Friday 28 May 2010

Yes, the dose makes the poison

Looking at my web stats, I see that this site has been visited no fewer than 29 times in the last few days under the search term "chris snowdon dose makes the poison". Why someone should so persistently associate this phrase with me, I can't say, but for that Googler, I hope the following helps:-

The dose makes the poison is a fundamental principle of toxicology. It is generally attributed to the 16th century scientist Paralcelsus, who said:

"All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous."

In other words, everything is toxic and everything is harmless. It is the quantity that makes the difference. It is this basic piece of scientific understanding that makes the last Surgeon General's claim that "there is no safe level of secondhand smoke" so risible. It is also one reason why scientists scoff at the homeopathic claim that remedies become more potent as they become more diluted. And it's one reason why the term 'toxic chemicals' can be misleading. When we talk about toxic waste, everyone knows what we mean. Saying that a product contains 'toxic chemicals' implies that these chemicals are dangerous at the levels found in the product. Sometimes, however, the reality is that they could be toxic at higher quantities or under experimental conditions. That's true, but it would be true of oxygen and vitamin C too.

Ignoring the principle that the dose makes the poison makes it possible to claim that acrylamide in french fries, or "gender-bending" phthalates in shower curtains, or nitrosamines in smoker's carpets can cause cancer. It's junk. All these things can be harmful, but not at the levels found in real-world situations. (If you really need to know why these claims are junk, click here, here and here).

I hope that helps whoever was searching. I only wish I could assist the people who found the site by Googling "weasel in wales", "politicians that like fruit cakes" and "fisting with pipes". Alas, you will need to go elsewhere for that kind of information. 

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Voices of freedom

The Battle Against Big Government: Join The Debate

Join The Free Society and other groups for a series of cutting edge debates. Venue: the Institute of Economic Affairs, 2 Lord North Street, Westminster, London SW1

Enjoy pre-event drinks at the IEA courtesy Boisdale of Belgravia. Then engage in rigorous discussion with leading writers, journalists and opinion formers.

June 3, 10, 15, 24, 29

Join us from 6.00pm for a taste of liberty (ie free wine!). Then join in the following debates from 7.00-8.00pm.

The Free Society and the IEA present
Laws that should be reformed/amended
Thursday June 3, 2010

Chaired by Mark Littlewood (Institute of Economic Affairs), speakers include Professor Philip Booth (IEA), Guy Herbert (general secretary, NO2ID), Shane Frith (director, Progressive Vision), Chris Snowdon (author, Velvet Glove, Iron Fist and The Spirit Level Delusion), and Simon Clark (director, Forest)

The Free Society and Big Brother Watch present
The surveillance society and individual freedom
Thursday June 10, 2010

Chaired by Iain Dale (Total Politics), speakers include Alex Deane (director, Big Brother Watch), Philip Davies MP (Conservative), Phil Booth (national coordinator, NO2ID) and Ross Clark (author, The Road to Southend: One Man’s Struggle Against the Surveillance Society)

The Free Society and the Adam Smith Institute present
Power or persuasion: what’s the big idea?
Tuesday June 15, 2010

Chaired by Claire Fox (Institute of Ideas), speakers include Dr Eamonn Butler (director, Adam Smith Institute), Tim Evans (chairman, Libertarian Alliance), and Heather Brooke (freedom of information campaigner)

The Free Society and the Manifesto Club present
Bad laws that threaten individual liberty
Thursday June 24, 2010

Chaired by James Panton (Manifesto Club), speakers include Josie Appleton (Manifesto Club), Simon Clark (director, The Free Society), Philip Johnston (Daily Telegraph and author, Bad Laws: An Explosive Analysis of Britain’s Petty Rules, Health and Safety Lunacies and Madcap Laws)

The Free Society and Liberal Vision present
Libertarians, Lib Dems or the “liberal elite”?
Tuesday June 29, 2010

Chaired by Mark Littlewood (Institute of Economic Affairs), speakers include Julian Harris (chairman, Liberal Vision), Chris Mounsey (leader, Libertarian party), Brendan O’Neill (editor, Spiked!), Mark Pack (co-editor, Liberal Democrat Voice) and Michael White (assistant editor, Guardian)

Forest, The Free Society and Free Spirits present
Reception and riverboat party from
Westminster Pier on The Thames
Wednesday July 14, 2010

Entry is free to everyone who attends one or more debates.

Venue for all debates

2 Lord North Street
London SW1

Debates chaired by Claire Fox (Institute of Ideas), Iain Dale (Total Politics), James Panton (Manifesto Club) and Mark Littlewood (IEA).

Entry to all debates is free

Strictly RSVP only
or telephone 01223 370156

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Another ASH myth goes up in smoke

In October 2007, ASH published a document entitled Myths and Realities of Smokefree England. The ban had been in force for only 3 months and ASH wanted to portray 'the hospitality industry and pro smoking organisations' as fear-mongerers for predicting negative effects from the smoking ban. 

In retrospect, we can see that ASH were the ones making poor predictions. Amongst the 'myths' they listed were things like 'It will be bad for pubs', 'It will be bad for bingo' and 'Working men's clubs and shisha bars will close'. I have a bridge I'd like to sell anyone who seriously thinks none of this came to pass.

One of the other 'myths' was:

Myth: There will be heavy handed enforcement with undercover officers and covert filming.

'Heavy handed' is a subjective term, but it seems reasonable to apply it here, in the light of Nick Hogan being sentenced to 6 months imprisonment for flouting the ban. 

As for 'covert filming', ASH denied that it was ever on the cards and said:

Reality: What has happened in practice is that council officials have approached the situation as they said they would, in a reasonable manner applying a 'softly softly' approach with relatively few being issued. 

But, as reported in The Times and the News of the World, the reality has been rather different, with councils using anti-terrorism laws to spy on smokers.

Smokers and tramps join 8,000 council surveillance targets

Councils carried out more than 8,500 secret snooping operations on members of the public during the past two years,including spying on dog owners, fly tippers and loan sharks, according to a report published today.

Secret surveillance operations also took place against smokers, suspected benefit fraudsters, vagrants buying alcohol for under-18s and people repairing vehicles in the street.

Councils in North Norfolk, Chesterfield, Nuneaton & Bedworth, and Merton, southwest London, used Ripa powers to snoop on people suspected of lighting up in a no-smoking area.

Councils spy on dog owners, charity donors and smokers

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was passed nine years ago to fight terrorism. But access to these Big Brother weapons has gone to 653 bodies - with nearly 1,400 new spying missions EVERY DAY.

Dastardly criminals in the camera sights of these state-approved nosey parkers include:

SMOKERS who light up in the wrong place. Chesterfield, Falkirk, Merton, North Norfolk and Nuneaton & Bedworth councils have their beady eyes on you.

Myths and Realities of Smokefree England already has the makings of a fascinating historical document. With one or two possible exceptions that can be argued over, all of the so-called 'myths' have turned out to be true and all of ASH's 'realities' have turned out to be myths. And it took less than 3 years. 

With the review of the smoking ban coming up in July, one would hope that the chasm between what ASH said would happen and what actually happened might come under scrutiny. It should certainly make policy-makers question ASH's credibility when it comes to passing further laws. 

But since the Department of Health has all but admitted that the 'review' will be a sham and that the only serious question that will be posed is how far to extend the ban, ASH's track record will likely be ignored. 

Throughout June I'll be writing a series of articles contrasting ASH's 'myths' and 'realities' with the real situation for smokers, nonsmokers and businesses since the ban came in. Call it an unofficial review. Watch this space.

Monday 24 May 2010

From the grave

How cool is this?

Exactly a century after rumours of his death turned out to be entirely accurate, one of Mark Twain's dying wishes is at last coming true: an extensive, outspoken and revelatory autobiography which he devoted the last decade of his life to writing is finally going to be published.

He asked for it not to be published until 2010 and they've honoured his wishes. And it's going to quite a read by all accounts.

The eventual trilogy will run to half a million words, and shed new light on the quintessentially American novelist.

"There is a perception that Twain spent his final years basking in the adoration of fans. The autobiography will perhaps show that it wasn't such a happy time. He spent six months of the last year of his life writing a manuscript full of vitriol, saying things that he'd never said about anyone in print before. It really is 400 pages of bile."

No one seems to know exactly why he demanded a 100 year postponement to publication, but this gives us a hint:

A section of the memoir will detail his little-known but scandalous relationship with Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, who became his secretary after the death of his wife Olivia in 1904. Twain was so close to Lyon that she once bought him an electric vibrating sex toy. But she was abruptly sacked in 1909, after the author claimed she had "hypnotised" him into giving her power of attorney over his estate.

Their ill-fated relationship will be recounted in full in a 400-page addendum, which Twain wrote during the last year of his life. It provides a remarkable account of how the dying novelist's final months were overshadowed by personal upheavals.

"Most people think Mark Twain was a sort of genteel Victorian. Well, in this document he calls her a slut and says she tried to seduce him."

Santa, if you reading, I'd like it for Christmas please.

Saturday 22 May 2010

What fresh hell?

Smokles is running a competition to predict the next absurd claim to be made in an anti-tobacco journal. Can you think of anything more ludicrous than third-hand smoke or heart attack miracles? If so, get yourself over there. Don't be afraid of letting your imagination run wild. Remember, this is tobacco control. No idea is too insane.

My suggestions:

Toxins from cigarettes can be transmitted down phone lines?

Smokers and non-smokers should be buried in separate sections of grave-yards?

Smoking bans lead to drop in rate of sexually transmitted diseases?

The sight of people smoking triggers lung cancer in ex-smokers?

Using the word 'cigarette' should be classified as tobacco advertising?

A tale of two studies

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is a well-respected body set up by the World Health Organisation. It has conducted many large epidemiological studies into possible carcinogens. Let's take two of them. We'll call them Product X and Product Y.

There were two major findings for Product X. They were:

Odds ratio: 1.40 (1.03-1.89)

Odds ratio: 1.15 (0.81-1.62)

There were also two major findings for Product Y. They were:

Odds ratio: 0.78 (0.64-0.96)

Odds ratio: 1.16 (0.93-1.44)

You will notice that each study found one small but significant finding and one small but non-significant finding. In the case of Product Y, however, that significant finding suggested a protective effect. 

None of these findings are particularly strong, but—if you had to pick—you would say that Product X was the most likely to be the real carcinogen, right? After all, both findings for Product X show a potential increased risk, and the largest of them is not only statistically significant but is more than twice as large as Product Y's.

But that's not how these findings were reported at all. The WHO issued a press release saying that there was no conclusive evidence that Product X caused cancer and blamed "biases and errors" for the study's findings. The WHO also issued a press release for Product Y, saying that it definitely did cause cancer and blamed weaknesses in the study for its failure to show this more clearly. 

Consequently, the BBC reported that Product X "does not appear to increase the risk" of getting cancer, but reported that Product Y represented "a definite, although small, risk" of getting cancer.

So why would the weakest associations be hyped up while the stronger associations were downplayed?

Product Y is passive smoking. Product X is a mobile phone. 

The World Health Organisation has not decided to wipe mobile phones off the face off the earth.

Hold onto yourself

From El Beeb:

Heart attack survivors 'fear sex'

Heart attack survivors are highly likely to avoid sex, fearing it could kill them, US researchers say.

I haven't linked to this story because of its mundane findings. Nor do I highlight it because of stupefyingly banal comments like:

"You can't predict by looking at someone if they are sexually active."

I bring it to your attention purely because of the photo they've used to illustrate it.

It's an odd photo to use for this story, but it's an odd photo anyway. The more I look at it, the odder it gets. Don't write in—I know what's going on. Someone is being hugged on a beach or in a field, right? It's just that the more you look at it, the more it looks like a double-jointed contortionist has put a t-shirt over his jumper.


Friday 21 May 2010

Tobacco Harm Reduction book 2010

Make a pot of coffee, take the phone off the hook and put the kids in the fridge—the Tobacco Harm Reduction 2010 yearbook has been published and is free to download here. Edited by Carl V. Philips & Paul Bergen (who also run the Smokles blog, which I often link to), it includes presentations from the International Harm Reduction Conference in Liverpool and much else besides.

It would be less than candid of me to say that I have read the whole thing, but I intend to get stuck in this weekend. If you want a serious discussion of the issues pertaining to snus, e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, written by people who actually know they're talking about, you should do the same.

The contents are...

1. Introduction
Carl V. Phillips & Paul L. Bergen 

2. Tobacco – the greatest untapped potential for harm reduction
Carl V. Phillips, Karyn K. Heavner & Paul L. Bergen 

3. Still fiddling whilst cigarettes burn?
Adrian Payne 

4. Switching to smokeless tobacco as a smoking cessation
method: evidence from the 2000 National Health Interview
Brad Rodu & Carl V. Phillips 

5. Why do anti-smoking groups oppose tobacco harm reduction?
A historical perspective
Christopher Snowdon 

6. A tobacco-free society or tobacco harm reduction: Which
objective is best for the remaining smokers in Scandinavia?
Karl Erik Lund 

7. The implicit ethical claims made in anti-tobacco harm
reduction rhetoric – a brief overview
Catherine M. Nissen, Carl V. Phillips & Courtney E. Heffernan 

8. Debunking the claim that abstinence is usually healthier for
smokers than switching to a low-risk alternative, and other
observations about anti-tobacco-harm-reduction arguments
Carl V. Phillips 

9. Systematic review of the relation between smokeless
tobacco and cancer in Europe and North America (abstract)
The relation between smokeless tobacco and cancer in
Northern Europe and North America. A commentary on
differences between the conclusions reached by two recent
Peter N. Lee & Jan Hamling 

10. University student smokers’ perceptions of risks and
barriers to harm reduction
Karen Geertsema, Carl V. Phillips & Karyn K. Heavner 

11. Comment to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
summarizing the rationale for tobacco harm reduction
Brad Rodu 

12. Public comment regarding tobacco harm reduction to
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from
Carl V. Phillips. Paul L. Bergen, Karyn K. Heavner
& Catherine M. Nissen 

13. Submission to the UK Department of Health from British
American Tobacco: The role for harm reduction within
tobacco control
David O’Reilly 

14. Comment to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from
Phillip Morris USA and US Smokeless Tobacco Company
regarding harm reduction
James E. Dillard 

15. An analog visual comparison of best, current and worst case
scenarios in (tobacco) harm reduction; numeracy-aiding tools to
get the message across
Paul L. Bergen & Courtney E. Heffernan 

16. The fluid concept of smoking addiction
Stanton Peele 

17. Electronic cigarettes are the tobacco harm reduction
phenomenon of the year - but will they survive?
Paul L. Bergen & Courtney E. Heffernan 

18. Vapefest 2010: A report from a conference of electronic
cigarette supporters
Bill Godshall 

19. Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) as potential tobacco harm
reduction products: Results of an online survey of e-cigarette
Karyn K. Heavner, James Dunworth, Paul L. Bergen,
Catherine M. Nissen & Carl V. Phillips 

20. Two petitions to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from
the American Association of Public Health Physicians
Joel L. Nitzkin

Thursday 20 May 2010


The politicians are pulling at the very strings of my heart as they moan to The Guardian about having their expenses restricted. No longer will they be allowed to force the public to pay for their taxi rides around London at every hour of the day. Said one MP:

"What happens on a January night in London? I suppose I will have to take the tube, then a bus and then a long walk home. That is not safe."

Oh, the humanity! Still, there are options: 

1. Make the streets safer

2. Get around London like every other normal human being

3. Pay for a bloody taxi yourself

Wednesday 19 May 2010

What would a bad public health policy look like?

An excellent article at the Tobacco Harm Reduction blog poses the hypothetical question of what a pressure group would do if it wanted to maximize cigarette sales. The answer looks remarkably like the current approach of the anti-smoking movement, particularly in the USA.

If public health organizations had as their mandate to maintain the present levels of disease and death associated with smoking (and even though their funding derives from the continuing sales of cigarettes I will not even mention in passing that that could possibly be a factor), what would their policies look like?

I imagine they would:

1. discourage any alternatives (like smokeless tobacco products or electronic cigarettes) that might make nicotine use safer

2. if they cannot make them illegal make sure that people think they are no safer

3. support regulations that do not conform to any other product information guidelines and demand that producers describe their products as more dangerous than they are.

And in this regard, they have been quite successful in making sure that little headway is made while at the same time giving the impression that they are valiantly fighting on our behalf.

Go read the whole article. You will not find a more concise and logical summary of the issues at stake.

It is time for us to rebrand these organizations. By their actions, they can no longer be identified as anti-smoking or anti-tobacco (since they fight solutions that would reduce smoking and tobacco use); they can only really be described properly as anti-social.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Big Pharma versus Big Tobacco

The Washington Examiner hits the bullseye when it says that the regulation of nicotine products comes down to a straight fight between Big Pharma and Big Tobacco. The situation in America is now so messed up that the interests of neither liberty nor public health (however defined) are being served.

It's a full-fledged regulatory rumble between Big Tobacco and the even bigger Big Pharma -- the sort of ugly influence game that will become the norm as government sticks its arms deeper into the economy.

So says Timothy P. Carney, the newspaper's lobbying editor. And lobbying is the name of the game. Big Pharma's problem is that other industries keep producing better nicotine products which, given time, may turn out to be more effective stop-smoking aids. Whether it's the e-cigarette or Camel Orbs, alternatives to Big Pharma's 'medicinal nicotine' are making up market share and the drug companies want the government to stamp them out. 

All these products deliver, for all practical purposes, nothing but nicotine. Big Pharma's approach is to claim that the nicotine in their products is safe (which is true), but that nicotine becomes magically harmful when it is delivered in the products of their competitors.

Their other line of attack is to claim that their competitors' products are marketed to—or at least might appeal to—children. RJ Reynolds, for example, have committed the crime of designing reasonably attractive packaging for Camel Orbs.

Would this appeal to children? Who knows? But if it does, then surely so will this Nicorette product.

Camel Orbs have been accused of having a "candy-like appearance, added flavors, and easily concealable size"—all of which apply equally to Nicorette's Mint Mini Lozenges. They have been accused of having "a very minty taste and seemed to deliver a jolt of nicotine". Ditto. It is said that very young children could die if they eat a whole pack of Camel Orbs. Ditto again.

Either both of these products should be banned or they should both be legal. The group that will advise the FDA on what do is the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC), and that's where the conflict of interests come into play.

Jack Henningfield is one of nine voting members on the TPSAC, and he is also one of eight patent holders of a cutting-edge nicotine chewing gum that has not yet been commercialized.

Henningfield is also vice president of health policy at a consulting firm that counts drug maker GlaxoSmithKline as a client. Glaxo holds the license for Nicorette, the leading nicotine gum currently on the market.

Camel Orbs may or may not be a real health risk, but they are certainly competition to Nicorette's gums and lozenges -- and Henningfield's patented gum. Yet our government will count on Henningfield and others in the pay of Nicorette's maker for counsel on how to regulate Camel's product.

And it doesn't stop there...

Neal Benowitz, another committee member, has also worked as a consultant to Glaxo as well as Pfizer, the Wall Street Journal has reported. Pfizer makes the quit-smoking drug Chantix.

Boston University professor Michael Siegel has reported on his blog that the committee's chairman, Dr. Jonathan Samet, "has received grant support from GlaxoSmithKline. In addition, the organization that he directed -- the Institute for Global Tobacco Control -- is funded by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer."

Finally, committee member Dorothy Hatsukami has been paid by a small drug maker to study its proposed nicotine vaccine.

Michael Siegel, who remains the go-to man for these issues, writes...

The last individual in the world who you would want to serve on such a panel would be a Big Pharma consultant, especially one who consults specifically in the area of smoking cessation medications. The fact that this individual also has a personal financial interest in such medication and who also has testified in court on behalf of Big Pharma simply adds insult to the public's injury.

Pharmaceutical funding has been one of the key developments in the story of the anti-smoking movement in the last 20 years. Many millions of dollars have been spent financing groups who have campaigned for smoking bans, higher cigarette taxes and other tobacco control measures that have pushed smokers towards pharmaceutical nicotine. 

I have never been one to see the anti-smoking movement as a pharmaceutically led enterprise. The money has helped enormously, no doubt, but anti-smoking campaigners were around long before the drug companies got involved and their prohibitionist aims have not changed significantly.

Until recently, it could be said that the interests of public health and the pharmaceutical lobby merely happened to coincide. That is no longer the case. Big Pharma's attempts to use regulation to prevent its competitors from selling virtually identical, safe and probably more effective nicotine products is the final proof that this is all about money. As Carney concludes:

It's an ugly game, this use of regulation to kill competitors and guarantee business, and conflicts of interest are unavoidable. The Pharma-vs-Big Tobacco scrum shows that Obama's project of increasing government control is at odds with his talk of cleaning up government.

Monday 17 May 2010

Bored on a Sunday night

God help me, I've only gone and joined Twitter. My address is @cjsnowdon for what it's worth. Twitter, as Karl Marx might have said, is for fools who haven't said enough. And speaking of Marx, I've also gone and taken the Political Compass test and seem to have become more left-wing since I last took it. 

All the reading I had to do for my latest book must have affected me. The Spirit Level Delusion website is now fully operational, by the way, and the book's out tomorrow.

Normal blogging will be resumed then. Sweet dreams.

Saturday 15 May 2010

The next logical step (part 94)

The latest anti-smoking ruse in the erstwhile Land of the Free is forcing shopkeepers to show graphic posters of various smoking-related diseases. As Simon Waxman says in the Boston Globe, this is an act of compelled speech and yet another intrusion on individual liberty.

Waxman (presumably no relation to Henry) asks the age-old question: 'Where Will It End?' 

What will be next? We all know that these posters will not eliminate smoking in Massachusetts. Will smokers at some point be required upon purchase of cigarettes to sign notices indicating that they recognize the health risks? Perhaps we will demand that they watch videos of surgeries or smokers on their deathbeds. 

Or perhaps we could compel smokers to buy a licence—an idea that was seriously mooted in Britain not too long ago.

Antismoking crusaders have established a goal of zero. Ultimately, they want smoking to be illegal, but if this cannot be achieved, they will go to increasingly invasive and degrading lengths to ensure that every smoker quits “voluntarily.’’

Even those who support draconian smoking bans are starting to realise that the issue has never been secondhand smoke and it certainly isn't about children.

Yet many do not seem to care about this narrowing of individual liberty. This is what we exchange for the opportunity to harangue fellow adults about their private choices.

Some proponents of these posters and other extremist antismoking measures would reply that they are primarily concerned with youth smoking.

Very well. That is why it is illegal to sell and market cigarettes to minors. At some point, we must recognize that we have done all we reasonably can to insulate youth from smoking and that in ostracizing adults, we only create pariahs in our communities.

What is more, how can it be ethical to harass adults for the ostensible benefit of children? Human beings do not have greater moral worth as children than as adults. An adult’s freedom to pursue legal activities in peace shouldn’t be sabotaged because some of his peers want a different lifestyle for their children.

These posters represent merely the latest indignity that smokers must suffer in order to shield radical nonsmokers from behaviors that disgust them. But it’s not the government’s job to protect people from offense, and existing laws in the Commonwealth are adequate to guard nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. It’s time antismoking zealots stopped shouting and gave their lungs a rest.

I strongly recommend reading the whole piece. I agree with every word of it and it's refreshing to see the mainstream media making the case against the fanatics so explicitly.

Friday 14 May 2010

GlaxoSmithKline lie about smokeless tobacco

From the Nicorette website:

A lot of people believe that taking smokeless tobacco is safer than smoking cigarettes. This is not true.

This is an outright lie. Smokeless tobacco is far safer than smoking cigarettes. Perhaps Glaxo's justification for this statement is that there are still health risks associated with smokeless tobacco. And so there are, just as there is a risk involved with most things in life, but they are tiny compared to the risks associated with smoking cigarettes. Glaxo might just as well say:

A lot of people believe that eating chocolate is safer than smoking cigarettes. This is not true.

Or, indeed:

A lot of people believe that using Nicorette is safer than smoking cigarettes. This is not true.

We have seen this kind of fabrication before from the US Surgeon General (amongst others). Under the Data Quality Act, his office finally had to retract the lie that smokeless is not safer. I covered this in an article entitled The Untouchables back in 2008.

In 2004, the National Legal and Policy Center complained about a statement in a booklet produced by the National Institute on Aging which read: "Some people think smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco and snuff), pipes, and cigars are safer than cigarettes. They are not." This was, of course, false. Smokeless tobacco is known to be around 98% safer than cigarettes. The complaint was upheld and as a result, the US Government is no longer allowed to pretend that the health risks associated with smokeless tobacco are as great as those associated with cigarettes*.

The upshot is that the National Institute on Aging now says: "Some people think smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco and snuff), pipes, and cigars are safe. They are not." And former Surgeon General Richard Carmona - whose 2006 report into passive smoking is one big DQA complaint waiting to happen - had to subtly change his tune from "smokeless tobacco is not a safer substitute for cigarette smoking" to "smokeless tobacco is not a safe substitute for cigarette smoking" (my italics). 

A slender difference indeed, but an important one, because at least now these statements are not outright lies. What has replaced them may still be misleading - they do not hint at how much safer smokeless tobacco is - but, as Jacob Sullum asked sardonically in Reason magazine, "Why lie about smokeless tobacco when a misleading half-truth will do?" Demanding half-truths rather than outright lies from the anti-smoking lobby might be the most that can be hoped for in this day and age. The Data Quality Act may be the only way to get them.

* Anti-smoking groups, websites and charities who are not publicly owned remain be free to lie about smokeless tobacco and frequently do. For example: "The fact is, chewing tobacco is every bit as dangerous as smoking it." or "There's a widely held myth that smokeless tobacco is a safe alternative to cigarettes, when actually it's just as dangerous as smoking."

Thanks to Bill Godshall for the tip.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Are you an alcoholic?

From The Times:

Alcohol abuse is a bigger problem than post-traumatic stress disorder for British servicemen and women deployed in war zones, a study has concluded.

That's one way of reporting the story. The glass is always half empty at The Times, it seems, since the BBC preferred to go with the more positive...

Mental trauma 'not rife among UK troops'

Still, let's hear the evidence.

Overall, more than one in ten (13 per cent) of the respondents said that they were drinking alcohol in quantities defined by researchers as hazardous, according to the World Health Organisation’s Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (Audit).

13%? Light-weights! Aren't we routinely told that over a third of adults in the UK are drinking to 'hazardous levels'? Surely that means that the army's young, predominantly working class men are drinking less than the general population. Sounds a tad unlikely.

But no. The clue is in the reference to the WHO's Audit test, which is a very different barometer of drinking levels. 

There are two ways of measuring hazardous drinking. One is a units-per-week system based on no evidence at all which is used to scare the public into believing there is an alcohol epidemic. The other is the Audit test, which is used when doctors genuinely want to identify people who are drinking at hazardous levels. The Audit test is far more reliable as it doesn't hinge on some arbitrary figures that were plucked out of the air. Tellingly, it identifies far fewer people as 'hazardous drinkers'.

That's well worth bearing in mind next time you hear about a third of Britons drinking to hazardous levels. Even the doctors don't take it seriously in practice.

So, do you fancy finding out if you're a hazardous drinker by the WHO's real test? Off you go then. The points for each question are shown in brackets. 8 or more makes you a hazardous drinker. Cheers!

1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

(0) Never (skip to Qs 9-10)
(1) Monthly or less
(2) 2 to 4 times a month
(3) 2 to 3 times a week
(4) 4 or more times a week

2. How many drinks containing alcohol do you have on a typical day when you are drinking?

(0) 1 or 2
(1) 3 or 4
(2) 5 or 6
(3) 7, 8 or 9
(4) 10 or more

3. How often do you have six or more drinks on one occasion?

(0) Never
(1) Less than monthly
(2) Monthly
(3) Weekly
(4) Daily or almost daily

4. How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

(0) Never
(1) Less than monthly
(2) Monthly
(3) Weekly
(4) Daily or almost daily

5. How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?

(0) Never
(1) Less than monthly
(2) Monthly
(3) Weekly
(4) Daily or almost daily

6. How often during the last year have you needed a first drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

(0) Never
(1) Less than monthly
(2) Monthly
(3) Weekly
(4) Daily or almost daily

7. How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

(0) Never
(1) Less than monthly
(2) Monthly
(3) Weekly
(4) Daily or almost daily

8. How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

(0) Never
(1) Less than monthly
(2) Monthly
(3) Weekly
(4) Daily or almost daily

9. Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

(0) No
(2) Yes, but not in the last year
(4) Yes, during the last year

10. Has a relative or friend or a doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

(0) No
(2) Yes, but not in the last year
(4) Yes, during the last year

Scores between 8 and 15 are most appropriate for simple advice focused on the reduction of hazardous drinking.

Scores between 16 and 19 suggest brief counselling and continued monitoring

Scores of 20 or above clearly warrant further diagnostic evaluation for alcohol dependence.

Small mercies

Labour stormed to power in 1997 with the slogan 'Things can only get better'. Now that Dave 'n' Nick have limped into power, an apt slogan might be 'Things could be worse'. So before we get the knives out for the dynamic duo, let's celebrate some of things that have been prevented by Labour's demise. 

Over at The Free Society, I give credit where credit's due for Dave 'n' Nick's commitment to rolling back the big brother state and ask whether this will translate into support for social liberties.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Talking sense on smokeless

Several recent news articles have flagged up the madness of prohibiting less hazardous tobacco products like snus, dip and (if you can call it a tobacco product) the e-cigarette.

From Forbes:

Antismoking crusaders treat all tobacco products as equally lethal. They aren't. The smokeless varieties--nicotine strips, lozenges, snuff, chewing tobacco and the like--are dramatically less harmful than traditional cigarettes. Yet Washington prohibits companies from marketing smokeless products as a safer alternative. This is murderously foolish.

It's difficult to argue with this, but that doesn't stop the intensive care contingent of the anti-smoking lobby trying. The usual cliche is to say that switching from cigarettes to safer alternatives is like jumping from the 30th floor of a building instead of the 35th. This is garbage. In the case of smokeless tobacco products, it's more like climbing out of a ground-floor window. People who know much more than me about these things say that these products are at least 99% safe. 

From the Wall Street Journal:

The experience of another effort to induce American smokers to switch clouds the picture for Terry Pechacek, associate director for science in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's office on smoking and health. He recalls that many smokers switched to low-tar cigarettes beginning in the 1960s, under the mistaken belief they were safer. "We need to be careful not to repeat this experience," says Dr. Pechacek. Public-health officials, he adds, are reluctant to advocate any form of tobacco use. "We do not need to make the American public guinea pigs."

But the American public already are guinea pigs, Mr Pechacek. They are guinea pigs in an experiment to rid the country of a plant that has been used as a extremely popular recreational drug for thousands of years. No one knows how such an experiment is going to end, but the omens from history are not good.

The comparison with low-tar cigarettes is, in any case, a dubious one. Apart from the fact that there is ample evidence that the high-yield cigarettes of the 1960s were more hazardous than today's brands, there is no knowing how many people would have quit if tar yields had remained high. I suspect not too many. More importantly, cigarettes of whatever strength are not analogous to snus, smokeless and e-cigarettes—there is a vast difference in risk.

The New York Times Freakonomics blog gets to the nuts and bolts of the issue in characteristic style. 

Offer a life raft and more people will jump off a sinking ship. Many will be saved, but some will drown off the life raft.

Mandatory seat belts do this—lives are saved, but people also drive faster and more accidents occur.

Sex education does this—there are fewer pregnancies per sexual encounter, but more sexual encounters are undertaken.

Unemployment insurance does this—it is a life raft for the working, but it attracts people into the workforce who are more likely than others to be unemployed.

I’ll bet that snus, like the other examples, will reduce the total damages of the risky behavior, but more people will engage in the behavior because they expect its costs to be lower.

As Carl V. Philips said in Liverpool two weeks ago, reducing risk is likely to increase usage. Let's not pretend otherwise. The question is what the overall impact on public health? Smokeless tobacco reduces risk to the individual and it reduces the risk in population terms. So what's not to like?

Thursday 6 May 2010

Book launch at the IEA

My new book, The Spirit Level Delusion will be launched at the Institute of Economic Affairs on Tuesday 11th May at 6.15 pm. You are very welcome to join us.

Christopher Snowdon’s new book — The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact-checking the Left's new theory of everything — shines the light of reason onto some of the wilder claims made by the Left in the last decade, not just in The Spirit Level but in such books as Affluenza, Happiness, All Consuming and The Selfish Capitalist.

If you've ever heard that Cubans live longer than Americans, that capitalism leads to mental illness or that income inequality is the root of all evil, you need to hear Mr Snowdon dismember these and other statist myths.

Election day

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. 

Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote."

— Benjamin Franklin

Wednesday 5 May 2010

A package of cod psychology

Another cracking article over at Spiked, this time by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, who reminds us that the Conservatives' public health policy is barely distinguishable from Labour's (ie. the nanny state writ large).

It is evident that Cameron’s choice has little to do with health, but is more a political selection arising out of prejudice against the sorts of people who engage in the sorts of activities that would be increasingly stigmatised under a new Tory government (as indeed they have been under New Labour).

Michael reiterates some of the arguments from his essential book The Tyranny of Health, questioning the validity of lifestyle modification in a nation of ever-increasing life expectancy. He then argues that even if such interventions can be considered morally justifiable, they simply do not achieve what they set out to do. Go read.

And for my next trick...

...I will make secondhand smoke travel through a wall.

The majority of children living in apartments are exposed to secondhand smoke, even when they don’t live with smokers.

Do go on.

“We are starting to understand the role that seepage through walls and through shared ventilation may impact tobacco smoke exposure in apartments,” said Karen Wilson, M.D., MPH, author of the study and an assistant professor of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Golisano Children’s Hospital.

And your evidence for this?

Among children who lived in an apartment, 84 percent had been exposed to tobacco smoke, according to the level of a biomarker (cotinine) in their blood that indicates exposure to nicotine found in tobacco, and this included more than 9 of 10 African-American and white children.

Cotinine is (a) harmless, and (b) not just found in tobacco. It is also found in, amongst other things, potatoes.

Even among children who lived in detached houses, 70 percent showed evidence of exposure.

A bit of a hole in the theory, that, isn't it? Clearly the cotinine is not coming from tobacco smoke "seeping through walls and ventilation".

I won't bother fisking this in full—the press release is here—suffice to say that the levels of cotinine found are risibly small and there is absolutely no suggestion of any health risk. As usual, it is a case of the policy leading the evidence; the policy being...

A smoking ban within multi-unit, subsidized housing could further reduce the tobacco smoke exposure for children and reduce smoking rates among residents.

The positive aspect of this story is that it has gone almost completely unreported in the mainstream media (ASH have reported it, naturally). Perhaps the junk scientists have finally stretched the public's credulity too far? Not before time, some would say.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Brendan O'Neil on freedom

My word, Brendan O'Neil has been on fine form of late. His article in a recent issue of The Spectator deserves to be cut out and kept to remind us about the scale of Labour's 13 year legislative frenzy. He lists just 50 of the 4,3000 laws that have been passed in Britain since 1997, from the trivial to the outrageous. It's more than enough.

We can’t buy more than two packets of painkillers at a time, lest we use them to try to top ourselves. We can’t hunt foxes with dogs. If you’re under 16, you can no longer win goldfishes at funfairs... We can’t smoke in restaurants. We can’t smoke at bus stops if they are more than 50 per cent covered, in which case they count as a ‘public indoor space’ in which, of course, smoking is forbidden... We can’t organise an unlicensed concert in a church hall or community centre, and if we do we could be banged up for six months... We can no longer expect to have the right to silence if arrested. We can no longer expect a right to trial by jury... ASBOs have been used to prevent people from wearing hats or hoods in public. From using a mop too loudly. From buying eggs with the intention of throwing them at people’s properties on Halloween. From dressing up as a werewolf and howling. From going into the garden dressed only in bra and knickers. From drunkenly arguing with one’s wife. From buying matches. From playing football at bus stops. And from having sex too loudly...

And so on, and so on. It's as relentless as the government's law-making machinery.

O'Neil followed this with a beautifully expressed piece for Spiked, in which he makes the case for liberal values (in the uncorrupted sense of the word) in the modern age. He argues that Tony Blair's emphasis on 'rights and responsibilities' was undermined by Labour's refusal to allow people to make the 'wrong' choices. The 'narrow individualism' which Blair so despised came to mean doing anything his government disapproved of.

There is some evidence that Blair genuinely sought to balance rights and responsibilities. Shortly after coming to power, he wrote to Isaiah Berlin to discuss his notions of positive and negative liberty. He wrote:

As you say, the origins of the Left lie in opposition to arbitrary authority, intolerance and hierarchy. The values remain as strong as ever, but no longer have a ready made vehicle to take them forward. That seems to me to be today’s challenge.

Unfortunately, Berlin was on his deathbed and was unable to reply. Blair often seemed to think that the mere existence of a Labour government would be enough to make people change their behaviour. As the years went on, with this proving to be a false hope (and with targets going unmet), he became more illiberal. Labour buzzwords like 'making healthy choices' and 'libertarian paternalism' dressed up authoritarianism in the robes of freedom. In the end, only the language of liberty remained.

As O'Neil writes:

The curtailment of our rights through the idea of ‘social responsibilities’ is really a new form of state denigration of liberty, and one which is well suited to our times. In earlier eras, when there was often a clearer dividing line between sections of the public demanding freedom and a confident state determined to defend its power, the denigration of liberty tended to be executed in a more explicit fashion: through a police state, brute censorship, or new laws restricting movement and association. 

Today, when there is neither a widespread demand for freedom nor an elite possessed of the wherewithal or even the need to dismantle liberty root and branch, our freedoms can be bargained off in a more informal fashion. The balancing of rights with responsibilities really represents the exploitation of the fear of social instability, of a widespread perception that we are living through, in Tony Blair’s words, a period of ‘social disintegration’, as a way of blackmailing people into self-policing their speech, behaviour and lifestyles in the name of preserving the status quo. It is the atomisation of the public, and the elite’s instinct for social control as a way of offsetting ‘social disintegration’, which has given rise to this tyranny of ‘balanced rights and responsibilities’.

Please do go read the whole thing

Sunday 2 May 2010

On the Level

For anyone who's just popped over from the Adam Smith Institute, there is an embryonic Spirit Level Delusion website here.


Thanks to Tim Worstall

Saturday 1 May 2010

No dice

Some of Britain's biggest recent films have come under fire from doctors who say they are more likely than Hollywood movies to include specific cigarette brands.

Do doctors find time to see any patients between making all these demands? This bit of PR does not, of course, come from real GPs, but from the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, which has been hard at work again.

They counted the number of incidents of smoking or smoking-related references or depictions in the 15 most popular films released in the UK between 1989 and 2008.

OK, not that hard at work. 15 films from a 20 year period? Don't wear yourselves will you, guys?

And what have we learnt from this exhaustive study?

"Although smoking imagery and branding images in the most popular films have become substantially less common over the past 20 years, it is apparent children and young people watching films in the UK are still exposed to frequent and, at times, specifically branded tobacco imagery, particularly in films originating from the UK", Prof John Britton and colleagues write.

Dr John Britton—for it is he—is rapidly becoming the UK's answer to nutty professor Stanton Glantz. And if the answer is 'Stanton Glantz', the UK is asking the wrong question.

All the usual suspects hold forth with pro-censorship guff—Ian Gilmore, Martin Dockrell, Terence Stevenson etc. But what makes this article worth flagging up is the British Board of Film Classification's beautifully curt response:

A BBFC spokeswoman, Sue Clark, said it had no intention of changing its policy. "These doctors are out of step with public opinion. We have asked the public specifically if smoking should be a classification or category-defining issue, and the response overwhelmingly was no, it shouldn't." 

The board flags up overt smoking content through its consumer advice, the short sentence on all film advertising which warns about sexual or violent content, and also by setting out on its website the factors underlying its decision to grant a film a particular rating, she added. "It's then up to parents whether or not they stop their children seeing that film."

The BBFC have realised that there is no point compromising with, or even engaging with, these pressure groups and their endlessly escalating demands. By virtue of the job they do, BBFC members are more broad-minded than the puritans who purport to speak for the medical profession. Their reply—which amounts to 'shut up and get back in your box'—is really all that needs to be said. Politicians, please take note.

On a completely different note, there is a report on the International Harm Reduction Conference here (PDF—tobacco reports on pages 6 and 7). And there is a new review of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse here (translation here).