Thursday 13 February 2014

The glory of Anna Gilmore

Anna Gilmore has been very busy of late. In the last few months she has produced a slew of ever more blatantly partisan 'studies' which are little more than a preordained policy conclusion buttressed by the fruits of a Google search. These efforts include 'Let's grass up Europeans who sell snus', 'Businesses try to make money', 'The illicit trade is tiny, honest gov'nur, and taxes have got nothing to do with it', 'The tobacco industry never used the term "tobacco harm reduction" until after the term was invented. Bit suspicious, that.' and 'Industries lobby', although she gave them different titles.

Disappointingly for Gilmore, even the usually supportive Guardian and Independent have failed to report much of this 'research', perhaps because it is transparently policy-oriented propaganda from a person who sits on the board of not one, but three, anti-smoking organisations (ASH, Smokefree SouthWest and the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies - see Dick Puddlecote for details on how taxpayers' money swishes between them).

Her latest two articles, published eight days apart in preparation for the Cyril Chantler review of plain packs have also received little press attention. This is a shame because they are absolutely hilarious. The most recent, published today, is an attempt to swing the burden of evidence away from those who want plain packs to those who don't. 'A critical evaluation of the volume, relevance and quality of evidence submitted by the tobacco industry to oppose standardised packaging of tobacco products' may have taken its inspiration from an outrageous study from 2013 which saw campaigners for minimum pricing 'evaluating' the arguments made by those who opposed it and concluded—surprise, surprise—that they were weak.

It is, of course, for the government to decide which evidence and arguments it finds most persuasive, not one side or the other. If you asked a Spurs fan to evaluate the quality of Arsenal's football team, you would get a conclusion that was not commensurate with the latter's position in the league. Spurs fan do not, however, typically have easy access to influential journals, nor would they necessarily have sympathetic peer-reviewers. For this reason, they are less able to present their warped opinion as scientific fact.

Having made herself judge, jury and executioner, Gilmore declares that most of the evidence presented by the tobacco industry is 'weak' and 'irrelevant'. Anyone familiar with the evidence presented by campaigners such as Gilmore in favour of plain packs—or, indeed, has read anything written by Anna Gilmore ever—will see the irony here. Plain packaging has always been presented as a policy designed to reduce smoking initiation by minors, but all the studies they present—and Lord knows there are lots of them—either ask minors which packs they find more attractive (ie. very 'weak' evidence) or ask adult smokers whether they think cigarettes from plain packs taste worse or whether they've considered quitting (ie. 'irrelevant' evidence). 

How does Gilmore justify her conclusion that her side's evidence is of higher quality than the tobacco industry's? She has just two criteria: (1) whether the evidence was funded, or in any way linked, to the tobacco industry, and (2) whether the evidence was peer-reviewed. Sadly, she does not list the evidence itself, so we can't see what mental gymnastics went into tagging evidence as being 'linked to' the tobacco industry, but we have seen before that anti-smoking campaigners can broaden that definition to include everybody except themselves. Ultimately, this is a not a qualitative evaluation, but a blind dismissal of any research not funded or conducted by their own side (Gilmore's own study is funded by CRUK, who have been campaigning vociferously for plain packs for several years, but this does not stop it being 'independent' by Gilmore's criteria).

The second study, published on February 5th, is even better. 'How Does the Tobacco Industry Attempt to Influence Marketing Regulations? A Systematic Review' appears to be the result of a drunken evening spent on search engines looking for "tobacco industry arguments" which, upon closer inspection, are just arguments used by all sorts of people, including anti-smoking campaigners, in political debate. Her list of "tactics" to look out for is hilariously comprehensive, as is her warning that they are "repeated across jurisdictions" The same arguments being used in different countries? Oh, the humanity!

Here, in all its glory, is Gilmore's list of "tobacco industry arguments" (click to enlarge).

Again, there is no attempt to evaluate whether the arguments are valid, although it is strongly implied that they are not. If they are invalid it poses a problem for political debate because most of them are used by different interest groups all the time.

The second argument (about job losses), for example, was used by the staff of London Underground when they went on strike last week.

The third argument (about some people being affected more heavily than others) is used by campaigners against the Bedroom Tax.

The fourth argument (about negative effects on the economy) are used on a daily basis, often legitimately, by every campaigner and politician under the sun.

The sixth argument (about negative effects on public health) is used routinely by public health campaigners.

The eighth argument (about "other negative unintended consequences") is so absurdly broad that it is used by every human being in the world, as is the argument that "regulation is more extensive than necessary".

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. In her attempt to divert attention to the weaknesses of her own arguments, Gilmore damns the entirety of political discussion.

Meanwhile, after fifteen months, we continue to wait for a scintilla of evidence from Australia showing that plain packaging has deterred a single minor from starting to smoke.


Jean Granville said...

What also strikes me in these papers is that they are sold as more or less scientific papers, with an abstract, a "method", a mind-blowing conclusion (like "these arguments are used") as if they were scientific studies.
For instance, when Gilmore decided to turn in EU snus sellers to the authorities, the paper was presented the same way, with a method "we went looking for snus on the net" and a conclusion ("they do sell snus"), when it was nothing but a little letter of denunciation.
That reminds me of the Monty Python scottish poet who only writes things like "have you got a spare pound".
Anyone can write a paper saying, for instance, that Banzhaf is an jerk, with an abstract, etc.
This is quite ridiculous.

Ivan D said...

The worrying thing to my mind is that Gilmore holds down a job at what many consider to be a top UK university despite having never produced anything of any real academic value whatsoever. It is bad enough that we are forced to pay for her crusade through taxation but the idea that young people now have to pay £9,000 a year to be taught by the likes of her is beyond disgraceful. Surely the freedom to charge huge tuition fees should be accompanied by the responsibility to ensure high academic standards. It seems not and as with so much connected to public health, we pay, they do as they please.

Jonathan Bagley said...

Ivan, you could email the VC of Bath University and tell her what you think.
She appears to be a highly regarded scholar and probably pretty old school as she is a governor of Cheltenham Ladies' College. She has also written "The Psychology of Risk" so might be interested in risk junk science