Friday 30 November 2012

Minimum pricing debate on Sky

I did a lot of media on Wednesday when the minimum pricing consultation was announced. For those who are interested, here's the Sky News discussion.

You can also see me much earlier in the day on BBC Breakfast.

On another note, these are very encouraging words from the new head of the Charity Commission.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Six reasons...

... to reject minimum pricing.

Over at the Adam Smith Institute blog.

Monday 26 November 2012

The minimal evidence for minimum pricing

I've discussed the Sheffield University minimum pricing guesstimates before on this blog and at Spiked. It was the Sheffield team that provided Panorama with the insanely inflated—and now retracted—estimate that the lives of 50,000 pensioners would be saved by a 50p unit price.

This single computer model has been responsible for numerous predictions about what would happen if minimum pricing were introduced. Such forecasts are speculative by their nature, but it is only by reading the Sheffield studies in full that one sees how wild the speculation is.

Hardly anyone does read these studies, of course, least of all politicians and journalists, but the statistician John C. Duffy has and today sees the publication of a paper I have co-authored with him which looks at the flaws in the model in detail.

You can download The Minimal Evidence for Minimum Pricing (Adam Smith Institute) here.

There are bits of coverage in The Sun, The Express, The Telegraph and The Independent. I've written articles about it for The Spectator and ConHome. And this is the press release...

Basis for government alcohol policy is bogus

As a consultation on minimum alcohol pricing launches, the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) has released a report showing that the evidence base for minimum alcohol pricing is, to all intents and purposes, non-existent.

Co-authored by John C. Duffy, a statistician with forty years experience in the field of alcohol epidemiology, the report explains that most of the estimated health outcomes, used to justify calls for a minimum alcohol pricing of 40p or 50p per unit, have come from a single, flawed computer model.

This model, the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model, is used to predict minimum pricing’s effect on everything from NHS expenditure to unemployment, and is based on false assumptions and wild speculation which render any predictions meaningless.

Arguments for minimum alcohol pricing based on this computer model should be ignored and the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model should not play a role in the debate.

The model is deeply flawed for a number of reasons:

When calculating health outcomes, the model assumes that heavy drinkers are more likely to reduce their alcohol consumption as a result of a price rise. This contrasts with ample evidence that heavy drinkers are less price-sensitive. The majority of alcohol related harm is linked to heavy drinkers who are much less likely to be deterred by price rise than a casual consumer. By claiming that any price rise will lead to bigger drops in consumption amongst heavy drinkers, the model ignores the complex psychological and societal factors leading to alcoholism and alcohol-related violence.

It bases its calculations on controversial beliefs regarding the relationship between per capita consumption and rates of alcohol related harm. A low rate of per capita alcohol consumption is no guarantee of better health outcomes. There is little to be gained from making moderate drinkers reduce their consumption slightly.

The model provides figures without estimates of error and ignores statistical error in the alcohol-harm relationship. Patterns of consumption and harm are not the same in all countries. When Denmark reduced the tax on spirits by 45% in 2003 it did not experience any increase in alcohol consumption, and instead there was a decline in alcohol-related problems. As alcohol has become more affordable as a result of rising incomes we have seen a decline in alcohol consumption across most of Europe and the US. There are, of course, examples where higher prices have reduced alcohol consumption and alcohol related harm, but it is clear that price interventions are highly unpredictable and cannot be easily extrapolated from a computer model.

The model ignores other potential negative social outcomes of minimum pricing, such as a likely increase in the illicit alcohol trade and the greater poverty it may push many consumers into. It also ignores some of the health benefits associated with moderate drinking habits.

Alcohol-related harm may rise, fall or stay the same under a minimum pricing regime. The evidence simply does not exist for reliable forecasts to be made about the consequences of such a far-reaching policy. The Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model is riddled with flaws and wishful thinking. It has no merit as a guide to policy and the government should not base legislation on such speculative and weak statistics.

Christopher Snowdon, co-author of the report, adds: “In the era of evidence-based policy, it seems that speculative statistics are considered superior to no statistics and a wrong answer is better than no answer. We argue that this is a mistake. The aura of scientific certainty, or even mild confidence, in computer-generated numbers based on dubious assumptions is misplaced. Minimum pricing might reduce alcohol harm, or it might increase it, or it might bring about other unexpected consequences, good or bad. An admission that the evidence base is, to all intents and purposes, non-existent is less likely to mislead decision-makers than a spurious prediction. The only certainty is that minimum pricing will transfer large sums of money from the poorest people in society to wealthy industries. This is a deeply regressive leap into the unknown and it should not be taken as a response to wafer-thin ‘evidence’.”

John C. Duffy, co-author of the report adds: “A supporter of the model might ask me ‘If you’re so smart, what’s your model – what do you predict?’ My answer is that I don’t have a model and therefore I won’t make a prediction. There is not enough information around to produce a reliable model and I won’t invent one that is engineered (by undemonstrated assumptions) to fit the prevailing facts and pretend that it is of any use for prediction. As Taleb says in The Black Swan about those who attempt to justify worthless predictions because ‘that’s their job’—get another job.”

Sunday 25 November 2012

State-funded charity orchestrated Costa protest

In September, I mentioned the attempt to keep Costa Coffee out of the town of Totnes—an effort which I said "epitomises the bigotry and bossiness of a certain sort of Guardianista". As far as the Deep Greens and far-left is concerned (insofar as the two can be distinguished), stopping people buying a certain type of coffee on the whim of some barely-elected local councillor is a victory for freedom and democracy. I later discovered that the No To Costa campaign was supported by our old friend Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative party's go-to nanny statist.

At the Battle of Ideas last month, I was struck by how the new leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett, decided to use a significant part of her ten minute slot to talk about how wonderful it was that Costa Coffee had been refused permission to open a branch in Totnes because "the people" didn't want it there. I wondered at the time why it was that, if the people hated Costa Coffee so much, it was necessary to shut them out rather than let them open a branch that would go bust. I also wondered why she thought an example of big government trampling on free choice was a good way to make the '21st-century Case for Freedom' (for that was the title of the debate). I could not help but be reminded of the comment left on the Guardian website when this was first discussed...

If your idea of 'democracy' is 'a system where me and my condescending arsehole chums get to dictate to other people what kind of coffee they're going to be allowed to drink', then I hope you never develop any kind of inclination towards fascism.

I was therefore delighted to see on the BBC website that the coffee-loving people of Totnes have not gone down without a fight...

Costa's Totnes pull-out 'provoked fury'

Costa Coffee's decision to drop plans to open in Totnes has led to a war of words in the town. Campaign group No To Costa collected 5,750 signatures against the plan, which prompted the firm to pull out last month. The coffee chain's plan would have caused "irreversible damage" to the town, campaigners said.

However, one independent coffee shop owner said its decision not to move in left other people "furious".

Costa announced that it was not going to open in Fore Street because it had "recognised the strength of feeling" against national brands in the town.

They had responded to the likes of eco-charity Transition Town Totnes (TTT) which, after backing the campaign against Costa, has been accused of going beyond its aims.

...Costa's decision, she said, had affected young people in the town who wanted jobs and a meeting place. "A lot of people were furious after Costa pulled out," she said.

A Facebook page has been created "for all those against the narrow minded people at Totnes transition town that seem hell bent on sending Totnes back to the stone age".

Take Back Totnes creator Matt Trant, said: "TTT acted as if it was representing the majority in the town but it wasn't. I hardly bumped into one person that was against Costa and I have lived here 21 years. A lot of people felt cheated."

So what is this "eco-charity" Transition Town Totnes and why is it so reluctant to allow the people of Totnes to decide where they go for a coffee? A look at their financial statement indicates that they are a bunch of ineffectual middle-class tree-huggers. Amongst their achievements in 2010-11 were...

Transition Homes 

This project, which is for the low-impact affordable housing development for local people made progress, albeit at times rather slow progress, in its negotiations with the Dartington Trust for the land to build the scheme.

Translation: We haven't built any houses and we haven't got any land to build on.

Fruit and Nut trees

This project identifies appropriate sites for the wild planting of fruit and nut trees. Over the last year we have planted over 30 trees: almonds, walnuts, sweet chestnuts and heart-nuts, as well as apples, plums and pears in the public spaces around town. Most have been developed by the Agroforestry Research Trust in Dartington, and are specially adapted to grow well in our climate.

Translation: We planted the seeds of some native trees which would have grown anyway because they're wild. They were "specially adapted to grow well in our climate" insofar as they were apples and walnuts rather than pineapples and mangos.


This theme group meets bi-monthly and explores the role the arts has to play in preparing for a carbon constrained, energy lean world. This includes allowing temporary spaces, time and practical projects to explore, engaging, experiencing, enthusing and empowering.

Translation: An acid casualty played some Goldfrapp and told us how to do yoga.

This doesn't strike me as the most essential charity that has ever existed. Still, if people want to donate their hard-earned money to eco-mentalists and Costa-haters that's their prerogative. Their proudest moment of last year was getting that socialist über-liar Naomi Klein to speak at a meeting so I would never give them any money myself, but it's a free country.

No, wait. I did give them money—and so did you...

Transition Town Totnes Financial Statements for the year ended 31 August 2011

Department of Energy and Climate Change: £548,773

Total donations and grants: £598,051

That's right. This organisation relies on the taxpayer for 92 per cent of its donations (52 per cent of its total income)—more than £500,000 for a pressure group in a town of 8,000 people. This government is still trying to make cuts to the budget, right? I think I've found half a million right here, unless "carbon constrained theme groups" and Costa Coffee boycotts are essential frontline services.

Everywhere I turn there is a fake charity masquerading as civil society. I don't think I can even remember the last time I heard from an organisation that wanted to relieve people of their money and/or liberties which wasn't funded by the state.

As it happens, on Monday I'm going to be debating the issue of sock puppet charities (with my dear, dear friend Kate Pickett) and on Tuesday I'm going to be giving evidence on the same subject to a parliamentary select committee. So thank you, Transition Town Totnes, for reminding me how endemic the problem of fake charities is and how urgent is the need to do something about it.

Friday 23 November 2012

Alcohol Awareness

As this is Alcohol Awareness Week, I thought I'd do my bit by showing a few informative graphics about drinking in the UK.

This is where Britain stands in the EU league table of per capita alcohol consumption. Right in the middle.

These are the tax rates on drink in Europe. Only Finland and Ireland have the same or higher rates of alcohol duty than the UK.

Here is the proportion of adults who had a drink in the last week from 1998 to 2010.

This is weekly alcohol consumption from 1992 to 2009. The survey methodology was changed in 2006 (which led to higher estimates), but the downward trend remains evident.

Here's 'binge-drinking' prevalence amongst the young...

Here's the proportion of 16 to 24 year olds drinking at least once a week.

This is how per capita alcohol consumption (as measured by quantity sold) has changed since 2004....

This shows weekly consumption, historical annual consumption and alcohol-related mortality. Note that the bottom-right graph starts just after the war when per capita alcohol consumption was lower than it has ever been in the country's history. Note also that the rate of (supposed) alcohol-related deaths doubled for men between 1991 and 2001 despite male drinking rates being flat or falling.   

But while drinking rates have been flat or falling, rates of hepatitis C—a major cause of liver disease—have been rising sharply.

Here's something else that has been rising sharply: the number of references to 'binge-drinking'—a term that was barely used ten years ago. This shows the epidemic of binge-drinking references in parliament...

And this shows how many times the term has been used in The Times...

In summary, alcohol consumption is down, 'binge-drinking is down', taxes are high and hysteria is rising. Ever get the feeling you're being cheated?

Sunday 18 November 2012

Smoking licences

Simon Chapman has recently resurrected the idea of forcing smokers to buy a licence and to carry a swipecard with which to buy tobacco. A database would then be created that tracks how much tobacco people buy and where. I didn't blog about this Orwellian nonsense this week because I have written about it in the past (for example, in 2010) and I also discussed it in my 2009 book Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. From this, you will gather than smoking licences are not a new idea, but then Australia gets everything a few years after we do.

This morning I was on Five Live with Chapman to discuss the suggestion. You can listen to it from 24 minutes in here.

This particular proposal has been kicked into the long grass before and I don't expect things to be different this time. I wonder whether even Chapman takes it seriously. More likely, it is a tactical move to open an Overton window, moving the debate to such an extreme that slightly less extreme measures start to appear reasonable. Plain packaging is the biggest bee in Chapman's bonnet, of course. It his best chance of becoming a footnote in history, but only if other countries follow Australia's example. At the moment, that is looking shaky. Britain's plain packaging consultation received many more responses from those who oppose the idea than support it and it seems as if the same thing has happened in New Zealand.

In 2003, just as the campaign for the smoking ban was beginning in the UK, the Lancet published a well-publicised editorial that called for the total prohibition of cigarettes. The magazine cannot have expected this to be taken seriously, but it did perhaps make a ban on smoking in pubs seem less extreme. The smoking licence gimmick may serve the same function. On the other hand, it might just be that Chapman is at a loose end and needs to keep that grant money rolling in.

On the subject of plain packs, Chapman said during the Five Live interview that: "Quite a large proportion of smokers say 'yeah, bring it on. It'll probably help me quit.'" This is a guy who just cannot stop lying. Insofar as there is an evidence base, it indicates that both smokers and nonsmokers—but especially smokers—don't think plain packs will make any difference. As I wrote in my report about plain packaging earlier this year...

Indeed, most studies which involve direct questioning find that the majority of respondents expect plain packaging to have no effect on smoking prevalence and cigarette consumption. This includes ASH’s own “citizen’s jury” who were “sceptical that branding encouraged people to start smoking or to continue smoking and so did not believe that plain packaging would reduce the number of smokers significantly.”

Simple Simon's claim about the popularity of plain packs was made while he was constructing a bewildering fantasy in which smokers love higher cigarette prices and smoking bans. Simon Chapman—friend of the smoker. Who needs enemies?


Just remembered that as I was being dropped off at the studio, the taxi driver said to me: "Tell him where to stick his smoking licence." It's not a thorough survey of public opinion, but I suspect it's representative.

Friday 16 November 2012

Private Eye's pisspoor Snusgate report

Private Eye has got round to covering the snusgate story. Unfortunately its account is riddled with inaccuracies and exhibits a perverse refusal to accept that John Dalli might be guilty.

Is Big Tobacco up to its dirty tricks again? A murky episode in Brussels suggests its questionable approach to law-making might not have gone out with the European smoking ban.

There isn't a European smoking ban.

Maltese politician John Dalli was the EU health commissioner charged with implementing a new tobacco control directive. It would have forced large pictures of smoking-related diseases on cigarette packets, restricted sales of smokeless tobacco products and e-cigarettes and stepped up the ban on snus, a €500m-a-year cigarette smoking substitute gum banned everywhere in the EU except Sweden.

Snus is not an easy product to describe to those who haven't seen it. 'Fine-cut tobacco in a teabag-like pouch' isn't a bad description, but no one who knows what they're talking about would ever think of describing it as 'gum'.

Before the directive could be passed, however, Dalli was called to the European Commission and given 30 minutes to read a final report by Olaf, the EU anti-corruption police. The report's contents remain under wraps, but Dalli promptly resigned, under pressure from commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, 30 minutes later.

The report remains "under wraps" because—as was reported last week—"only the Maltese attorney general can give access to the Olaf report because it now forms part of a Maltese criminal investigation."

The background to the Olaf report was a dossier provided to the commission by lobbyists for Swedish Match, which makes snus and pipe tobacco. It is claimed that Silvio Zammit, an associate of Dalli and a Maltese mayor and owner of a seaside kiosk on the island, solicited an initial €10m, with another €50m to follow, from the company in return for influencing Dalli to make his directive less hostile to snus.

Or, to be specific, to repeal the ban on snus—a ban which is scientifically unjustifiable. Private Eye could do its readers a favour by looking into the forces that have led to it being banned and what the health implications have been (see, for example, Clive Bates' recent post—and note the discussion between numerous health experts below the line.)

Zammit claims he works as a legitimate lobbyist, that he was approached by Swedish Match and that he is not guilty of soliciting any money. Olaf admits that the evidence against Dalli is "circumstantial"...

"Unambiguous" circumstantial evidence.

 ...and limited to the possibility that he might have known about the payment.

Which is a sackable offence.

Dalli, who emphatically denies all charges, says he has been stitched up by a tobacco industry that didn't appreciate his hard line.

It is not unusual for the accused to insist he is innocent of the charges against him. Barroso has rightly described Dalli's conspiracy theories as "incomprehensible".

Olaf itself may not be entirely objective. The European Commission has signed a series of agreements with the fag companies, leading to €2.15bn of funding being funnelled to the commission—some of it filtering down to Olaf to fund the fight against cigarette smuggling.

Oh, come on. So the EC gets money out of the tobacco industry to fight the illicit trade and Olaf is funded by the EC, so this means that Olaf is somehow compromised by tobacco funding? Is it really being suggested that the funding of Olaf depends on the contents of the tobacco products directive? This is just ridiculous. It's another taxpayer-funded EU institution amongst many other taxpayer-funded EU institutions. And if the EU is pro-tobacco, I am a banana.

The tobacco lobby has long had it in for Dalli and his ominous directive which should have been launched last month.


What's more, Barroso was also uncomfortable with Dalli's tough policy measures—supposedly on legal grounds—and told him so. His secretary general, Catherine Day, repeatedly delayed launching the new directive even though it was finalised. What has left many EU observers blinking in disbelief is the skimpiness of Olaf's work. Five months into what he called "a comprehensive investigation", Olaf boss Giovanni Kessler admitted finding no proof that compromised Dalli.

No he didn't. What he said was that "there is no conclusive evidence" that Dalli "was involved as instigator or mastermind." He went on to say that there are "a number of unambiguous circumstantial pieces of evidence ... that he was indeed aware of the requests of the Maltese entrepreneur and that this person was using his name and position ... He was aware of a person close to him asking for money from a company in order to use his influence on the commissioner to try to attempt to change the policy of the commission."

Whether this is "proof" or not is for the courts to decide, but clearly there is evidence and what he has been accused of is undoubtedly a sackable offence.

Staffers at the commission's health and consumer directorate, Sanco, emphatically told Olaf investigators that the idea of Dalli ever compromising his treasured directive was incredible.

Dalli's friends are defending him? Emphatically? Then he must be innocent!

Word from Brussels is that the writs are just about to start flying.

Bring 'em on. Let's get to the bottom of this. I'm as keen as anyone to hear the evidence against Dalli, and I'm also keen to hear what evidence there is that "Big Tobacco" is "up to its dirty tricks" because I don't see any evidence for it in Private Eye.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

The science has spoken

From the Telegraph...

Just one glass of wine a day linked to breast cancer: research

A review of research on alcohol and breast cancer has found that just one drink a day can increase the risk of breast cancer by five per cent.

Women drinking 'heavily' by having three or more drinks a day are up to 50 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer than those who abstain, it was found.

It could mean that thousands of cases of breast cancer in Britain each year are caused by alcohol.

There is no safe level of drinking, one drink can kill etc. etc.

Also from the Telegraph...

Glass of wine a day 'fights breast cancer'

Women with breast cancer can boost their chances of surviving the disease by drinking a glass of wine a day, according to research.

Those who drink a medium-sized (175ml) glass a day cut their chance of dying within a decade of diagnosis by a fifth - from 20 to 16 per cent, say Cambridge University doctors.

So there you have it. If you want to avoid breast cancer, don't drink wine (or other alcoholic drinks—I assume the focus is on wine because it's the Telegraph). But if you develop breast cancer, be sure to drink plenty of the stuff.

Truly, as the philosopher Homer Simpson once said, alcohol is the cause of—and the solution to—all of life's problems.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Illicit tobacco to be eliminated

In any group of enthusiasts, there is always one who goes too far. The schoolgirl who is just a little too keen on the latest boyband, the football fan who gets a little too caught up in his team. It is only by being around normal people that fanatics are forced to acknowledge their peculiarities and moderate their behaviour. But if they surround themselves only with those of like mind, they spiral further towards extremism, with each member of the group set on proving that they are the most committed to the cause. Isolated from normality, it is only a matter of time before one of them gets a facial tattoo.

This unfortunate state of affairs is very common in the "public health community" for two reasons. Firstly, since funding comes from the state to meet perceived health crises, there is an incentive to be hysterical. Secondly, fanaticism breeds fanaticism. When reasonable objectives have been achieved, reasonable people leave the movement. This leaves the fanatics to pursue more fanatical objectives which, in turn, attract new fanatics to the movement.

With life expectancy soaring, infectious diseases plummetting and people enjoying better health, working conditions and diets than ever before, you might expect the health lobby's wailing to subside somewhat. This has not happened, of course, least of all in tobacco control—a faction of public health which has won victory after victory for decades and yet only gets more anguished and hyperbolic. Take this comment about smoking from one Dr Seffrin who, according to the Independent, "leads the US national society dedicated to eliminating [!] cancer".

"It killed 100 million in the last century and we thought that was outrageous, but this will be the biggest public health disaster in the history of the world, bar none. It all could be avoided if we could prevent the terroristic tactics of the tobacco industry in marketing its products to children."

There are a number of things to be said about this statement. One might, for example, cite malaria, smallpox and bubonic plague as just three diseases which have been greater public health disasters than cigarette smoking, not least because they killed people at a much younger age and were not the result of taking a risky, but freely made, decision. One might also ask exactly in what ways the tobacco industry markets its products to children in 2012. Is this the "glitzy pack" argument? If so, does Dr Seffrin seriously believe that "the biggest public health disaster in the history of the world ... all could be avoided" by changing a red pack into a green pack?

But never mind all that. What is this stuff about terrorism? Even to a man who thinks he can eliminate cancer, that is a stupid thing to say. Alas, the fanatics are in too deep to understand why such a comment is risible and offensive. Let us remember that ASH (New Zealand) thought nothing of issuing this advert a few years ago...

This is what comes from spending years in the tobacco control bubble. One's sense of proportion goes out of the window. Flying an aeroplane full of innocent people into a building full of innocent people starts to seem commensurate with selling a legal product covered with health warnings which, if consumed many times a day for decades, increases the risk of developing a potentially deadly disease in old age. What next? Are they going to compare the tobacco industry with paedophiles? Oh no, they already did that...

I have described this phenomenon of escalating hyperbole as "bullshit inflation" (one of the leading causes of "bullshit fatigue"). You can expect to hear a lot of it this week because yet another anti-smoking conference is taking place. This time it's in South Korea ("Join tobacco control—See the world!"). It's the Fifth session of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which means that it has some legislative muscle (you can read the agenda here). It kicked off with Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO, coming up with another silly simile...

Tobacco use is the epidemiological equivalent of a drive-by shooting – it hurts the innocent bystanders, as well as those held captive by an addiction that damages their health.

Chan played to the gallery by using military metaphors about the tobacco industry. "This is how we hem in the enemy," she said. "It is a ruthless industry that quite literally cannot afford to lose. It behaves like a corrosive substance that can eat and slip through any cracks or fissures in the armour of our defences." She was using similar rhetoric earlier in the year when she said: "We have an enemy, a ruthless and devious enemy, to unite us... The enemy, the tobacco industry, has changed its face and its tactics. The wolf is no longer in sheep's clothing, and its teeth are bared." Etc., etc.

This kind of banter is all well and good for the average street preacher, but it's a little sad to see the head of a once-distinguished UN body resort to tub-thumping. It really is reminiscent of the rants against the 'liquor trust' which prohibitionists like Richmond P. Hobson delivered in the early part of the twentieth century. I guess it's more comforting to think that you're at war with an industry than it is to admit you're demonising, impoverishing and harassing hundreds of millions of ordinary people who happen to enjoy tobacco. Better to imagine yourself at war with terrorists and drive-by shooters.

I can see the appeal of the us-versus-them conceit. If you're a government pencil-pusher it must feel very exciting to think you're at war. I don't care if people want to talk like this, I just don't think we should have to pay for it with our taxes (and, as Dick Puddlecote recently reported, delegates at this WHO meeting are discussing levying an international tax on tobacco to fund—guess WHO?) And yet, Chan constantly talks about the anti-tobacco industry as if it were "civil society". For example...

Members of civil society,

We need you, now more than ever.

Experience has shown that, when government political resolve falters or weakens under industry pressure, coalitions of civil society can take up the slack and carry the day. We need this kind of outcry, this kind of rage.

I'm all in favour of civil society and voluntary action. All I ask is that it be genuinely voluntary. Get rid of the taxpayer funding for these groups and let's see how many of these people are prepared to "take up the slack" and attend week long conferences in South Korea.

Here's an interesting fact about these 'Conference of the Parties (COP)' shindigs. It won't surprise you to hear that the tobacco industry is not invited to participate, but they are apparently not even allowed to observe proceedings from the spectator's gallery. These are—I say again—publicly funded conferences. Refusing to allow the relevant industry to even hear what is being said strikes me as peculiarly paranoid—as if tobacco execs are so powerful that they can transmit pro-tobacco messages by just being in the same room.

Predictably enough, the (taxpayer funded) anti-booze brigade wants the alcohol industry excluded from (taxpayer funded) discussions about alcohol.

Eurocare strongly recommended exclusion of the alcohol industry as a stakeholder, similarly as it is being done with the tobacco industry.

Of course prohibitionists want their "enemy" excluded from the discussion. If they let their opponents speak, they might undermine their paper-thin arguments. But it gets worse. As if it wasn't crazy enough not to allow the industry to see what goes on in these meetings, the fanatics have now banned Interpol (yes, that Interpol) from attending. Why? Because the tobacco company Philip Morris recently gave Interpol 15 million euros "to support the agency’s global initiative to combat trans-border crime involving illicit goods, including tobacco products".

This is madness. Is there any organisation these maniacs do not suspect are 'front groups' for Big Backy? The real issue here is not allowing the industry—or Interpol—to engage, it is that no opposing views are allowed whatsoever. I don't imagine that the industry necessarily represents the views of its customers, but they represent them better than the people who hate the customers, hate the industry and hate the product. Ideally, I'd like to see the tobacco control "community" invite smokers to their conferences and ask them how they feel about higher taxes and outdoor smoking bans, but they never do. I can't think why.

The result of excluding everybody except fellow fanatics is that you end up with retarded and delusional policies which only make sense at two in the morning when they are being discussed by monomaniacs in the hotel bar. It seems obvious, for example, that the tobacco industry could make common cause with the anti-tobacco industry—not to mention Interpol—on the issue of counterfeit cigarettes where both parties stand to lose. No dice, say the anti-smokers. Instead, we get a pompous announcement of monumental hubris...

The Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products

That's right, folks. They're going to eliminate illicit tobacco. Just like they eliminated illicit drugs.

"The elimination of all forms of illicit trade in tobacco products, including smuggling and illegal manufacturing, is an essential component of tobacco control," says Ambassador Ricardo Varela, President of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the WHO FCTC.

If winning an unwinnable war is an essential part of your plan, it's time to rethink the plan. The tragedy is that it really is essential to their plan. It won't happen—prohibition never works—but they won't let anyone into the circle of trust to bring them to their senses.

To read about what the WHO should be talking about this week—if the 'H' in it still meant anything—read Clive Bates' open letter to COP-5.


Reading the full text of Chan's speech, it looks like the knives are out for snus and e-cigarettes:

You have before you state-of-the art reports on recommended responses to smokeless tobacco products and electronic nicotine delivery systems. Again, industry is seeping through the cracks.

Sounds like these "state-of-the-art reports" have been written by the usual quit-or-die merchants.

Friday 9 November 2012

Bunker mentality

A most amusing Downfall parody from Jay (Nannying Tyrants)...

Friday 2 November 2012

How the slippery slope works

A year ago this month, the Australian parliament passed the plain packaging law. Critics of the legislation warned that it would set a dangerous precedent and that zealots of every hue would demand the same rules applied to whatever 'vice' obsessed them. The sage of Sydney, Simon Fenton Chapman, assured us that this would not happen.

"Look, if the slope is slippery, it's the most unslippery slippery dip I've ever seen in my life."

This, of course, was a Chapmanism, ie. a fib. It's instructive to look at the chronology to see how swiftly anti-smoking extremism is applied to other activities. In February, three months after the plain packaging bill was made law, evangelical anti-gambling campaigners had already latched onto the idea. This is from the Reverend Bill Crews on 6 February. Although it reads like a parody, it's real.

Now, with the exception of a trial in the ACT, pokie reform has been kicked down the road – past the next election. And that means more lives will be destroyed.

Something has to be done, so how about this for an idea… it’s similar to what's happening with cigarettes. How about the equivalent of plain paper packaging, but for pokies. How about we turn off all the flashing lights. How about we turn off all whistling sound effects and the bells. How about we make the screen a simple black-and-white display with no fancy graphics or icons. In other words, plain packaging for pokies.

We know the lights and the whistles and the bells are what lures in the problem gamblers. It stands to reason then that if we got rid of them we’d go a long way to solving the problem.

Notice the 'something must be done' dog whistle and the bone-headed assumption that bright colours have a Pied Piper effect on feckless Australians. But nothing takes off faster Down Under than new nanny state ideas and, sure enough, the following month...

THE Baillieu Government [in the state of Victoria] has ordered pubs and clubs to install "plain packaging" betting signs in a bid to curb pokies losses.

... Signs promoting Tatts Pokies or Tabaret must be replaced by plain versions, which will simply say "pokies" in white text on a single colour background.

The rules even specify the plain font to be used - Helvetica, Arial or similar.

... The rules ban "decorative ridges or illumination, embossing, bulges or other irregularities". Also prohibited are "words, numbers, symbols or pictures" associated with pokies.

This is simply the cigarette law rewritten verbatim. By April, the Tasmanian Green Party was crusading for the same measure, citing the anti-smoking campaign as their direct inspiration.

TASMANIAN Greens gaming spokesman Kim Booth yesterday called for the Treasurer to urgently trial plain packaging on pokies machines.

Mr Booth said that while waiting for the federal mandatory pre-commitment reforms, the lure of pokies' bells, whistles, dollar signs, gold mines and treasure chests needed to be removed, and it was a possible first step to a solution to problem pokies gambling.

"Plain packaging works for anti-smoking* so it should be investigated to see if it would be equally effective against pokies," Mr Booth said.

The Greens' anti-gambling bill was tabled in parliament this week. At least the Greens are upfront about their prohibitionist agenda and admit that this is just Stage One.

“Tasmanians lose more than $200 per year to poker machines, which is why the Greens support a $1 bet limit, plain packaging for pokies and mandatory pre-commitment, as temporary measures leading to an eventual ban.”

Not bad work in the space of twelve months. Imagine what could be done in the space of twelve years.

It's the same old story. The anti-smoking zealots lead the way and the crusaders against alcohol, food and gambling follow in their footsteps. It has been witnessed time and again around the world for donkey's years. Anyone who claims that there is no slippery slope is not engaging in debate or making a reasoned argument—they are brazenly and knowingly lying.

* Er, actually it hasn't been tried yet.

Thursday 1 November 2012

A scoop of sugar

The "liberal" US magazine Mother Jones is running an article that purports to be a scoop about 'Big Sugar' (yes, they do use that term). For those who have an interest in how the anti-tobacco blueprint is rolled out to other products, it makes for morbidly fascinating reading.

Gary Taubes, who has written various diet and diet-related books, has found 1,500 old documents from defunct sugar companies which he thinks expose the practices of this evil industry. He is taking his cue from the Big Tobacco Mr Butts' documents, of course.

They show how Big Sugar used Big Tobacco-style tactics to ensure that government agencies would dismiss troubling health claims against their products.

Except they didn't. They commissioned research which found that sugar is, as the FDA have classed it, 'generally recognised as safe'. Which it is.

With the jury still out on sugar's health effects, producers simply needed to make sure that the uncertainty lingered.

What is this supposed to mean? If the jury is out, uncertainty is only appropriate reaction. Taubes does not claim that there is damning evidence against sugar—he says that "science will ultimately settle the matter". It seems, therefore, that Big Sugar's crime is to have failed to come up with compelling evidence to indict its own product, despite nobody else having done so either. Taubes only briefly acknowledges that this may be because sugar is not actually a dangerous substance, but even this caveat is given in the most slanted way...

Like the tobacco industry before it, the sugar industry may be facing the inexorable exposure of its product as a killer—science will ultimately settle the matter one way or the other—but as Big Tobacco learned a long time ago, even the inexorable can be held up for a very long time.

The words "may" and "inexorable" do not belong in the same sentence. Either there is sound science to condemn sugar as a health hazard or there isn't, and since Taubes' case for the prosecution rests on the ramblings of the cranky puritans at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the batty and deceitful fruit-hater Robert Lustig, I'm going for the latter.