Tuesday 1 December 2009

Where do these numbers come from?

The last time I commented on a Radio 5 show, the presenter read it and left a comment, so I shall be careful what I say about Richard Bacon's debate about outdoor smoking bans last night. I have no idea where Bacon stands on the smoking issue. Like most people, he probably has no strong view either way. Still, he makes quite the devil's advocate, generally making the opposing view rather more forcefully than the person invited to do it themselves.

You can listen to the show here for 7 days if you're in the UK. A few things struck me about it...

Firstly, of all the people who called in, only two supported banning smoking outdoors, and they were both tobacco control professionals. One worked for a charity which, I must confess, I have never heard of - Heart Research UK - and the second only owned up to working in tobacco control after he had been on the line for several minutes. 

Secondly, the passive smoking theory has been well and truly discarded in favour of overt paternalism and the tyranny of the majority. The Heart Research UK spokeswoman was openly prohibitionist in a way that no one would have dared before July 2007.

Thirdly, the BBC have titled this show 'Should smoking be banned in all public places?' How quickly definitions of 'public places' shift and slide.

Finally, and most importantly, I was amazed by the mangling of the basic facts. Perhaps those of us who follow these issues closely assume too much of the media but it was repeatedly said - by the presenter - that the smoking ban has made a million people give up smoking. I have never heard this figure even from ASH or the Department of Health. 

I read this in The Independent in June 2008:

The nationwide smoking ban has triggered the biggest fall in smoking ever seen in England, a report says today.

More than two billion fewer cigarettes were smoked and 400,000 people quit the habit since the ban was introduced a year ago, which researchers say will prevent 40,000 deaths over the next 10 years.

But then I read this in the Daily Mail earlier this year:

The ban on smoking in public has failed to increase the number of people quitting, a report revealed yesterday.

And then earlier this year:

The number of smokers giving up has barely increased since the ban, despite a hike in the amount spent by the NHS on quitting services.

Figures show that nearly a quarter fewer smokers gave up the habit between April and September last year compared to 2007 - the year the ban on smoking in public places was brought in.

I don't know how many people have stopped smoking since the ban but it certainly isn't anything like a million. The most reliable source is usually the Office of National Statistics, which said - in March 2009 - that adult smoking prevalence was 21%, down from 22% before the ban. Since there were 9.5 million smokers before the ban (although estimates differ) that reduction equates to around 432,000 successful quitters. 

A 1% drop in smoking prevalence over two years is very much in line with the long-term decline so it is tenuous to say that this drop was attributable to the smoking ban at all. In time, we may even see the Irish phenomenon happen here and have many more people smoking.

The other statistic cited was that smokers cost the NHS £10 billion. Again, I've never heard this figure before. I've remember the old £1.5 billion well. I'm aware that there is now a £2.7 billion figure being bandied around (which began circulating, strangely enough, after the anti-alcohol lobby started saying that booze was costing The Health £2.7 billion). But never £10 billion. Even a Google search failed to unearth a single internet crank giving that number, so where on earth did it come from?

I ask this as a serious question. The number of people who check their facts on government websites and medical journals is tiny compared to the listenership of the average radio show. Regular readers will know that I quibble with official statistics from time to time - and I realise that I'm whistling in the wind by doing so - but even the official sources must wonder why they bother when they hear numbers being plucked out of thin air on national radio.


timbone said...

My memories of Richard Bacon are a namby pamby 'I love everyone except smokers' person, very anti smoking, unless they are his friends. Maybe it is part of his need to shun anything connected with rolling up something to smoke!

Anyway, it doesn't surprise me that he has got some weird, totally out of proportion figure, ie 10 billion pounds, because he is an idiot. He should be taken to task and issue a public apology.

Frank Davis said...

Are figures like 21% and 22% credible anyway? They are, as best I understand it, the numbers of people in relatively small samples who report themselves to be smokers.

And how accurate are people anyway at assessing themselves? I wrote some time back about Joan Bakewell who clearly regards herself as an ex-smoker, but will, it appears, promptly start smoking again in times of crisis. I've personally known lots of people who I'd regard as 'non-smokers' who would nevertheless bum cigarettes off me fairly regularly. They hardly ever (or never) bought any cigarettes themselves, and so presumably regarded themselves as non-smokers because of that.

And in the present climate how many people are prepared to own up to be smokers to anonymous pollsters? It's much like asking people living in Nazi Germany whether they're Jewish.

Figures like 21% and 22% really ought to be quarantined, with large warning signs around them. They're ballpark figures. The true figures are almost certainly greater, unless there are significant numbers of non-smokers who have taken to describing themselves as smokers. But this is a general problem with all smoking statistics. And now, it would seem, all climate statistics too.

Anonymous said...

What it probably meant was that a million less folk in the U.K. are 'buying' tobacco products in the U.K. That would be about right.
Nobody can estimate how many smokers there are in the U.K. as a big percentage are too scared to say so in case they are 'left to die' by our caring nurses.
I estimate that about a third of every person that I know over the age of about 15 smokes.
That seems to me more like 33.3% give or take a few points.
So a good estimate would be about 30%
It is estimated that in 2008 there were about 61.5 million people of whom one fifth were under 16.
So if we say there are about 50 million adults here then smokers probably number about 16 million.
Not scientific calculations but more than likely more accurate that the statistics that are spouted.
After all nobody knows how many people are here that shouldn't be and don't want to be counted !!

Anonymous said...

I am possibly one of those who has contributed to the small decline in
UK tobacco sales.
Since 1st July 2007 I hardly go in
pubs saving loads of money which I use to go abroad quite often, where
I can buy my baccy a lot cheaper and save even more dosh.
So my dear Nanny Labour Clever clogs,stuff that in your pipe and ban it and should you consider
restricting my Europen travel,
worry not,there's lots of mobsters
ready to fullfill the demand.
One report from China said the Triads are weighing up the Western
Baccy trade

Egg Foo Yong and 100 Grammes of GV
take aways,,why bother with Easyjet

Micky Mouse's Tailor

Anonymous said...

Estimates of the number of smokers are sometimes based on sales of cigarettes and other tobacco products. Smokers are assumed to smoke 20 cigarettes per day, on that basis the number of smokers is equal to the number of packs of 20 sold per day. Utter crap. The figures will not only be distorted by those who routinely smoke less or more, but by those sensible enough to not pay taxes on cigarettes. Unofficial sales are, obviously, not counted. However, duty free sales at airports and seaports, on board planes and ships will be counted. You are under surveillance.

Brad. said...

What always gets me about listening to the opinions of those who support the ban, and indeed extending it to outside areas, is that they talk about passive smoke as though it's some incredibly toxic poison. It's as though just the bearest whiff can provoke the onset of terminal disease. Do they really believe walking through a park having a smoke puts nearby children at serious risk, or indeed any risk of contracting a disease. If so, how can people who draw the smoke repeatedly into their lungs everyday over decades still be alive? How do these fanatics deal with that anomaly?

Jonathan said...

Richard Bacon does not like smoking but he does generally attempt to be even handed and usually succeeds. This time he was let down by his lack of background knowledge and researchers. The Poll in the Metro to which he referred did not appear to include smoking on the street - it was a bit vague. He had no idea of the claimed costs to the NHS of smoking and asked the audience. That is how he got the figure of 10 billion. The figure of 1 million quitting might be true, although I doubt it. There are people giving up and starting each year. The difference gives the change in smoking prevalence. It might just be possible that a million quit and half a million start, but more likely the result of some fake survey by ASH or similar. The fact that the organisation which put up a spokesperson was obscure suggests that ASH or the BHF didn't want to touch it - it didn't get much support from the callers. The Heart Research Foundation woman was very ammateur and came across as too honest for her own good. She admitted that passive smoking is not a danger - just that it smelled.

timbone said...

@Jonathan, he should still explain his momentous mistake and aplogise for it - as a smoker, I feel personally insulted. People listen to that programme and get influenced by it - (althought that does not include me).

Jonathan said...

Tim, I agree it was very unprofessional for a national radio station, but to him it's only a small part of his busy life and, as I said, he is fairly scrupulous in the way he runs his phone-ins, for which we can be thankful. Thinking back, I was wrong about the spokeswoman. She actually justified a further smoking ban on the grounds that people had some kind of duty to be healthy - and where have we heard that before? She appeared to have had no propaganda or PR training. I agree the programme does have some influence, but overall it didn't further the cause of the prohibitionists. I emailed Richard Bacon yesterday and suggested he bought Chris's book. I think there is a fair chance he might.

timbone said...

I heard yesterday that drug addiction costs the UK 15.5 billion a year. Fancy that.