKinsey report which lumps together all diabetes spending on top of all obesity spending. As Mark Tovey pointed out in an IEA report...

In 2014, a 120-page report called ‘How the world could better fight obesity’ was released by the McKinsey Global Institute. The authors were promoting to the world’s governments a set of 44 interventions, and in their appeal to the UK they wrote:

‘ ..the government currently spends about £6 billion a year on the direct medical costs related to being overweight or obese... It spends a further £10 billion on diabetes. The cost of obesity and diabetes to the healthcare system is equivalent to the United Kingdom’s combined ‘protection budget’ for the police and fire services, law courts and prisons; 40 percent of total spending on education; and about 35 percent of the country’s defence budget’. 

Though the £6 billion and £10 billion look impressive together, especially when compared to various departmental budgets, they cannot legitimately be summed. The £6 billion is an inflation-adjusted version of a figure from a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Oxford, who included the proportion of diabetes costs attributable to overweight and obesity in their estimate. So the McKinsey report was double-counting, and also including costs wholly unrelated to body size when it added £10 billion on top. That did not stop the Telegraph , the Daily Mail , the Independent, the Guardian and even the Chief Executive of NHS England from uncritically reporting the offending figure.

Thirdly, the gross cost to the health service is irrelevant to taxpayers. It is the net cost to overall government spending that matters. Tovey estimates that the net cost of obesity to the state does not exceed £2.5 billion and is probably significantly less. As he says in the conclusion...

The burden on the taxpayer narrative has been exaggerated by anti-obesity policy wonks, looking to make their esoteric proposals newsworthy during a time of slow motion crisis in the NHS. Past researchers have completely omitted the fact that reducing body weight entails its own costs, because the extra life years gained lead to extra pension, healthcare and benefit spending by the government

Fourthly, the cost-to-the-taxpayer argument is only worth making if the policy being proposed is going to reduce that cost. Not only should it reduce the cost, but the savings must exceed the cost of the policy. Presumably even Wollaston does not believe that taxing milkshakes and banning food discounts is going eliminate the costs of obesity, so how much does she think they are going to reduce the obesity rate by? One per cent? Five per cent?

Let's say it is five per cent and that a five per cent reduction in obesity will cause a five per cent reduction in the net costs of obesity. That would be a saving to taxpayers of no more than £125 million per annum. It seems plausible that the cost to consumers of banning multi-buy discounts would exceed this, but neither Wollaston nor any other anti-obesity campaigner has bothered to do a cost-benefit analysis. They have no idea how much it will cost and don't know if it will reduce obesity at all, let alone by how much. Given that a ban on multi-buy discounts for alcohol failed to cut sales of alcohol in Scotland, there is good reason to think that it will have the same effect on obesity as every other nanny state policy that has been tried, ie. none.

Finally, Wollaston's argument fails at the most basic level of reasoning. She is trying to refute the accusation of paternalism by appealing to self-interest. It is not about coercing citizens into living a state-approved lifestyle, she says, but about saving taxpayers money. This is a common retort from nanny statists and is OK so far as it goes. The trouble is that they usually get the figures wrong (Wollaston is a repeat offender in this regard) and they don't really care about economic efficiency. Most preventive medicine, if successful, creates a net cost and smoking saves taxpayers a fortune, but this doesn't stop Wollaston trying to coerce people away from smoking.

Nevertheless, arguments about externalities can be valid. The problem is that they do not trump all other considerations. Wollaston avoids having a conversation about the normal policy-making considerations - costs, benefits, unintended consequences, liberty, efficiency, waste, etc. - by saying 'muh, taxpayers'. 'Something must be done', she says. 'This is something therefore it must be done.'

Her argument, such as it is, is no different to that of an authoritarian ruler who removes jury trial and tweets...

To those who say this is ‘police state’ stuff, the costs of crime are now estimated to be greater than our spend on road maintenance, foreign aid & defence combined

I am not equating BOGOFs with jury trial. The point is that it is a non sequitur. The mere existence of costs does not justify illiberal policies, particularly when there is no guarantee that the policies will reduce those costs and when the policies themselves will create new costs.