Saturday 30 November 2013

Crampton on the slippery slope

A nice explanation from Eric Crampton on the slippery slope...

Slippery slopes are only a logical fallacy if you don't have a plausible mechanism by which the move to A makes B more likely, and how that then in turn makes C more likely. If you have a mechanism, and if you have repeated real world observations consistent with the theory, it's not a fallacy. It should be the new null unless there's some better theory explaining the data.

He goes on to consider why A so often does lead to B. Indeed, it often leads to Z.

A few plausible mechanisms by which restrictions on one product beget restrictions on another:

  • Public health campaigners move on to the next target down the line as grant funding on past targets dries up.
  • Marginal cost of extending a control mechanism to a new domain is lower than establishing it in the first place so it is likely that when it starts, it will extend.
  • Where the public would oppose the full suite of controls if offered at one go, they're less likely to oppose many small steps leading to the same goal. So if you want to ban tobacco and it is 1978 you only ask for voluntary non-smoking sections as a sensible moderate position. Then mandatory ones. Then smokefree restaurants and public buildings. Then smokefree anywhere a kid might be. Then Smokefree NZ by 2025. Anti alcohol campaigners have already started talking about a .03 BAC limit.

I don't think it is nuts to believe that public health campaigners want far more control over our consumption decisions than they're letting on. It's consistent with the evidence of incremental ratcheted increases in control over each product, and extensions of controls from one product to another.

I would add that B is also the logical extension of A. For example, putting graphic warnings on alcohol because it can cause cancer is a natural progression from putting graphic warnings on tobacco because it can cause cancer. The two policies are perfectly logically consistent. Indeed, it is illogical to do one and not the other. When campaigners talk about taking "the next logical step", they are right. And yet when liberals take this logic a step or two further, they are accused of making fallacious slippery slope arguments.

Do read the rest of Eric's post, which includes a number of recent examples.

Friday 29 November 2013

Polemic on the politics of people pushing pointless plain packs

I've written a few words for Conservative Home about plain packs.

One consequence of the “something must be done” attitude towards smoking in government is that nearly everything has been done. The quixotic policy of plain packaging is at the bottom of a well-scraped barrel. When Action on Smoking and Health surveyed the public in 2008, plain packaging was the least popular of the dozen anti-smoking policies they suggested, with less than half of those questioned in support. It has risen to the top of the list largely as a result of an exceptionally nanny statist Australian government showing campaigners that it was politically feasible. If it feels as if the issue has been around forever it is because the campaigners have spent so much (taxpayers’) money on the crusade that they will not let it go.

Do go read the rest.

Thursday 28 November 2013

Well, that was quick

No time to lose for the nanny state...

Those of you who read my little book about plain packaging will not be surprised by this. From page 32...

This ‘slippery-slope’ took hold in Australia before the ink was dry on the plain packaging bill, as Australian Senator Cory Bernadi recalls: “[O]n the very first day [after the plain packaging legislation was passed] they moved onto drinking. People who were advocating plain packaging were saying “We should have this for alcohol. We should have it in fast food”. Where does it end? The nanny state will never end because there is always another cause to advocate for.”

Plain packs back on the cards?

Having arranged to do a 7 am interview with LBC about the latest phase of the medical establishment's vendetta against those who choose to smoke, I ended up doing about 15 interviews, including Five Live, Sky News and Channel 5 News. When I returned home, I found out that it was open season on smokers...

Naturally, the BBC is creaming itself about this, putting it front and centre on its news webpage, but I wonder if all is at it seems. As happened in March, when the Guardian egged its own face with the claim that plain packaging was imminent, this is an unsubstantiated story from an unnamed source. Could it be the rogue Department of Health playing silly buggers again, trying to put the government on the spot?

I was tickled by this part of the Telegraph's report...

It is likely to see cigarettes in plain packaging appearing on shelves before the election in 2015 after another report into the impact of the measures in Australia is completed in Spring and is expected to back the case for plain packaging.

It's difficult to see how any fair-minded person could expect the next report to back anything of the sort when you consider that in the four months since the government said it would wait and see what happened with plain packs in Australia, the sum total of the evidence has been a study which found there are more counterfeit cigarettes than in Australia than ever before, a study that found no decline in the Australian smoking rate, and a survey that found that some Australian smokers had thought about quitting but hadn't actually done so. But then, that is how government reports work—conclusion first, evidence later.

Whatever the truth is in this story, it shows the tremendous power of the Department of Health and its taxpayer-funded lobby groups. If it's true, they have the power to get the Prime Minister to perform a U-turn. If it's false, they have the power to get the entire British media to play their game based on a lie. Either way, it's time a strong minister got in there and tamed this marauding beast.


Minister for 'public health' Jane Ellison has made a statement:

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department of Health (Jane Ellison):

I am today announcing that we have asked Sir Cyril Chantler to carry out an independent review of the public health evidence on standardised packaging of tobacco products.

Tobacco use is a significant public health challenge. Our evidence-based tobacco control strategies play an essential part in delivering the Government’s continued commitment to reduce the number of people in this country who are dying prematurely.

It is important to explore avenues that have the potential to contribute to this longstanding aim. In July we said that we would keep the policy of standardised packaging under review as we examine the emerging evidence. As part of this ongoing work we have therefore commissioned a review with the following terms of reference:

1. To give advice to the Secretary of State for Health, taking into account existing and any fresh evidence, as to whether or not the introduction of standardised packaging is likely to have an effect on public health (and what any effect might be), in particular in relation to the health of children. It will be a matter for the Chair to determine how he undertakes this review and he is free to draw evidence from whatever source he considers necessary and appropriate.

2. The review will report by March 2014.

3. It will be an Independent Review, with advice to the Secretary of State contained in a report. An independent secretariat will be appointed by the Chair, who will set out the method of how he will conduct the review in more detail in due course. The secretariat will be wholly accountable to the Chair, and it will be for the Chair to guide and task them in their work as he sees fit.

We intend to reach a decision on standardised tobacco packaging once Sir Cyril has made his report. The Government will introduce standardised tobacco packaging if, following the review and consideration of the wider issues raised by this policy, we are satisfied that there are sufficient grounds to proceed, including public health benefit.

The Government also intends to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the Children and Families Bill, which is currently being considered in the House of Lords, to table a Government amendment to take enabling powers now which would allow regulations to be made to introduce standardised tobacco packaging later, if it is decided to proceed with this policy.

Cyril Chandler is a medic and therefore almost certain to toe the health lobby's line on this.

How much more time and money will be spent pushing this ridiculous policy? The political class are mesmerised by trivia.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

No fall in smoking since plain packaging

Tucked away at the bottom of this Daily Mail article (which is mainly about some pointless CRUK research into e-cigs) is this little nugget of information:

The report comes as a separate study from London Economics found no change in the prevalence of cigarette smoking in Australia since the introduction of plain packaging in December 2012.

Dr Gavan Conlon, lead researcher and London Economics partner, said: 'Over the timeframe of the analysis, the data does not demonstrate that there has been a change in smoking prevalence following the introduction of plain packaging despite an increase in the noticeability of the new health warnings.'

Is it cynical to suggest that this would be front page news if there had been a drop in the smoking rate? The study, which was commissioned by PMI, is here and it does indeed show no decline in smoking prevalence. The sample size of around 5,000 people means that smoking prevalence cannot be confidently estimated to the nearest decimal point (although this is always the case with prevalence surveys), but the smoking rate was essentially 20 per cent throughout the period. The mid-point estimates for daily smoking were 20.4 per cent before the introduction of plain packaging, 19.5 per cent three months later and 20.0 per cent eight months later. As the authors note, "from a statistical perspective, none of these changes were different from zero". Weekly smoking rates were 2.1, 2.0 and 2.1 per cent respectively.

In line with a previous study, the authors find that people noticed the warnings more once plain packaging came in. This happens every time the government changes the warnings on cigarettes, but it never seems to lead to more people quitting. So far, the only evidence the neo-prohibitionists have come up with to show that plain packaging 'works' is a telephone survey which found that smokers noticed the warnings more. Some of these smokers reported thinking about giving up, but they didn't. When I wrote about this survey, I suggested there were three things the UK government would want to see before they were sold on plain packs...

(1) a sharp decline in smoking prevalence, particularly underage smoking prevalence;

(2) no increase in illicit cigarette sale and production;

(3) a successful and inexpensive settlement of the various intellectual property disputes/lawsuits.

The legal issues remain unresolved, but there is certainly evidence that the illicit trade has been given a boost by plain packaging, and the London Economics report strongly suggests that there has been no sharp decline in smoking prevalence. Indeed, it suggests—albeit tentatively due to the sample size—that there has been no decline at all (even though we would expect some downward movement based on the long-term trend). As Angela Harbutt says...

In combination, the KPMG LLP and London Economics reports highlight the real facts about the Australian ‘plain’ packs experiment. Smoking rates have not fallen but the trade in the black market (especially fakes) has risen astronomically – damaging legitimate business, reducing government revenues and ultimately contributing to more public health harm. Exactly as predicted.

Meanwhile, on a somewhat related note, a study published this week found that the Scottish brainwave of banning multi-packs of alcohol didn't reduce alcohol consumption. As I've said many times before, if 'public health' was a results-driven business, they'd all be on the dole.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Shut 'em down

The Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia has had its funding cut off by the Abbott government, effective immediately. This has naturally led to gnashing of teeth from the public health lobby and Labour politicians.

Opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King said the decision to abolish the body beggars belief.

"It has decades of policy and advocacy experience in this sector," Ms King said in a statement.

What kind of "policy and advocacy" did this state-funded organisation do, exactly?

A flick through their press releases find them accusing John Farrell, a politician, of being "beholden to booze barons" because he failed to ban discounted alcohol. "Mr O’Farrell and his henchmen are not fit to govern," they claim.

We find them writing a letter to the Prime Minister, calling for "a complete ban on alcohol advertising and sponsorship, a minimum price per alcohol unit, the requirement for one-third of alcohol labels to be reserved for health warnings, and increased alcohol taxes."

We find them cheering on the previous government's move to introduce plain packaging, saying that "no debate is needed about this legislation."

We find them saying that it is "incomprehensible" and "beyond belief" that Aldi supermarkets are allowed to sell alcohol.

Was all this political activism being carried out on the taxpayers' dollar? Absolutely. The organisation has immediately gone into administration now that the state has withdrawn its funding.

The Australian public should never have been forced to subsidise "policy and advocacy" in the first place. Abbott is quite right to shut it down.

Note how easy it is to get rid of these parasitic groups. All it takes is to stop writing the cheques. There's a bit of squealing for a few days and then they're gone. I hope politicians in the UK and paying attention.

E-cigarettes and the EU : Round two

As many of us feared, the European Commission is doing its utmost to sidestep the will of the European Parliament on e-cigarettes. I can't add anything to what Clive Bates has written here and what David Dorn says below. See also Dick Puddlecote.

May Europe vape and may the European Commission burn.

Monday 25 November 2013

The bravery of government

As further proof that Australia has lost the plot, wizened quackademic Simon Chapman has won an award for being Skeptic of the Year. Sadly, he did not win for his insights into how to prevent smuggling (get the police involved) or how easy it is to counterfeit cigarettes (the easiest thing in the world), but for his work denying that there could be any downside to living next to a massive wind turbine.

Reporting this heart-warming news, the Croaky blog gives us the bonus of reproducing the text of a speech Chappers recently gave about the Australian plain packaging campaign. It's a tedious and self-aggrandising read, but it does include one or two gems, such as this Mills and Boon encounter between Chapman and (then) health minister Nicola Roxon.

I had never met Nicola Roxon before she became Health Minister. When we first met at a conference, I noted this and she said “I feel I have known you most of my life”.

Aside from this special moment, there is one interesting quote from Roxon, but to appreciate it we first need to get some context. When the Aussie parliament passed the plain packaging law, Roxon said...

"This is the first very courageous step that our parliament has taken to introduce plain packaging."

When the Australian court upheld the plan, Roxon continued to toot her own horn.

"The message to the rest of the world is big tobacco can be taken on and beaten," Attorney General Nicola Roxon said in a statement. "Without brave governments willing to take the fight up to big tobacco, they'd still have us believing that tobacco is neither harmful nor addictive."

Roxon was later awarded a prize by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who said...

"We decided to honour Nicola Roxon because she has shown truly extraordinary courage"

This theme of valour has been propagated by the media ever since.

It was a brave and controversial risk to adopt this plain packaging policy to strike at the heart of the way a pack of cigarettes looks.

However, Chapman lets slip that there was noting brave about picking a fight with the tobacco industry and Roxon knew it.

Next, she emphasized the contempt in which the tobacco industry was held across the community. She told me: “this was a no-brainer, being really bold, taking on big tobacco. How do you lose, even if you lose? Big tobacco … everyone hates them … so really, having a fight with them can’t hurt.”

And the truth shall set you free. The idea that government would ever tremble at the prospect of taking on an industry, let alone one that "everybody hates", is so much self-serving humbug. Private businesses, their employees and their customers live under constant threat of what the government's going to do to them next. It is, as Roxon says, a fight that the government—with its mighty apparatus of law, propaganda, surveillance and violence—cannot lose.

Campaigners attach the prefix "big" to threatened industries (Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol, Big Food) in order to feed the David and Goliath myth. The fact is that government can do pretty much anything it wants to any business for any reason, and frequently does so. It requires no courage whatsoever. On the contrary, it is often the result of them cravenly capitulating to special interest groups.

Roxon is no longer in politics, having bravely retired, aged 46, just before her party were annihilated in this year's federal election. Such courage!

Saturday 23 November 2013

Outdoor passive smoking garbage

We used to laugh when the psychotic fringes of California said this. We're not laughing any more.

From the Daily Mail...

Why walking within 30ft of a lit cigarette puts you at risk of dangerous passive smoking

Pedestrians passing pub and office doorways are being exposed to dangerous levels of passive smoking, say researchers.

A study showed that a single lit cigarette can pollute the air nearly 30ft away.

Passers-by walking any closer to where smokers are congregated can inhale 100 times more fumes than the limit recommended by experts in the US. 

Firstly, bollocks. Secondly, what "fumes" are these? Experts, in the US or anywhere else, do not have a safe limit for "fumes". America's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has permissible limits for specific chemicals in the workplace, but they have never found that the chemicals in secondhand smoke exceed their limits in indoor, let alone, outdoor settings.

Campaigners say the smoking ban in enclosed workplaces has simply shifted the problem of passive smoking outdoors.

Wasn't that the whole point of smoking bans, as campaigned for by "campaigners" (in this instance, the taxpayer-funded Tobacco Free Futures)? Smoking bans turn secondhand tobacco smoke, which is so heavily mixed with indoor air that any harm to bystanders is questionable, into secondhand tobacco smoke that is so vastly mixed with outdoor air that the risks become not merely infinitesimal but risible.

The study by Seoul National University, South Korea, published in the journal Nicotine And Tobacco Research, measured air quality at various distances from a lit cigarette on a rooftop.

Smoking was simulated by a machine which mimics the inhaling and exhaling of fumes.

What a relief to know that no smokers harmed themselves during this experiment.

Researchers measured the number of polluting fine particles per cubic metre of air.

Before the cigarette was lit, the background level was around 35, the threshold set by the US National Ambient Air Quality Standard.

But at 3ft from the lit cigarette, levels averaged 107.3 and peaked at 3,254.6 when the monitor was downwind. At 29ft 6in away (nine metres), the level still reached 99.1.

Regular readers—indeed, anyone who can read—will know better than to take science reporting from the Daily Mail too seriously. The study in question appears to be this effort which looks at fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and the numbers given by the Mail above are simply wrong.

The EU has an daily average limit of 50µg/m3 for PM2.5, which will be lowered to 25µg/m3 in 2015 (the Mail is correct in saying that the US has a limit of 35µg/m3). The EU stipulates that this limit must not be exceeded on more than 35 days in a year. It is a limit on constant, ambient air pollution and in no way implies harm from brief exposure.

The researchers in this study set up smoking apparatus on an outdoor roof terrace (where I very much doubt the "background level was around 35", by the way) and found that average PM2.5 exposures were as follows:

1 metre from cigarette: 72.7 µg/m3

3 metres from cigarette: 11.3 µg/m3

6 metres from cigarette: 4.1 µg/m3

9 metres (ie. the Daily Mail's 30 feet): 2.6 µg/m3  

In other words, PM2.5 exposure only exceeded the EU's (and the USA's) daily 24 hour limit when the person was within a metre or so of the smoker. Beyond that, it was well below the limits which—I must stress once more—are limits for constant ambient air quality, not occasional exposure.

So, if you spend your whole life standing nose-to-nose with someone who literally never stops smoking, you may find yourself exposed to fine particulate pollution that is somewhat higher than the EU's limit for air pollution.

But as for "walking within 30ft of a lit cigarette" putting you at risk of "dangerous levels of passive smoking", it won't. Levels of PM2.5 are much higher on the average London street than they are within a few metres of burning cigarettes in this study. It's a scare story put forward in a press release by an anti-smoking state-funded sock-puppet and regurgitated by the least scientifically literate newspaper in the land.

Friday 22 November 2013

Taxi for the 'gateway effect'

In September, prohibitionist bampots like Stan Glantz gleefully latched onto a Centers for Disease Control report which showed rising e-cigarette use amongst minors, albeit at a very low prevalence. Spurred on by the CDC's director, Tom Frieden, they resurrected the hoary old gateway hypothesis.

“Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes,” CDC Director Tom Frieden worried. In a Medscape interview a few weeks later, Frieden suggested that fear had already materialized, asserting that “many kids are starting out with e-cigarettes and then going on to smoke conventional cigarettes.” 

However, as Jacob Sullum reports, this is not a theory that stands up against the facts.

Yet the CDC’s data, which came from the 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), did not support that claim. In fact, nine out of 10 high school students who reported vaping in the previous month were already cigarette smokers, suggesting that the increase in e-cigarette consumption might signal successful harm reduction. 

New evidence has fired another bullet into the gateway theory's zombified corpse..

Last week the CDC reported additional NYTS data that further undermine Frieden’s claim, showing that smoking among teenagers fell as vaping rose.

Between 2011 and 2012, when the share of middle school students who reported using e-cigarette in the previous month rose from 0.6 percent to 1.1 percent, the share reporting past-month consumption of conventional cigarettes fell from 4.3 percent to 3.5 percent. Among high school students, past-month e-cigarette use rose from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent, while past-month consumption of tobacco cigarettes fell from 15.8 percent to 14 percent. Although these trends do not necessarily mean e-cigarettes are responsible for the decline in smoking, the numbers hardly seem consistent with the story Frieden is eager to tell: that the availability of e-cigarettes is leading to more smoking than would otherwise occur.

Don't expect Glantz or his chums to bother mentioning any of this inconvenient information as they continue their jihad against vapers.

Thursday 21 November 2013

Yet another Alcohol Awareness Week lie

And there's more...

They mean increasing, of course. They were probably drunk by this stage. So, has alcohol consumption been increasing in the UK while it's been decreasing in much of Europe?

In 2010, per capita alcohol consumption was 7.4 litres in the UK.

In 2006, it was 8.4 litres.

In 2000, it was 7.6 litres.

In 1990, it was also 7.6 litres.

In 1980, it was very slightly lower, at 7.3 litres (BBPA Statistical Handbook 2012; p. 100).

The modern peak in alcohol consumption arrived about ten years and the subsequent decline has not gone unnoticed in such BBC news stories as 'Alcohol consumption falls again' and 'Why is alcohol consumption falling?' From the former comes the graph below which shows that—despite a change in methodology—alcohol consumption is falling, not 'uncreasing' (sic). Indeed, it is falling at a faster rate than at any time since WWII.

And here's a little visual stimulation about the 16 to 24 age group courtesy of the Sunday Times:

And, for good measure, here are the stats for school pupils:

How does this compare with our continental cousins? The graph below shows that the UK has the fifth lowest per capita consumption in the EU. The EU average is 8.6 litres while Britain—shown on the far right of the graph—drinks a measly 7.4 litres. As ever, click to enlarge.

To be (very) generous to the temperance lobby, perhaps they are referring to long-term trends over several decades. It is true that there has been a rise in alcohol consumption since 1970 (from 5.3 litres to 7.4 litres). Nearly all of this rise occurred in the 1970s. How does this compare to the rest of Europe, much of which is seeing 'declining consumption', according to Alcohol Concern?

Of the 17 EU countries which have data going back to 1970, nine have seen alcohol consumption rise and eight have seen it decline. The biggest declines have been seen in France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Italy, all of which had per capita consumption figures in the teens in the '70s and '80s. The UK hasn't had such high alcohol consumption for at least a century and, of those five countries, all except Italy continue to consume more alcohol than the UK.

In recent years (since 2006), it is certainly true that many European countries have seen a decline in alcohol consumption. Only four EU states have seen a rise, but the UK is not one of them. On the contrary, it has seen one of the sharpest declines.

The facts are plain to see for those look at the data. There are three key points...
  • Across any measure, alcohol consumption has been falling in Britain for a decade. 
  • Most European countries have been drinking more than us for many, many years and continue to do so.
  • Alcohol Concern are miserable liars.


This woman's pants may well be on fire:

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Alcohol Awareness Week: Low income drinkers

It looks like I won't be short of blogging material this week thanks to Alcohol Concern's Alcohol Awareness Conference, which would be better titled the Alcohol Disinformation Conference.

It's possible that "Big" John Holmes (of Sheffield computer model fame) has been misquoted, but someone is telling porkies (and he retweeted it, so misquoting seems unlikely). The first part of this claim is correct. People on low incomes are indeed least likely to drink. Here is alcohol consumption across occupational classes (units per week). A, B and C are managerial and professional occupations, D and E are intermediate occupations and F, G and H are routine occupations.

As you can see, the wealthier groups drink more than the poorer groups. So that must mean that alcohol-related mortality is highest amongst the big drinking groups, right?

Wrong. Here is alcohol-related mortality amongst men under the same occupational classification (from ONS - PDF).

And here is the same data for women.

The amount of alcohol-related harm (and therefore "harmful levels" of drinking) is vastly higher amongst the poorer groups than amongst the wealthier groups. It is not that there is no relationship between alcohol consumption and harm in each demographic group. Instead, there is an inverse relationship—the higher the overall consumption, the lower the level of harm.

This shows three important things. Firstly, that although people in the low income groups are least likely to consume alcohol, those who drink are much more likely to do so at "harmful levels" (unless 'harmful drinking' is completely divorced from harm, which, as I said yesterday, is what the public health charlatans have tried to so).

Secondly, that reducing overall alcohol consumption in any demographic group is no guarantee that harmful drinking and mortality in that group will decline. This is a bit awkward for the public health lobby who have been wedded to the Total Consumption Model for years, despite ample evidence of this sort undermining it.

Thirdly, of course, it shows that making alcohol less affordable is not a very effective way of reducing alcohol-related mortality. The high price of alcohol is surely the reason why the poor, as a cohort, drink less than wealthier groups, but this does not lead to less harm—quite the reverse. The people who are least able to afford alcohol are the ones who are drinking most hazardously and are dying from it. By contrast, the group that finds alcohol very affordable, drinks more of it and suffers least from it.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Alcohol Awareness Week: The J-Curve

Alcohol Awareness Week is upon us and I will take the opportunity, once again, to keep readers informed about facts that will not be mentioned by Alcohol Concern et al.

First up, the J-Curve. With a tip of the titfer to Eric Crampton, I give you these graphs (click to enlarge)...

What do these graphs show? Firstly, they show that the safe drinking guidelines issued by the UK's medical establishment—21 units a week for women and 28 units for men—are arbitrary an scientifically insupportable, but you knew that already.

Secondly, that drinking moderately is good for you and that the reduced risk of mortality seen in drinkers is not due to the 'sick quitter hypothesis'—note that the first graph shows that the benefits of drinking are not as strong when former drinkers are included in the analysis, but they are still substantial.

Thirdly, that the optimal level of drinking is quite low, at around one drink per day (or 5-10 units per week), but that you would have to drink a lot more than before your mortality risk rises to that of a teetotaller. If complete abstinence is 'safe', then so is drinking 30, 40 and perhaps 50 units a week. Only beyond this point does one's risk rise above that of the teetotaller.

The epidemiological evidence for this is robust and has defied alternative explanations. Nevertheless, the public health racket is determined to reduce the guidelines still further. It's not about science, it's about propaganda. The scale of a country's supposed booze epidemic is now largely measured by how many people exceed these risible guidelines. Surprisingly few do, even when weekly guidelines are (illegitimately) reduced to daily guidelines, and overall consumption has been falling for a decade, so lowering the limit is the puritans' best chance of sustaining the moral panic.

Stephen Fry has more...

And, from James Nicholls' splendid book The Politics of Alcohol, here's what the drinking guidelines were in 1979...

And here's why they were changed...

Friday 15 November 2013

A reply to the Irish Heart Foundation

Following the smoking debate in Dublin and my article in the Irish Independent last month, the neo-prohibitionists of the Emerald Isle have been scrambling to show that, despite all the evidence, their tax-and-ban agenda has been a roaring success and definitely isn't responsible for Ireland's endemic black market, oh no.

Last week, the Irish Independent published an op-ed from Chris Macey of the Irish Heart Foundation which was full of ad hominem, inaccuracies and wishful thinking. It required rebuttal, so I wrote a letter to the newspaper on Monday. As far as I can tell, they haven't published it so I will reproduce it here...


In his op-ed (Nov. 7th) defending Ireland's tobacco control strategy and denouncing the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Chris Macey accuses me of offering "no solutions for people wanting to quit". If he had attended our debate at the Royal College of Physicians last month or read my paper (tellingly titled Free Market Solutions in Health), he would know that I endorse low-risk nicotine products such as e-cigarettes. This 'harm reduction' approach is rooted in solid real-world evidence and is espoused by health professionals around the world.

Like Senator John Crown, who spoke at the Dublin event, Mr Macey prefers the Irish government's smoking prevalence estimate of 22 per cent to the EU's estimate of 29 per cent figure. The latter figure comes from the Eurobarometer on behalf of the European Commission and has been adopted by the OECD. It is the only independent and methodologically consistent measure of smoking prevalence in Ireland and Europe. Nevertheless I am accused of "selective use of statistics" for citing it. The same allegation should be levelled at [Irish health minister] James Reilly who said in February of this year, "A Eurobarometer survey showed that 28% of the EU population smoke. The overall prevalence rates for Ireland are more or less similar to the EU average with 29% of Irish adults being current smokers. This is simply not acceptable."

Acceptable or not, it suggests that Macey's preferred regime of "high taxes and tough regulation" has not achieved it stated goal. Whether the true figure is 29 per cent, 22 per cent, or somewhere in between, it is undeniable that countries which have eschewed "tough regulation", such as the USA (19.8 per cent), or have adopted less hazardous nicotine products, such as Sweden (13 per cent), have enjoyed more success with fewer unintended consequences. Mr Macey does not deny that Ireland has the highest tobacco taxes and the biggest black market in tobacco of any Western European country. Anyone who has an elementary understanding of economics would predict the latter following the former.

I am sorry that Mr Macey finds it peculiar that a UK-based think tank would hold an event in another country. If he would like to join us in Maastricht on Saturday for my next overseas debate I will be happy to explain the tenets of economic liberalism and the benefits of personal freedom in person.

Yours faithfully,

Christopher Snowdon
Institute of Economic Affairs

Thursday 14 November 2013

We told you this would happen (episode 500)

Another one for the "I told you so" file...

The evidence that smoking causes lung cancer is definitive. It took a few decades, but cigarette packs now carry prominent health warnings to alert us to this risk. 

Actually, it took one and a half decades and—this being Australia—the packs are now nothing but health warnings. Still, cigarettes are a "unique product" right? 


When it comes to dietary patterns, convincing evidence collated by the World Cancer Research Fund also shows that regular consumption of some foods and drinks increases the risk for specific cancers.

It’s time to begin making consumers aware of the cancer risk associated with regular consumption of particular foods and drinks, through front-of-pack warning labels.

But cigarettes are the only legal product that kills "when used as intended by the manufacturer", right?


While the official recommendation is to limit alcoholic drinks to no more than two a day for men and one a day for women, when it comes to breast cancer risk there is no safe level of intake.

Fortunately I don't have breasts. No nannying for me, right?

For processed meat, there appears to be no completely safe level of intake

Aw, shucks. What if I don't eat meat?

The evidence indicates that salty and salt-preserved foods are probable causes of stomach cancer.

Doggonnit! Looks like it's a teetotal, salt-free, vegan life for me. Bring on the warnings. 

Then comes the graphic warnings, then the display bans, then the plain packaging...

...and on... and on... and on...

Eric Crampton has more to say about this, including a good suggestion for what labels should be put on alcohol.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

E-cigarette summit

I spent an enjoyable day at London's E-cigarette Summit today (top marks to the E-Cigarette Forum for putting it together). I heard that the organisers struggled to find 'public health' people to appear on stage despite the fact that it was held at the Royal Society and was not in any way organised by the tobacco industry.

Apparently the fact that a handful of people in the audience—an audience of hundreds—work for Big Backy is now enough to dissuade true believers from entering the building. They make themselves look ridiculous with this cult-like behaviour and they increasingly find themselves left out of an important conversation.

Good. The dinosaurs of the public health racket are irrelevant and their extinction is long overdue. I'm delighted to see that the British public do not believe the lies of the British Medical Association.

ASH's Deborah Arnott was there, however, with a presentation that began with this quite brilliant explanation of free market economics...

Anyone who needs to check Wikipedia to find out how business works—and feels the need to explain it to a room full of grown ups—probably isn't the biggest fan of capitalism, and she went on to say that every industry is as bad as the tobacco industry.

In a way, this is true. I've said before that the notion that Big Sugar, for example, "uses Big Tobacco-style tactics" means nothing more than that they try to sell their product in a hostile environment in which fanatics think they should not be selling it. Those who know their history would say that there were times when Big Tobacco went far beyond merely "maximising profit" in the mid-20th century, but that's all coming out in the wash now. For the statists of public health, the pursuit of profit (as opposed to the pursuit of government grants) is always and everywhere a threat to health, while bans and heavy regulation are the cure.

This is abject bollocks, of course. The elephant in the room at this conference was snus—a product that was banned with the same spurious arguments that are being made against e-cigarettes today. It was claimed that snus would be a 'gateway' to smoking. It was said that it appealed to kids. There were fears about 'dual use'. Yap, yap, yap. Thirty years on, there is indisputable evidence from Sweden that snus was a gateway away from smoking and that its use amongst 'kids' prevented them from taking up cigarettes. If the snus companies had been allowed to "encourage uptake" in the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been prolonged across Europe. The smoking rate is so much lower in Sweden (13%) than in the rest of the EU (28%) that it is ridiculous.

You might expect the public health cranks to have some humility in the face of this massive cock-up. It would not be unreasonable for them to be investigated and clapped in irons. But no. Instead, they stampede, blinded and cack-handed, into the well-functioning free market of e-cigarettes and demand yet more destructive regulation.

Who are these people and why should anyone listen to them? How do careerist barkers like Deborah Arnott, Linda Bauld and Anna Gilmore get a high seat at the table while ordinary vapers have to spend their own time and money begging for a hearing? What has any of it got to do with them?

The star of the show was Jeremy Mean of the MHRA. He constantly reminded me of Ronald Reagan's maxim that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help". He was as eager as a puppy dog to start regulating e-cigarettes as medicines and when he showed you his photos of the Athlete's Foot cream and skin lotions that are his usual stock-in-trade you could see why. Finally, he was going to get a chance to regulate something that isn't a medicine.

E-cigarettes are so obviously not medicines that I was impressed by Mean's ability to keep a straight face while claiming the contrary. He and Arnott are confident that the heavy hand of government regulation is just what is needed to bring innovation, excellence and efficiency to the e-cigarette industry. I am sceptical about this claim to say the least, but it is a proposition that can be tested if, in five years time, medically regulated e-cigarettes have dominated the market at the expense of un-(medically)-regulated products.

The only way to carry out this test is to do what I see as the obvious solution: make companies go through medical regulation if they want to make medicinal claims (eg. "this is a proven smoking-cessation aid") and leave companies alone if they want to market their products as recreational devices.

This is a solution that should please everyone. It's what the consumers want (see Mean's slide below). It's what the e-cigarette industry wants. It's even what the European parliament wants. But the bureaucrats and the public health racket will keep pushing for total medical regulation because—as I have argued before—medical regulation of e-cigarettes is not about health, it is a power grab.

Monday 11 November 2013

Lobbying on the BBC. Heaven forfend!

David Nutt has got himself in hot water for what appears to be a sales pitch on BBC news.

The BBC made an "outrageous" decision by letting a controversial academic appeal for investment in a new drug which could prove addictive on Radio 4, according to critics.

Professor David Nutt's discussion on the Today programme of a drug he has helped develop which mimics the effects of alcohol was "lobbying which got disguised as a science item", one critic claimed.

A leading drugs charity rebutted Nutt's call for the Government to give an "explicit recommendation" in support of the drug, urging caution and warning that the invention could simply swap "one addictive substance for another".

The criticism follows Nutt's appearance on the BBC's flagship current affairs programme on Monday morning in which he discussed a drug which creates the intoxicating effects of alcohol without the negative health implications such as memory loss.

Repeated references were made during the segment to the fact that Nutt is seeking investment in his drug, which remains in the development stage.

Let's leave aside the point that "swapping one addictive substance for another" is what harm reduction is all about. I didn't hear the item and I am very sceptical about Professor Nutt's invention, but this sudden outrage about BBC news items being used for lobbying is hilarious. News items are constantly being used for lobbying, especially those related to health and science. Do you think that surveys asking teenagers what they think of cigarette packs are reported because they are of urgent scientific importance? Do you think that the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Control Studies conducts research to advance human understanding? Does the British Medical Journal publish studies that estimate the effect of a fizzy drink tax because they appeal to the intellectual curiosity of its readers?

Of course not. It's lobbying disguised as science all day long. And even when the news story isn't directly about the policy, the campaigners find a way to crowbar it in. A case in point is this very story about David Nutt...

Emily Robinson, deputy chief executive of the charity Alcohol Concern, rebuffed Nutt's call for the Coalition to throw its weight behind the new drug.

"We would urge caution on this. We agree that alcohol is a serious burden to the country. But what we would urge the Government to do is invest in policies that we know work to counter the problems of alcohol like minimum unit pricing and advertising restrictions," she said.

See what she did there?

David Nutt's crime appears to have been exploiting a news story in a way that could benefit him personally rather than impoverish everybody generally.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

More drivel from Bath University

Is it me or are kids getting older?

Teenage binge drinkers are being encouraged and targeted by the new ways alcohol giants are advertising on social media like Facebook and Twitter – and tighter regulations are needed, a West health expert has warned.

Who are these youngsters?

The Bath University professor teamed up with colleagues in New Zealand to research how 18 to 25 year olds responded to online marketing of drinks brands, and said the online marketing “encourages a culture of intoxication – or extreme drinking” among young adults.

So the "teenage binge drinkers" are adult men and women who are legally allowed to buy and consume alcohol. They are perfectly legitimate targets for advertising and this research is therefore irrelevant. There is nothing to see here.

Mention of Bath University should arouse the spider sense of regular readers. Sure enough, the erstwhile UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies is behind it. In a flashing neon light example of the slippery slope in action, the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies has renamed itself the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies. See how it works yet?

This particular piece of policy-based evidence is not available online but Bath University's Policy Brief (a telling name) gives a flavour...

Alcohol marketing is pervasive across social media, taking a variety of forms, such as branded smartphone apps that indicate how to “reach a state of pure inebriation” with the least calories or the lowest cost.

I've never heard of that app and I doubt many people have. Nor have I ever noticed that alcohol marketing is pervasive on social media, despite me actively following a few booze companies on Twitter. By contrast, I have noticed that spurious, politically motivated research designed to curtail our freedoms and pick our pockets is absolutely endemic.

As with anything on the internet, if you look for alcohol companies and pubs online, you'll find them and if you express an interest in them on Facebook - as this researcher obviously has - they will find you because of targetted marketing, but that does not make it "pervasive". But even if it was pervasive, we are - let's say it again - dealing with grown adults so who cares?

The regulation of alcohol marketing should include new media and digital marketing

Er, it does. See the Advertising Standards Authority...

The UK advertising rules for alcohol are amongst the strictest in the world. The rules are based upon evidence that points to a link between alcohol advertising and people’s awareness and attitudes to drinking. Accordingly the rules, independently enforced by the ASA, were significantly tightened in 2005 and were again re-evaluated and subject to full public consultation in 2009.

The stringent rules, which apply across all media and are mandatory, place a particular emphasis on protecting young people; alcohol ads must not be directed at people under 18 or contain anything that is likely to appeal to them by reflecting youth culture or by linking alcohol with irresponsible behaviour, social success or sexual attractiveness.

See also the Portman Group's code of conduct (PDF). Maybe do a bit of homework next time, eh?

However, it seems that the temperance lobby's concerns about Facebook go beyond mere marketing to adults...

Young people routinely tell and re-tell drinking stories online, share images depicting drinking, and are exposed to often intensive and novel forms of alcohol marketing.

If twenty-somethings want to tell drinking stories and put up photos of themselves having fun in a nightclub then that is none of your damn business. Judging by the only two excerpts from the research featured in the 'policy briefing', that is exactly what these wowsers want to stamp out...

Krystal: oh yeah, if you don’t really remember what happened the night before, like you will see a photo and it will trigger your memory and then you will remember what happened. Maori group; 2 males, 2 females

Lo: It's memories as well and all your friends are out together on the piss and you do have fun. So you take photos and some of them will be funny photos, and you'll just look at them and crack up and go oh my gosh, do you remember when you were that wasted? [laughing] European group; 4 females

Yeah. And. So. What?

These sites reinforce the idea that drinking is about fun, pleasure, socialising and bonding.

It is.

Overall, the research finds that online alcohol marketing contributes to pro-alcohol environments and encourages drinking amongst young adults, operating as what have been termed ‘intoxigenic digital spaces’.

Look, Facebook was founded in 2004 when alcohol consumption in the UK was at a 90 year high. It's been falling ever since amongst every age group and particularly amongst young people so take your "intoxigenic digital spaces" and never darken my doorstep with your prurient nonsense again.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Rise of the fake brands

A KPMG report published yesterday showed how the black market for tobacco in Australia has changed since plain packaging came in. At a basic level, the key point is that the illicit market has increased in size since 2012 and the Aussie government is said to be losing $1 billion in tobacco duty. It also estimates that there has been no decline (or rise) in tobacco consumption in 2013. None of this is actually big news. Previous research has found an increase in the illicit trade and it stands to reason that the government loses tax revenue whenever the shadow economy gets larger.

The more interesting aspect of the report is the way in which the black market is changing. Traditionally, the antipodean illicit tobacco trade revolves around smuggled cigarettes and 'chop chop' - bags of loose tobacco for hand-rolling. According to KPMG, sales of chop chop declined by 40 per cent in 2013, but this was more than compensated by a rise of 154 per cent in the sale of manufactured 'illicit whites' - ie. ready-rolled cigarettes that either imitate existing brands (counterfeit) or are completely fake brands.

For example, there is now a brand called Manchester in Australia that has a 1.4 per cent market share. Not bad for a brand that is illegal and competely fake. There has never been a legitimate brand called Manchester.

This raises the question of why counterfeiters are creating fake brands rather than imitating existing brands. Perhaps it is because smokers do not like the plain packs - no one denies that they are unattractive - and prefer to have something that is more old school. Perhaps there is some kudos is buying a brand that is patently illegal. Perhaps smokers are sticking two fingers up to the public health zealots.

Whatever the reason, the decline of chop chop and the rise of the fake brands suggest that the illicit trade is changing in ways that cannot be explained by high taxes alone (although the report notes that the price of contraband tobacco has risen by 29 per cent since March 2010, thereby giving further incentives to smugglers and counterfeiters). The Manchester brand wasn't entirely unknown before plain packaging came in - it had a 0.3 per cent share in 2012 - but it has grown at an uncanny pace since.

The report received a fair amount of coverage in Australia, but the only newspaper to cover it in Britain was The Guardian who effectively dismissed all its findings on the basis that the tobacco industry had commissioned it. The obvious implication is that KPMG are liars and fraudsters who make up numbers to suit their clients. If that is what they believe, they should have the cojones to say so. If not, they should accept the findings or show us where the flaws lie.

Coffin-dodging sociologist Simon Chapman had another senior moment as he attempted to do the latter. Amongst the research methods used by KPMG was collecting discarded cigarette packs to see how many were illicit.

Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at Sydney University, says the methodology the report has used for this finding is flawed. “There would be hundreds of thousands of tourists who would come to Australia every year who smoke and it’s only been in recent months that there have been restrictions on the number of cigarettes you can bring in duty free.

“So the idea that any cigarette that you found discarded which wasn't a plain package could have been brought in by large numbers is an obvious flaw.”

Where to begin with this drivel?

Firstly, empty pack surveys are a gold standard test for those tracking trends in illicit tobacco. They have used for many years by industry and government. They are more reliable than surveys which essentially ask people to admit to breaking the law.

Secondly, the number of tourists who bring cartons of their own cigarettes to Australia is surely very small indeed. As a proportion of smokers in this country of twenty million souls, they must make up a negligible proportion at any given time.

Thirdly, even if they didn't make up a negligible proportion, there is no reason to think that their numbers would change dramatically from year to year.

Fourthly, and most importantly, Chapman mentions that the law allows tourists to bring in no more than 50 cigarettes each. This change to the law has not taken place "in recent months" as Simple Simon disingenuously clams, but took place in September 2012 - three months before plain packaging came in. We are interested in what happened in 2013 and throughout 2013 this petty restriction was in place. Even if Chapman was right about the increased prevalence of illicit packs being the result of foreign litterbugs, limiting tourists to 50 cigarettes each would reduce - not increase - the number of packs. (For other classic Chapmanisms, see here and here.)

But never mind facts and logic, a "professor of public health" has put some words together to form a sentence and that's good enough for The Guardian (a newspaper that happily and uncritically covered a KPMG report about the living wage on Saturday). And never mind the Australian newspaper that sent a journalist out on a highly successful shopping trip for illicit smokes a few days earlier. And never mind the incredible seizure of 80 million cigarettes and 70 tonnes of rolling tobacco that took place only a couple of weeks ago.

All figments of the tobacco industry's imagination, apparently. Go back to sleep, Australia, public health professionals have got everything under control.

Monday 4 November 2013

The 'next logical step' for minimum pricing

Well now, this is interesting. There is still a very long way to go before the Scottish government can introduce minimum pricing for alcohol, but MSPs - indeed, 'Liberal' MSPs - are already switching their attention to "the next logical step".

Question S4W-18008: Jim Hume, South Scotland, Scottish Liberal Democrats, Date Lodged: 30/10/2013

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the (a) Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing and (b) Minister for Public Health has had with other cabinet secretaries and ministers regarding price controls in order to protect public health.

Current Status: Expected Answer date 13/11/2013

Question S4W-18007: Jim Hume, South Scotland, Scottish Liberal Democrats, Date Lodged: 30/10/2013

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with (a) the food and drink sector, (b) health organisations and (c) other stakeholders regarding price controls in order to protect public health.

Current Status: Expected Answer date 13/11/2013

Question S4W-18006: Jim Hume, South Scotland, Scottish Liberal Democrats, Date Lodged: 30/10/2013

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with other governments that have introduced price controls for (a) alcohol and (b) other products in order to protect public health.

Current Status: Expected Answer date 13/11/2013

Question S4W-18005: Jim Hume, South Scotland, Scottish Liberal Democrats, Date Lodged: 30/10/2013

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the introduction of minimum unit pricing of alcohol, what its position is on introducing other price controls in order to protect public health.

Current Status: Expected Answer date 13/11/2013

Price controls have a woeful track record, but at least the old socialists were trying to keep prices down. Our current mob won't be happy until we're priced out of everything except water and rye bread.

Friday 1 November 2013

The economics of a fizzy drink tax

It's worth briefly addressing the economic argument made in favour of a tax on sugary drinks. Campaigners will say that the cost to the taxpayer of dealing with obesity-related conditions demands higher taxation. The highest estimate I've seen of what these costs are in the UK is £5.1 billion. As usual with these estimates, it does not include savings from premature mortality nor does it account for the cost of the diseases the obese would otherwise die of. Neverthless, let's take the £5.1 billion as read.

The study in this week's BMJ estimated that a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks would cost the British people £267 million per annum. If, as I suspect, the tax would reduce consumption by less than they anticipate, the cost would be higher, but let's go with the £267 million.

The study also estimated that the tax would reduce obesity by 1.3 per cent. The cost to the NHS of treating obesity related diseases would therefore also be reduced by approximately 1.3 per cent. 1.3 per cent of £5.1 billion is £66 million.

So we have a tax that costs £267 million achieving savings of £66 million. The intervention is clearly economically inefficient. Taxpayers will be left with a bill of £201 million (people who drink sugary drinks are, of course, taxpayers, and they are the overwhelming majority of the population).

Anyone who says that they want a tax on fizzy drinks because they are concerned about the cost to the public is either disingenuous or ignorant. It will place a further tax burden on the public that far outweighs any plausible savings.

Also remember that we already have a 20 per cent tax on fizzy drinks. It's caled VAT and it isn't levied on fruit juice, milk or water.