Wednesday 29 June 2011

Obesity rate is twice as high amongst nonsmokers

A study published in this week's British Medical Journal shows that nonsmokers are twice as likely to be obese—and three times as likely to be severely obese—than smokers. This is very interesting stuff, because it is is often said that smokers put on weight when they quit cigarettes. It's also said, albeit much less often, that there is some correlation between the decline in smoking and the rise in obesity. This study offers empirical evidence for both.

The connection between smoking and low weight is not much commented on, presumably because anti-smoking campaigners don't want people who are worried about their weight to 'reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet', as the old advertising campaign went. And yes, I've reproduced that advert here to annoy them.

Why, then, would any public health researcher jeopardise their future funding by highlighting this fact? The answer is that they didn't set out to. The study in question looks at obesity's role in creating health inequalities (a cast-iron guarantee for funding). Social class is closely related to mortality and life expectancy is lowest amongst the lowest social classes. Smoking is one reason for that, obesity is another. Between them, as this study shows, these two risk factors account for more than half the difference in life expectancy between the top and bottom rungs of society.

That, in itself, is useful and important information, but in the process of comparing smoking and nonsmoking women (and it was only women in this study), they also show that the difference in obesity rates between smokers and nonsmokers is, frankly, massive.

The graph above (click to enlarge) shows the percentage of women who are overweight and obese according to smoking status and occupational class. As expected, the highest occupational classes (I and II) have a lower rate of obesity than the lowest.

Also as expected, the smokers weigh less than the nonsmokers. What is surprising is the size of the difference. In most cases, rates of obesity are around twice as high for nonsmokers and, across all groups, rates of severe obesity are three times as high.

As the study says:

Severe obesity was more than twice as prevalent among women who had never smoked in the lower occupational classes than in women who had never smoked in the higher occupational classes and about seven times more prevalent than among current smokers in the higher occupational classes.

Another way to look at it is that nonsmokers in the highest social class have a higher rate of obesity (13.3%) than smokers in the lowest social class (13.1%). Rates of severe obesity—which is a condition popularly associated with the underclass—is actually more common amongst the highest class of nonsmoker than the lowest class of smoker. No matter which class you look at, obesity rates are always higher amongst nonsmokers.

To use the standard language of public health, it is true to say that not smoking is a major risk factor for obesity. This, of course, should not be taken as a green light to take up smoking. As the researchers point out, the health risks of smoking are greater than the health risks of obesity. The study shows that the mortality rate rises by around a third for moderately obese people and doubles for severely obese people. By comparison—as the same authors showed in an earlier paper—smoking increases the mortality rate by at least 75%.

I discussed the reasons why smokers tend to be less fat in Chapter 3 of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. Partly, it is the result of nicotine suppressing appetite and partly it is the act of smoking which takes the mind off food, but mainly it is the physiological effect of nicotine that increases the metabolic rate, particularly during exercise. In his excellent, but sadly out-of-print, book Smoking: The Artificial Passion, David Krogh says that smokers, on average, weight seven pounds less than nonsmokers. Judging by this new study in the BMJ, that is probably an underestimate.

As I see it, there are two useful messages to take home from this study. The first is brought out in the study itself:

[The results] suggest the decline in smoking rates in recent decades may have contributed to the increase in overweight and obesity.

This is worth bearing in mind when you hear anti-smoking-turned-anti-obesity windbags like John Banzhaf rattling on. People like him have, in a real sense, created the problem he professes to be so concerned about. You can, of course, make a rational case for saying that obesity is less of a health problem than smoking, but you won't hear it from him. (One might even frivolously consider that since Big John's so keen to bring in a 'fat tax', there is an easy way to do it—tax nonsmokers. Sure, not all nonsmokers develop obesity-related diseases but then not all smokers get smoking-related diseases. Not all people who drink soda or eat burgers get fat either, but then taxing people on the basis of risk factors to aggregate populations is perfectly acceptable, isn't it John?)

If the suppression of smoking has indeed led to a rise in over-eating, it just goes to prove the golden rule of prohibition: people will always find some unhealthy pleasure to indulge in when other avenues are closed off. If, by some miracle, the war on obesity is won, it will only lead to excessive use of something else. The whole prohibitionist exercise is futile because the desire for pleasure is a zero sum game.

The second point to consider is that since nicotine is an aid to maintaining a healthy weight, why are alleged health campaigners banning products like snus and e-cigarettes which not only get people off cigarettes but could control their weight as well? If smoking and obesity really are the two greatest public health threats of our time, doesn't that make ultra-low risk nicotine products the penicillin of the age?

Monday 27 June 2011

John Banzhaf: Ronald McDonald is just like Joe Camel

This is another one to be filed under "next logical step". In the video below, John Banzhaf, founder of ASH and now a prominent anti-obesity crusader, calls for McDonald's to drop their (admittedly creepy) mascot Ronald McDonald. Why? Because we have to think of the children, of course. According to Banzhaf, McDonald's sells "dangerous products" and the clown should go the same way as Joe Camel.

As the interviewer points out, McDonald's has bent over backwards to accommodate the food faddists in recent years, but, for people like Banzhaf nothing is ever enough. The interview soon turns into a slanging match (it's from Fox News), and neither side makes a very good case. In the end, Banzhaf resorts to gloating about how that he's "winning" (although all the lawsuits he has filed against McDonald's have failed).

Don't expect a reasoned debate, but scholars of the slippery slope will enjoy counting how many times the tubby legal vulture equates McDonald's with the tobacco industry.

On a similar note, I can't recommend this article by Trevor Butterworth strongly enough. ABC News recently attacked a biostatistician for casting doubt on the idea that soda is a major contributor to obesity. Unable to find fault with his research, obesity crusaders have made the usual lazy ad hominems against him for being funded by the food industry.

“But even though study after study have [sic] shown soda to be a significant contributor to America’s staggering obesity crisis, he says there is too little ‘solid evidence’… Allison has said such studies haven’t been rigorous enough to prove soda contributes to obesity, but critics say his skepticism stems from his financial ties to entities such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the American Beverage Association, who, critics say, have paid Allison to poke holes in the scientific consensus.”

The problem, as Butterworth points out, is that "study after study" has shown nothing of the sort. Soda is no more fattening that fruit juice and the epidemiological evidence linking it to obesity is weak. If that weren't enough, it turns out that studies funded by the food industry are less biased than those funded by the state. This is an example of “white hat bias”, ie. distorting information to advance fashionable causes. It is perhaps the main source of bias in epidemiology today; certainly it is the most under-reported. We come across a lot of it on this blog.

When you piece all these elements together, the ABC news piece increasingly looks like journalists taking on the role of hitmen in an academic vendetta, one in which they are clueless about the underlying data but absolutely certain that the conventional wisdom is right.

And so, the result is that thanks to ABC’s totally misleading account of the evidence on sugared drinks and weight gain, Allison will almost certainly be removed from legitimate debate, tarred forever with the insinuation that he is merely a shill for industry.

The whole story of how this man has been vilified is fascinating and important. Please go read.

Thursday 23 June 2011

Smoking in cars - a junk science retrospective

It seems that no matter which party is in power, the gradual prohibition of smoking moves on regardless. The latest development has been a private member's bill put forward by Labour MP Alex Cunningham to ban smoking in cars which have children in them. The BBC has reported it here and has helpfully given a campaigner a whole article to make the case for the ban without rebuttal here.

Since the ban seems rather limited—it targets a minority of a minority of the population—it's a shrewd way of moving smoking bans into private property and, if passed, you can guarantee that the 'next logical step' will be to ban smoking in the home. This would indeed be logical, since both cars and homes belong to the individual, and children spend far more time in the home than in the car.

The one aspect of smoking in cars that defies the prohibitionists is the fact in a moving vehicle with the window open, smoke is dragged out of the vehicle in a split second. There have been a small number of studies measuring smoke in vehicles and they have only ever found significant levels of secondhand smoke when all the windows are wound up. This is hardly surprising. Nor is it surprising that anti-smoking campaigners only refer to the window-wound-up scenario when pushing for bans.

Consequently, you may hear various claims about levels of smoke in cars being 23 times greater than in a bar, or such like. You may even hear the absurd claim that one cigarette smoked in a car produces the same amount of secondhand smoke as a whole evening in a smoky bar. These myths have all been debunked before, including—in one instance—by the Canadian Association Medical Journal. I didn't realise how much I'd written about this myself until I looked in the archive. Here are the main posts...

On the claim that smoke in a car reaches 23 times the level found in a smoky bar

The effect of opening a window even by 3 inches

ASH's wacky claim that opening the window means that smoke comes back in

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Won't somebody please think of the old people?

I want to join the Pub Curmudgeon and Longrider in offering my scorn to the Royal College of Physicians Psychiatrists for this...

People over 65 should drink less, a report says

Recommended safe limits for drinking alcohol by older people should be drastically cut, according to a report.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists says people over 65 should drink a maximum of only 1.5 units of alcohol a day.

That is the equivalent of just over about half a pint of beer or a small glass of wine.

How softly we creep towards zero. It won't be long before there is 'no safe level' for anyone and the temperance lobby can really get to work.

It warns current advice - 14 units of alcohol for women and 21 for men each week - is based on work with young adults.

I believe this to be a lie. According to one who was there, the guidelines—now rebranded 'safe limits'—were "not based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee." If any evidence has appeared in the years since to make the guidelines anything other than an "intelligent guess", the RCP has not publicised it. I have never heard the claim that the limits were devised only with young adults in mind, and it's not as if they haven't had enough media coverage over the years to mention this little fact.

But even if you accept that the guidelines are not pure fantasy—in which case you may be drunk yourself—they were weekly guidelines, not daily 'safe limits'. A weekly guideline cannot be cut up into seven chunks and still carry the same risk. If you do that, you'll end up making preposterous statements like "drinking more than half a pint of a beer in a day puts old people's lives at risk." That is so plainly untrue that no old person is going to take the Royal of College of Physicians seriously. Welcome aboard, oldies.

The report says a third those who experience problems with alcohol abuse do so later on in life, often as a result of big changes like retirement, bereavement or feelings of boredom, loneliness and depression.

Well, you know what? If that's their situation, let them have a bloody drink, you miserable temperance swine. There is no public interest being served by having elderly people face loneliness and depression in a state of total sobriety. It really is—and I can't say this often enough—none of your business.

The editor of Saga magazine, Emma Soames, described the recommendations as "unbelievable".

"I think people will be infuriated by this. It's described as a public health problem, it's actually a private health matter."

Abso-fricking-lutely. It takes a descendent of Winston Churchill to tell it like it is. 'Public health' is a grossly misused term that is almost exclusively applied to private health. The infectious diseases have all but disappeared in Britain. Water and air is clean. Food is safe and labelled. At a time when we need a public health movement the least, the largest and much well-funded public health movement in history emerges.

There are, let's face it, only two things that are likely to cause poor health: bad luck and bad habits. You can't do anything about the first and the second is entirely a matter for the individual. Those who interfere in private behaviour do not deserve to be described as part of a public health movement. Call them anything you like—busybodies, wowsers, puritans, zealots, neo-prohibitionists—but don't go along with the charade that the private is public.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

The cost of the war on drugs

Via United Liberty, a short video about the War on Drugs.

Let's try liberty for a change shall we?

And on a much lighter note, this parody of Adam Curtis documentaries is hilarious. I'm a big fan of Curtis although I will admit his latest doc was a little less (even less?) coherent than his previous work. I'd embed it but for some reason the makers have prevented embedding and closed off the comments. Some people at the New Statesman were taking it all a bit too seriously.

Friday 17 June 2011

Another pathetic heart miracle study: Kanawha County

As featured on a few crappy local news outlets in America, the latest attempt to show that smoking bans reduce heart attacks is up to the usual standard. You can read it here but the picture below tells the story.

The graph shows hospital admissions for acute coronary syndrome in Kanawha County, West Virginia. It's pretty unexciting, I think you'll agree. As in many parts of the world, including England, heart disease is declining at a steady but constant rate.

Can you guess when the smoking ban started? Well, actually there were two. A full smoking ban, including bars, was enacted in January 2008. That doesn't seem to have had any effect, although it is right at the end of the timeline. Prior to that, there was what the authors of this paper call a 'comprehensive' ban that included restaurants and all public places, but not bars. That started in January 2004.

Can you see how the 2004 ban affected the heart attack rate? That's right. It didn't. And the authors* admit as much...

We did not find additional significant change between, before, and after the removal of smoking areas in restaurants (the key change in the [Clean Indoor Air Regulation] revision that took effect January 1, 2004) after accounting for the sustainable decline of ACS hospitalizations since the 2000 regulation revision.

So how is this evidence of smoking bans reducing hospital admissions for acute coronary syndrome?

To answer that, we need to go all the way back to 1995, when Kanawha County introduced what the authors admit was a 'modest smoking regulation'. Modest indeed, it covered public buildings, but not bars or restaurants, or—I dare say—quite a few other places. Restaurants were, however, obliged to have a designated nonsmoking section of 50% of the floor space.

This is not what anyone today—let alone people in tobacco control—would describe as a smoking ban, but then in 1995, even California didn't have a full smoking ban.

But what—I hear you cry—has the 'modest smoking regulation' of 1995 got to do with the heart attack rate of 2000-08? If you're a true student of voodoo science you'll pay attention, because this is a belter...

In conclusion, our results demonstrate that from 2000 through 2008, the rate of hospital admissions for ACS has consistently declined in Kanawha County in the presence of an existing [Clean Indoor Air Regulation].

Yes, you read that right. Heart attacks declined "in the presence of" a very mild smoking regulation that came into force five years before the timeline of the graph begins. Therefore, post hoc ergo propter hoc, smoking bans reduce heart attacks.

Was the rate rising before 1995? We don't know, because they haven't bothered to get the data. Did the appearance of a real smoking ban lead to an acceleration of the decline? No it didn't. Is it true to say that the heart attack rate declined "in the presence of" absolutely anything that began prior to the year 2000? Yes it is.

This is beyond sad. This 'research' was published by the Centers for Disease Control, America's most prominent public health organisation. Don't they feel just a twinge of shame at being associated with this cow-pat of a study?

Probably not, because, as ever, godawful pseudo-science is fine so long as its for a good cause.

* One of whom is Juhua Luo, a perennial grant recipient from tobacco control who has an uncanny ability to find epidemiological associations where no one else can. In the past she has authored several studies that tried to show a link between snus and pancreatic cancer, as well as a recent attempt to link smoking to breast cancer.

Thanks to Michael McFadden for the tip.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

The future's orange

Dutch anti-smoking campaigner tries to imagine the world without him

Oh dear, this is terribly unfortunate. From Radio Netherlands...

Health minister scraps anti-smoking lobby subsidy

Meanwhile, the government has decided to cut the 2.7 million euro subsidy to the Dutch anti-smoking lobby Stivoro as of 2013 writes Trouw. In addition, most of the support for anti-smoking campaigns will be scrapped in 2012. Health Minister Edith Schippers thinks the campaigns are not effective and says she is more concerned with the government’s reputation as a nanny state.

However, the International Tobacco Policy Evaluation Project (ITC) believes Stivoro is an essential source of objective information on smoking and tobacco addiction. The ITC is investigating whether the Netherlands is meeting its obligations after the country signed a World Health Organisation convention in 2005, in which countries promised to discourage smoking.

The organisation accuses the minister of being too eager to please the tobacco lobby. The government has declined to raise taxes on cigarettes, reduce the number of sales points or discourage smoking by printing photos of the effects of smoking on cigarette packets. In fact, the first thing this minister did when the current government came into power was to repeal smoking restrictions in small pubs. Rather strange for a health minister, don’t you think?

Not really, no. Smoking bans are not, and never have been a health issue. It's good to see the Dutch reclaiming their traditions of liberalism and tolerance. Well done Dutch Liberals. Shame on you, British Tories and 'Liberals'.

Imagine living in a country where politicians are concerned about getting a reputation for being nannies. Flight from the UK start at £19 plus taxes. While there you might consider travelling over the border to Belgium which has had no government for a year.

A drink, I think. If you see me out tonight, don't come too close because I might accidentally burst your eardrums with my laughter.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Inequality and sin taxes

From the Beeb:

Inflation 'is higher for the poor than for the rich'

People on low incomes have suffered higher inflation than those on higher incomes in the past decade, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said.

The poorest 20% of households faced an average annual inflation rate of 4.3% between 2008 and 2010, while the richest 20% only had a rate of 2.7%.

And why is that?

People on lower incomes spend more of their money on gas, electricity and food, which have risen sharply.

At the same time, people with higher incomes have benefited more from lower mortgage rates.

This is fair enough, as far as it goes. The reason I mention it is that it underlines the conflict between the desire to relieve poverty—or reduce inequality, although the two concepts are very different—and the desire to use the tax system to influence behaviour.

What the IFS doesn't mention is that one of the main reasons gas, electricity and food are so expensive is that the price has been artificially inflated to serve an alleged environmental agenda. Oil and wheat prices exacerbate the problem, but the price of diesel from the pumps pushes up the price of practically everything. In the UK, the majority of that price is tax which has been escalating since the 1980s, ostensibly to deter people from driving.

Likewise, there is a conscious effort to 'wean people' off fossil fuels, and the rising price of gas and electricity reflects the policy of successive governments who are forcing energy companies to use less efficient, pricier forms of power (obviously this is not helped by the fact that these companies are also greedy bastards operating in a sham of a market).

The same is true of alcohol and cigarettes, and it will be true of fizzy drinks, cheese and meat if the 'public health professionals' get their way. Someone who drives, smokes and drinks clearly will have a very different—and higher—inflation rate than someone who doesn't. None of these expenses are mentioned in the report above, perhaps because they are considered optional/sinful. And because they're optional/sinful, it's seen to be OK to tax them exorbitantly.

You will sometimes hear campaigners claim that the poor are the main beneficiaries of sin taxes because, having less money, they will be the first to cut down or give up and, therefore, get healthier/cut their carbon footprint/have more disposable income.

This is one of the great myths in public health that has endured despite decades—indeed centuries—of evidence showing the opposite. Tobacco is the starkest example because there has been a clear transition from smoking being equally popular across the social spectrum to it being—after 60 years of punitive taxation—much more prevalent amongst the poor. We know all this beyond a doubt. To continue pushing up taxes on undesirable products in the full knowledge that the poor are least likely to change their ways seems a little exploitative.

Sin taxes of this sort are based on a simplistic economic model of increased price reducing demand. It falls down because it does not take into account what price consumers place on the product themselves, nor does it take into account the social circumstances which lead people to using the product in the first place.

It has been a classic failing of middle-class crusaders in the past to target behaviour without understanding why people engage in it. More enlightened reformers have tackled the underlying causes and offered alternatives (the British temperance movement of the 19th century is a good example). But bone-headedness is more common, which is why you see this obsession with drink and tobacco advertising, even years after the latter has been banned. Unable to see the need for something in their own lives, they assume the lumpen proles have been lured in by those nasty corporations. Point out that these products were wildly popular before advertising was invented and you will be met with a glazed stare.

Sin taxes are always regressive. Even when they do reduce consumption somewhat, they still take proportionately more from the poor. This is shown very clearly by recent stats from the Office of National Statistics (click to enlarge). Whereas direct taxes (income tax, principally) take 24% from the richest and 10% from the poorest, the figures are almost exactly reversed when it comes to indirect taxes such as fuel duty, tobacco duty, VAT and alcohol duty.

I'm not saying that all taxes should be direct. I think there is a good case for charging people for what they consume as well as what they earn. And, as readers of my last book will know, I'm much more interested in making the poor wealthier than I am in reducing inequality per se (I don't think, for example, that the bottom quintile should be paying even 10% in direct taxes.)

But there are a lot of people who are very interested in reducing income inequality and they tend to be the same people who agree with sin taxes to coerce people into living their lives in a certain way. The two aims are simply incompatible. It's one or the other.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Bashing Diageo

From the Beeb:

Drinks company Diageo is to pay for 10,000 midwives in England and Wales to be trained to offer advice on the dangers of alcohol during pregnancy.

The Department of Health hopes the training initiative will in turn help more than one million expectant mothers over three years.

This sounds like pretty good news. I imagine that nearly all women are aware they should drink little or nothing during pregnancy already—indeed, only 4% do not reduce their drinking when they get pregnant—but no doubt there is more that could be done. So this sounds like a sensible scheme to prevent damage to unborn children, based on solid evidence that heavy drinking can cause Foetal Alcohol Syndrome.

The National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is very happy about it...

Susan Fleisher, from the charity, said the scheme would have have huge benefits.

"The thing that's so fantastic is that they're helping us with prevention, we can actually prevent children being born with foetal alcohol brain damage," she said.

"But it costs money, and thanks to Diageo we expect we will be educating in the next three years 10,000 midwives. Ultimately, if it all goes well, they will reach at least a million women."

Hurrah! Everyone's a winner and no need for bans, taxes or coercion. What kind of misery-guts could possibly find reason for gripe about this?

Vivienne Nathanson from British Medical Association said there were concerns over the scheme.

"They certainly have a conflict of interest because it's in the interest of the drinks industry for people to continue to drink and it's in the interest of health for people to drink much less, and certainly not to drink during pregnancy or to drink really minimally."

Only someone whose income has always comes from the state could interpret the role of business in such a simple-minded and misanthropic manner. As far as Nathanson is concerned, if it wasn't for the angels of government, the drinks industry would be telling pregnant women that drinking makes babies big and strong while selling whisky doped with heroin outside schools.

Because businesses only cares about profit, don'cha know? It's not as if they're run by men of flesh and blood who want the world to be a better place like the rest of us do. No, they want babies to be born retarded and adults to die of liver disease. And if this kills their customers and ruins their company's reputation, then so be it, because not only are business-owners fiendishly clever, they are—by a strange paradox—also incredibly stupid.

At least, that's how it is if your understanding of business started and ended when you read a book by Naomi Klein, as seems to be the case with most 'public health professionals'.

There is an element of sour grapes here because, as I mentioned in March, a bunch of fake charities and temperance groups—including the BMA—spat their dummy out and "walked away from the table" in protest at the government including industry in these discussions. And a good thing too. The policy announced today is the kind of reasonable, effective and efficient use of money they would have dismissed out of hand.

Over at The Guardianwhere naysayers dominate the news story—none other than Anna Gilmore, professor of no fixed ability, tries to join in the industry-bashing...

But Prof Anna Gilmore, a public health expert from Bath University, said there was a fundamental conflict of interest in the "responsibility deal". She said: "These large corporations, whether they sell tobacco, food or alcohol, are legally obliged to maximise shareholder returns. They therefore have to oppose any policies that could reduce sales and profitability – in other words, the most effective policies."

Sorry? Corporations are "legally obliged" to maximise shareholder returns? I know Labour made a lot of laws when they were in power but I hadn't heard of this one. Have there been many prosecutions? Do business get raided by police if they launch a duff product? Are there advertising executives languishing in jail for making poor use of the marketing budget?

Or is this just more proof of Anna Gilmore's estrangement from reality? It's almost as if she's being sponsored to go around getting things wrong on as many different subjects as she can. No wonder Uncle Stan looks so proud.

UPDATE: Leggy has more on this, including a gem of a quote from that massive hypocrite Don Shenker.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Strange, strange bedfellows

Via Dick Puddlecote, who got it via Freedom2Choose Scotland, I am left reeling in disbelief at the venality and rank stupidity of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association who have called for huge increases in the price of alcohol.

Supermarkets would be forced to charge a minimum of £10 for a bottle of wine under plans outlined by Scotland's pub bosses yesterday.

The Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) has urged ministers to dramatically hike alcohol in a bid to save bars from closure.

Its proposed £1 a unit 'minimum price' would send bills soaring for families. A can of standard lager would cost at least £1.76 and a bottle of whisky would rise to £28.

Now, I don't live in Scotland and, as things stand, it looks like I never will, but does the SLTA really believe that the way to draw drinkers into their boozers is to shaft them with extortionate drinks prices at the off-license? This bone-headed proposal has to be the most transparent attempt to co-opt temperance rhetoric for commercial profit since Coca-Cola came out in favour of Prohibition.

It's always been obvious that once a minimum price was set, it would rise ever upwards until alcohol was unaffordable to most people. Earlier in the year, I commented that:

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.

What I didn't expect was for the demands for a higher minimum price to arrive before the legislation has even been put before parliament, let alone that it would come from the a faction of the drinks industry.

Here we have yet another interest group that thinks it can save its own skin by throwing its customers under the prohibitionist steam-roller. It really is pathetic the way the pub industry is trying to portray their grog-shops as some sort health club these days. According to the SLTA...

"the only safe environment for the consumption of alcohol is within our licensed premises." 

Nothing cynical or self-serving about any of that, is there? And, actually, I take issue with the idea that it is safer to drink in a crowded room full of drunk strangers than it is to drink at home in front of the telly.

And you can save all this social responsibility clap-trap while you're about it. This is a scene repeated in every pub I go to...

"Vodka and tonic, please."


"Yeah, go on then."

I'm not complaining about this. You hardly need to twist my arm to get me to order a double and some of those drunk strangers are lovely people, but pubs are not community centres and they are not there to promote healthy living. Anyone who tries to portray them as such is heading for a fall when the temperance nuts point out the disparity between the myth and the reality. You're the pub industry, for God's sake. You sell a known "carcinogen" and "poison" as far as these people are concerned. Do you really think you can be friends with them?

And how about this sanctimonious twaddle from the SLTA website?

The cost of alcohol abuse to Scotland is simply unsustainable in economic and social terms and the newly appointed first Minister has already pledged to re-introduce legislation to bring in minimum pricing, as a priority...

Reports from Childline and other leading children’s charities have long highlighted the cost to our families when alcohol is widely abused in Scottish homes and the new parliament offers the chance to effect serious changes, and everyone involved has been invited to contact their MSP’s to demand this change. 

Look at the compassion! Can you see their furrows of worry? Won't somebody please think of the children? I can just picture these guys holding hands with Don Shenker as they frolic in a meadow. But wait, what's this? Don Shenker has turned around, stabbed them in the back and is running off laughing maniacally. Who could have seen that coming?

The SLTA even has a special website where they lobby to get their competition closed down display their deep concern about alcohol abuse. It's called Level the Playing Field. Does that phrase ring any bells? It should, because it's exactly the same phrase used when the anti-smoking lobby demanded that there could be no exemptions to the smoking ban. It is also the rallying cry of every self-interested protectionist lobby group in history.

As I have said before, there is no way of levelling the playing field between the off-trade and the on-trade because they provide two completely different services. The off-trade sells alcohol. The on-trade sells an experience and an environment. The public understands that the two are different which is why we have traditionally been happy to pay significantly more for a drink in a pub than for a can of lager in a shop.

Since 2006, however, the experience of being in a pub has become much less pleasant for a large minority—and frequently a majority—of Scottish pub-goers. It has, indeed, become so unpleasant and pointless to be in a place where a drink can't be combined with a smoke that many of these people have chosen to experience it much less often, if at all.

In fairness to the SLTA, they have never denied the devastating effect of the smoking ban. They opposed it at the time and they continue to call for it to be amended.

The Scottish Licensed Trade Association said the law change had resulted in the closure of hundreds of pubs and the loss of thousands of jobs.

Its chief executive, Paul Waterson, said the predicted upturn in new customers attracted by smoke-free pubs had "simply not materialised".

It goes without saying that the SLTA aren't saying this because they're keen defenders of civil liberties or property right. As with all industry lobbyists, they're worried about their bottom line and the smoking ban has—contrary to the routine lies of the tobacco control freaks—been very bad for business.

But even if we accept that opportunism goes with the territory for corporate lobbyists, the SLTA's attempts to punished drinkers—ie. their own customers—for exercising free choice is particularly loathsome. Do they really think we're going to reward them for treating us like this?

You cannot bully people into going where they don't want to go. Even if the price of a supermarket pint was the same as a pint from the pub, many people would still rather drink at home with a cigarette than go out and drink in the street—which, for them, is what the 'pub experience' now consists of.

As Belinda says, the prospects of minimum pricing working while Scotland shares a border with England are nil. Although the thought of rum-runners and bootleggers hurtling up the A1 is an amusing one, the sad truth is that the Scots will then appeal to the 'level playing field' and demand that the rest of the UK follows suit. Which, knowing the greed and cowardice of the political class, is exactly what will happen.

Is there any aspect of the pub debate that is not a cess-pool of cant and hypocrisy? If I see one more politician who voted for the smoking ban crying crocodile tears about the state of the pub industry, I may throw up. CAMRA are no better, climbing into bed with both the anti-smoking brigade and the temperance lobby in their crusade against any pleasure that doesn't appeal to overweight, middle-aged Jethro Tull fans. Alcohol Concern are, it goes without saying, paid shills and neo-prohibitionists whose world would fall apart if they told the truth for one day. The pub industry, almost to a man, switched sides on the smoking ban as soon as they realised that exemptions for private members' clubs would adversely affect their business. And the SLTA, one of the few groups to have taken a consistent stand against the ban, now wants to torment their customers until they take their rightful place standing outside empty pubs in the rain.

A plague on all their houses. It's got to the stage where I'm now officially on the side of Tesco's. How the hell did that happen?

Friday 3 June 2011

Civil Liberties: Up In Smoke - a review

This week saw the first of this year's Voices of Freedom debates, the topic of which was: "What are smokers’ rights in a free society?" I was one of the speakers so I may be biased, but it seemed a very successful evening, a lively debate and a full house.

It was also the launch of a new book written by Simon Davies of Privacy International on the same subject.  It's a considered and finely balanced discussion of the topic and you can read my review of it at the Free Society—where you can also download the book for free.

Go read.

Thursday 2 June 2011

The value of nature and the cost of smoking

For some reason, the BBC has given a reworded press release from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) a prominent position on its website today. The headline is a monument to meaningless:

Nature 'is worth billions' to UK

I can't argue with that, but I do have a problem when campaigners try to put a price on assets that defy monetary classification, which is what the RSPB is doing here.

Some figures emerge with precision, such as the £430m that pollinating insects are calculated to be worth, or the £1.5bn pricetag on inland wetlands, valued so high because they help to produce clean water.

I like the idea that we can calculate the value of pollination with such "precision" that we don't even have to round it up to the nearest hundred billion. I think there might be a bit more to it than that. Without pollinating insects the entire eco-system would collapse so the price is incalculable and any effort to put a dollar sign on it is fatuous.

It gets worse...

The health benefits of merely living close to a green space are worth up to £300 per person per year, it concludes.

This figure combines two factors which cannot be quantified. It first assumes that we can realistically estimate the health benefits of living near "green space"—which is asking a lot—and then assumes that we can translate health into a cash equivalent—which we really can't.

The only wisdom to come out of the whole exercise comes from the economist involved:

Ian Bateman, an economist from the University of East Anglia who played a principal role in the analysis, said that putting a single price on nature overall was not sensible.

"Without the environment, we're all dead - so the total value is infinite," he said.

Well, quite.

Obviously, the RSPB is trying to preserve forests and hedgerows and woodlands and so forth, and that's fine. But the whole exercise is curiously uninformative because there's no indication of how we can optimise our natural resources. Would it be better put take land that is currently being used to produce crops and turn them into inland wetlands? Would this somehow make us wealthier?

Would it be more financially beneficial to maintain a field or build an airport? Probably the latter, but the RSPB would want to maintain the field because that's what they're interested in. Again, fine. We understand that. But that being the case, just come out and say it and stop pretending that this is an issue of economics.

It is invariably the case that whenever a figure of x billion appears in a newspaper as being the value or cost of anything that is not readily quantifiable, it is (a) a made-up figure, and (b) is policy-driven. When you dig around in the figures, you will usually find that what at first appears to be a monetary cost, is actually just someone's opinion of what it is worth.

A good example of this was brought up in the comments to a recent post regarding this quote from the Australian press:

"About 17 per cent of Australians smoke, and a ban would cost the government about $6 billion a year in lost revenue. This would be offset by health savings, as the annual smoking-related medical burden tops $31 billion."

[nb. The Australian dollar is currently on a par with the US dollar at about £0.60]

Let's first consider that there are believed to be 15,000 smoking related deaths in Australia every year. If the "medical burden" is $31 billion a year, this means that each person receives over $2,000,000 of treatment. This sounds just a little bit implausible and should have seemed so to the journalist as she typed it out.

And of course it turns out that is not the medical burden. The study that came up that figure accepted—totally contrary to what the hapless hack said—that tobacco taxes exceed the cost to the taxpayerof treating smoking-related diseases:

"Tobacco tax revenue in 2004/05 exceeded tobacco-attributable costs borne by the public sector by over $3.5 billion. Of this surplus $2.7 billion accrued to the Commonwealth and around $800 million to state governments." (p. 72)

This same study did indeed come up with a figure of $31 billion, but it did so by including 'costs' that no reasonable person would consider to be costs. Lost productivity both at work and at home gave them an extra $8 billion (p. 64). Aside from the obvious problem of coming up with a suitable cash equivalent for domestic work, all lost productivity figures are questionable because they rely on an assumption that an individual is capable of a set amount of work in a lifetime and that he/she has a duty to fulfill that quota, otherwise they are somehow costing other people money. It's as if someone dies and you have to go round and clean their house for the next ten years. It's a nonsense.

Still more dubious is the remaining $19.5 billion which is made up of 'intangible' costs (p. 65). This relies on the entirely arbitrary valuation of a life at $2 million, or a loss of one year's living of $53,267. This kind of psychological evaluation is practically meaningless and has no place in economics. You might as well say that the value of life is priceless and, therefore, the costs of smoking (or alcohol, or drugs) is infinite.

And in a way it is infinite, just as the value of nature is infinite. So stop trying to put a cash value on things and say what you mean.