Saturday 29 January 2011

Bhutan's iron fist

References to the tiny nation of Bhutan in the Western media tend to romantise the country and its supposed commitment to happiness (it uses a measure of Gross National Happiness). The less palatable truth is that Bhutan is ruled by a racist tyrant whose every whim is law. Despite its violation of human rights and persecution of ethnic minorities, some distant observers continue to see it as a Buddhist Utopia.

When you consider that some of the king's schemes to increase happiness have included banning television, banning advertising and banning tobacco, you can see how this tin-pot dictatorship appeals to those of a similarly autocratic persuasion.

What Bhutan really does is demonstrate the problems of having the state decide what constitutes happiness. Whether happiness is defined by a monarch (as in Bhutan), or by committee (as with David Cameron's ludicrous National Wellbeing Project), it will inevitably result in minorities being punished for finding their pleasures outside of the government-approved activities.

Tobacco-users are not the first minority to suffer persecution in Bhutan for not fitting the mould, but as the king clamps down on their habit, they are increasingly seeing what it's like to be on the wrong side of state's view of happiness. I say tobacco-users because the story below does not even involve smoking:

A Buddhist monk could face five years in prison after becoming the first casualty of a stringent anti-smoking law in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which vows to become the first smoke-free nation.

The monk has been charged with consuming and smuggling contraband tobacco under a law that came into force this month, the newspaper Kuensel reported Friday, having been caught in possession of 72 packets of chewing tobacco.

Bhutan, where smoking is considered bad for one’s karma, banned the sale of tobacco in 2005. But with a thriving smuggling operation from neighboring India, the ban failed to make much of an impact.

The new law has granted police powers to enter homes, threatening jail for shopkeepers selling tobacco and smokers who fail to provide customs receipts for imported cigarettes.

“He can be charged with smuggling of controlled substances, which is a fourth degree felony,” a police official from the Narcotic Drug and Law enforcement Unit of Bhutan, who did not want to be identified, told the Bhutan Today newspaper.

A fourth degree felony can carry a sentence of five years.

When Bhutan banned the sale of tobacco in 2005, The Lancet glowingly predicted that "The tobacco-free age is just around the corner." If so, Bhutan gives us a glimpse of what this brave new world will look like.

The dirty tricksters

Shades of the Anti-Saloon League's pamphlets denouncing what was known as the 'liquor trust' creeping into a BBC Newsbeat article about how the pub business works. In this thrilling exposé, intrepid reporter Jim Reed exposes the 'Five tricks to make you buy more booze'.

Newsbeat spoke to insiders to see what the top five drinks industry tricks are.

A more cynical man than I would translate this as "We spent the day in the pub chatting to the barmaid."

The 'tricks' include "Skilled Staff" (the swine!) and "Cocktails" (how could they?!). The article could more accurately be called 'Five ways bars use best practice to make your buy their booze', but when it comes to the demon drink there is no such thing as competing for market share.

Go have a read, but hold back the rage as you discover how those tricksters in the drinks industry take advantage of people who go to the pub with the best of intentions and end up being sold alcohol against their will.

"I've worked in bars which just refused to hire unattractive staff," 24-year-old David told Newsbeat.


And noticed those frosted "extra cold" pumps covered in condensation? They're the latest marketing gimmick.

How do these people sleep at night?

Thursday 27 January 2011

Stupid comment of the day (2)

Various alleged health groups have responded to the EU's Consultation on the Tobacco Products Directive. This gem comes from the section on plain-packaging.

It was stated that there is no evidence that plain packaging or any other possible measure would increase illicit trade.

Really?! There is no possible measure that would increase illicit trade? So smuggling and contraband is not affected by supply, demand, price or the ease with which it can be done? That's sounds a little, er, counter-intuitive.

There would probably rather be a decrease.

Sure. If you're going to make things up, you might as well go the full mile. But that is merely the aperitif. This is the good bit:

Generic packaging would make it harder to imitate another company's package as it could only be done by copying the brand name.

Just wonderful.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Stupid comment of the day

Linda Rosenthal:  "Enough about you. Let's talk about me."

From a New York politician after the Assembly Health Committee cleared the way for a ban on e-cigarettes:

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, Democrat of Manhattan, who sponsored the bill, says she quit smoking twelve-and-a-half years ago, telling NEWS10, "If I can quit without e-cigarettes, then anybody can do it."

And I found a job without going to the Jobcentre, I stopped drinking without going to AA and I lost weight without going to Weightwatchers. And so—since all that matters is the anecdotal experience of one person—I hereby declare that all these things should be banned.

I wonder if this woman also managed to quit smoking without the use of Nicorette gum? Because if so, we should ask serious questions about whether anybody else should be allowed to use such products. In fact, whatever she does should be mandatory and whatever she doesn't do should be a criminal offence.

Because the whole world revolves around Linda frickin' Rosenthal.

No link between smokeless tobacco and pancreatic cancer

A meta-analysis in the current issue of Annals of Oncology has found no association between smokeless tobacco (SLT) use and pancreatic cancer. Authored by no fewer than thirty researchers, including Paolo Boffetta, the study ends by saying:

In conclusion, this large collaborative pooled analysis of noncigarette tobacco use in 11 studies within PanC4 provides evidence that cigar smoking is associated with an excess risk of pancreatic cancer, while, based on small numbers, no significant association emerged for pipe smoking and smokeless tobacco use.

Smokeless tobacco users who had never smoked (the relevant subgroup if we are to see whether SLT causes pancreatic cancer) was 0.62 (0.37-1.04).

Our results on smokeless tobacco use are in broad agreement with a recently published meta-analysis of all published data on the issue, which reported no excess risk of pancreatic cancer in case–control studies. They are, however, at variance with those from another meta-analysis, based mainly on data from two Nordic cohort studies, which suggested that smokeless tobacco is associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

Why the discrepancy? Partly because, as Brad Rodu and Philip Cole noted at the time, the two Nordic studies failed to control for drinking and smoking status. The widely reported claim that SLT results in a 67% increase in pancreatic cancer risk comes from one of these studies (also co-authored by Boffetta), but this was only achieved by including former smokers, who are known to have an increased risk. Amongst the non-smoking SLT users, there was no elevation in risk.

The new meta-analysis has addressed these confounding factors:

Further, we were able to allow for study design variables and major identified possible confounding factors, including ethnicity, education, BMI, diabetes and alcohol consumption, and to estimate the risk of smokeless tobacco use in lifelong nonsmokers, thus minimizing any possible bias due to residual confounding.

This study should go some way to finally putting the SLT/pancreatic cancer myth to bed. One by one, the scares about SLT, including Swedish snus, have been shown to based on remarkably little evidence. Although it is still widely believed that snus causes oral cancer, this has long-since been disproved by a string of studies (the EU removed the 'Causes Cancer' warning from snus back in 2001). In recent years, those opposing the legalisation of snus in the EU (Sweden has an exemption) have relied heavily on the pancreatic cancer scare. Although not biologically implausible, the epidemiological evidence for this has always been highly suspect and is at odds with population-level incidence of the disease (Sweden's rate of pancreatic cancer is the fourth lowest in the EU).

Health scares tend to cast long shadows, partly because studies like this go unreported in the media. It's possible that SLT will be popularly believed to cause oral and pancreatic cancer for years to come. But the evidence for both claims has never been weaker.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

You don't need a weatherman

A spokesman for British Weather Services (who they?) has decided to pipe up with his views about economics. (Back story for non-British readers: GDP fell by 0.5%, and this has partly been attributed to the worst winter for decades, including much snow.)

From Liberal Conspiracy, who are clearly thrilled:

The British Weather Services have today sent out a press release disputing the chancellor George Osborne’s claim that snow was to blame for the worsening GDP figures.

For a kick-off, this wasn't some excuse dreamt up by George Osborne. It was talked about at the time and the Office of National Statistics explicitly said:

The GDP estimate was significantly affected by the bad weather in December

Unless the ONS is secretly run by Tory apologists, this would seem to be a reasonable quote from a reliable source. But back to the press release:

Senior Risk Meteorologist Jim Dale says, “For every drop of rain or flake of snow, for every fall and rise in temperature there is a commensurate rise and fall in the demand and supply of the UK’s good and services. It’s our job to provide to companies big and small the very telling figures that link the weather numbers with what actually went on re: performance.”

(nb. British Weather Services are a company who supply meteorological services to other companies and will no doubt be chuffed with the publicity they're getting.)

There is no doubt that the very severe conditions of late November and December would have impacted on UK plc – but there are two sides to every story, Jim explains. "Where there is a weather loser there tends to be a weather winner on the opposite end of the fence, so construction and high street shops may have had it bad for example, but retailers selling cold weather items such as winter clothing, motor factors and comfort foods would have done well out of the ice and snow, not to mention warm and inviting indoor shopping centres, many of which boasted record footfall figures during the period."

This is utter drivel. The economy was damaged by the horrendous weather in December because people couldn't go to work and couldn't get to the shops. It wasn't a question of intending to buy some sunglasses and Bermuda shorts and ending up buying a pair of gloves and a good, thick jumper instead. It was a question of not being able to go shopping at what is traditionally the busiest shopping month of the year.

This is borne out by the ONS figures, which show:

Transport, storage and communication decreased by 0.8 per cent, compared with an increase of 2.0 per cent in the previous quarter. Land transport contributed most to the decline in this quarter.

Land transport, eh? How could that possibly be affected by continuous snow, black ice and roads being closed for days on end? But, never mind, I suppose the businesses who were relying on these deliveries could have always spent their money on winter clothing, comfort food and "motor factors".

Distribution, hotels and restaurants decreased by 0.5 per cent, compared with an increase of 0.8 per cent in the previous quarter. Hotels and restaurants contributed most to the decline in this quarter.

So fewer people go restaurants when it's -10 outside and howling a blizzard outside. Fancy that.

Now, I realise that some people are keen to see the country have a double-dip recession for political reasons, but they're going to have to do better than rely on a dodgy press release from a private weather company. By the way, the ONS figures also show construction output increasing by 3.3% (contrary to Dale's expert view), manufacturing increased by 1.4% and total production increased by 0.9% so keep the schadenfraude on ice for the time being.

Beer, coffee and the middle classes

Over at ep-ology, Carl V. Philips continues his blogging marathon. All his posts are worth reading, but this one particularly interested me. It refers to this pro-beer story:

Here was the best part:

It might seem unlikely, but beer (just like any wine, spirits, or other alcohol), when consumed in moderate amounts, has health benefits.
I hope the anti-alcohol disinformation has not been so effective that this actually still seems unlikely to most readers, but at least the message was accurate, which it usually is not. For some reason, a myth persists that red wine. alone among alcoholic beverages, reduces heart attack risk and has other benefits, but there is no benefit from other drinks. The evidence that all sources of alcohol have similar effects been clear for decades. There was originally a hypothesis, ages ago, that the French Paradox (the fact that the French have better cardiovascular health than would have been predicted from naive models from many decades ago that over-emphasized the badness of dietary fats) might be explained by a benefit from red wine. Red wine indeed turned out to be beneficial, but no more so then the more plebeian brown liquids that most of us prefer.

I said "for some reason", but I suppose the persistence of the myth is neither a mystery nor an accident. Similar to the myth that all tobacco/nicotine use causes large health risks, the myth about red wine is used by moralizing activists, who pretend to be motivated by their health "sciencey" claims but are really using the language of science to support their purification campaigns without admitting their political motives. In this case, studies of isoflavones and such, and biased reviews of the data that cherry-pick any statistics that favor wine over beer, are used to try to convince people that the benefits are from a few stray molecules left over from the grape skin, rather than the ethanol. Since relatively few of the unwashed masses that these activists are trying to manipulate have red wine as their drink of choice, the activists can continue to pretend that almost all drinking is bad.

I really do think there is a class issue at work here...

So do I, which is why I bring it to your attention. Whenever temperance types such as Ian Gilmore make an effort to stress that they are not calling for teetotalism, they invariably mention the agreeable glass of wine with dinner. If they are feeling particularly brave/honest, they might even mention that the agreeable glass of wine is good for the ticker. They tend not to endorse a glass of vodka after work, or a bottle of Old Thumper before bed-time, although both would be equally healthful.

It seems reasonable to attribute this prejudice to the middle class's dominance in public health and the media (and in pretty much everything else). Of course, it could be argued that although the cardiovascular benefits are the same (because they come from the alcohol itself), it is better to drink wine from a public order perspective. In an essay that is sadly absent from the internet, Frank Zappa once wrote that "wino's don't march" ie. they tend to be less prone Neanderthal behaviour at closing time. Likewise, anecdotal evidence tells me that people drunk on whisky behave somewhat differently than those drunk on gin.

Or perhaps not. For all I know there are a huge number of studies showing that the type of drink makes no difference and it's all a case of reverse causation (ie. overly emotional and occasionally violent people happen to prefer drinking whisky). Whatever the case, wine has long been the drink of respectable society and it is also a staple of the much-glorified Mediterranean lifestyle. This, as Carl says, led to the exaggerated health benefits of wine at the expense of beer. This is changing, in the USA at least, because beer is becoming more popular:

When I came of age, there were only 60 breweries operating in all of America, and 99.9% of what they produced was little more than cheap slightly-alcoholic bubbly water. Most anyone reading about the benefits of alcohol for a decade and a half after that saw nothing but the red wine myth, and those of us who knew enough to know the science and that there was such a thing as good beer did our own brewing (I was pretty good at it) and research (I published one paper about this ages ago). Eric Rimm has been communicating the same message contained in the WebMD story for at least 20 years. But now, with more than 1000 craft breweries and dozens of fairly large high-quality operations in the U.S., people who would have been wine snobs a generation ago now drink fancy beer, so the health news is no longer entirely anti-beer.

Whilst I'm in the mood for a little speculation, I have occasionally wondered if the same was true for coffee. Coffee is hardly a taboo drink, but it was a target of prohibitionists way back when and there was a lingering suspicion of it for many years (it does, after all, contain a supposedly addictive drug). For many decades coffee would be regularly 'linked' to various cancers. But over the last ten years or so, studies have been more likely to say coffee is good for you (eg. reduces prostate cancer risk, good for the brain, reverses Alzheimer's). It may well be coincidence, but this turnaround seems to have occurred at a time when coffee houses run by big chains have popped up on every street-corner, and hanging around in Starbuck's has become de riguer. See also bottled water, which I have ranted about before.

Or not. Let me know in the comments. For full disclosure, I drink a lot of coffee and a lot of red wine. I've never been in a Starbuck's and I generally avoid bottled water.

Monday 24 January 2011

Prohibitionists march on in New York

When the hysteria about Skoal Bandits set the wheels in motion for the banning of snus back in the 1980s, Ann McNeill wrote an editorial for the British Journal of Addiction in which she said:

“Some find it hard to justify the ban on oral snuff when cigarette smoking, which is undoubtedly more dangerous, is still permitted. The answer is simple. Prohibition is only feasible if relatively few people use a product.”

This was unusually candid, and true. The resulting ban on snus turned out to be a public health disaster since it prevented smokers from switching to a product that is at least 90% safer than cigarettes (and quite probably 99% safer). Not all anti-tobacco campaigners have admitted they got this one wrong but, to her credit, Ann McNeil is one of them and she has publicly stated that snus should be decriminalised.

Still, it is easier to ban a niche product than it is to ban a widely used product. No wonder, then, that those with a prohibitionist mentality went after snus and are now going after e-cigarettes. The fact that both of these products are excellent substitutes for cigarettes and are virtually harmless seems not to enter into it. As the American Council on Science and Health said in its Top Ten Unfounded Health Scares of 2010:

The chemical components found in e-cigarettes pose little danger to human health, and should not be considered toxins or carcinogens. It is irresponsible for public health organizations such as the CDC and the AHA to denounce the use of e-cigarettes as an effective smoking cessation method. In doing so, they only continue to promote the use of regular cigarettes for the majority of smokers who failed to quit using traditional approved cessation methods.

And yet, the prohibitionist crusade marches on in New York City. Some day someone will write a book explaining how New York went from being a world-wide symbol for liberty to being the pitiful nanny state it is today. The unsavoury, bloated, authoritarian figure of Michael Bloomberg will no doubt loom large in the story, but even he can't be held directly responsible for this insanity:

A01468 Summary:

BILL NO: A01468

Prohibits the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors; prohibits distribution or sale of any item containing or delivering nicotine that is not defined by law as a tobacco product or approved by the United States food and drug administration for sale as a tobacco use cessation or harm reduction product.

The above comes from a Bill to ban e-cigarettes. I understand that it will be voted on tomorrow. The justification for this legislation is...

Given the unregulated nature of this product, there is no way of knowing the amount of nicotine in each cigarette, the amount that is delivered with each inhalation, or the contents of the vapor created in the process.

Gee, if only there was some way of dealing with an unregulated product without having to ban it. Of course—and this comes completely out of left-field—you could just regulate it, thereby guaranteeing the quality of the product whilst guaranteeing that e-cigarette users don't have to go back to smoking a proven health hazard.

Call these people anything you want. Just don't call them health campaigners.

(Vapers Club has the links if you want to let the NY authorities what you think of banning e-cigarettes.)

Friday 21 January 2011

Rationing and irrationality

The New Economics Foundation has joined forces with The Green Party to produce a quite extraordinary document called The New Home Front which advocates wartime austerity, rationing and other such restrictions on liberty as a response to climate change.

This has been a long time coming (I wrote about the NEF making similar noises in The Spirit Level Delusion), but this is the most explicit statement yet in favour of viewing austerity, poverty and enforced scarcity as desirable ends.

The NEF has a bizarre nostalgia for war-time Britain as an era of equality and anti-consumerism that will be unfamiliar to those who lived through those times. They are apparently delighted that "there was a 95% drop in the use of personal motor vehicles, while public transport use increased 13%" (er, yes, they had petrol rationing) and "food consumption fell 11 per cent by 1944 from before the war" (that'll be the food rationing—this is a good thing?)

And they make frankly dubious claims such as:

Between 1937–1944: infant mortality (up to age 1) fell from 58 per 1000, to 45 per 1000.

Er, maybe, but the war didn't take place between 1937 and 1944, and the infant mortality rate was falling before the war and fell more sharply after it. Oh, and the infant mortality rate rose sharply in the darkest years of the war (which began in 1939 and ended in 1945, by the way).

Tim Worstall has fisked a good portion of this document already. I will only add that the NEF's view of WWII rationing reflects a warped view of history and is intellectually incoherent. They portray rationing as a "progressive" measure which helped reduce consumption, as if contemporaries viewed consumption as a bad thing. The truth is, of course, that consumption was inevitably going to decline due to the Battle of the Atlantic and rationing was a way of preventing people dying from starvation. It was always considered a necessary evil and the intention was always to get rid of it after the war (it was phased out between 1946 and 1954).

Rationing was only (barely) tolerated because of the exceptional circumstances and because the prospect of losing the war inspired people to make extraordinary sacrifices. But when bread rationing was introduced by the Labour Government in July 1946 Churchill called it “one of the gravest announcements that I have ever heard made in the House [of Commons] in the time of peace”. The Daily Mail said it was “the most hated measure ever to have been presented to the people of this country."

Although manifestly employed during WWII as a response to scarcity, the NEF want to use rationing as a response to prosperity. And because the aim is to reduce consumption to prevent climate change, logic dictates that such rationing must continue forever. I don't think you have to be a loony libertarian to find this a tad sinister.

The NEF say that:

Over the next six months we are going to search for, and invite, the best ideas to live better, healthier and less wasteful lives from the generation who remember a time when their nation called upon them to do the same.

Perhaps I can help get the ball rolling by dipping into the extensive archive of interviews with WWII survivors like this woman:

We were always hungry, though we were fed as well as rationing allowed. If going for a weekend away we were issued with a little parcel with a rasher of bacon, a small knob of butter and a container of jam or marmalade.

Or this man:

Strict food rationing meant a plain if wholesome diet for growing lads with healthy appetites! We were always hungry! As a result, everyone kept a keen lookout for any extras going — offal and brawn at the butchers were not `on ration` and vegetables and fruit in season were always in demand.

Or this man:

I hated everything being on ration. In the morning we used to get up and my Mum always used to be making porridge. But because sugar was on ration it tasted horrible, and it tasted worse if you put salt on it.

Or hear what these women said at the time:

"The rich people will not suffer. The middle class, the poor people, the people with children, they're the ones who are going to suffer. Bread for breakfast, bread for dinner, bread for tea for them. And therefore we, the British Housewives' League will not stand for bread rationing."

Even many years after the end of the war, when nostalgia for their youth began to cloud their memories, the misery of rationing was always vividly recalled by those who endured it. Like Scarlett O'Hara, veterans of the war resolved never be hungry again and set about creating the land of prosperity and plenty that the NEF now find so intolerable. So let's hope the NEF ask WWII survivors what they think about creating a 'New Home Front' and let's hope the pensioners give them a suitably Churchillian reply.

The pain in Spain

Josie Appleton has a good article up at Spiked about the reaction to Spain's controversial smoking ban. I haven't written anything about this before, partly because it hasn't been reported in the English-speaking media. At this stage, it seems that the authorities in Spain have got a real job on their hands if they want to make the ban work (ie. get people to obey it). As in Greece, the protests are not subsiding and bar-owners have come together to fight the ban in a way that never happened in the UK.

A few days ago, it was rumoured that the Greek government would relax the ban in the face of widespread non-compliance, but after several failed attempts in the past, the authorities have instead decided to launch a crack-down:

"We need to protect public health even if it hurts the pockets of some people," Panagiotis Bechrakis, a prominent pulmonary expert, told Flash Radio.

A day earlier, Health Minister Andreas Loverdos had warned that the crackdown would be enforced "without exception."

"The state can be ridiculed no longer," the minister said, noting that in the last two months there had been 343,000 complaints from non-smokers but only 3,000 fines were imposed.

I suspect that the outcome in Greece will be that the ban stays on the statute books but ends up being widely flouted. After a brief crack-down to save face, the authorities will turn a blind eye outside of airports, hotels and city centres. The same will probably be true of Spain, where the legislation is particularly draconian (they can't even show people smoking on television!), unless bar-owners succeed in a Dutch-style campaign to relax the law. And, according to Appleton, the anti-ban movement is gathering momentum:

As time goes on, the anti-ban rebels seem to gain in strength and numbers. One of the first rebels was the bar Espirit in Castellón, whose owner Fernando Tejedor posted signs declaring that ‘smoking is permitted’ and who defended his ‘freedom to choose on my own premises’. The owner of a Marbella restaurant penned a veritable tract in which he said that the smoking ban was a ‘smokescreen to cover seven years of massive destruction in Spain’: ‘We inform you that as a private business we are making use of our rights as we understand them and the law will not be applied in our establishment.’ The head of a bar in Castilla y Leon, Manuel Rodríguez, declared himself a ‘non-conformist and against the anti-tobacco law’ and called a public demonstration for the ‘right to choose freely’.

Bars are becoming political battlegrounds. When police visited the rebel Marbella bar and reported the clients who were smoking, the owner launched a broadside against the officers. Bars are starting to form into political associations, sensing that there is strength in numbers and that if there are enough rebels then the law will be unenforceable. In one area of Madrid, a group of bar owners formed what was, in effect, a rebels’ syndicate, pledging that they will all do ‘as much as possible to ensure that you can smoke in their businesses’.

It strikes me that for a total smoking ban to succeed, a country must fulfill most or all of the following criteria:

1. A strong economy and a quiet political environment

2. An officious, jobsworth mentality amongst the authorities and/or a very law-abiding public

3. A relatively low smoking rate

4. A widespread belief that secondhand smoke is a major public health peril

The English-speaking and Scandinavian countries met all these criteria when they implemented their bans. Spain and Greece meet none of them. Other countries meet some of them but still fail. India, for example, has a low smoking rate and its authorities are famously officious, but the country remains poor and fear of secondhand smoke is not widespread. Eastern European countries, on the other hand, still have too many smokers to make bans workable. So do Germany and Austria, while the Dutch remain too liberal for a total ban to be considered acceptable.

Spanish and Greek authorities haven't made things any easier for themselves by introducing their bans at a time when their economies are basket-cases. The public can be forgiven for thinking there are more serious problems to deal with that people having a smoke in a bar, and—needless to say—bar-owners remain unconvinced by studies claiming that alienating half your customer base doesn't hurt business. But even if economic conditions were better, resistance to the law would be fierce. One way or the other, people will be smoking in Spanish bars for some time to come.


Patrick Basham is continuing his celebration of all things sinful with a new book about gambling. So if you're in London on 27 January, why not go to his book launch at the Institute of Economic Affairs?

Gambling - A Healthy Bet

The authors argue gambling is a net contributor to public health, economic life, and an important component of a liberal society. Gambling has become a widespread pastime for a simple, single, and unassailable reason: gambling adds to the sum of human happiness. Based upon their rigourous examination of gambling’s many faces and many sides, the authors conclude that policymakers should leave gamblers – and the gambling industry – alone.

27 January 2011, 6.15pm
IEA, 2 Lord North Street, London, SW1 (door on Great Peter Street)

Dr Basham is a nonsmoking teetotaller but I understand that he enjoys a flutter so you can expect his defence of turf accountants, casinos and one-armed bandits to be particularly heartfelt. I'll try to be there if I can afford it (did I miss the protests when Boris Johnson hiked the price of a return journey in Zone 1 of the underground from an already extortionate £5.60 to a frankly criminal £6.60?)

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Minimum pricing

From the BBC:

Minimum alcohol price levels planned by coalition

Plans for a minimum price for alcohol in England and Wales are to be announced by ministers. Shops and bars will be prevented from selling drinks for less than the tax they pay on them.

This blog has always maintained that supermarkets selling alcohol below cost-price is a myth dreamt up by the temperance lobby to feed the tabloid hysteria over binge-drinking. I have looked far and wide for examples of below-cost selling happening in practice and—aside from a few products being discounted because they're approaching their 'best before' date—have never found any.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out why a business would choose not to sell something at less than the price it was bought at...

Richard Dodd, from the British Retail Consortium, told BBC Breakfast that supermarkets were being unfairly demonised.

"Supermarkets believe in responsible drinking too, and they do an enormous amount to achieve that, in terms of know-your-limits unit labelling and preventing underage purchases of alcohol, but there's an awful lot of nonsense talked about this idea of below-cost selling.

"Because, if you just stop and think about it for a minute, no business could survive - let alone thrive - if it was routinely selling large amounts of product at less than it was actually paying for it."

Supermarkets "luring in" unwitting customers with below-cost alcohol is as much of a scare story as the 'alcohol is cheaper than water' myth. Inevitably, then, banning the practice is going to have no effect. And now, after years of building up this canard, the temperance lobby suddenly agrees.

Prof Ian Gilmore, of the Royal College of Physicians, said in practice it was a "small step" with "no effect at all on the health of this nation".

On the radio this morning, Gilmore (who is the chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance), made this admission:

"If you go round the supermarket shops today, even where they're heavily discounted, they will not fall below this level."

Accusing the government of not going far enough is an iron rule for campaigners of any hue (the alternative would mean packing up and finding more useful employment). It should be no surprise, then, that the temperance lobby is expressing dissatisfaction at today's news. In truth, they have got what they wanted for now. The government has introduced a minimum price of sorts and an important precedent has been set. As Dick Puddlecote says in a suitably angry post:

This isn't the be all and end all of anti-alcohol policy. It's just the first step on a long temperance journey towards alcohol denormalisation, chillingly alluded to in this short and seemingly innocuous paragraph.

They say banning shops and bars from selling drinks for less than the tax paid on them will cut crime and set a "base price" for the first time.
Yes, that's right. For the first time.

And this is precisely what it is. It's a precedent; a potential enabling act for eternal government control of the price of alcohol.

With the principle now in place that the state has the right to decide how much a product should cost, there will now be a continuous campaign to create a minimum price per unit. Once that it done, every scare story about 'Booze Britain'—whether true or not—will be accompanied with a squeal from fake charities to increase that minimum price. Forever.

Monday 17 January 2011

Come along... this:

An Evening Panel Discussion

19 January 2011, 6.30pm

IEA, 2 Lord North Street, London, SW1 (door on Great Peter Street)

Poverty, Inequality and Prosperity

In the context of a major new work that the IEA will be publishing on the measurement of poverty, we have organised a panel discussion on poverty and inequality. The debate surrounding whether poverty should be measured in absolute or relative terms is vital for understanding how to approach policy in this area. Furthermore, many amongst the left have welcomed recent work that has suggested that we should be less concerned with eliminating poverty than eliminating inequality – even if this makes the poor poorer. The IEA as assembled an excellent panel to discuss policy in this field of poverty, inequality and wellbeing. Panellists Kitty Ussher, Chris Snowdon, Will Straw and Kristian Niemietz are all experts in the field who view the subjects from different perspectives.

Kristian Niemietz, Poverty Fellow, IEA
Chris Snowdon, Author & Columnist
Will Straw, Head of Strategic Development, IPPR and Founder of Left Foot Forward
Kitty Ussher, Director of Demos

Mark Littlewood, Director General & Ralph Harris Fellow, IEA

RSVP (acceptances only) using the form below or by email to or phone 020 7799 8900

Sunday 16 January 2011

The beer diet

From The Telegraph (amongst many others):

Moderate drinking of ale and lager can cut the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure...

That much we know. The evidence of a J-shaped mortality curve for alcohol consumption (ie. it's better to drink a little than not at all) is reasonably well-established. I've yet to see a public health campaign take this to its logical conclusion by actively telling teetotallers to start drinking, but then I guess we proles are too thick to be able to handle any more complex message than 'drinking is bad, m'kay'.

...and even help people lose weight, doctors say.

Er, really?

Dr Estruch and Dr Rosa Lamuela tested 1,249 men and women over 57 years old. They found that those who regularly drank moderate amounts of beer were less likely to suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure and had a lower body fat content.

This particular study ('Beer, Mediterranean diet and cardiovascular disease') seems not be be available online, and perhaps the surprising association between beer drinking and weight-loss is robust, but this quote from its author makes me wonder:

Dr Ramon Estruch, the lead researcher, said: “Moderate beer consumption is associated with nutritional and health benefits. It does not necessarily mean weight gain since it has no fat and calorie content is low.”

Low compared to what? There are over 200 calories in a pint of lager, which is around 10% of the recommended daily intake. While a pint or two could certainly be incorporated into a 'healthy' diet, it's difficult to argue that weight-loss would not be easier without those extra calories.

A few years ago the British Beer and Pub Association made a scientifically suspect effort to portray beer as being less fattening than other drinks. They did so by comparing the calories in 100 ml servings of beer (41 calories), wine (77 calories), spirits (250 calories) and apple juice (47 calories). See the problem there? The BBC spotted it at the time:

Sceptics will argue that although beer has fewer calories than wine, it comes in pints while wine is served in smaller measures.

Indeed we will, because that's the relevant, real-life comparison. Dr Estruch's study apparently concludes that beer has "a relatively low alcohol content compared to other drinks", which is just another way of repeating the same fallacy. We don't drink pints of spirits and even if we did we'd have bigger things to worry about than getting fat.

The good doctor, from Barcelona University, also has a rather cartoonish perception of British drinkers:

“Beer drinkers here do not resemble Britons, who drink large quantities, almost without moving from one spot, while eating chips and sausages.”

Crisps and peanuts, surely? And, again, it is the quantity of beer that's being drunk that's the issue. Big drinkers may also be big eaters, but that does not absolve all those calories in the beer.

Far be it from me disparage the work of a man who is such a keen advocate of the cheeky pint, but I can't help feel that his fondness for the hop, as well as the usual glorification of the Mediterranean lifestyle, has blinded him to the fundamental importance of calories in weight gain. I wish him well, and I hope he's right, but it does seem a little unlikely.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Junk 365

I've been a little lethargic with the blogging of late. First came the (swine?) 'flu which put me out of commission for a good while. Then came the need to do some off-line writing. I would say there's not been much to blog about but Carl V. Phillips has found plenty of interest and is in prolific form.

As he will need to be, since he intends to write 365 posts about "unhealthful news" in 2011. By the looks of it, we can expect a lot of insight and a good scattering of fascinating facts. So why not pop over there and see what a real epidemiologist has to say about junk science? And if you haven't book-marked his blog yet, now's the time.

On media reporting of science:

The topic that the mainstream media is far-and-away best at reporting on is sport. Perhaps because of that, they try to make every other topic – public policy, science, etc. – as much like a sporting match as possible, emphasizing the battling partisans and score-keeping over substantive analysis of the topic. Among pursuits of the mind, doctrinal battles are already quite similar to sporting matches, so portraying scientific inquiry as if it were such a battle is probably just too great a temptation for reporters.

On the recent controversy about publishing a study purporting to demonstrate ESP (this one in fact):

C’mon, how exactly do these people think science works? We all get together and decide what is true and then produce evidence to support it, burying anything that contradicts it? Well, I guess that is what passed for science in the dark ages, and is what passes for science in anti-tobacco journals and a few similarly-politicized areas, and apparently for some areas of psychology research. Real science, however, relies on an interplay of theorizing and analyzing and reporting of field/experimental research. All of these are needed, including reporting research results that might not end up supporting an accepted theory.

...Only a non-scientist would think that we have to defend the science literature against results that support a hypothesis that might come to be accepted as wrong, something that is obviously impossible. But the reporter and those he talked to seem to think that the “extraordinary evidence” rule means do not publish even a single result that contradicts the conventional wisdom until we have extraordinary evidence. I trust everyone sees a little problem with that.

On peer-review:

I am especially amused by the bit about this being a fundamental flaw in peer review. I guess there were a couple of generations during which the peer review process was considered to add great value, in between Einstein (peer review started to become popular late in his career and he was appalled by it) and now (when anyone who has participated in peer review in a high-volume science, and who has half a clue, knows that it just barely adds value). Those of us familiar with peer review are aware that it serves to screen out some research that uses particularly bad methodology (it sounds like the Bem studies use methods as good as any in the field – pretty cute ones at that, which you can read about at the link above). Beyond that, peer review does nothing more that any editor could do, get rid of material that is incoherent or off-topic for the journal. Of course, it is often used to censor those who do not support the opinions of those who control the field, so I guess that is what Hyman was referring to.

...the news story makes several references to other researchers re-analyzing Bem's study data. This must mean that Bem made the data available. If this be junk science in parapsychology research, play on. In epidemiology we can only dream of getting access to data to do an honest reanalysis, even after obviously biased and misleading analyses are published (and peer reviewed, I might add).

On the reliability of psychological experiments:

I had a professor who told the story of how he picked up spending money as an undergraduate by doing as many psych studies as he could. He said that he came to quickly realize that when the experimenters told a room full of students “you are all participating in a study of X” they were always lying once, and often twice: X was never the true purpose of the study, so it was interesting to try to guess what was. Moreover, chances were that not all were participating, but one or half of the students were actually part of the experiment, acting some role but pretending to be subjects. This was about 1970, but it appears that nothing has changed. So not only are the experiments extremely artificial, but many of the participants have figured out most of the subterfuge, and are probably acting on that knowledge to some extent or just having a little fun, out of boredom if nothing else.

On that "more doctors smoke Camel" claim from way back when:

They passed out Camels outside a medical convention hall and then conducted a survey half a block down the street asking what brand the many then-smoking physicians were using.

And on no less dishonest research from modern day so-called health campaigners:

Myers claimed that there was a 39% increase in smokeless tobacco use among children since 2006. He made up calculated that number using the Monitoring the Future Survey, choosing 2006 as the starting year because there was a downward blip in the annual statistics that year, making it unusually low, and thus making any comparison to a future year look like an increase. In reality, as Brad points out, the results of that survey have fluctuated up and and down. A comparison to 1999 would show no increase in 2009. An additional point that Brad did not add is that using this one survey, a rather odd one, rather than looking across the many datasets available that measure the same time series is equally cherrypicking.

What Myers and his ilk do is not science. It is not honest error. It is lying, which is to say, it is intentionally trying to cause someone to believe something that is not true (e.g., that there is some huge upward trend in underage use of smokeless tobacco). It may seem impolite to phrase it this way, but it is far more impolite to try to manipulate people into believing something that is false. Such statistical games are just as dishonest simply making up a number. Indeed, in several ways it is worse: Not only is he making up the claim, which could actually be correct if he just made it up without looking at the numbers, but we know he has looked at the numbers, and so knows his claim is misleading.

And finally, on the perils of assuming existing trends will continue indefinitely:

It seems that an investment bank financial analyst in Great Britain looked at historical smoking rates and predicted that smoking in that country would drop to approximately zero in 30-50 years. The prediction was apparently based on a linear extrapolation from smoking prevalence from the 1960s to today, extending it into the future. The story attributes a drop in the share prices of two British-based tobacco companies to the report.

Oh where to start?

Start here.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Those lovely Buddhists

OK, this is in Bhutan. It's a long way away and you'll probably never go there. But still, this is really happening. It's not just some dystopian novel.

From Reuters:

Cops raid homes to stub out smoking

Bhutan police can raid homes of smokers in a search for contraband tobacco and are training a special tobacco sniffer dog in a crackdown to honour a promise to become the world’s first smoke-free nation...

The Bhutan Narcotic Control Agency has started raids, with officials allowed to enter homes if someone is seen smoking or if officials have reason to believe there is illegal tobacco there...

“The sniffer dog is being trained at the moment. The dog will be able to sniff out tobacco products,” said Major Phub Gyaltshen of the Royal Bhutan Police.

Bhutan’s prime minister said the law cannot be called draconian and it was passed in the “collective wisdom” of the members of parliament.

“It is cancerous, both in the literal and the metaphoric sense, cancerous to society and to individual and in many ways it is no different from psychotropic drugs, for which the penalty in certain countries is death,” Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley said.

So far beyond parody that I feel dizzy.

Monday 3 January 2011

The lonely road

Hands up if you're a fruitcake

For regular readers who require a little closure, I should report that long distance jogging anti-smoking über-crank Errol Povah finally made it to New York City at the end of November. To refresh your memory, Povah set off from Vancouver in May with the modest aim of "putting the entire smoking industry out of business".

Some of the highlights of his trip have been:

“It’s been a roller-coaster of emotions,” said Povah, who has experienced frustration, anger, boredom and loneliness on his eastward journey, which began on May 31.

October 13

Because he is doing it solo, he's worked out a complicated daily schedule in which he parks his van on the side of the road and runs or walks back five kilometres or so, then returns to the van and does the same in the other direction.

He then drives it ahead 10 kilometres and does the same thing all over again, for a total of 42 kilometres — essentially a marathon.

October 26

"I literally can't afford to buy new shoes," he said, after finishing a 26.2-mile walk on Tuesday from Warrensburg to Glens Falls. "I'm flat broke at the moment. I have to get some money organized."

November 17

This tale of woe had a suitably downbeat ending as Povah finally reached the East Coast after 182 days, having raised a mighty $6,000—just $534,000 short of his target :

On November 23, Anti-Tobacco Activist Errol Povah dipped his foot in the Atlantic Ocean, marking both one of his greatest accomplishments and one of his greatest disappointments.

“My Journey for a Tobacco-Free World ended with absolutely no media in New York City,” Povah said during a phone interview on his drive back to Victoria.

“I was so disappointed, but it’s been that way almost the entire journey. I’m trying to raise awareness about the devastation this horrible industry is causing worldwide, and it’s been an uphill battle,” Povah said.

In a post on his Web site, Povah posted shortly after he finished his trek, “the disappointment of ZERO MEDIA in New York City is still stinging, big time.”

But Errol has an explanation for this conspiracy of silence: the whole media is covertly pro-tobacco.

“When I was looking for sponsorships and endorsements before I began the journey the politicians and organizations I called were very receptive, until I told them I was setting out to shut down the tobacco industry. I am not anti-smoker, I am anti-tobacco. It’s a big difference. Once I made that distinction, no one wanted anything to do with it. People fear the tobacco industry,” Povah said.

Povah seems not to have considered the possibility that people's reaction changed because they realised that someone who thought that jogging to New York was going to "shut down the tobacco industry" was one sandwich short of a picnic.

“But the tobacco industry has clout and power over the media and politics. It doesn’t change my mission,” he said.

Povah said he finds the silence of the Tobacco industry during his run “fascinating.”

It's about as "fascinating" as a celebrity's silence when a fan sends them a letter written in green ink and blood. Why would you encourage loonies and stalkers by acknowledging them? And would does he expect the tobacco industry to do—come out and negotiate with him?

Of course, one definition of a loony is someone who keeps doing the same thing and expects a different result. To whit:

The Home-Coming Run (HCR) — a total of 123 km (1 km for each Canadian killed by tobacco, each and every day) — will take place over a period of 3 days, from Tue, Jan 11 to Thu, Jan 13, 2011…from about 7:00 a.m. til 3:00 p.m. each day. MARK YOUR CALENDARS!

CORPORATE SPONSORS ARE ONCE AGAIN BEING SOUGHT, ESPECIALLY HOTELS…TO PUT ERROL (and possibly a Support Crew of 2 or 3) UP FOR THE NIGHTS OF JANUARY 10, 11, 12 AND 13 (10th, 11th + 12th in the Lower Mainland, 13th in Victoria).

Stay tuned for more details.

ATTENTION MEDIA: Please contact Errol directly, at 778 899-4832

Take heed, tobacco industry. In ten days time you'll be out of business.

A resolution

This is an annual event, isn't it? After twelve months of riffing endlessly on the themes of obesity epidemics, tobacco pandemics and alcohol panics, there is always one slow news day after Christmas—usually coinciding with the new life expectancy figures coming out—when the truth shows its face. And the truth is that the real threat to the NHS is that the nation will soon look like the cast of Cocoon.

From the BBC:

Leaving aside the very speculative nature of the figures—and leaving aside the Beeb's innumeracy (17% is much closer to 1 in 6 than 1 in 5)—the basic premise is, of course, solid. We are the longest living people in history and I hereby make it my 2011 resolution to use the graphic above every time some idiot scurrilously claims that "this generation will die before their parents".