Tuesday 31 May 2011

Alcohol, the Spirit Level and Simon Chapman being wrong again

Bit busy today. There's a new post up at the Spirit Level Delusion site if you're interested in that sort of thing.

As a follow up to some of last week's posts, the head of the NHS Statistics division has replied to the Straight Statistics critique of the alcohol-related hospital admissions. (See the comment section here.)

On behalf of the NHS Information Centre, I’d like to confirm that the figures in the press notice for alcohol related admissions in 2009/10 (1,057,000) and 2002/03 (510,800) are both calculated using the methodology introduced in 2009. They (and the remaining figures) in Table 4.1 of the report are comparable and show a large increase, subject to the various points of detail in the footnotes to that table.

Make of that what you will. The devil is in the "detail in the footnotes". The relevant table is on page 67 of this document.

And, a week after Simon Chapman memorably dismissed the idea of there being any smuggled tobacco in Australia, saying:

Smuggled tobacco is a major issue in nations with high corruption indexes and open borders. It has never been a major problem in Australia.

The Australian Daily Telegraph reports:

Sydney flooded with illegal cigarettes

SYDNEY is flooded with blackmarket cigarettes selling for as little as half the price of a genuine pack, but peddlers are avoiding punishment because it is tobacco companies who catch them.

Lies, all lies! You've got no proof!

The Daily Telegraph was able to purchase Chinese-made counterfeit cigarettes from outlets at Kings Cross and Warwick Farm.

Alright, I'll give you that. But, as Chapman says, there's never been a prosecution, therefore there is no problem.

British American Tobacco (BAT) conducts about 1000 undercover purchases each year and has taken legal action against more than 100 retailers in the past three years, effectively suing them for copyright infringements.

That doesn't count! There's never been a prosecution by the government.

In the year before Project Wickenby began, the Australian Taxation Office completed 53 tobacco prosecutions and had another 24 in progress.


Sunday 29 May 2011

ASH: Still strangers to reality

The Independent has published a little puff-piece for ASH which has all the balance and thoughtfulness you would expect from an article which treats Deborah Arnott and Anna Gilmore as authorities. It's mainly about tobacco consumption in the third world but the real intent of the piece is to push plain packaging, as becomes clear in the final paragraphs. The logic is that industry arguments are always wrong and therefore they are wrong on plain packaging. Of all the examples the Independent could have used to decorate this fallacious argument, they concentrate on the damage done to the pub industry by the smoking ban. Or rather the lack of, because to ASH and their useful dupe at the Independent, this is a 'myth'.

A study from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), out this week, scrutinises the credibility of economic arguments used by the industry to fight back against legislation. For example, when Christopher Ogden, chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, said in 2010 that the smoking ban had severely threatened the pub and bingo industry because of lost jobs and livelihoods, the reality was a little different.

Really? Then the Independent obviously knows something that the country's biggest bingo operator doesn't.

Gala Coral, operator of Gala Bingo, says growth prior to the smoking ban was running at 10 per cent. "Since the ban, we have seen a very sharp fall in revenue and admissions," says Neil Goulden, chief executive of Gala Coral. "The smoking ban is entirely responsible for that, he adds."

So what's ASH's evidence?

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows a net increase in the number of people visiting pubs since the smoking ban.

No it doesn't. This is what the ONS survey reported:

Three-quarters (75 per cent) of drinkers who visited pubs said that the change had not affected how often they went to pubs. Respondents were as likely to say that they went to pubs more often now than before the restrictions (12 per cent) as they were to say that they went less often now (13 per cent).

The percentage of women who visited the pub about the same amount since the smoking
restrictions were introduced has decreased from 80 per cent in 2008 to 73 per cent in 2009.
Conversely [sic], the percentage of women who said they were less likely to go to the pub following the restrictions has increased from 9 per cent to 14 per cent over the same period.

The survey says nothing about how long people spend in the pub—much less, if beer sales are any indication. Self-reported evidence of this kind can be unreliable because respondents can use it as a chance to express their approval/disapproval of the ban, rather than tell us whether it's actually changed their behaviour. Nonetheless, this survey certainly doesn't suggest an increase in the number of pub visitors. And that's hardly surprising as you would have to be living on Neptune not to have heard that pubs have been closing at the fastest rate in British history. Pubs closing at the rate of 50 a week despite more people going to them sounds rather incongruous, does it not?

We can argue about the reasons for the great pub crash that began in 2007 until the cows come home, and it's clearly multi-factoral, but ASH are not prepared to settle for saying that they don't think the smoking ban has been the main cause. They have to go further and deny that pubs are in crisis at all. In fact, they think pubs are flourishing.

The next factoid in the Independent article is only ever used by ASH, so there can be no doubt that it was they who offered it to the clueless hack responsible for the article...

When England went smoke-free in 2007, the number of premises licensed for alcohol increased by 5 per cent, and it has continued to grow every year since.

It is indisputable that Britain has lost more than 6,000 pubs since the ban came into effect in 2007. (The figures are here.) And yet ASH try to imply that numbers have increased. Their figures don't relate to pubs, of course, but to alcohol licenses, and since the Licensing Act came into force in 2005, there has certainly been a big increase in the number of licenses handed out. This is partly because it's easier to get one, and partly because the law now obliges you to get one for even the smallest occasion. ASH might think it's jolly nice that there are more coffee shops and garden fetes that have alcohol licenses, but it's got nothing to do with the smoking ban or the pub industry.

This Canute-like refusal to face reality is only possible in the world of single-issue zealot. As I said last time I wrote about this subject, every fact supports the view that the smoking ban has seriously damaged the pub and bingo industries.

It fits what publicans have been saying:

The readers' poll showed 77% of licensees think that trade has suffered as a result of the ban. Almost two thirds (63%) say business is worse than expected, and 72% predict a "challenging" or "very challenging" outlook for their business. Three out of five licensees said they had let staff go or reduced their hours. In addition, 73% want the ban lifted.

It fits what market analysts have been saying:

Pubs have sold 175 million fewer pints in the past year as a direct result of the smoking ban, according to market analysts AC Nielsen.

It fits what pubgoers have been saying:

There's no need for any fancy statistical analysis of trends over time. Just ask the customers.

It fits what the share prices of the Pubcos have been telling us:

You'll notice that the collapse of the share price began almost on the dot of July 1st 2007. Recession? No—that didn't start until October 2008, by which time the company had lost 75% of its value. Supermarket booze? 'Twas ever thus. Bad management? Perhaps, but the story is the same for all the pub companies.

It fits what economic theory predicts will happen when a externality is imposed on a business; it fits what the pub industry did predict would happen; it fits what has happened in other countries, in other states and in other cities.

The only thing it doesn't fit is the rhetoric of anti-smoking groups like ASH:

"Smoke-free polices are not only good for health, they are good for business. Evidence shows that in countries where smoke-free laws have been introduced, trade has generally increased."

Amanda Sandford, ASH, 2003

Friday 27 May 2011

Drinking and deceit

Nigel Hawkes has a must-read post up at Straight Statistics about the latest chapter in Britain's bogus drinking epidemic. The headline news yesterday was that alcohol-related hospital admissions have topped a million, after doubling in the space of just six years.

The number of admissions reached 1,057,000 in 2009-10 compared with 945,500 in 2008-09 and 510,800 in 2002-03.

Such an enormous leap in the figures should set the alarm bells ringing. A doubling in admissions would be astonishing at any time, but when drinking has been on the decline, it simply defies belief.

But, as the NHS explained when last year's figures came out...

These figures use a new methodology reflecting a substantial change in the way the impact of alcohol on hospital admissions is calculated. Previously the calculation counted only admissions for reasons specifically related to alcohol. The new calculation, for which the methodology is described in the report, includes a proportion of the admissions for reasons that are not always related to alcohol, but can be in some instances (such as accidental injury).

The same note appears on the latest report, but—shamefully—not on the NHS press release that accompanied it. Consequently, it did not get a mention in the news.

Since 2002, the number of diagnostic fields (ie. the category of injury or ailment that people come to hospital to have treated) that are considered 'alcohol-related' has jumped from 7 to 14 and then from 14 to 20. (You can read all about this if you can read the tiny writing at the bottom of table 4.1 in the report).

The significance of this change cannot be overstated. The "proportion" of admissions that are not directly related to alcohol make up three-quarters of the total. It is not only meaningless to compare 2002 against 2009, it is questionable whether most of these cases can reasonably be called alcohol-related at all.

As Nigel Hawkes explains, the figures do not come from doctors and nurses classifying an admission as alcohol-related. Instead, they rely on aggregate data being divided up on a laptop according to a whole set of assumptions.

How is it that almost all the statistics related to alcohol can be moving in the right direction, yet the numbers of alcohol-related admissions keep going up at a dizzying rate?

It’s largely a function of methodology. Alcohol-related admissions are calculated in such a way that if you are unlucky enough, say, to be involved in a fire and admitted to hospital for the treatment of your burns, it will count as 0.38 of an alcohol-related admission – unless you happen to be under 15, when it won’t count at all.

If you drown, it counts as 0.34 of an alcohol-related admission – though most people unlucky enough to drown aren’t admitted to hospital. Getting chilled to the bone (accidental excessive cold) counts for 0.25 of an admission, intentional self-harm to 0.20 per cent of an admission.

These fractions apply whether or not there was any evidence you had been drinking before these disasters befell you.

The one measure that hasn't been twisted and changed is the number of alcohol-related deaths and, as Hawkes says, they fell.

Alcohol-related deaths – that is, those caused by conditions directly linked to alcohol – fell from 6,768 in 2008 to 6,584 in 2009. Much of the fall was attributable to a fall of nearly 250 in deaths from alcoholic liver disease.

That last figure is worth noting, since the claim that liver disease is rocketing is frequently made by temperance crusaders.

If Britain is suffering a drinking epidemic, it is a very peculiar epidemic indeed. It is one that has resulted in an enormous increase in hospital admissions despite a decline in both overall alcohol consumption and excessive drinking. According to the latest figures for 2008/09, it has also resulted in a 3% fall in alcohol-related mortality despite a 12% increase in alcohol-related admissions.

Over the same period, the way alcohol-related hospital admissions have been defined and recorded has changed time and again. It's not difficult to put two and two together here. Any responsible journalist would put the methodological change front and centre of any report.

The irony is that the BBC had, only the day before, exposed the fact that Alcohol Concern Cymru (the NHS-funded Welsh temperance group) had been creating alarm about drinking by inappropriately comparing two different sets of figures:

An alcohol charity claims there a "silent epidemic" of heavy drinking among elderly people in Wales.

AAC said the number of over 65s who said they had drunk more than the recommended maximum in the previous week rose from 22% (men) and 7% (women) in 2003/4 to 34% (men) and 17% (women) in 2009.

However, BBC Wales understands that as a result of changes in methodology adopted by the compilers of the Welsh Health Survey in 2006 the two sets of statistics are not comparable.

Quite right too. And yet, in their report yesterday, the Beeb made no mention of the fact that 2002's figures for hospital admissions cannot be compared with 2008's. Instead, it chose to focus on a press release from the NHS's astro-turf front group Alcohol Concern which predicts that admissions will rise to 1.5 million by 2015.

This is shoddy journalism but, in this instance, the NHS has been complicit in deceiving the media. As I mentioned, the NHS press release did not even hint at the change in methodology, nor did it mention the fall in mortality.

To give you an idea of how incompetent/dishonest (delete as applicable) the NHS has been in this matter, let's take the headline figure. That one million figure relates to admissions, not people. This is an important point because, as Hawkes says in his post, some people go into hospital with multiple admissions and most go in not at all. This is basic stuff, but how are hacks supposed to get this straight when the head of the NHS's statistics department is giving them misinformation?

Tim Straughan, chief executive of the NHS Information Centre, said: "Today's report shows the number of people admitted to hospital each year for alcohol related problems has topped 1 million for the first time."

This is frankly pathetic. The behaviour of the NHS and its spokesmen—not to mention Alcohol Concern—demonstrate once again that their desire to lobby for policies, notably minimum pricing, has made them incapable of issuing reliable and credible information. Time and time again, the British public are being deceived on the issue of drinking. Can we believe anything these people say?

Thursday 26 May 2011

Nowhere left to hide?

The New England Journal of Medicine has published a comment piece about the future of tobacco control in the light of New York's outdoor smoking ban. I haven't written about the New York ban because, really, what is there to say? According to the BBC:

Smoking will be allowed on pavements outside parks, and car parks in public parks. One area the ban does not cover is "median strips" - known as the central reservation in the UK - the sliver of land in the middle of a large road.

It is possible, dear reader, that you consider this to be a reasonable and proportion piece of legislation. You may believe that allowing people to smoke in the middle of the road—but not on the road, and certainly not on the pavement—is a fair compromise which neatly balances the rights of nonsmokers with smokers.

But if you believe that, I doubt there is anything I can say that would bring you to your senses. There isn't anything to say about the health grounds for the ban, because they're aren't any. There's nothing to say about the scientific basis for the ban because none has been offered. It's a simple case of 'might is right'. Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire bully who should move to Bhutan and I feel sorry for New Yorkers, but it's not as if he's done it all himself. Take this guy, for example:

“I think in the future,” the city’s health commissioner, Thomas Farley, said at a public hearing, “we will look back on this time and say 'How could we have ever tolerated smoking in a park?'”

If that sentence doesn't make you shudder then, again, you're reading the wrong blog. Imagine a society in which smoking is not only banned in parks but in which people find it unbelievable that such a thing could have ever taken place. How many years of illiberalism, molly-coddling, fear-mongering and 're-education' would have to pass before people's minds became that narrow? If ever there was an argument for lighting up, drinking up and checking out early, Thomas Farley's vision of the future is it.

So what does the NEJM article have to say about all this? Well, actually it's pretty reasonable. It reminds us that smoking bans pre-dated the secondhand smoke studies and that, therefore, bans have never been purely about health. It suggests that one of the justifications for the NY ban—that smoking outdoors is the main source of litter—is based on a highly dubious measure which counts the number of individual items rather than overall volume. It accepts that outdoor smoking bans are primarily part of the denormalisation campaign and are ethically questionable. And it says, as this blog frequently says, that what we are witnessing is creeping prohibition.

Most health professionals agree that an outright prohibition on the sale of cigarettes would be unfeasible and would lead to unwanted consequences such as black markets and the crime that accompanies them.

Yet steadily winnowing the spaces in which smoking is legally allowed may be leading to a kind of de facto prohibition. Smoking bans imposed by states and municipalities have been accompanied by comparable measures in the private sector. Some employers and property owners prohibit smokers from congregating in building doorways; colleges and universities have banned smoking on their campuses; condominiums, apartments, and other multi-unit dwellings have passed requirements for smoke-free apartments. As the historian Allan Brandt has noted, smokers may soon have nowhere left to hide. Pressed by a city council member about where he believed people should be allowed to smoke in New York City, Farley responded, “I’m not prepared to answer that.”

Go read.

On a similar note, the Free Society and Privacy International are hosting a debate about smoking and civil liberties at the Institute of Economic Affairs next Wednesday. Details here.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Does the Better Life Index support The Spirit Level?

Yesterday, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published the Better Life Index. This project aims to measure the quality-of-life in countries using eleven criteria.

Since it was founded in 1961, the OECD has helped governments design better policies for better lives for their citizens. More recently, the OECD has been keenly involved in the debate on measuring well-being. Based on this experience, these 11 topics reflect what the OECD has identified as essential to well-being in terms of material living conditions (housing, income, jobs) and quality of life (community, education, environment, governance, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance).

Having gone to all this trouble to create a reliable index of well-being, it's worth asking whether the OECD data supports The Spirit Level's hypothesis that "more equal societies almost always do better"?

No, it doesn't. The poorest country—Portugal—does worst, but the data points appear to be scattered randomly.

In fact, if we drill down into the data we can see that not only is well-being not better in "more equal" countries, but the OECD's figures do not support The Spirit Level's key argument—that "more equal" countries have stronger social support networks which lead to a healthier and happier population.

Quality of social support network:

Life expectancy:

Self-reported health:

Life satisfaction:

There is no association between inequality and any of these variables. Indeed, with the exception of self-reported health—which seems to show the opposite of what The Spirit Level says—the regression lines are about as straight as you could expect from a randomly assorted set of data.

Taken together, the OECD's Better Life Index appears to support the view of a previous effort by The Economist to devise a quality-of-life index, which concluded:

There is no evidence for an explanation sometimes proffered for the apparent paradox of increasing incomes and stagnant life-satisfaction scores: the idea that an increase in someone’s income causes envy and reduces the welfare and satisfaction of others. In our estimates, the level of income inequality had no impact on levels of life satisfaction. Life satisfaction is primarily determined by absolute, rather than relative, status (related to states of mind and aspirations).

(Note on data: The first graph shows an index of all the OECD's criteria with each given equal weight. Singapore and Hong Kong are not OECD members so they do not feature in the list. Their absence can only benefit The Spirit Level's case here because these unequal countries tend to perform well under most criteria. As per The Spirit Level, tax havens and countries without equality data are excluded. All other counties with wealth greater than Portugal are included. The OECD produces well-respected inequality figures but these are not used in The Spirit Level (perhaps because they show Japan to be quite unequal). I have used The Spirit Level's preferred inequality figures here and throughout The Spirit Level Delusion.)

Monday 23 May 2011

The glorious idiocy of Simon Chapman

Antipodean anti-smoker Simon Chapman has been receiving a well-deserved kicking over at Ep-ology for writing an opinion piece of weapons grade stupidity. Chappers has been getting all excited about plain packaging, so much so that he's started talking openly about prohibition and has even revived Julian Le Grand's much-mocked idea of smoking licenses. Chapman could learn from the Le Grand's experience on that one...

My e-mail inbox exploded. Mostly with pictures of Hitler, I have to say. People were very hostile to that sort of idea. So, although the nudge agenda, I think, does have possibilities I think care has to be taken that people don't feel that it's the nanny state, indeed the nanny state squared.

Of all the silly things Chapman has been saying recently, there has been one statement of such glorious idiocy that it almost turns full circle and becomes a sort of genius. In response to a report saying that 16% of tobacco in Australia is smuggled/counterfeit, Chapman says, with sarcastic self-satisfaction:

So while one in six smokers apparently know where they can repeatedly buy illegal tobacco, strangely, with more than a billion dollars supposedly being lost, the gormless Federal Police with all their intelligence and resources and impressive history of major smuggling busts cannot find any of these same retail outlets and prosecute.

It's a measure of Chapman's immense talent that he can solve the centuries old problem of smuggling in one throwaway sentence, but this is a true Eureka moment, is it not? If the public can get hold of illicit substances, so can the authorities. Like all the best ideas, the beauty lies in its simplicity. All the police have to do is go undercover, find out where people are getting illicit goods and then find out who supplied them to them, and so on until you get to the top of the chain. Then make a few arrests and—ta-da!—the problem is solved. If only the DEA and the FBI had thought of this 100 years ago, we could have made a success of Prohibition and the War on Drugs. I look forward to reading this guy's next webitorial when he will solve the Palestinian problem and the common cold.

But Chapman's real interest is the plain packaging ruse and the tobacco industry's response to it. It was widely reported by the piss-poor Australian press that BAT are planning to "flood Australia with cheap tobacco". In reality, the industry couldn't do such a thing even if it wanted to—well over 70% of the retail price is tax—and nor has it ever threatened to. What BAT did say was that higher prices and plain packaging encouraged illicit trade, and that the display ban and plain packaging meant that cigarette companies could only compete on price. Both of these statements are fairly obviously true and the effect of both is to encourage smokers to buy cheaper cigarettes. Since cigarette consumption is affected by price—although not as much as most products—this is an instance of alleged health campaigners shooting themselves in the foot. Lower prices mean more smokers, as they frequently say themselves.

This is not very complex economics and it is very different to BAT threatening to "flood Australia with cheap tobacco". Of course, boosting illicit trade is not the only reason the tobacco industry doesn't like plain packaging. The big companies, in particular, want to protect their brands. BAT have made this very clear by threatening to sue the Australian government for taking away their intellectual property. However, since most people don't care about their intellectual property, the industry has focused more on the illicit trade angle when arguing against plain packaging.

In the simple-minded world inhabited by the likes of Simon Chapman, the very fact that the industry opposes plain packaging is reason enough to go push ahead with it.

It’s now very plain the global tobacco industry sees the move as arguably the greatest single threat it has ever faced, and is spending millions to say that — really, honestly — plain packs just won’t work and will cause chaos throughout the economy.

I’ve done many interviews on this in the past year and even normally sceptical radio hosts quickly make the point that ordinary Australians are asking “well, if it won’t work, why are they so concerned and spending all this money?”

Far be it from me to question the intellect of radio hosts, let alone "ordinary Australians", but this line of enquiry rests on the assumption that the industry opposes plain packaging for the same reason the antis support it—because they believe it will bring down the smoking rate. But a few paragraphs later, Chapman shows that this isn't actually the case.

A leaked BAT internal training DVD from 2002 explains much about the industry’s real fears in plain packaging.

Profitability in the tobacco industry today rests largely on high-priced premium brands, which are able to attract higher retail prices purely on the strength of branding and pack image. If all packs will look the same, many smokers will wonder why they should shell out far more for a pack that looks the same as every other brand except for brand name and that internal tobacco industry research shows cannot be distinguished from cheaper brands in blinded smoking experiments. The illusion that premium brands are “better” will evaporate, and much profitability with it.

If this "leaked DVD" had revealed that the industry believed that the packaging of cigarettes leads nonsmokers to take up the habit, there might be a story here. In fact, what they say in private seems to be much the same as what they say in public. They're trying to protect their premium brands, and why not?

If smokers lose interest in the premium brands, they will smoke cheaper cigarettes. And if cheaper cigarettes lead to more smoking, plain packaging will lead, by way of unintended consequences, to more smoking. This is what the industry has been saying, and campaigners have scoffed, but Chapman now accepts this:

If smokers were to drift down to lower-priced brands, smoking rates could well rise, particularly among low-income groups and kids who are most price responsive.

Great success! A new problem is thus created for which Chapman has a predictably bone-headed solution:

The government could easily restore the price by increasing excise duty by 20% overnight as it did in April 2010 when first announcing plain packs and the tax rise

This, in turn, would lead to a further incentive to smugglers, although that doesn't bother Chapman because he doesn't believe smugglers exist. And so the cycle keeps on going. As one policy leads to a cock-up in one direction, a sticking plaster is applied that exacerbates the problem in another direction. What a shower they are.

Simon Chapman used to be the editor of Tobacco Control. Explains a lot, that.

Friday 20 May 2011

The Portuguese experience

From the International Harm Reduction Conference, this short video offers a succinct case for drug liberalisation. Portugal decriminalised drugs ten years ago and according to many people, this has successfully reduced both drug consumption and, more importantly, drug-related harm. (This, of course, has been contested).

The speaker is Joao Goulao, president of the Portuguese Drug Institute.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Australia - what went wrong?

[Published today at the Free Society]

There is a PhD thesis waiting to be written some day about how Australia came to be the world’s number one nanny state; how a country that was once renowned for rugged individualism capitulated to puritanism with barely a whimper. It’s a country for which I have a great deal of fondness although—perhaps crucially—I haven’t been there for several years.

The Australians have been in the news after making the decision to wrap cigarettes in olive coloured plain packages (indirectly leading to some of the most pathetic journalism I've ever seen). With tangible patriotic pride, campaigners plain packaging as a world first, and so it is, but it only scratches the surface of the plans Australia’s public health lobby have in store.

A few weeks ago, the Preventative Health Taskforce published a report which launched a “crackdown” (their word) on drinking, smoking and the eating of “energy-dense, nutrient poor” food. This report made 122 recommendations, called for 26 new laws and proposed establishing seven new agencies to change the behaviour of Australians (summary here). To take just a few examples related to tobacco, they called for the price of 30 cigarettes to rise to “at least $20” (£13) by 2013, for a ban on duty free sales, a ban on vending machines and a ban on smoking in a host of places including multi-unit apartments, private vehicles and “outdoors where people gather or move in close proximity.” They even contemplate a ban on filters (?!) and the prohibition of additives that enhance the palatability of cigarettes.

As in so many countries, Australia’s anti-smoking campaign has acted as a trojan horse in the effort to fundamentally change the relationship between citizen and state. By no means does it end with tobacco. The Taskforce also wants to ban drinks advertising during programmes that are watched by people under 25 - a category so broad as to include virtually everything - and calls for graphic warnings similar to those now found on cigarette packs to be put on bottles of beer. It also wants the government to establish “appropriate portion sizes” for meals, to tax food that is deemed unhealthy and to hand out cash bonuses to those who meet the state’s criteria of a healthy lifestyle.

Coming on the back of a tobacco display ban and the aforementioned plain packaging ruse, it is no wonder that a recent survey found that 55% of Australians believe their country has become a nanny state. An ever greater majority - 73% - think the government is too busy micromanaging people’s lives to address important issues.

Mike Daube, the Deputy Chair of the Preventative Health Taskforce, hates the phrase “nanny state” and has described the term as a “smokescreen”. But then—in the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davis—he would, wouldn’t he? Daube was director of ASH (UK) for much of the 1970s before moving to Western Australia where he initiated some of the most draconian anti-tobacco policies in the world, including various outdoor smoking bans. He might not like the term “nanny state” but it resonates with people because it rings true with their experience of being treated like infants.

It is the professed concern for the well-being of children that props up so much authoritarian legislation in both hemispheres. This does not just apply to smoking, nor even health issues in general. Australia has a unenviable record of internet censorship, for example, and a national website filter has been proposed to protect children from pornography and gambling. As Dick Puddlecote recently showed on his blog, more video games are banned Down Under than in dictatorial China*. And so if you, as an Australian adult, want to exercise your right to gamble and play violent video games, that’s just too bad. The rights of some hypothetical teenager to enjoy freedom from grown up pursuits trump your own rights to pursue them.

There is something deeply unsavoury about exploiting people’s natural concern for children as a means of passing illiberal legislation. Plans are afoot in Australia to ban alcoholic energy drinks because, it is claimed, some underage drinkers like them. Campaigners are particularly worried about the “colourful packaging” these drinks come in; an ominous statement from the land of plain packaging. Banning a concoction that any fool with access to alcohol and Red Bull can make themselves would be a futile exercise in gesture politics. The practical failure of such policies is so routine as to be hardly worth mentioning. The much larger point is that a ban on these drinks punishes adults for the failure of government to enforce the laws that already exist.

The fact that adults enjoy these drinks seems to matter less than the possibility that teenagers might buy them illicitly. In the name of protecting the kiddies, legitimate products which are overwhelmingly consumed by adults must be taxed, hidden away and banned entirely. When adults are forced to live by the same rules as children, “nanny state” seems to be not just apt, but rather generous.


* Update: Rory has pointed out that games consoles are banned in China so the comparison with Oz is a tad spurious here. Clearly the Aussies have some way to go to catch up the communists.

The Chinese are no strangers to the same think-of-the-children rhetoric, of course:

“Consoles have been banned in China since the year 2000,” Lisa Hanson from market researcher Niko Partners tells Kotaku. "The government thought that was the best way to protect Chinese youth from wasting their minds on video games, after a parental outcry."

Tuesday 17 May 2011

The smell of the righteous

It's becoming an unfortunate necessity here to have to assure readers that the articles I link to aren't spoofs or wind-ups. But with Poe's Law in mind, I invite you to enjoy this op-ed from the New York Daily News:

Recently, I was seated on a crowded bus to Manhattan from the New Paltz area, where I live. At one of the stops, as the procession of new riders snaked up the aisle, I tried to predict which of them would take the seat next to mine. I silently prayed: "Please don't let it be a stinker," a strategy that sometimes works. Other times, not so much.

After craning his neck to see if there was another empty seat further back, a thirtyish man dressed in business attire parked himself next to me. In an instant, I was gasping for air.

Ah, the joys of public transport. From time to time you will find yourself trapped with the hygienically challenged. But there is more to this case than that, for the writer has convinced herself that she is allergic to smells she doesn't like, therefore she is a victim, therefore something must be done.

It was a multifarious assault, a combination of body odor and antibacterial soap, with top notes of cologne. Apparently this man was a sweater; soap alone was no match for his stench. He thus found it necessary to douse himself in a musky fragrance, as if two olfactory wrongs made a right.

As my eyes started to tear and the back of my throat began to close, I stood up to assess whether there was a different seat I could relocate to. But all the seats were taken. I was stuck.

This being New York in 2011, I'm sure you can guess where this is heading:

If it were up to me, no one would ever wear perfume, cologne or flowery powders - the scourge of allergic people like me who just about go into anaphylactic shock within two blocks of a Sephora. I would never emerge from hugs with friends smelling like (and choking on) their favorite fragrance; my couch wouldn't stink for days after they visited me.

Ok. First off, this sounds more like a body odour issue than a "perfume, cologne or flowery powders" issue. For that you have my sympathies, but, on the other hand, try growing up. Secondly, why don't you tell your friends about your delicate little nose rather than whining about it in a newspaper column? Thirdly—and most importantly—you do not have a perfume allergy because there's no such thing. Or, more precisely, there is such a thing but it's not what you've described. Perfumes can cause allergic contact eczema but only by applying them to the skin.

And what does the National Allergy Research Center recommend for people who suffer from this particular allergy?

For people with perfume allergy:

If you have severe perfume allergy or wish to fully guard against it, avoid using perfumed products. The easiest way to find out if a product is perfumed is to smell it.

If the mere smell of perfume was likely to cause anaphylactic shock, it seems unlikely that the NARC would tell sufferers to do just that. What you've experienced, insofar as it deserves a description, is distaste followed by psychosomatic symptoms induced by wrong self-diagnosis, a sense of entitlement and hypochondria.

Readers of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist may recognise this phenomenon from the final chapter which discussed the voodoo world of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. I won't repeat that discussion here, suffice it to say it's not a recognised medical condition and is instead a neurotic disorder largely confined to middle-class women in North America. The take home message is that some things irritate the irritable but that doesn't make them allergies, as this chap says:

"It's not a bad idea not to subject your co-workers to any more [scent] than they need to be," says Dr. Robert Schellenberg, an allergist at St. Paul's Hospital.

However, for the record, fragrance intolerance is not actually an allergy.

"It's not a true allergy, it doesn't involve allergic antibodies," he says.

And while we're on the subject, allergy to tobacco smoke is a myth as well.

Most all allergens (particles that trigger allergic reactions) are proteins produced by plants, fungi, animals and insects. It is the protein in an allergen that actually causes the allergic reaction – and truth be told, there is no protein left in cigarette smoke. All of the heat caused by the cigarette burning has reduced the paper, tobacco and additives inside a cigarette to carbon (not that inhaling carbon is good for you either).

Because smoke isn’t a true allergen, it does not create the same immune response (i.e. allergy attack) that a grain of pollen would. Or course there is no denying that smoke can aggravate and irritate underlying allergies, but it really cannot be considered the cause of them.

There are some cases of true tobacco allergy, these are very rare and are caused by direct contact with live tobacco plants or leaves. So, unless you are a tobacco harvester on a tobacco plantation, it is highly unlikely that you will ever develop tobacco allergies.

'kay? So, back to the article...

I am not alone in this revulsion to strong personal smells

No one's alone on the internet, dear. Every crackpot is catered for.

There is a burgeoning fragrance-free movement. According to a paper by Christy De Vader of Loyola College and Paxon Barker of the University of Maryland titled "Fragrance in the Workplace is the New Second-Hand Smoke,"...

Ooh, a paper! So that will have been peer-reviewed, published and available on PubMed, right?

Er, no. It was actually a speech given at a Las Vegas Conference earlier this year organised by these guys. Still, let's see what they said:

...the fragrance-free movement stands to "gain a quicker hold and garner more attention than did passive smoking," and laws pertaining to safety regulations can be applied to limit fragrance exposure in the workplace.

"Men and women... contribute their own personal 'chemical soup' to the general 'chemical soup' that the general public breathes," they write. "This use of personal care products containing synthetic fragrance creates a 'bubble' of toxins for the wearer that continues to emit toxins hours after the product was initially used."

I doubt this is a "paper" that's going to be troubling the Nobel Committee this year. Chemical soups and bubbles of toxins indeed.

I was trapped in just such a bubble that day on the bus. I tried turning my head sharply to suck in the air from the row behind me through the small space between the chair back and the glass. But the man's various smells followed my nose, enveloping me whole. Ultimately, I had no choice but to breathe through my mouth.

Um, okay. That sounds like a fairly minor imposition. Not exactly Rosa Parks are you?

An hour-and-a-half later, I emerged from the bus into the Port Authority terminal lightheaded from mouth-breathing and in the throes of an allergy attack. To add insult to injury, my hair and clothes held on to his scents all night.

How seriously we can you take someone who gets light-headed from breathing through her mouth?

It's hard to think of anything more selfish and rude.

Then you should try a bit harder because it it really isn't.

Allergies aside, what makes a person think anyone else would want to smell his or her perfume any more than we'd want to hear the music blaring in his or her headphones? Or breathe in cigarette smoke?

Can you hear the 'next logical step' argument approaching? You should.

If we can prohibit people from stinking up public parks with second-hand smoke, as Mayor Bloomberg would like to do, why not also prohibit them from also filling our lungs with the chemical toxins found in synthetic fragrances?

And do you know what? She's absolutely right. If the government can ban smoking outdoors without any scientific justification and for no better reason than that "smoking doesn't belong there", it is perfectly reasonable to ban anything on a whim. When the state begins to legislate on the basis of personal preference, the law is in the hands of whoever can shout the loudest. And, my word, the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity people can shout. Just wait until these clowns hear about thirdhand smoke then you'll see what serious hypochondria looks like. And that, of course, why some much effort is being put into creating the thirdhand smoke scare in the first place.

Friday 6 May 2011

More thirdhand smoke garbage

Last year I mentioned the TRDRP's multi-million dollar cash bonanza on offer to any scientist prepared to sacrifice their integrity for the ludicrous cause of thirdhand smoke (THS). There has been no shortage of takers, as a study recently published in the American Journal of Physiology indicates:

Methods: Fetal rat lung explants were exposed to nicotine, 1-(N-methyl-N-nitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridinyl)-4-butanal (NNA), or 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK), the two main tobacco-specific N-nitrosamine constituents of THS, for 24h...

Conclusion: NNK and NNA exposure resulted in breakdown of alveolar epithelial-mesenchymal cross-talk, reflecting lipofibroblast-to-myofibroblast transdifferentiation, suggesting THS constituents as possible novel contributors to in utero smoke exposure-induced pulmonary damage. These data are particularly relevant for designing specific therapeutic strategies, and for formulating public health policies to minimize THS exposure.

There's nothing like calling for "public health policies" in your conclusion to show that you're a sober and disinterested scientist, is there? This comes from the pen of Virender Rehan and John Torday of UCLA (natch), two serial grant-receivers who have pocketed well over a million dollars from the TRDRP in recent years.

When I saw this abstract, my initial—if cynical—reaction was to assume that the researchers had exposed rats to high doses of  known carcinogens and then acted as if this exposure was in some way comparable to getting a whiff of stale tobacco smoke from an old carpet.

Having now seen the full study, that is pretty much what they did. You see, NNK, NNN and NNA are tobacco-specific nitrosamines which are considered likely candidates for why smoking can cause lung cancer (although NNA is unproven). This is old news, as they acknowledge in their introduction.

The experimenters got some rats' lungs, chopped them up, put them on a petri dish with some penicillin and treated them with NNA and NNK for 24 hours. Varying degrees of lung damage ensued, as you might expect, most of which is far too technical for a layman like me, but we shall assume the experiment was well conducted and that the hypothesis that nitrosamines damage lungs was supported.

Fine. So what's this got to do with so-called thirdhand smoke?

This study was focused on the effects of NNA and NNK as surrogates for THS exposure within the context of our experimental design.

But NNA and NNK are not surrogates for THS exposure. Thirdhand smoke does not pump out these nitrosamines. The only way anyone has even pretended that THS creates nitrosamines was last year's laboratory experiment where nicotine was mixed with nitrous acid. That was an equally quixotic slice of chemistry because but there isn't enough nitrous acid in the air for this reaction to take place in real-life conditions. There wasn't anything technically wrong with that experiment, just as there isn't anything technically wrong with this one, it just didn't have any bearing on what goes on in the real world.

This study of rats' lungs does nothing but tell us, for the umpteenth time, that tobacco-specific nitrosamines cause molecular damage to lungs. It is possible that the results might come in handy in our understanding of the link between smoking and lung cancer but it's got bugger all to do with thirdhand smoke because thirdhand smoke does not cause nitrosamines to enter the lungs in the first place.

So while this expensive piece of research might not have been a complete waste of time if applied to active smoking, it doesn't provide the slightest justification for the American Lung Association to report:

Study: 'Thirdhand smoke' poses danger to young children, pregnant women

I'm picking out the ALA headline because the media did not widely report this study, not even the Daily Mail. Perhaps it's bullshit fatigue setting in, or perhaps the results were too sciencey for them. But while the results are written in such a way as to be impenetrable to all but specialist eyes, the discussion section is written with the clarity and hyperbole of a tabloid editorial. I don't think I have ever seen such a craven attempt to please one's sponsors. For example:

Currently, there is virtually no realization that THS is a danger to human health.

Talk about begging the question. Why would there be "realization" about something that is entirely theoretical and hugely improbable? If you substitute "shred of evidence" for "realization" in this sentence you get nearer the truth.

A recent study by Winickoff et al showed that only 65.2% of non-smokers and 43.2% of smokers believe that THS is harmful to children.

No it didn't. No one who has read that study could honestly interpret the results in that way. As Winickoff himself has admitted (in an e-mail to Rich White):

"Basically, the study found that IF you believe that thirdhand smoke is harmful to infants and children, then you were much more likely to have a home smoking ban."

They continue:

Thus, there is a critical need to validate these projections in real-life situations in the field.

I can heartily agree with that. It's perverse to keep doing these obscure and irrelevant chemistry experiments when it would be so easy to do a randomised control trial. Get a bunch of rats and stick half of them in a cage with a shirt borrowed from a smoker and see how they get on. If they drop dead I will personally donate £1,000 to the charity of your choice. Fair?

Thirdhand smoke is a stealth toxin because it is present in the households of smokers where small children and elderly people live, the hotel rooms, casinos and cars owned by smokers, and where the unsuspecting vulnerable populations may be exposed to the toxicants without realizing the dangers.

It's actually quite sad to see scientists reduced to having to write this drivel just to please their employers. If it wasn't for the fact that their work will be used to make children scared of hugging their grandparents and to get smokers kicked out of their homes, I could almost feel sorry for them.

Because THS is essentially aged SHS that is adherent to surfaces, has smaller sized ultrafine particles, but much larger sized molecular weight moieties with greatly heightened asthma hazard index values, it is likely to be much more toxic that MSS [mainstream smoke] and fresh SSS [sidestream smoke].

I've long wondered whether some of these California secondhand smoke "researchers" would be practising homeopathy if tobacco control's loot hadn't come their way. Certainly the idea that secondhand smoke is more dangerous than firsthand smoke relies on the wacky principles of homeopathy. That belief—widely shared on the internet—revolves around a simple confusion between secondhand smoke and sidestream smoke; I've written about this at length. Similarly, the idea that THS, which isn't smoke at all, is more toxic than cigarette smoke has more than a touch of woo about it.

The same risk exists for adult workers who clean and change bed sheets in hotel rooms where cigarette smoking is allowed the world over, especially in China and other countries in Africa, Asia, South America and North America - a problem of global proportions!

I'd like to think that the exclamation mark has a touch of sarcasm to it, as if they're letting the reader know that they don't believe this utter bilge any more than he does. Alas, I fear it may actually have been added to emphasise what a pair of Gallileos these two characters are.

And that's about it. I'm off on holiday tomorrow so things will be quiet round here for a week but I've got an article going up on The Free Society next week so keep an eye on that. Cheery bye!

Thursday 5 May 2011

Obesity, smoking, class and everything else

We do keep going on about the slippery slope on this blog, don't we? Still, it's called Velvet Glove, Iron Fist for a reason and I intend to go on about the slippery slope until someone learns the lessons of history.

I've written various pieces about how anti-tobacconists used to swear on a stack of Bibles that the crusade against their bête noir wouldn't lead to an attack on others (eg. this). While nonsmokers cherished their status as first class citizens, I've been giving countless examples of zealots setting their sights on those who, like Jaws in the Moonraker shuttle, are less-than-perfect themselves (eg. this, this and this).

Let's take the case of food. In relative terms, we're not even at the "let's have nonsmoking sections on planes" stage yet, but things are moving rapidly. This quote from the Journal of Public Health Policy doesn't require any comment but I'll add some black ink for any young children reading who might not have got the point yet.

The food industry's ultimately anti-social behavior—whether conscious or inadvertent—is spreading globally.... Signs of marketing efforts by multi-national food corporations are appearing everywhere in developing countries....

The tobacco analogy: this industry, which deliberately encouraged children to become addicted to cigarettes as early as possible, then continued to market cigarettes even once well aware of the health dangers. We now know the health dangers of obesity, but the epidemic continues. To protect the public, perhaps we can learn from anti-smoking efforts about means to constrain the food industry.

This editorial turned up in the same week that the Canadian Medical Association Journal published an article called 'Legislative approaches to tackling the obesity epidemic' that recommended anti-obesity policies which come straight out of the anti-smoking textbook. You know, the textbook that was designed to tackle the "unique danger" of smoking...

Government-level interventions

Taxing junk food

A proposed intervention for reducing the consumption of energy-dense and high-fat drinks and foods is to implement a “sin” or “junk food” tax. It has been highly debated in the Canadian media, notably in Ontario and Quebec. The rationale stems from the success of cigarette taxes, a proven and effective intervention to combat smoking.

School- and youth-level interventions

Banning advertisements for unhealthy foods

An early antitobacco strategy used by the government was to outlaw cigarette advertisements in the media, on billboards and at sporting events. Based on the success of these interventions, the 2006 obesity guidelines recommend limiting the “screen time” of children (i.e., television, video and computer games) to reduce their exposure to food advertisements.

Do you see what they did there?

Let's get down to brass tacks. The obesity situation isn't a real public health problem, it isn't very complicated and it has nothing to do with smoking. Most of what is said about obesity is bullshit anyway because it depends on a BMI measure that has been downgraded to create a crisis in the first place. The idea that obese people place a cost on the economy is debatable (unlike with smokers, where the idea is simply absurd). In any case, I've always found it strange that left-wingers are the first to complain about having to pay for other people's problems. Isn't that what socialists are supposed to do?

What is undeniable is that there has been a rise in the number of fat people. That's due to people (a) being able to afford to be fat, (b) the decline of manual labour, and (c) people being too lazy to cook themselves decent meals. It has absolutely nothing to do with cycle lanes or television commercials.

On the subject of (c), don't even think of saying that we're all too busy to cook these days. Working hours have fallen sharply in the last fifty years and no country which sees dross like Eastenders regularly get ten million viewers can claim to be pressed for time. We're either lazy, incapable or choosing to do something we find more rewarding. No taxes or advertising bans are going to do anything about the indolence and stupidity of the British public. What will change things is that most people don't want to be fat and are prepared to do something about it.

There is a simple epidemiological transition going on which doesn't get anywhere near enough attention. Fifty years ago it was the middle classes who were fat and suffering heart attacks. Today, obesity is seen as a working class problem and it is certainly more prevalent amongst lower socio-economic groups. Why? The simple answer is that the middle class got richer and took office jobs first and the working class followed them a few decades later.

That simple answer is half-right, but it doesn't explain why the middle-classes haven't got even fatter as they got even richer. The answer to that, I think, is that they got accustomed to being able to afford whatever food they wanted and stopped eating the high calorie foods their fathers and grandfathers did—the food they grew up with—and changed their diets over time. Their children, now fully grown, have a completely different diet to their grandfathers and are less fat than their fathers. Their grandchildren—may God curse them into eternal damnation—have grown up, joined a gym and want to force everybody else to be like them. That is a natural, if regrettable, transition made by observation, self-improvement and insufferable self-satisfaction. The government played no part in it.

It is short-sighted, patronising and plain prejudiced to believe that the same transition won't take place through the rest of society in the fullness of time. The crucial difference between being fat and being a smoker is that smokers feel great right up until the moment they get the cancer diagnosis. Fat people—with the exception of the fat acceptance movement and my uncle Malcolm—generally don't want to be fat; not because they might get diabetes in 30 years time but because it's not a good look.

If you'll excuse me for going all Karl Marx here for a second, there is a class issue at work. Fat people didn't get any grief when fat was a predominantly middle class problem, just as smokers were treated with education rather than coercion when smoking was a classless habit. I'll even up the ante here and say that flying abroad and driving cars wasn't considered a problem until us proles had the money to do it.

Coincidence? Maybe. But what do these overwhelmingly middle-class reformers propose as the cure-all solution to these supposed problems? Make them more expensive. Apply the most regressive policies imaginable. Tax the lower orders out of the market.

But let's get back to the slippery slope. It is, I think, indisputable that the same tactics that were once used only against smokers are being deployed against the general population. It is likely that the targeted groups will end up being denormalised in the same way as smokers are today. And it is highly probable that if the general population had been aware circa 1980, or even circa 2000, that anti-smoking policies would be directed at nonsmokers there would have been a general revulsion against the whole concept of top-down public health.

If you had told the average person in 1980 that meals should be taxed to deter purchase or that food advertising should be restricted to prevent obesity, he would have laughed in your face. That would be true even if the average person was a member of the British Medical Association.

How did things change? They changed, in no small part, because the campaign against tobacco crowbarred open a door that allowed the regulation of any human behaviour that might have the slightest impact on their or anybody else's health. Once opened, it is a door that is very difficult to close. I don't expect it to close in my lifetime.

And I'm only 34.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

A couple of vaguely related links today. At the Free Society, Joe Jackson has written about how the doctrine of zero tolerance is the precursor to prohibition.

Zero-risk and zero-tolerance are increasingly promoted as ‘the only game in town’. If pleasure is mentioned at all, it’s likely to be depicted as something illusory, and as a sign of weakness. Moderation? Freedom of choice? Even if there are such things, we apparently can’t be trusted with them.

We’re living longer than ever, but we seem to be doing so in a state of constant fear – thanks to the people who are supposed to be there to make us feel better. It almost makes you want to go to a monastery and live on raw carrots. Except that sooner or later, someone is going to decide that that’s bad for you, too. So it’s hardly surprising that some of us say, to hell with it all, and just get drunk.

That’s the problem with zero tolerance: anything else, however moderate, however pleasurable, becomes ‘extreme’ – and also a transgression, which invites more and more stringent prohibition. It never ends.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports the end of a chapter for one prohibition. Absinthe was banned in France after a moral panic in the nineteenth century because...

"The anti-alcohol lobbies really rammed home the message that absinthe makes you crazy and a criminal," she says.

"So that has stayed within the collective memory; people are afraid of absinthe."

Now the ban is being fully overturned, although not for the noblest of reasons.

Absinthe was first made, not in France, but just across the border in the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland.

And a Swiss judge recently approved a request to give the region exclusive rights to produce it. For the moment, this ruling applies only in Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union - and so has limited impact.

But because of Switzerland's close ties with the EU, it is possible that the Swiss could seek to extend the ruling across the block.

Producers say that this is what has galvanised the French government to lift the ban now.

France would be the biggest loser if such a ruling were to be extended, but with the drink still technically illegal at home, it would have found it virtually impossible to contest.

It's an interesting read and includes this great quote from Oscar Wilde.

After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.

Monday 2 May 2011

Passive smoking lowers blood pressure in girls, study reveals

Before retiring to bed last night, I cast a weary, cynical eye on a brief story from The Independent which reported:

Boys who inhale second-hand tobacco smoke at home may experience significant levels of raised blood pressure, a study has found.

But in girls, passive smoking appeared to be associated with a lowering of blood pressure.

These results, if true, suggest that there are dramatic differences between the male and female bodies that make them respond very differently to secondhand smoke. They also imply that there is a new and unlikely form of treatment for girls with high blood pressure: blow smoke at them.

I'm joking, of course, although it is as valid to draw that policy conclusion from the data as it is for the study's author to claim that her work provides "further incentive for governments to support smoking bans". Actually, neither policy would have any effect because the changes in blood pressure were negligible in both cases—a 1% increase/decrease either way, which even the author admits is meaningless for individual health.

An alternative interpretation is that the study found no effect of passive smoking on blood pressure but that by stratifying the results, the researcher was able to find one by chance (in this case, by splitting the group into genders). Or it may be something else; the study only compared cotinine readings with blood pressure readings after all.

The study's author naturally favours the first interpretation:

"These findings support studies suggesting that something about female gender may provide protection from harmful vascular change," said Dr Jill Baumgartner.

Whether there are any biological reasons to explain these contradictory findings, I don't know (... paging #carlvphillips ...). I couldn't possibly comment because—once again—this study has not been published  and it has only been presented at a conference before being press released around the world. It's a PhD dissertation by a student of Population Health and Environment & Resources.

There is an abstract available, however, which shows the increase in boys is not significant while the decrease in girls is significant. Take both genders together and the overall effect of passive smoking on blood pressure is to lower it, although it is unclear whether that association is significant. The abstract also shows a complete lack of a dose-response relationship which is a bit surprising if tobacco smoke was the true cause of the correlation.

What I do know is that it is misleading to report this study under the headline used by both the Daily Mail and The Guardian:

Passive smoking raises blood pressure in boys, study reveals

In fairness to the Mail, they mention the conflicting finding for girls towards the top of the article. The Guardian, to its shame, mentions it towards the bottom. Ben Goldacre recently mentioned an interesting lay experiment which showed how few people bother reading the whole article before making their minds up. Not very many, apparently, which gives The Guardian the horrible distinction of being even worse at reporting science news than the Daily Mail in this instance. (Neither were helped by the study's press release, which only briefly mentions the findings for females.)

We know that the great majority of newspaper readers only ever read the headline, so let's hope the same is not true of blog readers, otherwise the title of this post—which is as technically correct as the Mail and Guardian headlines*—will also give people a mischievously one-sided view of the story.

* Actually, rather more correct since I have at least focused on the statistically significant finding.

(Michael Siegel and Taking Liberties have more on this story.) 


Carl V. Phillips has a definitive critique on this study over at Ep-ology. Well worth reading.