Thursday 9 January 2014

The BMJ: Sour grapes and gutter journalism

Jonathan Gornall: "Mummy! People disagree with me! It's not fair!!!"

In a grubby little smear job in the BMJ (with an extended, and even more overwrought, version here),  freelance journalist Jonathan Gornall says the UK government's consultation into minimum pricing "was a sham". He even reveals that - hold on to your hats - the alcohol industry lobbied against it!

He starts by quoting the Prime Minister quoting the figures from Sheffield University's computer:

Minimum price would “target the cheapest products and help reduce drinking in those who drink the most,” wrote David Cameron. The only issue still up for debate was the level at which the price would be set, but if it were 40 pence (€0.48; $0.65) that could mean “50 000 fewer crimes . . . and 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths a year by the end of the decade.”

Alas, it was not to be because, er, lots of people didn't agree with it, including me and the Adam Smith Institute...

Such libertarian policy think tanks, for which free market economics are the answer to everything, are the natural allies of industries, such as alcohol and tobacco, that face regulatory pressure as a consequence of the health harms created by their products.

And some out of work Daily Mail journalists are a perfect fit for an embittered neo-temperance lobby that is used to getting everything its own way.

The opening public salvo of a concentrated lobbying offensive with the sole objective of killing off minimum unit pricing was a report published by the Adam Smith Institute on 26 November, two days before the consultation opened.

That's news to me. All I remember is John Duffy approaching me with a view to write about the Sheffield computer model which had recently been exposed for spouting bogus figures for a Panorama documentary. Those figures that were so awry that the BBC took the programme off the iPlayer while it re-shot some scenes and changed the voiceover. Strangely, that little episode (which came about thanks to this blog and its eagle-eyed readers, not the hallowed turf of a peer-reviewed journal) doesn't make it into Gornall's account.

For the institute, opposition to minimum pricing was a perfect fit, and its report, Minimal Evidence for Minimum Pricing, declared that predictions based on the Sheffield alcohol policy model were “entirely speculative and do not deserve the exalted status they have been afforded in the policy debate.”

I co-wrote that report. I stand by every word of it and Gornall doesn't attempt to challenge it. As we shall see, Gornall isn't really one for discussing the issues. He's more of an ad hominem guy.

The institute declines to identify its donors but insists that it received no money “from any individual, foundation, or business” associated with the alcohol industry.

Fair enough. I had no inkling of who funds the ASI when I co-wrote that paper. I didn't care then, I don't care now and it doesn't matter any way. I speak the truth as I see it and will work with people who see things the same way. If the freelance journalist thinks that some people are prepared to say anything to get a bit of work I suspect an element of projection.

What’s more, says Sam Bowman, research director at the institute, “If we did receive money from any alcohol industry source, it would have no influence on our policy positions whatsoever; nor does any money we get from any source. We believe in the rights of individuals to make choices for themselves, and alcohol regulation is one of the areas where those rights are threatened.”

That leaves the ad hominem attack dead in the water, or so you would think...

However, another area in which the institute perceives such rights to be threatened is tobacco regulation, and earlier this year it was revealed that it had received funding from the tobacco industry.

Oh, I'm sorry. I thought we were talking about alcohol. Is Big Tobacco now funding research about alcohol as well? My word, how devious and baffling they are.

The alcohol report was coauthored by Christopher Snowdon, a fellow of the institute and the author of various publications arguing that the alcohol and tobacco industries should be protected from regulatory intervention...

I've never said that any industry should be protected from regulatory intervention.

...and John Duffy, a statistician whose collaboration with the alcohol industry began in the 1990s.

He's a statistician who can speak for himself, but his qualifications and publications wipe the floor with most of the statistically illiterate charlatans and chancers who make up the public health racket.

From 1990 to 1996 Duffy’s post as director of statistics at Edinburgh University’s alcohol research group was funded by a £500,000 grant from the industry’s Portman Group, a relationship that caused some controversy at the time.

And yet he wrote a paper with me - someone who has never worked for the alcohol industry - for the Adam Smith Institute - which does not have any alcohol companies as donors - about minimum pricing. How do you explain that, Mr Gornall? Even in your small-minded world of ad homs and follow-the-money paranoia, how does that make sense unless you accept the simple and obvious explanation that both of us saw a story that needed telling? And I don't mind saying that both of us wrote that paper for a pittance because we felt it was important.

In 1995, Duffy secured a grant of £190,000 from the Alcohol Education and Research Council “for a project on development of standardised indices of alcohol consumption and harm” and he continued to cast doubt on prevailing wisdom in alcohol research.

The Alcohol Education and Research Council - now known as Alcohol Research UK - is an independent body which funds research from Sheffield University, Alcohol Concern, and Alcohol Focus, amongst many other neo-temperance projects. It has no financial ties with the alcohol industry. It is an independent as you can get. If Duffy "cast doubt on prevailing wisdom in alcohol research" (such heresy!) with its money, it only proves that he works independently of his funding. Try doing some research yourself, Mr Gornall.

The barrage of pseudoacademic shots from the far right continued.

Far right? Oh dear. Now we really are scraping the barrel.

On 28 November Eamonn Butler, the director of the Adam Smith Institute, wrote a blog on the website of the Free Society...

A blog! A man with a PhD and degrees in economics, philosophy and psychology wrote a blog! What a "barrage of pseudoacademia".

...attacking minimum unit pricing as an illiberal policy, “pushed on politicians by pious interest groups who think they know how to run our lives better than we do.” Butler repeated the alcohol industry mantra: that minimum pricing would punish “the many for the sins of the few.”

It's not an alcohol industry mantra, you snide, insinuating little worm. It's a truism. How dare you question the sincerity of a man like Eamonn Butler, whose institute you have already conceded gets no donations from the alcohol industry - and even if it did it would make no difference to the argument - and whose stance on liberty and free markets has been solid as a rock for decades? Why should Butler or anybody else have to tolerate being described as being on the "far right" by some bottom-feeding journalist just because he disagrees with state-mandated price-fixing. Seriously, Gornall, you are lower than the gutter press.

Towards the end of January, just a few days before the end of the consultation, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association launched “Why should responsible drinkers pay more?”—a campaign that claimed to show “major public opposition to government’s plans to hike up alcohol prices.”

But there is major opposition to minimum pricing. I'm not aware of a single opinion poll that has ever found a majority in support of this policy. Would you, Mr Gornall, like to tell us why responsible drinkers should pay more? Would you like to tell us why the alcohol taxes we already pay—which are amongst the highest in the world—are not high enough already?

He doesn't, of course.

Another organisation that has repeatedly mounted defences of the tobacco and alcohol industries is the Institute of Economic Affairs, whose assaults have included accusing the charity Alcohol Concern of using “dodgy surveys, junk science and misleading press releases.”

That's me again, and I invite readers to tell me if I am wrong. The IEA, like the Adam Smith Institute, doesn't "mount defences" of the industry. We mount defences of the consumer and we defend the free market that serves them. Price-fixing is so obviously an anti-market policy that it would be astonding if these think tanks didn't oppose it.

In August 2013, the institute selected the work carried out on alcohol at Sheffield as a case study to illustrate “flawed ‘evidence-based’ policymaking” in a report entitled Quack Policy.

It's an excellent chapter from a superb book. The medical temperance lobby would do well to read it and consider the arguments. I doubt Gornall ever has. Jamie Whyte rips the idea that minimum pricing is an "evidence-based policy" to shreds. To take three of his observations (none of which have ever drawn a response from the MUPpets, let alone from the intellectually mute Jonathan Gornall), the Sheffield model does not look at substitution effects, it does not take into account the benefits that people derive from drinking alcohol, and it never explains why a 50p unit is evidence-based but a 70p, £1 or £5 unit is not. The much-vaunted evidence for minimum pricing amounts to no more than stating the law of demand, albeit with a computer model to give the appearance of scientific precision. Nothing about it indicates what the price of alcohol should be, nor can it.

Warning: Before you read the next section, brace yourself for what could already be the most jaw-dropping comment of the year.

Public health researchers are at a tactical disadvantage when they go up against the material produced by such organisations, says Holmes. “We can’t really change the narrative in any way—we don’t have that power—but bodies such as the Adam Smith Institute have this public megaphone which is disproportionate to the scientific merits of what they’re saying.”

Oh, my aching sides. Gornall's article begins with the Prime Minister quoting verbatim from the Sheffield study. That should be a clue as to who has the megaphone here. Here's John Holmes speaking to the nation on the BBC. Here are dozens of BBC stories that mention the Sheffield University research on minimum pricing. Here are 19 Telegraph stories that mention it. Hell, more than fifty media outlets even treated Gornall's BMJ article as news. Any think tank would kill for this kind of exposure, but they don't get it because they haven't got a PR machine to match that of the state-funded public health lobby.

Such propaganda, however, was merely the creeping barrage that preceded the industry’s patiently prepared and carefully executed ground assault on the bastions of government.

It's one of those irregular verbs, isn't it? I advocate. He lobbies. They have propaganda. How does Gornall know the "ground assault" was patiently prepared? How does he know it was carefully executed? He doesn't, of course. He's a fourth rate hack trying to make routine democratic engagement sound like a spy thriller.

Gornall then throws All Party Parliamentary Committees into the mix.

The all party parliamentary beer group says it exists to “promote the wholesomeness and enjoyment of beer and the unique role of the pub in UK society [and] to promote understanding of the social responsibility exercised by the brewing and pub industries.”

And 300 MPs are members of it. Good for them. Beer is a wonderful thing.

Such groups, says Holmes of the Sheffield alcohol unit, allow industry actors to “talk to lots of MPs in a way that just wouldn’t be available to any public health group.”

Really?!? How about the All Party Parliamentary Group on Primary Care and Public Health? Does that not count as a public health group? Or how about the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking that was created by Action on Smoking and Health in the 1970s and is used as a vehicle to lobby MPs to this day? Here are a few details about the latter:

Its secretariat is ASH’s current director, Deborah Arnott, and the charity pays for the printing, stationery and group receptions, as well as providing the briefing material. The group’s secretariat is ASH’s current director Deborah Arnott and its last Annual General Meeting was attended by just four MPs, alongside three members of ASH and ten representatives from other charities. The group is used primarily as a vehicle for ASH to brief MPs, lobby for funding and send press releases.

Here's Deborah Arnott, director of ASH - and secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking - rubbing shoulders with Stephen Williams MP, Anne Milton MP and Kevin Barron MP at an event held in the House of Commons to celebrate ASH's 40th anniversary. Is that enough access for you?

The freelance journalist continues...

A series of freedom of information requests by the BMJ, put to the Treasury, Home Office, Department of Health, and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, yielded further evidence of the industry’s widespread access to government.

For example, in January and February 2013, during the Home Office consultation on minimum unit pricing, Sajid Javid, economic secretary to the Treasury, had meetings with Greene King, the British Beer and Pub Association, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, the Scotch Whisky Association, the Association of Convenience Stores, and the National Association of Cider Makers.

So what? The drinks industry employs a million people and pays many billions in tax. Damn right the treasury should be having meetings with the companies who make up this cash cow.

Like Osborne, Javid had a beer named in his honour to thank him for his part in killing off the beer duty escalator. Sajid’s Choice, brewed by Bird’s Brewery in his Bromsgrove constituency, was served in the Strangers’ Bar at the House of Commons

I'm still annoyed that the brewers never took up my idea of making a beer called Wollaston's Tears (if there any beer-makers reading, it's not too late. I'll take a crate).

In addition to Javid’s meetings, Treasury officials met with representatives of the alcohol industry on seven occasions between March 2012 and July 2013—the period between the publication of the government’s alcohol strategy and the killing off of minimum unit pricing.

Seven occasions in seventeen months is a pathetic number of meetings. There are far more than seven different companies in the alcohol industry. It seems that the Treasury is meeting each alcohol company, on average, less than once a year. Frankly, that is not enough. How many times did 'public health' groups meet the treasury in this period? Predictably, Gornall does not say.

More surprising, perhaps, is the access granted to the alcohol industry by the Department of Health.

Ooh, maybe now we're getting to the hot stuff now.

On 12 February 2013, six days after the consultation on minimum pricing closed, Anna Soubry, parliamentary undersecretary of state for public health, met to discuss minimum unit pricing with seven representatives of the industry, including Heineken, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, Scotch Whisky Association, National Association of Cider Makers, and the British Beer and Pub Association.

According to minutes of the meeting acquired by the BMJ, Soubry said that although she had been “convinced by the arguments put forward by a group of liver doctors she had met [on December 5, 2012] she acknowledged that the primary responsibility for reducing [alcohol] consumption lay with the individual.”

So Soubry met representatives of the booze industry six days AFTER the consultation ended and made the self-evident comment that drinking is ultimately the responsibility of the individual. She was right, of course, but—once again—so what? How does that make the consultation "a sham"?

It doesn't, does it? It's just an exchange of views as you would expect in a free, liberal democracy.

Meanwhile, future Labour MP Sarah Wollaston is kicking off because she believes that the government hushed up important new evidence (ie. the latest reworking of the risible Sheffield computer model)...

For Sarah Wollaston, serious questions remain surrounding the timing of the release of evidence from Sheffield that contradicted Browne’s statement in the House. Two papers, refuting the lack of “concrete evidence” for minimum pricing and damning the alternative as worthless, were with the government but embargoed until after [Jeremy] Browne’s statement.

“Who stopped [the papers] being published,” she asks, “and why was it that people like me couldn’t get an advance copy in time to make the case in parliament? Why is it that a publicly funded institution like Sheffield was able to be intimidated into not publishing its data? We should know exactly what was said to them and, if pressure was put on them, exactly who put that pressure on them.”

Wollaston continued this foot-stamping tantrum in the pages of the Telegraph today...

Open data really matters when it comes to pharmaceutical research... Why on earth then did Sheffield University agree to delay the publication of the important research which so clearly set out that a ban on below-cost selling of alcohol would have a meaningless impact compared with a modest minimum price of 45p per unit? Why for that matter were they asked to do so in the first place?

All governments are guilty of shabby practice when it comes to the deliberate leaking of policy ahead of official announcements and of delaying or suppressing the publication of inconvenient data. It matters because that prevents open debate about the evidence.

Wollaston is being paranoid. John Holmes makes it quite clear in the BMJ article that he and his fellow researchers in Sheffield has come to an agreement with the government.

John Holmes insisted that “the government did not bar us from releasing the report.” However, “We informally agreed at the outset that we would align release of the reports with the government’s response to the alcohol strategy consultation.” Nevertheless, both reports had been “made available to the government in draft form throughout the months leading up to the announcement [and] the substantive conclusions of the reports did not change throughout that period.”

This gives you an idea of how closely state-funded researchers work with the government behind the scenes. The 'independent' researchers were in close contact with government with a view to releasing their new estimates when the results of the consultation were announced. Imagine how convenient that would have been for the neo-temperance campaigners—a controversial announcement would have been accompanied by an announcement that minimum pricing would save x number of lives.

It wasn't to be. In this rare instance, the government didn't capitulate the anti-alcohol lobby. Minimum pricing was never an evidence-based policy because all it ever said was that the price of alcohol should be higher and higher and higher. That is not evidence. That is the humming drone of temperance campaigners throughout the ages.

Of course the government listened to the industry. Millions of drinkers who do not have a voice will be very glad that they did. The government also listened to the treasury and to opinion polls. It listened to many different voices and decided that a policy of price-fixing that has only ever been tried in Canadian backwaters—and which is almost certainly illegal under EU law—was a bad idea.

It's time for the public health racket to grow up and accept that they can't win every time. Minimum pricing was a stupid, appalling, regressive and illegal idea, and whining like little toddlers who have lost their rattle is not going to change that.


handymanphil said...

I couldn't agree more Chris and it's about time these petty little minded twerps were hung out to dry-without their dummies!

Unknown said...

Thanks Chris for your time and effort into this debacle.

Ivan D said...

It is interesting that the BMJ sponsored the ad hominem vileness you cover here. I do hope that people will take note and be somewhat careful before citing anything that appears in that rag as evidence for anything other than the ideological inclinations and intellectual inadequacies of its current editorial team.

If I was a medic I would be ashamed to be associated with a publication that appears to have hired a tabloid journalist to plumb the few remaining ethical depths that it has not already explored.

Unknown said...

Good post. I just forwarded this onto a coworker who has been conducting a little research on this.