Monday 30 April 2012

EU funding temperance groups. And the rest.

Last week saw a group called Active Sobriety Friendship Peace produce a press release calling on the European Commission to introduce a glut of temperance policies. They say that alcohol is a unique product, just like, er, tobacco and cite research from the neo-prohibitionist Institute of Alcohol Studies and Alcohol Concern. But while those two groups insist that they are not temperance societies, Active is not so shy...

Active- sobriety, friendship and peace is a non-governmental organisation gathering European youth temperance organisations working for a democratic diverse and peaceful world free from alcohol and other drugs where an individual can live up to her full potential. Active has more than 25 000 members in 26 European countries.

Who, I wonder, might be funding these politically correct, adolescent teetotallers as they lobby the European Commission to eradicate booze? Step forward, the European Commission and its €50,000 grant (click to enlarge)...

It's good to know that although the EU is nearly bankrupt, it can still find money to fund its pet lobbyists. Click here to see a small selection of the - ahem - "non-governmental" activist groups the EU is spending taxpayers' money on it, including the International Union of Socialist Youth, the Federation of Young European Greens, the International Falcon Movement-Socialist Educational International and the Young European Federalists (the latter has an online petition you can sign to demand a Federal Europe).

It comes to over €3 million. Money well spent for a thriving democracy, n'est pas?

Friday 27 April 2012

Great logic

A couple of academics have thrown their lot in with the plain packaging campaigners, claiming that it would be a "costless experiment that provides valuable information on the effectiveness of plain packaging at almost zero public cost". On the subject of counterfeiting, they come up with this gem:

Likewise, the concern that there will be a substantial increase in unbranded or counterfeit cigarette supply is unfounded. What is more likely is that the introduction of plain packaging will make cigarette production far cheaper, therefore making the illegal market less profitable, and less cost effective.

It is surely undeniable that banning all branding will lead to a "substantial increase" in the supply of unbranded cigarettes. That is kind of the point, no?

As for counterfeiting, I'll have a glass of whatever these guys have been drinking. Let me get this straight - plain packaging will make cigarette production "far cheaper", but only for those who produce cigarettes in the legal market? For counterfeiters, however, the efficiency savings of only having to produce one pack design instead of 200 will miraculously not apply. Furthermore, these counter-feiters will be driven out of business because Big Tobacco will be so much more cost effective. I see...

Of course, the only way the legal market could beat the illicit market would be by driving down prices, since low prices are the USP of counterfeit goods, but this apparently will not happen in practice because the government will yet again put up taxes.

'The claim from the tobacco industry that plain packaging will potentially reduce cigarette prices, is likely to be correct,' says Professor Clarke. 'But this price decline can be readily offset by increases in the tobacco excise.'

In summary, then, plain packaging will make it cheaper and easier to manufacture cigarette packs, but not if you're a counterfeiter. The government will then increase cigarette prices which - despite the fact that the illicit trade exists solely because of artifically high prices in the first place - will mysteriously make illicit cigarettes less appealing and less profitable.

Anti-smoking economics - like normal economics but in reverse.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Tobacco company buys e-cig company

Lorillard, the American cigarette manufacturer, has bought the e-cigarette company Blu Ecigs for $135 million.

From their press release...
blu ecigs is extremely proud and excited to announce today our acquisition by one of the largest and oldest companies in America, Lorillard, Inc. Lorillard, through its Lorillard Tobacco Company subsidiary, is the third-largest manufacturer of cigarettes in the U.S and has a long and proud tradition that will compliment the passion of blu ecigs in the emerging electronic cigarette category.

“This is a very exciting move for me and my team. I am particularly excited about what this means for the brand and our customers. It gives us access to the tremendously experienced team and resources at Lorillard and will allow us to move to the next level on our expansion and product development."

Lorillard is best known as the US's biggest manufacturer of menthol cigarettes which the FDA has been attempting - but failing - to prohibit. In recent years, RJ Reynolds has bought the snus company Conwood (2006) and the NRT company Niconovum (2009). British American Tobacco has since set up a company which will sell a yet-to-be-announced reduced harm nicotine product (Nicoventures, 2011). This all suggests that Big Tabs hopes to shift the market towards low risk substitutes.

The Lorillard buy-out is good news, especially if they pump serious money into developing better products. I've said before that e-cigarettes can replicate the sensation of smoking very well but there's room for improvement when it comes to taste (at least to these lips, many thousands of people disagree). I fully expect e-cigarettes to come on leaps and bounds in the next few years unless they are suppressed by the prohibitionists.

Speaking of the devil, as I do, the down-side of this acquisition is that it will enable the pro-death wing of the anti-smoking movement to portray those of us who favour a market-driven shift towards low/zero-risk nicotine products as being stooges of Big Baccy. But since they do that already and always will, it's probably best to ignore their squealing and get on with doing what they have never done, ie. providing realistic alternatives for people who like nicotine but who want to quit smoking, while leaving the rest of us alone.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Does tobacco control actually 'work'?

I've got an article up at Spiked today asking whether the current anti-smoking orthodoxy, which I describe as neo-prohibitionist, is successful at actually getting people to stop smoking and improving health.

One obvious question is never asked - does this strategy of hyper-regulation and ‘denormalisation’ actually work? By one measure, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. In 2006, the anti-smoking movement created a ‘Tobacco Control Scorecard’, a hit parade which Britain and Ireland have consistently topped thanks to uncompromising smoking bans, sky-high tobacco taxes and retail-display bans. Plain packaging should help the UK maintain the top spot next time the list is compiled.

 Trebles all round, then? Not quite. After declining steadily for years, Britain’s smoking rate has been flatlining since 2007, while Ireland’s eye-wateringly high cigarette prices have made the Emerald Isle the capital of black-market tobacco in Western Europe. If stigmatising smokers and annoying the tobacco industry is the aim of tobacco control, our two countries reign supreme, but if the goal is to improve public health we should take a lesson from the country that comes a mediocre ninth on the scorecard: Sweden.

Please do read the whole thing. There are also some very fine articles from Rob Lyons (on Jamie Oliver) and Patrick Basham (on plain packaging).

Monday 23 April 2012

Comment from Clive Bates

A comment from former ASH director Clive Bates in a recent post deserves wider attention so I reproduce it here in full. Please click on the links.

I write as former director of ASH (the one based in London: I was director from 1997-2003. I am now no longer involved in public health and these are my personal views.

The public health community does know about smokeless tobacco and harm reduction, or it should know as it is their responsibility to understand what they are doing. There is plenty of evidence and sources available to those prepared to approach the issue with an open mind. In fact a debate has raged on this subject for some time and continues to this day - with many protagonists on both sides. The denial of evidence, warped logic, weird ethics and rejection of common sense has been extraordinary to behold. My concern now is that the EU is considering a new tobacco directive to replace the one that bans oral tobacco in the EU outside Sweden. Despite the reality that illiberal, self-defeating measure is deeply harming to health and civil liberties, as far as I can see no-one is lifting a finger to do anything about it. There is now the opportunity of the new directive to replace the ban with a regulated market in reduced-risk smokeless tobacco. 

Just so you can see that the public health community has never been united in its view on this, here are a few posts from me on smokeless tobacco and harm reduction:

Killing by the million: and that's just the health campaigners "If there is a reason to be a Euro-sceptic, then this is one of the strongest – deliberate denial of access to products that are much lower risk to people that are addicted to nicotine."

Saying stupid things with fake sophistication - a critique of ASH Scotland's position statement on smokeless tobacco: "jaw-dropping in its idiocy".

Mass killing machine making lots of money "One danger is that fussy, insular and instinctively authoritarian public health people will continue down the evidence-free path of blocking these developments and insist that for smokers it has to be ‘quit or die’. On the other hand, and more positively, tobacco companies may see smokeless products as a way of doing business with less death and disease and persuade regulators that they needs some regulatory tweaks to make it work – for example it is still impossible to tell smokers the truth about relative risks, and much public effort go in to obscuring it."

Useless scientific advice from the EU including a submission to the committee evaluating smokeless tobacco, and a more complete critique of what they were doing and how they were going about their work. 

The European Commission continues to rely on the work of this committee to justify its stance in favour of banning lower risk products, yet the terms of reference, the assessment and its interpretation were all thoroughly flawed and easily discredited.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Astro-turf group breaking the law in Liverpool?

An amusing headline from the Liverpool Daily Post...

Merseyside anti-smoking campaign criticised for giving away cigarettes

Considering how keen the anti-smoking movement is to keep people smoking and help the illicit trade, it was only a matter of time before they cut out the middle-man and started pushing cigarettes on people directly. In this instance, they were sending packs of fags out to politicians and journalists, apparently in the belief that they don't know what cigarette packs look like.

A Merseyside taxpayer-funded charity is promoting an anti-smoking campaign – by giving away free cigarettes.

This is a rare example of the media telling readers that plain packaging campaigners are, almost to a man, funded by the government. This is certainly outrageous, but for the Liverpool Daily Post, the outrage comes from what they have been spending their money on.

Tobacco Free Futures sent out the packs as part of its campaign about how packaging is alluring to children and can lead them to become hooked on smoking. The charity said it had only sent packs out to a small number of people in the media in the North West to try to highlight the dangers of smoking [how does that work then? - CJS] to “people with influence, including MPs”.

But the move has been slammed by leading city politicians, who are demanding answers of the city’s Primary Care Trust – and Westminster – as to why public money was being put into the pockets of big tobacco firms.

Since more than 80% of the cost of a pack of cigarettes is tax, this is more a case of taking from one pocket to put into another than it is of enriching Big Tobacco.

Why public money is going into the pockets of lobbyists in the first place would be a more pertinent question. As the article points out, this wing of the Department of Health has form when it comes to campaigning on the taxpayer's shilling.

The Liverpool PCT has been at the forefront of anti-smoking campaigning, even calling for films which featured smoking to be given an 18 certificate in local cinemas.

That much we knew. You may recall the astro-truf group D-MYST is based on Merseyside.

But there is a much bigger problem with all this that the article fails to mention. It is, I am quite sure, against the law to give unsolicited cigarettes to people. This means that Tobacco Free Futures are not just being profligate with your money, they are also engaged in a criminal activity.

Perhaps the Liverpool constabulary should be notified?

Saturday 21 April 2012

Snus: More prohibition?

It seems that the EU’s grudging toleration of Swedish snus use may be coming to an end. On Thursday, the Scandinavian press were reporting that the European Commission has announced its intention to ban a range of flavourings from tobacco products, such as sugar, licorice and menthol, which are needed to make most varieties of snus palatable.

Patrik Hildingsson, Communications Director at Swedish Match, the nation’s largest snus manufacturer, says the ban would “affect our entire portfolio, a number of flavours that have been available for more than 200 years”.

It is a sign of snus’s popularity that the possibility of a de facto ban led to a resurgence in Swedish Euroscepticis, with the hashtag #snusriot trending on Twitter and one tweeter writing: “I'm not a snus user, but the day the EU dictates what we Swedes put under our lips is the day I stand up to protest.” The Commission says that its ban on flavourings is aimed primarily at cigarettes, but it has not ruled out applying it to all tobacco products.

If so, the EU may have a fight on its hands, as Swedish MEP Christofer Fjellner told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. “I expect that we, the Swedish representatives, will vote out the proposal – and that the Swedish Government will vote against the EU Council of Ministers.”

The Swedish government has long complained that the EU ban on snus lacks scientific foundation and should be overturned. Sweden now enjoys the lowest smoking rate and the lowest lung cancer rate in the whole of Europe, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by public health experts in Britain, including the Royal College of Physicians and the former director of Action on Smoking and Health, Clive Bates, who have questioned the wisdom of banning the least hazardous form of tobacco while cigarettes remain freely available.

The box below illustrates the 'Swedish Experience' nicely...

It had been hoped that the new Tobacco Product Directive, due to appear in 2013, would see the EU repeal the ban on snus, thereby allowing other countries to benefit from Sweden’s natural experiment in harm reduction. As Swedes prepare for a ‘snus riot’, it seems that the Commission is moving in the opposite direction.

Today, there are similar noises coming from Norway, which has seen benefits from snus use although these have been hampered by widespread ignorance amongst doctors and smokers about the health risks of snus (of which there are very few).

Norway May Ban Swedish Snuff in Five Years

National Council for tobacco prevention advocates a total ban on the increasingly popular form of tobacco, Snus (Swedish Snuff).

According to TV2's report, "National Council for Tobacco Prevention expects the number of diseases that are related to snuff will continue to increase", writes the Council in a report to Ministry of Health and Care.

The council advised that sales of snuss should be prohibited after 2017, just as it is now banned in all EU countries except Sweden.

This is all excellent news for cigarette companies, for whom flavoured cigarettes are a negligible segment of the market and whose business is threatened by people turning to the vastly less hazardous alternative of snus.

When anti-smoking groups start helping the cigarette industry, it might be time to stop and rethink the strategy.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Snus: they knew all along (part 2)

While doing some research recently, I came across a letter in a library archive written by Dr Richard Peto to Dr. B. MacGibbon. Peto was, and is, a highly respected epidemiologist who worked closely with Richard Doll on smoking and health.

The letter is dated 28th June 1984. Two months earlier, the Daily Mail had run a story about Skoal Bandits, an American form of snus made by US Tobacco Inc. who were due to build a factory in Scotland. Shortly thereafter, ASH's director David Simpson started a moral panic about this smokeless tobacco product which ultimately resulted in the EU ban on oral tobacco (1992). See Chapter 4 of The Art of Suppression for the full story.

I do not know who Dr. B. MacGibbon was or why Peto was writing to him, but Peto begins by recommending that some research into the saliva concentrations of snus users be conducted "fairly urgently". He continues...

I have given some further thought to the question of how many cancer deaths would be likely to be caused each year if one-third of the British population were to become habitual tobacco suckers.

Then, basing his figures on data from the US and UK...

This suggests that if about a quarter of the British population took to dipping 100 gms of tobacco a week, then in the long run “only” some 500-1000 excess deaths/year would result (see Appendix [which is a couple of studies, including the influential study by Deborah Winn looking at women in North Carolina - CJS]).

Maybe Skoal Bandits would be worse than SE US snuff, or maybe (especially if you take the advice in the first part of this letter! [ie. to carry out research "fairly urgently" - CJS]) they would be less hazardous. In any case, no matter what epidemiological studies you mount, you probably won’t get even a preliminary answer this century, so as a practical basis for action I suggest you assume that the adoption of Skoal Bandit-like products by a quarter or a half of the British population will cause about 1000 cancer deaths a year. In contrast, tobacco smoking currently causes about 100,000 British deaths a year!

This may be wrong – they could be carcinogenic, and the Asian experience with oral cancer suggests that they could be a lot more carcinogenic than I’ve estimated, but in any case you have most of what you need for political action, viz:

  • The risks are not zero
  • The risks can probably be reduced by immediately commissionable laboratory research;
  • The risks are much, much less than those of cigarette use.

The final thing you need is to know whether they will help avoid tobacco. No proof is possible, but it is noteworthy that among women in North Carolina, where both products have been widely available for decades,

  • The proportion of smokers among snuff-dippers is only one-third as great as that among non-dippers, and
  • Even among those dippers who smoke, mean cigarette consumption Is significantly lower than among non-dippers who smoke.

I suspect that, no matter what the risks might be, Skoal Bandits and allied products would be allowed to be sold [alas, this prediction was wrong - CJS]. Fortunately, however, the above arithmetic suggests that this may well do more good than harm. In any case, one should try to avoid producing a situation where the warnings or statements about Skoal Bandits etc. are so strong as to divert attention from the much more serious hazards of tobacco smoking.

He concludes by saying:
"The real message is that there is a hazard, but that it’s much less than that of smoking, and that a widespread shift to such products could probably save a lot of lives."

As I mentioned recently, Peto was not alone in seeing the harm reduction potential of snus. In 1985, the addiction expert M.A.H. Russell published a letter in the Lancet, estimating that 49,000 premature deaths would be prevented by a switch from cigarettes to Skoal Bandits. Unfortunately, and not for the last time, the voices of scientists were drowned out by those of activists who were itching for prohibition.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Temperance 2.0

There's another very good article at Points (the blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society) by Henry Yeomans, who wrote a wonderful article about the moral panic of binge-drinking a few years ago (referenced in this blog post).

Yeomans looks at the growth of "total consumption theory" which says that "the distinction of “responsible” and “irresponsible” drinking is fatuous, as the reduction of all forms of drinking is linked to decreases in harm".

It is true that there is often a correlation between high per capita alcohol consumption and high rates of alcohol-related harm, which leads some to call for supply-side measures that affect the whole population. This happens to be what the temperance movement has always believed and I entirely agree with Yeomans that we are seeing a return of traditional temperance, albeit not gospel temperance but medical temperance.

Although the current Government’s rhetoric is consistent with consequentialism, the growth of TCT and the imminence of minimum pricing suggest we are seeing a reversion back to the older, temperance-inspired faith in the inherently problematic nature of alcohol. Nowadays, this position tends to be justified in reference to medical, epidemiological, and demographic data, yet there is clear congruity with older discursive forces.

This can be seen in the general problematisation of all forms of drinking, which was initially advanced by Victorian temperance groups, as well as the historical lineage of certain groups. The Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) has been the primary agency involved in the campaign for minimum pricing and it includes prohibitionist groups, such as the International Order of Good Templars and the Institute of Alcohol Studies, as well as medical organisations. The British temperance movement continues, therefore, to have some influence over the way in which alcohol is understood and regulated in England and Wales.

There is an obvious problem with total consumption theory in that alcoholics/problem drinkers/binge-drinkers consume a disproportionate amount of alcohol. A nation with a lot of "irresponsible" drinkers is likely to have a high per capita rate, but it does not follow that measures which reduce consumption amongst the moderate majority will reduce harm. On the contrary, policies which treat everybody as if they were at equal risk (as implied by the silly claim that there is "no safe alcohol limit") do not only punish the majority for the 'sins' of the minority, but they fail to give adequate support to those who are genuinely at risk.

Part of the problem, in my view, is that the neo-temperance movement bases now its strategy on the anti-smoking movement (the Alcohol Health Alliance appeared soon after the SmokeFree Coalition successfully lobbied for the smoking ban and blatantly emulates it), but while the anti-tobacconists can justifiably view any reduction in consumption and/or prevalence as progress, the situation with alcohol is more complex. However, complexity, moderation and harm reduction do not sit easily with moral entrepreneurship and so they are being jettisoned in favour of an approach that views alcohol as basically evil. I predict that the drinking guidelines will be reduced to zero in the next decade to 'send out a clear message'.

The temperance movement will, however, face the old problem that their policies are not very popular.

Naturally it is politically preferable for the Coalition to garner mass support for their policies, yet the political advantages may be eroded in the long term if apparently responsible drinkers find they have to either drink less or pay more. If the ‘responsible drinkers’ of Britain do indeed unite behind minimum pricing, they may soon find that they have more to lose than the social problems associated with binge drinking.

Do go read the whole thing.


I'm grateful to Yeomans for pointing me to this article from 2009 in which Andrew Lansley, like Gordon Brown, rejected minimum pricing, then being demanded by Liam Donaldson.

The shadow health secretary, Andrew Lansley, said: "Sir Liam Donaldson's report is a frank admission that the government's alcohol strategy has failed. The government's response to his report is another example of Labour's confusion and incoherence.

"If there was an ounce of leadership from Labour ministers on this issue there would be no need for Liam Donaldson to try his shock tactics to kick-start government policy."

He also made it clear that the Tories had no intention of putting the chief medical officer's proposal into practice.

He added: "There is clearly a need for action. But it is very important to recognise that to deal with this problem we need to deal with people's attitudes and not just the supply and price of alcohol.

"Our proposals, which include measures to tackle loss-leader promotions and higher taxes on high-alcohol drinks aimed at young people, would address this without penalising the majority of moderate drinkers. This would seem to be a much better route to go down than distorting the whole drinks market."

Sunday 15 April 2012

Dr Aseem Malhotra doesn't know what he's talking about

An article has appeared in the Observer under the byline of Aseem Malhotra. He is a medic and, not coincidentally, has a God complex and a shaky grasp on facts and figures. Like Liam Donaldson and many others before him, he seems to have tired of healing the sick and wishes instead to indulge his political ambitions without all the bother of having to get elected.

Malhotra has written several articles about so-called junk food, on the last occasion asking "For Big Tobacco, should we now read Big Food?" He appears to believe the absurd prediction that 90% of the population will be overweight or obese by 2050 (despite rates having been flat or declining for ten years), and has swallowed the idea that heart attacks fall dramatically after smoking bans are introduced (they don't). Today's article is headlined...

We must demonise junk food for the sake of our children

Calling for demonisation is not likely to get a warm reception round these parts, especially if the rationale boils down to 'think of the children'. Still, let's give him a chance.

A consultant psychiatrist friend, on his recent appointment to a new job, was so disgusted by the detrimental effect of the unchecked consumption of junk food on his patients' health that he successfully banned vending machines selling chocolates, fizzy drinks and crisps from the hospital grounds.

All in a day's work for your average medical busy-body, interfering in matters beyond their expertise (the guy is a psychiatrist, remember).

He wondered whether I – as a clinician – believed the consequences of eating junk food were as bad for our health as smoking cigarettes. "No, not as bad," I replied, "in many ways it's far worse!"

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when these two intellectual titans conversed. It must have been like a Pete and Dud sketch. ("You think hamburgers are worse than fags, Pete?" "Oh yes, Dud, I reckon they're far worse. Gotta be, haven't they?") If you're going to make a statement as stupid as that - dangerously stupid, in fact - you'd better have some pretty impressive evidence to back it up.

It is estimated that diet-related diseases are responsible for 35 million deaths worldwide, dwarfing smoking-related ones of 5 to 8 million.

Nice statistic. Shame it's rubbish. As the briefest Googling would have told him, 35 million is the total number of deaths caused by "obesity, cardiovascular diseases (CVD), cancer, and diabetes" worldwide, representing 60% of all deaths every year globally. In other words, he has combined the total number of deaths attributable to the diseases of old age and defined them as 'diet-related'. It is true that they can be diet related - just as they can be related to a number of other factors - but that hardly justifies presenting the bald statistic as if all these deaths could all be prevented by modifying diet, let alone drawing the conclusion that 'junk food' is more dangerous than smoking. Doing so suggests either appalling ignorance or a degree of mendacity.

As BenSix says..

CiF commentators passing off misunderstandings and received wisdom as fact is hardly new. Yet when a practicing doctor can make – unless I’ve made a ridiculous error – such a ridiculous error it drives home how lax the standards of epistemic rigour can be in today’s society.

Indeed. It is the old problem of the media assuming that someone knows what they're talking about just because they work in the medical industry. 

So what is the biggest culprit of the obesity epidemic and how do we combat it? According to Professor Robert Lustig, a child obesity expert at the University of San Francisco, it's sugar (including sweeteners) and processed carbohydrate.

If you ever find yourself reading an article in which Robert Lustig is cited as an authority, a good rule of thumb is to put it down and do something more productive with your time. This is not the first time Malhotra has cited Dr Lustig in an article and we have encountered him before. He is an anti-sugar crank and borderline conspiracy theorist who indulges in some of the strangest beliefs in the Bay Area - no mean achievement. He think that sugar-sweetened beverages have created "the biggest public health crisis in the history of the world" and seems to believe that bee stings are a sign from God that we shouldn't eat honey.

He describes sugar as being addictive and toxic...

Indeed he does. Because he doesn't understand what either of those words mean.

...and has called for a ban on the sale of sugary drinks to under-17s and a consumer tax on any substance with added sugar. This would be a good start.

And a start is all it would be, I'm sure. Presumably to be followed by minimum pricing of food and a display ban for sweets. The former was reported earlier today. The latter is hinted at here...

It horrifies me to see well-known high street brands getting away with the display of chocolates, crisps and fizzy drinks in prominent positions. It's perverse that institutions that represent health and wellbeing and treat the consequences of poor diet allow the sale of such products.

And it is perverse that newspapers which represent knowledge and information should pay people to misinform their readers, but that's life.

You will often hear two defences from big food corporations. The first: it's your choice what you eat

It is. It is the most basic of all freedoms.

...and the second: you need to exercise more.

If you're fat, you do.

In response to the second point, a study by Professor Boyd Swinburn, presented at the European Congress on Obesity in 2009, concluded that excess food intake explains weight gain.

Where would we be without professors, eh?

And so he goes on, mainly giving us a list of what he thinks should be compulsory or illegal. The only silver lining being the Guardian's choice of photo for this story, which suggests a certain mischievousness on the part of a sub-editor while illustrating the cognitive dissonance that surrounds the junk food scare.

Don't eat 'junk food' or you could end up as fat as these poor sods

Minimum pricing for food

Alone of all news networks, the BBC has chosen to turn a press release from the public health establishment into its top news story.

Nothing in this article is new or surprising. It is just another example of the anti-tobacco blueprint being extended to other areas of public life.

Just as it shouldn't be surprising to hear that the Department of Health is looking at plain packaging for alcohol (despite having not officially made its mind up about plain packaging of tobacco), it shouldn't be a shock to find that 'public health professionals' are excited by the idea of minimum pricing for food (despite the DoH having not yet officially made its mind up about minimum pricing for alcohol). That's right - minimum pricing for food...

The first phase of the campaign will try to find out what works. It will review evidence for diets, exercise, taxation, minimum pricing, changing advertising and food labelling, which medical procedures work and how children are educated.

How blatant do these people need to be for you to see that this is not just about tobacco? It's not even just about alcohol. Plain packaging for wine? Minimum pricing for burgers? This is not some libertarian paranoia about the slippery slope. This is actually happening. It is going on before your very eyes.

I don't want to say I told you so, but...

Friday 13 April 2012

The binge-drinkers of Maidstone

From Kent Online:

Volunteers try to stop pre-loading

by Andy Gray

Poor old Andy. How the mighty have fallen.

Clubbers and pub goers could be breathalysed as they venture out in Maidstone in an attempt to measure levels of drunkenness.

Woah there! Nanny ruddy state or what?

But fear not. This is merely research...

Urban Blue Bus volunteers will carry hand-held intoximeters to determine the volume of so-called 'pre-fuelled' drinkers who load up with alcohol BEFORE a night out in town.

A recent study by Maidstone Town Centre Management indicated many revellers are well above the drink-drive limit before they even set foot in a pub.

And what, pray, is wrong with being over the drink-drive limit when you set off on foot?

At some point in the last decade, the drink-drive limit - which is quite deliberately set at a very low point indeed - became some sort of measure of drunkenness. We now regularly read about people being arrested for non-driving-related crimes, or - heaven forfend - autopsies of unfortunates, with the statement that they were three or four times over the drink-drive limit. But the whole point of the drink-drive limit is that it is set at a point at which the person is not drunk. Referring to it in multiples - as if it is a unit of drunkenness - doesn't tell us very much except that the person might have been drunk. When it comes to "revellers" on a Saturday night, it is self-evident that they will be over the drink-drive limit, but since they're not driving, so what?

Paul Alcock, manager of The Mall Chequers, said: "The plan is to find out how much people are pre-fuelling.

"The results will be used to warn of the dangers of drinking at home before going out."

The Mall Chequers is a shopping centre in Maidstone as far as I can work out, so what they have to do with people strolling around over the drink-drive limit, God only knows.

According to latest figures from the Local Alcohol Profiles for England, 17% of those aged 16 and over in Maidstone engage in binge drinking - this equates to roughly 21,000 people.

Andy Gray doesn't explain what period of time this refers to, but unless it is "every day", I would argue that it is very far from being an epidemic, or even a slight cause for concern. In fact, and assuming it refers to every week or every month, it is a frankly derisory rate of drunken levity which only confirms my view that people today do not drink very much most of the time and that this is a particular boring, conservative time to be alive, although I accept that this might not be anything new in Maidstone.

Mr Alcock said the intoximeter scheme, a joint initiative between Town Centre Management supported by police, will be up and running in the next four weeks.

The hand-held devices could be used to carry out 200 tests a night on some of the estimated 20,000 weekend visitors to Maidstone's 50 licensed pubs and clubs.

I hope and expect that the revellers of Kent will tell these police-funded "volunteers" exactly where to go when they wave the breathalyser- sorry, 'intoximeter' - in their face. Alcohol is alcohol whether it is drunk at home or drunk in one of Maidstone's no doubt salubrious licensed premises. There is nothing new or interesting about "pre-loading". I can say with certainty that it happened on an epic scale twenty years ago and I'm pretty confident that it went on twenty years before that.

"Post-loading" also occurs on a regular basis and, although you don't hear so much about that phenomenon, that is where the fun really begins. At both the pre- and post-loading stage, the alcohol is cheaper, there are no smoking restrictions and the company is better. The fights, property destruction and public disorder all happen at the mid-way stage, which is the bit the hospitality industry wish to portray as the safe and well-regulated part of the night. It's not and never has been. The pub and club industry's cynical attempt to cosy up to the temperance movement by pretending to be custodians of "sensible drinking" is the sheerest artifice. They whinge about people "pre-loading" on "cheap" supermarket booze, but their furrows of concern are not so deep that they will not cheerfully serve those same "binge-drinkers" when they stagger into town.

I did, however, enjoy the end of the article, which shows that common sense has not entirely departed these isles.

One of the group, Cllr Dave Naghi, was shocked to see drinkers relieving themselves at the side of the road.

"It was disgusting," he said.

'Twas always thus, but Cllr Naghi, bless him, is not your average 'ban it, tax it' local politician.

"We're going to get some toilets back in the High Street."

Thank you, Cllr Naghi. Sensible policies for a happier Britain.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Snus: they knew all along

Brad Rodu reports on a study recently published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research which shows that Norwegians who believe snus to be dangerous tend not to use it to give up smoking. Nothing surprising about that, of course. What is worrying is that 35% of those surveyed believed that using snus was as dangerous - or more dangerous - than smoking (in fact, it is over 95% safer). This is a troubling statistic, though perhaps unsurprising since many Norwegian doctors remain ignorant of the gulf in potential harm between cigarettes and snus.

The study, by Dr Karl Lund, also found that 32% of ex-smokers used snus to quit, whereas only 14% used pharmaceutical nicotine medication. From this, we can draw the conclusion that if smokers were not ignorant about snus's risk profile, many more Norwegians would be ex-smokers.

Still, at least the people of Norway - having wisely chosen to remain outside the EU - are able to buy snus if they want to. The same cannot be said of we Brits who helped to introduce the EU ban in the first place (see The Art of Suppression. You've read it by now, right?)

The harm reduction potential of snus in tobacco control can seem like a relatively new discovery. It is easy to believe that a clueless anti-smoking movement stamped the product out without realising the possibilities it had for smoking cessation. It was, after all, not until 2004 that Brad Rodu and Philip Cole published the study showing that 200,000 premature deaths could be prevented by adopting a Swedish culture of snus use.

This is not quite true. As early as 1985, the addiction expert M.A.H.Russell had tested snus (Skoal Bandits in fact) and wrote to The Lancet saying:

Our results suggest that this new product could help people trying to give up smoking. It might be cheaper than nicotine chewing gum and would not require a prescription. If all smokers in Britain switched to sachets about 50,000 premature deaths per year might eventually be saved at an annual cost of less than 1,000 deaths from mouth cancer.

This was at a time when snus was believed to cause mouth cancer, a belief that has been known to be false for over a decade. Nevertheless, Russell based his figures on the core principle of harm reduction and understood that 50,000 minus 1,000 still left 49,000, and that this was better than the prohibitionist, quit-or-die fairytales that were dominant in the tobacco control movement even then.

History will not look favourably on the dangerous idiots who banned snus in the EU - especially those who still support the prohibition now that the facts are clear. There were rational voices thirty years ago which went unheeded.

One of Russell's co-authors for the Lancet letter was Martin Jarvis. Today, Jarvis is a trustee of ASH. ASH is truculent, devious and unreliable on almost every matter on which they claim to have expertise. None of their pronouncements of the last fifteen years has not involved at least a half-lie, but their failure to speak out against the EU ban adds cowardice, hypocrisy and gross negligence to the charge sheet.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Osbourne's war on (real) charities

The government's latest attempt to make people of every political persuasion despise them is to dissuade the rich from giving to charity. The current situation, as the BBC describes it, is this...

When higher rate taxpayers donate money to charity, some of the tax can be reclaimed. Effectively they could pay no tax at all, if they choose to give away their income to charities.

This is a very good thing as it encourages charitable giving and the nebulous 'Big Society' that David Cameron claims to support.

But Mr Osborne announced in the Budget that from April 2013 the maximum amount that will be able to be reclaimed in tax relief - including on charitable giving - is £50,000 or 25% of the individual's income, whichever is the greater.

£50,000 is a pittance to some of these donors. You will probably recall that Warren Buffet and several other US billionaires gave away half their fortune to charity recently. Although Buffet has been known to complain that taxes are too low in America, it is notable that he chose not to give his money to the state, but to charities whom he thought - almost certainly correctly - would spend it more prudently.

One of the main reasons why Americans give much, much more to charity than any other country is that they enjoy tax benefits from doing so. But, as the Chief Executive of the Charities Aid Foundation points out, this is not a tax dodge. It is genuine philanthropy.

“This is not a ploy to save tax. Philanthropists who make large donations give away far, far more than they could ever claim in tax relief. That money goes to fund projects for the public good, such as medical research and help for the most vulnerable in society.

The killer line came from the "prime minister's spokesman" who delivered this doozy...

"In certain instances they may be giving to charities and those charities don't, in all cases, do a great deal of charitable work."

I certainly agree that there are plenty of charities who do not do a great deal of charitable work. Indeed, there are many charities that seem to do nothing but lobby for legislation, and, furthermore, these charities are funded by the government. That is an issue for the Charity Commission. If that Commission had not been snoozing under the stewardship of Suzi Leather for the last eight years, it might have encouraged some test cases against some of the many pressure groups masquerading as charities which have an undue influence on politics in contravention of charity law.

"We cannot be in a situation where very wealthy individuals are able to wipe out their bills by using these reliefs."

They're not profiting from it, asshole. Whomever they give their money to, donating funds to a third party is unambiguously an act of charity, whereas the state giving taxpayers' money to charity is an act of political patronage. These people are choosing to finance your precious Big Society rather than pay for the state's bureaucracy - a bureaucracy which gives £12 billion a year to charities in any case, including to such organisations as Action on Smoking and Health, the School Food Trust, the Equality Challenge Unit, Alcohol Concern and all the other fake charities that no one would donate to if they had a choice.

You want to remove tax status from organisations which do not do "a great deal of charitable work"? Fine. Start with the fake charity behemoth which Labour created and which you continue to feed. The third sector and the public sector are already inter-changeable much of the time. Let's deal with that rather than impoverishing real charities.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Sunset clause for minimum pricing?

From The Telegraph:

Drinks manufacturers plan to persuade the Government into agreeing a “sunset clause” on minimum unit pricing, which would force ministers to scrap the controversial alcohol policy if it was proven not to work.

Nice idea, but no dice. What could be more reasonable than assessing a law after a year or two to make sure it hasn't failed or back-fired? This is just the kind of thing that a government who claims to hate "unnecessary legislation" would support, notwithstanding that such a government wouldn't contemplate minimum pricing in the first place.

Strangely, we don't have much of a history of using sunset clauses in the UK, which is good news for our many anti-[fill in the blank] groups who might otherwise see their pet prohibitions put under scrutiny. Instead, they concentrate on the next ban and hope the public forgets the extravagant promises they made about the last ban.

I notice that no temperance groups are quoted in the Telegraph article. What can they say? If they support a sunset clause, the government might seriously consider it. If they oppose it, people might suspect that they have no faith in their ridiculous claims, eg. that a 40p minimum price will save 900 deaths a year.

There will be no sunset clause. There will only be calls for the minimum price to rise to 60p, 70p, 80p, and those demands will never end (see Scotland where a "leading public expert" reckons a 60p unit will save—guess what?—900 lives a year). The only hope is for the EU to rule it a breach of free trade. As with plain packaging, it will be for the courts to decide. Ain't it grand that the Conservative party—the party of the free market—are supporting policies which require arbitration from the European Union and the World Trade Organisation?

Monday 9 April 2012


A half-hour debate on Russia Today between myself, Saamah Abdallah (New Economics Foundation) and Mark Anielski (author of The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth) on the subject of whether governments should focus on Gross National Happiness. I say they shouldn't, because they can't.

You can download the Institute of Economic Affairs book about all of this for free here.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Anyone else noticed this?

I've had an e-mail from a chap called Andrew who has noticed something strange happen at his local supermarket since minimum pricing was mooted.

I wonder whether you have noticed the drinks industry and supermarket profiteering which has gone on recently following the "minimum price per "alcohol unit" or we all die!" hysteria.

I went to Sainsburys weekend before last and noticed own brand cider had gone up fifty pence. So I left it and looked for alternatives elsewhere. ASDA/Walmart around the corner still sold for the same price.

This weekend I went to ASDA/Walmart and noticed the price of own brand cider had gone up by a third (!). It used to be just over £1.50 and is now £2 (Gordon Brown pushed it up from about £1.20 by a duty hike later reversed - though not in shops). So I left that, too and found the stronger stuff being only slightly more and went for that. Good work, people. Customers will now go for stronger booze because it does not cost much more.

Has any other readers had the same experience?

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Prohibitionist accidentally tells the truth

One of the main arguments made in favour of plain packaging—first in Australia and now in the UK—is that the tobacco industry strongly opposes it.

OK, it's not an argument as such, but in these intellectually backward times, saying "the industry opposes it, therefore it must be good" could be mistaken for one. It is true that the industry went to some lengths campaigning against it in Oz and some of the cigarette companies are now suing the Australian government. Pro-plain pack campaigners portray their opposition as an admission that the policy will reduce the smoking rate.

But this is a fallacy. It assumes that industry (any industry) depends on volume and turnover, when it actually depends on profit. The removal of branding is likely to have a negative effect on profit margins, as I explained in the booklet I wrote for the Adam Smith Institute...

It is no secret that many consumer goods are virtually identical and can only be distinguished by their brand names. Sometimes this fact is so well known that manufacturers make little attempt to conceal it (petrol and salt, for example, are sold with minimal branding), but in most cases industries rely on building a trusted brand in the hope that consumers will pay a premium. Paracetamol, for example, can be bought for a few pence in a generic box or for considerably more in a glossier box with a well-advertised brand name. Bottles of mineral water compete in a multi-billion pound market on little more than brand recognition.

Knowing the power of packaging to imply quality, companies often produce two barely distinguishable versions of the same product and give the budget brand a consciously inexpensive-looking package, even though it would cost no more to make it look glitzier. The same is true of cigarettes which are branded and packaged according to the price point. One in two smokers cannot distinguish between similar cigarettes in blind trials and it is reasonable to expect many of them to downgrade to cheaper brands under a regime of plain packaging. This is the main reason the tobacco industry is so vehemently opposed to plain packaging: its top brands are worth billions of pounds and any government which misappropriates them can expect to be sued, as is already happening in Australia.

I then addressed the question of whether this would be a bad thing. For the zealots fighting their bogus David and Goliath battle with 'Big Tobacco', anything that annoys the enemy is desirable, but what are the public health implications of people turning to cheaper cigarettes?

Should we care if cigarette companies becomes less profitable and are only able to compete on price? If smokers buy cheaper cigarettes from the licit and illicit market, perhaps we should. Price is widely seen as the single most important factor in influencing cigarette consumption, and yet here is a policy that will reduce demand for the most expensive brands, that will encourage the industry to compete by lowering prices and which is likely to stimulate the black market. For the zealots of the anti-tobacco industry, anything that harms Big Tobacco’s profits is a good thing, but in this instance, what is bad for the tobacco industry is also likely to be bad for public health.

I do not claim to be the first person to have pointed all this out. It is fairly obvious. But since the arguments in favour of plain packaging are so weak, its proponents have had to rely on the "industry doesn't like it" angle rather heavily. None more so than scrotum-faced head-banger Simon Chapman, a man recently described by Carl at Ep-ology in terms which are firm but fair.

He is the perfect storm of a card-carrying "public health" person who is harmful to both public health science and the public's health: terrible at scientific/analytic reasoning, and freely promotes junk science; believes that top-down authority, particularly promoting prohibition, is the defining characteristic of public health; will make any sciencey claim that seems to support his political positions, regardless of the lack of scientific support; displays no apparent humanitarian concern despite working in a field that can only be justified by such; is the worst kind of gadfly (parachuting in to topic areas he clearly knows nothing about and making sweeping declarations as if he is an expert); and does not even seem to display much more scientific expertise on tobacco, the subject he has been working on for decades.

He also has an unfortunate habit of listening to the voices in his head and then repeating their words out loud (or on Twitter). This has led to some amusing moments. Today, when anyone criticises his pet project of plain packaging - which he hopes will make him a footnote in history - he plays them the same old tune...

The distinction between volume and profit has been explained to him so many times that we can only assume he is feigning ignorance of it. But lo and behold, last month it seemed that the penny had finally dropped when he was interviewed in the Australian press:

"I received an internal BATA training DVD in the mail about 2002, which featured David Crow [former marketing director, now managing director, of BATA] explaining to his team that the arse would continue to fall out of the market, and that the only hope was to push premium brands which gave them stratospheric profit margins."

"This explains a lot about why they fear plain packaging, because they will struggle to convince smokers that it's sensible to pay more for products that actually only look better because of their box."

By George, I think he's worked it out. And the truth shall set you free! Does this mean that Simple Simon will finally drop this infantile argument? Judging by yesterday's Twitter feed, it seems not...

Hopeless case or hopeless liar? You be the judge.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Supermarket stupidity

From the Telegraph over the weekend...

SIR – Last weekend I went to Sainsbury’s to buy some miniature cigars, but found the display shuttered. Upon asking what cigars they had, I was told that a new law forbade them from showing or telling me the brands, or even how much they cost.
Whatever justification is given for this censorship, the fact that someone would be breaking the law by giving me information about items that are perfectly legal to buy is a step too far off the road of democracy.

Graham Crispin
Southend-on-sea, Essex

Has anyone else had this experience? I haven't visited a supermarket tobacco kiosk since the ban came in. Is this really the law or is it a case of poorly trained staff gold-plating foolish legislation?

Monday 2 April 2012

Why are we paying for this? (part 4)

Dick Puddlecote has lifted the lid on the government's funding of the pro-plain packaging campaign. Bristol Primary Care Trust has given SmokeFree South-West no less than £468,462.06 to spend on billboard, digital and other marketing to promote a policy which the Department of Health has officially not made it's mind up about (it is, after all, due to launch one of its notorious 'public consultations', so in theory it has an open mind).

And what misleading marketing it is. The billboard above is a typical product of the millions being spent by the DoH on the plain packaging campaign. Notice the unsubstantiated claim that plain packaging will "protect children" (from what? - whatever it is, the DoH has previously stated that the evidence in favour of plain packaging is "speculative") and the false implication that plain packs will be, well, plain, when they will actually be used to depict whatever gruesome image takes the fancy of the warped minds of 'tobacco control professionals' (see below). It is questionable whether such images (a) are more suitable for children to see, and (b) really "make cigarette packs less noticeable".

Doubtless the people of Bristol will be delighted to hear that large sums of money are being diverted away from patient care to fund an advertising campaign for this barrel-scraping exercise. This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. Dick estimates that the national total could be around £5 million. Undoubtedly it will number in the millions. There are 151 PCTs in England alone, and it seems that a good proportion of them - perhaps all of them - are using taxpayers' money to lobby taxpayers and politicians. NHS Devon, for example, gave SmokeFree South-West £370,000 last year. Like the other 'SmokeFree' groups, SmokeFree South-West provide no public services and exist only to campaign for legislation and influence public opinion.

Perhaps I'm very old fashioned, but I always thought it was the people who campaigned for legislation and the government who listened. As the Department of Health tightens its grip on policy-making, those roles seem to have been reversed.