Wednesday, 20 March 2019

An exhibition of motivated reasoning with Gary Taubes

If you've got a spare 2 hours and 37 minutes and are interested in the debate about carbs/obesity, yesterday's edition of the Joe Rogan Experience should be up your street. It features a showdown between journalist Gary Taubes and neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet.



These two have fallen out in the past over Taubes' belief that carbohydrates, rather than calories and inactivity, are the cause of the obesity 'epidemic'. Towards the end of the show, I was interested to hear that Guyenet started off as a fan of Taubes and his book Good Calories, Bad Calories, but that all changed when he looked at the empirical evidence.

I haven't read Guyenet's book, The Hungry Brain, but I follow him on Twitter where he posts some interesting evidence on nutrition. I haven't read Taubes' books either, but I've read about them and I've read some of his articles. I've also read The Big Fat Surprise which repeats his key claims about carbs and calories.

I was surprised by how little evidence Taubes brought to the table during the debate. While Guyenet was nerdishly citing numbered scientific studies, Taubes told stories and anecdotes. After all these years, his line is that he has a potentially important hypothesis and scientists should look into it. When told that scientists have looked into it at great length over a long period of time using every approach available to them, Taubes dismisses all their efforts as rubbish.

While accusing scientists of having a closed mind, Taubes more or less admits that the first thing he does when confronted with a study that goes against his theory is look for a flaw in the methodology (or question the impartiality of the scientist) so he can dismiss it. Since no study is perfect and no single study can answer every question, it is always possible to find room for improvement. In Taubes' mind, the slightest element of doubt is sufficient for evidence to be discarded in its entirety.

By contrast, he doesn't think his own hypothesis requires any evidence for it to be taken as seriously as the mainstream view. The failure of scientists to come up with studies that confirm it, even at his own institute, is just that - a failure of scientists. The video is worth watching as an exhibition of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, if nothing else. 

Does Taubes have any doubts about his ideas, I wonder? Is there anything that could persuade him? I suspect that he has been writing about this for too long and has too much invested in it for him to ever admit that he got it wrong.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Defining junk food - almost nothing has changed

I've got a piece in The Times today about the ban on 'junk food' advertising. I wrote it on Sunday, shortly after the government announced a public consultation on the policy. One part of the press release particularly interested me...

When this was finally announced at the weekend, it came with an anxious reassurance from Steve Brine, the public health minister, that “this isn’t about banning everyday staples like butter and olive oil”.

If, as this suggests, the government is going to grant ad hoc exemptions for certain products, the thinly veiled snobbery that lies behind the war on food will be laid bare. The high in fat, salt or sugar measure may be puritanical but it has the virtue of being consistent. You can’t give a pass to fatty or sugary products just because middle-class people buy them from Waitrose.

The consultation was published yesterday and answered that question. I've written about it for Spectator Health today...

The government intends to apply the advertising ban to any product that is both defined as HFSS and is included in Public Health England’s sugar and calorie reduction programme. This gets butter and olive oil off the hook because the former is only included in the salt reduction programme and olive oil is not part of the reformulation programme at all.

So many foods are included in the sugar and calorie reduction programme that the new exemption makes little difference to the advertising ban’s vast scope. It means that there is an exemption for butter, which is great news for Johnny Rotten, but Public Health England’s documents reveal that the only other HFSS foods that will benefit from the loophole are fat spreads, olive oil, baked beans, stock cubes and cheese.

The following categories will still be covered by the ban:

Breakfast cereals, yoghurts, fromage frais, sweet biscuits, savoury biscuits, cakes, pastries, croissants, pain au chocolat, puddings, ice cream, sweets, chocolate, jam, marmalade, honey, pasta products, rice products, quiche, breadsticks, noodle products, crackers, crispbreads, ‘bread with additions (eg. ciabatta with olives)’, ‘ready meals with carbohydrate accompaniment’, ‘meal centres without carbohydrate accompaniment’, ketchup, mayonnaise, pretzels, flapjack, oatcakes, ricecakes, cereal bars, bacon, kebabs, ham, pepperami, haggis, sausage rolls, pesto, fish fingers, guacamole, salsa, salad dressing, curry sauces, pasta sauces, ‘egg products’ (but not eggs), ‘potato products’ (but not potatoes), pasties, pies, sausages, milk drinks, sorbets, hummus, coleslaw, potato salad, soup, sandwiches and ‘food-to-go’. I could go on.

A few of these could be viewed as ‘junk food’ and several of them should be considered as treats, but more of them look like the kind of ‘everyday staples’ that Brine claims to be protecting. It is debatable whether many of them ‘have little nutritional value’ or needed to be shielded from children’s delicate eyes. The purported war on ‘junk food’ remains an assault on what most of us simply call ‘food’.

Read The Times article here (£) and the Spectator article here.

And if you have a view on where the government can stick its latest ban, you can respond (fairly easily) to the consultation here.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

If more gambling laws are the answer, what's the question?

From The Guardian...

People with a gambling problem are 15 times more likely to take their own life, according to the largest study of its kind, prompting calls for swifter action by the government to tackle betting addiction.

... Campaigners said that if the same results were applied to the UK, the Swedish study would indicate around 550 suicides a year in which gambling played a part, or more than 10 per week.

That would be one in ten suicides, if true. Perhaps it is true, I don't know, but the article rightly points out that the causes of suicide are 'very likely to be multi-factoral' and that it is 'hard to isolate the role played by gambling'. According to the Office for National Statistics, there were only 21 suicides between 2001 and 2016 (ie. 1.4 per year) in which gambling was mentioned on the death certificate, but this is bound to underestimate the true number.

When Tracey Crouch MP resigned last year on the (false) premise that the government had delayed the clampdown on fixed-odds betting terminals, she claimed that two people kill themselves a day due to gambling problems. The Regulus blog tracked the source of this figure down to a 2010 study from Hong Kong...

The research project examined 150 cases of suicide in Hong Kong and found that 17 of the victims (or 11.3%) were “probable pathological gamblers”. Applying this rate to suicides in Great Britain provides a figure of 674 deaths.

How very scientific...

Still, it is at least interesting that the estimate from Sweden is fairly close to the Hong Kong estimate. Moreover, as the Guardian points out, it seems to be more reliable because of its large sample size and is more suitable for extrapolating to the UK because of the similarity between the two countries' problem gambling rates...

But the study in Sweden is much larger than that of the Hong Kong research, took place over a longer period and monitored people who took their own lives as well as those who did not.

It is also based on a country with a similar prevalence of problem gambling to the UK at around 0.5% on the often-cited problem gambling severity index measurement, rising to around 1.6% when including people at moderate risk.

No doubt The Guardian is right to say that the study has prompted 'calls for swifter action by the government to tackle betting addiction'. It is, after all, open season on gambling since the government capitulated to Derek Webb and his boys at the Campaign for 'Fairer' Gambling. But what do these figures - if accurate - tell us about gambling regulation?

Hong Kong has a state-sanctioned monopoly on horse-racing, football and lotteries. Casinos are banned, and so is online gambling. Gambling is nevertheless extremely widespread both legally onshore and across the water in Macau as well as on the $12 billion illegal market. As in China, where nearly all gambling is illegal, rates of problem gambling are high in Hong Kong. When the 2010 study mentioned above was written, problem gambling prevalence was around two per cent

Sweden also has a state monopoly for gambling and fairly tight regulation, but not as tight as Hong Kong. There are only four casinos in the whole country and you have to be at least 20 years olds to get in them. Unlike Britain, there have never been any fixed-odds betting terminals. Unlike Hong Kong, it legalised online gambling years ago. According to The Guardian, it has a problem gambling rate of around 0.5 per cent and - if the studies are to be believed - a similar rate of gambling-related suicide as Hong Kong.

Britain has a relatively liberal gambling market. It has no state monopolies on gambling, unless you include the lottery. Casinos are legal and, though limited in number, accessible to most people. Bookmakers and FOBTs are accessible to all (until next month). Online gambling has always been legal and is widely advertised. It is one of a small number of countries to have gambling products that children are allowed to play. As The Guardian says, it has 'a similar prevalence of problem gambling' to Sweden and a much lower prevalence than Hong Kong.

What, exactly, are we supposed to learn from these real world case studies about the optimal level of gambling regulation? Sweden and Hong Kong regulate gambling quite strictly and have similar gambling-suicide rates despite having very different problem gambling rates. Britain regulates gambling in a comparatively laissez-faire manner and yet has a much lower rate of problem gambling than Hong Kong and the same rate of problem gambling than Sweden. Moreover, the rate of problem gambling has not risen in the last fifteen years despite significant liberalisation and the emergence of new gambling products, including FOBTs and online.

And yet we need 'swifter action by the government to tackle betting addiction'?

So let me get this straight. Britain should clamp down on gambling because if we extrapolate the gambling-suicide rate from Sweden, a country that regulates gambling more harshly than Britain, we get a figure that is nearly as high as if we extrapolate it from Hong Kong, a country that regulates gambling even more harshly?

Huh?

And - plot twist! - Sweden doesn't actually have a problem gambling rate of 0.5 per cent. Academic studies and official government surveys suggest that the real figure is much higher than that of Britain at around two per cent.

Maybe these countries should be learning from Britain?

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Mark Petticrew doubles down

Mark Petticrew has been going through the Twitter feed of Drinkaware, presumably because it beats working for a living and because 'public health' is such a shoddy enterprise that it will let him get another peer-reviewed study out of it. In 2017, Petticrew and his colleagues cherry-picked statements by various industry-funded educational organisations to claim that they downplayed, disputed and misrepresented the risks of drinking.

Amongst many other untruths, Petticrew accused Drinkaware of ignoring the link between drinking and breast cancer despite them having a whole webpage dedicated to the subject which downplays nothing and which his article ignored. His hatchet job was criticised for making 'a number of incorrect assertions' by the Portman Group and for being 'wholly unjustified and unprofessional' by Drinkaware's scientific advisors in a slew of responses published in Drug and Alcohol Review.

The latter concluded...

It is vital that Drinkaware’s important public health function is not compromised by unjustified allegations of inaccuracy and by entirely unwarranted attacks on its independence and integrity. We therefore expect Petticrew et al. to address the inaccuracies in their paper, which we have highlighted in this commentary.

Fat chance. In the meantime, the neo-temperance lobby's grudge against Drinkaware has become more intense due to its partnership with Public Health England, and Petticrew is now back for more in the International Journal of Environmental  Research and Public Health.

He wastes no time in repeated his previous slurs...

Drinkaware and other SAPROs ['an acronym Petticrew has made up, standing for 'social aspects/public relations organisations' - CJS] were recently found to be misleading the public on alcohol and cancer risk, including presenting misleading information about the independent effects of alcohol consumption on cancer risk, using similar framings to those developed by the tobacco industry to obscure the evidence on smoking and lung cancer, in some cases not mentioning cancer in general, and breast cancer specifically [19].

The reference cited to support this pack of lies is his own pisspoor study, of course. In his new study, Petticrew doubles down by making similar claims based around the Twitter feeds of three industry-backed alcohol information organisations.

We developed a series of hypotheses a priori based on previous evidence of AI [alcohol industry] strategies and campaigns. If AI-funded bodies are independent of the alcohol industry (as is argued by Drinkaware, see for example [40]), then no clear pattern should be observed, and their tweets should not reflect alcohol industry positions. On the other hand if, as has been noted previously [41], these bodies exist primarily to reflect and defend industry positions, then their Twitter activity should reflect industry arguments, concerns and topics, and should be significantly different from those of non-industry affiliated charities.

The trick employed here is to compare Drinkaware, Drinkwise and Drinkaware Ireland to three hardline, anti-alcohol campaign groups whose mission is totally different: Alcohol Concern, Alcohol Action Ireland, and the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE). Petticrew's conceit is to use the neo-temperance lobby as a control group, implicitly portraying them as neutral organisations that are only interested in giving the public an accurate impression of the impact of alcohol consumption on health.

After looking at every tweet sent by these six organisations in 2016, he and his minions conclude:

AI-funded bodies were significantly less likely to tweet about alcohol marketing, advertising and sponsorship; issues related to alcohol pricing, including MUP...

That's because they are not lobby groups.

...physical health harms, including cancers, heart disease, dementia and diabetes; and fertility and pregnancy

Petticrew et al. count 23 Drinkaware tweets which warned of these 'physical harms' (excluding cancer) (2.8% of the total) whereas the now-defunct Alcohol Concern had 29 (4%). Not much of a difference, really, and they overlook the 101 tweets Drinkaware sent about 'drinking too much' - many of which would have been related to physical harms - compared to just 13 from Alcohol Concern (1.8%).

Alcohol Concern tweeted more about cancer (54 times) than did Drinkaware (27 times), but that is largely because Alcohol Concern liked being able to scare women with the claim that there is no safe level of drinking (for breast cancer) and were obsessed with treating alcohol like cigarettes, for which the cancer link was seen as a useful tool.

Alcohol industry-funded bodies were significantly more likely to tweet about drinking too much, cutting down, children and underage drinking, teens/parents, staying safe while drinking, alcohol units and guidelines, calories/obesity, and alcohol-free or low alcohol drinks. They are also more likely to tweet about drink driving.

So what? These are perfectly valid things for an educational charity to be tweeting about. While the temperance groups are banging on about advertising and minimum pricing, the alcohol awareness groups are giving people practical information and advice on a range of issues. That is what they're supposed to be doing. If there is a problem here, it does not lie with Drinkaware. 

AI-funded bodies do not appear to use Twitter to raise awareness about pregnancy and fertility.

That's an easy thing to check, so let's have a look at the year in question, shall we?





So that's a lie, then. In fact, Petticrew's own data show that Drinkaware tweeted about alcohol and pregnancy more times than Alcohol Concern did. 

Overall, these suggest that there is a difference between the stated visions, values and missions of the AI-funded bodies, and their actual activities.

No. There is a difference between the missions of 'AI-funded bodies' and the missions of anti-alcohol groups. The former are there to educate people and give accurate, practical advice. The latter are there to create hysteria and lobby for illiberal legislation, rather like Mark Petticrew.

There's nothing else to say about this pitiful study so I will leave you with a quote from it which highlights the state 'public health' academia is in today.

[Social media] has also been identified as a potentially rich data source for health research, with a recent systematic review identifying 137 research articles using Twitter, 108 of which involved the analysis of tweets, primarily in the form of content analysis.

Move over John Snow and Louis Pasteur.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

The nanny state blob

Taxpayer funding of ‘nanny state’ groups has not declined in recent years but it has evolved. In the debate about food, tobacco and alcohol, there are relatively few dedicated activist groups directly funded by central government. Alcohol Concern has lost its state funding and has now merged with Alcohol Research UK to become Alcohol Change UK. Its counter-part in tobacco control, the English branch of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), has been funded by the Department of Health since its inception in 1971 and received a DH grant of £159,999 in 2016/17. ASH insists that this money is not used for advocacy or lobbying but is used to ‘support the Tobacco Control Plan for England’. It is not clear what this means in practice and its grant applications in the past have explicitly listed ‘media advocacy and lobbying’ as a deliverable. Like Alcohol Concern, ASH has never provided health, cessation or rehabilitation services.

The records appear to reveal no other pressure group focused solely on food, tobacco or alcohol that receives funding from Whitehall, although there are several state-funded organisations with a broader ‘public health’ remit which lobby for lifestyle regulation. The UK Health Forum received £216,306 from the Department of Health in 2016/17 in addition to £680,000 from Public Health England and an unrestricted grant of £371,660 from the European Commission. Of a total budget of £1,597,619, state funding amounted to £1,470,626 (92 per cent). It lobbied for a familiar assortment of paternalistic anti-market interventions in lifestyle choices - tax rises, bans, advertising restrictions, minimum pricing, mandatory food reformulation, etc. - before closing down after government funding was withdrawn last year.


Public Health England
   
Public Health England (PHE) is the new critical dynamic in the politics of the nanny state. Created in 2013, PHE has changed the face of state-funded activism in the field of lifestyle regulation in two ways. Firstly, it has a colossal budget of £4.5 billion, most of which is distributed to local authorities where dozens of Directors of Public Health lobby councillors for policies which restrict personal freedom and disrupt the market, such as outdoor smoking bans and tighter licensing restrictions for bars and off licences. As a semi-autonomous quango with a large pot of money, Public Health England can also grant funds to third parties without ministerial sign-off. For example, when the CEOs of several ‘public health’ organisations decided that they needed to create another umbrella group for their profession, Public Health England handed them £57,200 to create the UK Public Health Network. It has recently started funding ASH, with grants totalling £108,000 in the last quarter of 2018.

Secondly, PHE is itself effectively a pressure group. Through its publications and public pronouncements it has lobbied for such policies as minimum pricing for alcohol, outdoor smoking bans, plain packaging and bans on ‘junk food’ advertising. Every other ‘sock puppet’ group is a minnow by comparison. Public Health England has not made the smaller groups obsolete - the ‘swarm effect’ requires different voices to demand the same policies - but it is now the mothership around which the activist groups orbit. It is also the citadel to which several activists have departed. Martin Dockrell, formerly of ASH, is now the Tobacco Control Programme Lead at PHE, and various prominent anti-alcohol campaigners, including Ian Gilmore of the Alcohol Health Alliance, have been appointed to PHE’s Alcohol Leadership Board.

Public Health England is a more overtly political entity than the public health organisations, such as the Health Education Council, which preceded it. A similar drift towards activism can be seen in other state-funded ‘public health’ groups, up to and including the World Health Organisation. Even organisations that were not set up to preach lifestyle change have got involved, including the Local Government Association, the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland. Some of the activities of the latter, which received £15.8 million from the Scottish Government in 2017/18, are indistinguishable from those of Obesity Action Scotland as it campaigns for smaller food portions and congratulates the government on its obesity strategy. In 2018, one of its advisors even suggested that the government should put graphic warnings on red meat.


Activist-academics

Other sources of taxpayers’ money are available to activist-academics in the nanny state blob via the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Although higher educational institutes are exempt from the anti-sockpuppet rules, the gap between research and advocacy can be narrow to the point of invisibility.  The UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies (UKCTAS), which has academics from fourteen British universities, says that it is not a ‘lobbying group, but we do have close links with advocacy organisations and will assist them where appropriate.’

Between 2013 and 2017 it attracted £45 million in grant income from public and private sources, including the Scottish Government, Public Health England, the Medical Research Council, NICE, the NHS, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the European Commission, NIHR, ESRC, the Department of Health and the EU’s Smoke Free Partnership.

As a result of UKCTAS’s ‘meaningful and sustained collaborative relationships with advocacy organisations’, it is able to list the following political victories:

‘We performed new analyses for the Scottish Government on the comparative effectiveness of Minimum Unit Pricing and alcohol taxation, and this work formed a key part of their successful defence of Minimum Unit Pricing in the Scottish courts'
'Academics from UKCTAS worked with Scottish groups including Alcohol Focus Scotland and Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems to advocate for a reduction in the ‘drink-drive limit’ in Scotland'

'Legislation prohibiting smoking in cars carrying children in England and Wales came into force in October 2015. UKCTAS played a leading role in bringing this legislation into place'

'Legislation to introduce standardised packaging for tobacco was passed in the UK parliament in the spring of 2015 and will be fully implemented from May 2017. This covers all parts of the UK. UKCTAS research played a key role in this decision.’ 

Similar advocacy-oriented academic organisations have emerged in recent years, including the Tobacco Control Research Group, whose funders include NIHR, ESCR, the NHS, the European Council and the Department of Health. In 2017, the ESCR - which is funded to the tune of £212 million by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy - announced the creation of the UK Prevention Research Partnership, a £50 million project aimed at developing ‘robust new knowledge which contributes to demonstrable changes in policy and practice’ by ‘working closely with policy makers’. The same year saw the Department of Health announce that it would be setting up a new Obesity Policy Research Unit with £5 million of taxpayers’ money.

The Obesity Policy Research Unit will be run by Russell Viner, the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, who has been a regular fixture in the newspapers for years making emotive calls for sugar taxes, advertising bans and restrictions on fast food outlets. He accuses fast food chains of ‘enticing young people and their pocket money' and claims that only by banning advertisements for food that is high in fat, salt or sugar ‘can children reclaim their childhood’. It seems unlikely that the £5 million unit will produce any research that challenges these prior beliefs.

Clearly there is no shortage of money available to activist-academics who wish to tax and ban in the name of ‘public health’, but what is most striking is the extent of their activism and the narrowness of the clique to which they belong. Anna Gilmore, for example, was a board member of Action on Smoking and Health before joining UKCTAS and becoming the director of the Tobacco Control Research Group. She also sat on the Steering Committee and Programme Board of Smokefree Southwest until it closed in 2016. During this period, Smokefree Southwest granted £135,000 to Gilmore’s Tobacco Control Research Group and NHS Southwest gave the Tobacco Control Research Group £165,284 for ‘research and evaluation support’ for Smokefree Southwest.

Linda Bauld is the Deputy Director of UKCTAS and is on Public Health England’s tobacco control implementation board. She has also ‘been closely involved in the development of the UKPRP and is a member of the steering group for this new initiative’. Meanwhile, ASH Scotland’s CEO Sheila Duffy is on the Scottish Government's Ministerial Working Group on Tobacco Control and, more surprisingly for an anti-smoking campaigner, also on the steering committee of Obesity Action Scotland.


The EU and local government

Direct sock puppet funding continues to flourish in local authorities and devolved governments, and is endemic at the EU level. EU-funded organisations lobbying for lifestyle regulation include the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (€314,039: 52 per cent of income), the Smoke Free Partnership (€400,749: 60 per cent of income), the TackSHS Project (€620,050: 100 per cent of income), EuroHealthNet (€901,000: 80 per cent of income), the World Obesity Federation (€444,672: 33 per cent of income), the European Public Health Alliance (€623,368: 80 per cent of income), Active – Sobriety, Friendship and Peace (€145,188: 63 per cent) and the European Public Health Association (€53,571: 19 per cent). Several likeminded pressure groups, such as the International Order of Good Templars and the Norwegian Policy Network on Alcohol and Drugs, are not EU-funded but are active in EU policy debates thanks to large grants from national governments.

In the regions, a variety of anti-smoking groups funded by local authorities come and go. In the northeast, Fresh continues to be funded through local public health grants, but similar organisations in the northwest and southwest have been wound down since the campaign for plain packaging was won. Smokefree Southwest broadened its remit in 2015 by changing its name to Public Health Action but lost its funding in June 2016 and is now little more than a Twitter account. Smokefree Northwest attempted a similar transformation by becoming Healthier Futures in 2016 but ceased trading in March 2017. Various local ‘Tobacco Control Alliances’ exist in such places as Rotherham, Camden and Durham but are now mainly focused on helping smokers to quit with cessation services and e-cigarettes rather than campaigning for legislative change. A new project called History Makers in Greater Manchester, funded by northwest local authorities, has expressed interest in such policies as banning smoking outdoors, licensing tobacco retailers and banning smoking on TV, but has not yet begun active campaigning.

The lack of overt political activity by these groups since plain packaging was introduced in 2016 probably reflects a dearth of new policies to lobby for and the government’s stated intention not to pass further anti-smoking legislation in this Parliament. The same cannot be said for Balance Northeast, an anti-alcohol group which shares an office with Fresh and, like Fresh, is 100 per cent funded by twelve local authorities. It has been campaigning for minimum unit pricing, warning labels on alcoholic drinks and advertising restrictions for nearly a decade. Its campaign for higher taxes is always more intense before the Budget.

Local authorities also fund pressure groups involved in food and soft drink regulation. Sustain for Life received £45,000 from the Greater London Authority and Royal Borough of Greenwich in 2016/17 in addition to lottery funding of £85,068 and £146,647 from the European Commission. This organisation funds the Children’s Food Campaign and runs SugarSmart, both of which were heavily involved in the campaign for the sugar tax and now lobby for a ban on ‘junk food marketing’. Sustain also set up and funded the Children’s Health Fund (with the help of Jamie Oliver) in 2015 to lobby for the sugar tax but this group was wound down once the tax was introduced in April 2018, with the group announcing that it was ‘passing the baton on to Government’.

The Birmingham Food Council, created in 2014 and funded by grants from Birmingham City Council, claims that sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are ‘psychoactive substances’ and that even sparkling water causes ‘dental decay and contributes to other health problems’. These dubious scientific claims accompanied a briefing paper urging Birmingham City Council to reject partnerships with Coca-Cola and to ‘avoid future commercial relationships with food and drinks companies whose products carry standard rate VAT’. This came in the wake of Coca-Cola giving £20 million to three local authorities to fund free activities in public parks, such as karate, Zumba and yoga. The Birmingham Food Council describes Coca-Cola as a ‘“food drug” corporation’ and calls for the sugar tax to be extended to all fizzy drinks even if they do not contain sugar. Its pronouncements on social media include ‘Shame we can’t ban sugar in public places’.


Scotland and Wales  

The Scottish Government continues to be the primary funder of Alcohol Focus Scotland, with an unrestricted grant of £472,000 in 2017/18. Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems which, like Alcohol Focus Scotland, campaigns to limit the marketing, availability and affordability of alcohol, depended on government funding for 100 per cent of its €200,000 budget in 2015/16, according to the EU Transparency Register. Both organisations lobbied heavily for one of the Scottish National Party’s flagship policies - minimum unit pricing for alcohol - which was introduced in May 2018. When Alcohol Focus Scotland co-hosted the Global Alcohol Policy Conference in Edinburgh in 2015 - an event sponsored by the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland - SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon gave the opening speech and the organisers paid tribute to her ‘political courage’.

A similar arrangement developed in the Republic of Ireland where Alcohol Action Ireland, which relied on the state for 97.5 per cent of its income in 2015, not only lobbied for minimum pricing but set up another group, the Alcohol Health Alliance, specifically ‘to support the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill’ of which minimum pricing was the cornerstone. In addition to writing submissions to government as ‘an independent voice for advocacy and policy change’ and promoting the legislation in the media, Alcohol Action Ireland set up a webpage which enabled its supporters to lobby their parliamentary representative with a standardised e-mail (‘I urge you to please support the implementation of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, in full’ etc.). In 2016, Ireland’s Department of Health gave Alcohol Action Ireland an additional €75,000 ‘to engage with the EU to build support for the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill’ (Tighe 2016). The law was passed in October 2018.

State-funded lobbying does not get much more blatant than this, although the similarly named Obesity Action Scotland comes close. Founded in 2015 and wholly funded by a grant from the Scottish Government, it campaigns for a 9pm watershed on advertising for food that is high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS), bans on price promotions such as buy-one-get-one-free and ‘regulations to control portion size’. It says that all this - plus food reformulation and the sugar tax - ‘will only be the start’ of restrictions on the free market in the name of obesity prevention. All of these policies were included in a consultation document put forward by the Scottish Government in October 2017. Obesity Action Scotland publicly welcomed the proposals and drafted an encouraging consultation response (its only complaint was that some of the measures did not go far enough). In July 2018, Scotland’s Diet and Healthy Weight Delivery Plan was published with all of Obesity Action Scotland’s demands met.

This kind of activity is relatively new in the area of food, but has long been practised in the field of tobacco. Today, both the Scottish and Welsh governments fund their branches of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) more heavily than Whitehall funds the English branch. ASH Scotland received £604,798 directly from the Scottish Government in 2016/17 (77 per cent of its total income) while receiving just £3,126 in voluntary donations. ASH Wales received £207,872 from the Welsh Government in 2016/17 in addition to £136,247 from the EU’s Erasmus+ project. In total, ASH Wales depended on government grants for 69 per cent of its income, with just £3,570 coming from individual donations and legacies.

Taken from Still Hand in Glove? A re-examination of state-funded activism.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Monday reading

FOREST have got a report out today looking at smoking and vaping bans on NHS property. It finds that the majority of NHS Trusts ban vaping inside (89%) and outside (55%). The vast majority of Trusts also ban smoking outdoors. Read the full document here.

The Spirit Level turned 10 years old this month and so I had a look at some of their flagship findings to see if they can be replicated with up-to-data figures. You'll never guess what happened.

But if you're not in the mood for reading, I was on the State of the Markets podcast last week. We had a good conversation, starting off with nanny state issues before talking about all kinds of things, including Michael Gove's bottle deposit scheme, socialism and some Netflix tips. Have a listen on iTunes or Soundcloud.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Junk food (part two)


Further to yesterday's post, the IEA has now published my short briefing paper looking at what qualifies as 'junk food' for British regulators. The actual category is HFSS (High in Fat, Salt or Sugar) and my primary conclusion is that...

Polling companies should avoid the term ‘junk food’ in surveys. The legally meaningfully term HFSS should be used (and explained) instead. Politicians and journalists should also familiarise themselves with the definition of HFSS and give the public an accurate impression of the range of food and drink products that will be impacted by further government regulation.

HFSS food is what the rest of us just call 'food'. Much of it is not particularly high in fat, sugar or salt and a lot of it has been eaten for generations, if not millennia. Moreover, Public Health England is in the process of making the lowering the bar even lower to accommodate the unscientific change in the sugar guidelines. Here's the proportion of products that are classed as HFSS currently and the proportion that will be HFSS once Public Health England is through. Click to enlarge.


This is more than a technical issue. After capitulating to Jamie Oliver last June, the government plans to ban HFSS advertising on TV before 9pm, ban HFSS food from being included in meal deals and BOGOFs, and ban shopkeepers from stocking HFSS food at the store entrance, near the till and at the end of aisles. If campaigners get their way, this will only be the start of state control of the food supply.

The ban on discounts could cost households hundreds of pounds a year. As I say in the briefing:

These policies will hinder competition and innovation in one of the country’s biggest and most important markets. The many negative impacts are beyond the scope of this briefing paper but, to take one example, most of the products which could be advertised on television before 9pm under government proposals are raw ingredients - meat, fruit, vegetables, etc. - which are not generally advertised because they are cheap and unbranded. Pre-watershed food advertising would therefore be limited to a relative handful of niche health foods. Broadcasters have not said how much money they would lose, but it would certainly be in the tens of millions of pounds. This is money that could be used to make television programmes. Ironically, HFSS food will continue to be promoted before the watershed in programmes such as Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast and The Great British Bake Off, but it will be illegal to promote the same food in the ad breaks

The public has been misled - again.

You can download the briefing paper here.