Thursday 31 March 2016

The 2016 Nanny State Index

Today sees the publication of the first Nanny State Index comparing lifestyle regulation across the EU. The UK comes third, ie. it is the third worst. Finland and Sweden are in the top two although I suspect that if they liberalise their e-cigarette laws (as seems likely), the UK could leapfrog them next year.

You can look at the data here.

And you can read what I have to say about it here.

Tuesday 29 March 2016

Mission creep, you say?

Tobacco Free Futures, which used to be Smokefree North West, are changing their name to Healthier Futures so they can get their snouts in the temperance and obesity troughs.

You may recall that Smokefree South West tried a similar trick when they changed their name to Public Health Action. You may also recall the UK Centre for Tobacco Studies turning itself into the UK Centre for Alcohol and Tobacco Studies.

How interesting to see activist groups turn from being predominantly about creating 'smokefree' places to making the country 'tobacco free' to laying into food and drink. No slippery slope, eh?

Taking Liberties says...

What makes me laugh is the fact that people like Andrew Crossman and, before her, Fiona Andrews at Smokefree South West, are arrogant enough to think they can switch overnight from being 'experts' on tobacco to become 'experts' on obesity and alcohol as well.

How hard can it be? All they have to do is say 'think of the children', make up some statistics, and demand tax and legislation. As 'Healthier Futures' says in its press release...

Materials have been re-cycled where possible. 

I'm sure they have.

Meanwhile, party is over for 'Public Health Action'. The government will finally stop showering them with taxpayers' money this summer. Judging by their website, they are now lobbyists for hire...

We offer evidence based, cost effective public health solutions.

Whether you need a behaviour change campaign, help raising awareness to a particular audience, or support in a specific area such as PR, brand identity or event management – we can deliver your objectives from start to finish.

Hopefully, Tobacco Free Futures sudden name change is a sign that they, too, will soon be weaned off the taxpayer's teat. 

Monday 28 March 2016

Nick Triggle: BBC propagandist

Nick 'feels strongly about this' Triggle has been doing a bit of bank holiday propaganda for the BBC health website today (see here, here and here for some previous offences). Theoretically, Triggle's regular editorial pulpit offers analysis of health news. In practice, it allows him to portray value judgements as facts while slavishly taking the 'public health' line on every policy demand.

His latest article is headlined 'Dawn of the nanny state?' Dawn? Where have you been for the last ten years, Nick? It must be at least the afternoon of the nanny state by now.

After correctly noting that the Conservatives are now the nanny state party, Triggle mentions the sugar tax and asserts that 'the mounting evidence on sugar has played its part in convincing them to act.' What evidence would that be? Alas, he doesn't say - because it doesn't exist.

And then there is this...

The lifestyles we lead are costing the nation and, in particular, the NHS money. Some £11bn a year, to be precise.

The reference to precision is the punchline here, but the whole sentence is a joke. The £11 billion figure is made up of estimates of the cost of smoking, obesity and alcohol. The alcohol estimate is £3.5 billion, which is about three times higher than any realistic cost estimate, but the real problem with the figure is that it is gross, not net. Sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco amount to roughly £25 billion per year.

Any serious attempt to estimate costs to the state must include revenues received by the state. It we look at net costs, it is clear that the 'lifestyles we lead' provide a huge financial windfall to the government.

Triggle then brings up another dodgy figure...

Evidence suggests by 2020 there will be a black hole of £30bn. That is massive when you consider the NHS budget is currently just over £100bn... this is where, [the government] hopes, tackling unhealthy lifestyles come in.

If the NHS needs its budget to be increased by a third every ten years, it is difficult to see how it can be sustained. The £30 billion figure was conjured up by Simon Stevens, the NHS CEO, when he was trying to squeeze more money out of George Osborne, but whatever the real figure may be, there is no doubt that the health service needs budget rises that cannot be explained by either inflation or population growth. It is delusional to imagine that the core driver of NHS costs is 'unhealthy lifestyles'. It is, in fact, the opposite: old age.

Policies to encourage healthier lifestyles may be justified on their own terms, but it is a fantasy that they will cut costs. They are far more likely to increase costs - to the NHS, but especially to the pensions and welfare system - by increasing the size of the elderly population. This is well understood by health economists as I explained in Death and Taxes last year...

The old adage that ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ may be true of health and wellbeing, but almost the exact opposite applies to financial costs. ‘Over the past four decades,’ writes Russell, ‘hundreds of studies have shown that prevention usually adds to medical spending.’

A study in the British Medical Journal concluded that the elimination of ‘coronary heart disease, cancer and chronic obstructive lung disease - the present targets of health promotion - would augment healthcare costs substantially’ because ‘lengthening life generally will increase healthcare needs, particularly long term nursing costs’. There are some exceptions to the rule that successful public health initiatives cost money, such as the prevention of accidents, childhood disease and lifelong disabilities, but most preventive measures to tackle diseases of old age merely lead to more chronic ailments and infirmity over a longer period of time and, ultimately, death from a substitute disease which is no cheaper - and often more expensive - to treat.

All of this runs contrary to the conventional wisdom. When the UK government cut the £3 billion public health budget by £200 million in 2015, the Faculty of Public Health claimed that it would cost the NHS ‘at least £1bn’ in the long run. This is most unlikely. As Jane Hall explains in the Oxford Handbook of Health Economics: ‘Although it is frequently argued (but not by economists) that prevention will save expenditure on future treatment, the current body of evidence demonstrates that it is more likely to generate additional health care costs.’

This cold economic fact seems to have passed many politicians and health campaigners by. Quoting Barack Obama, who claimed in 2008 that ‘Devoting more of our health-care funds to prevention will save tens of millions of dollars’, Rappange et al. (2010) replied that ‘although prevention may indeed increase the health of populations, these interventions, unfortunately, are, in general, unlikely to result in lower expenditures.’ They continued:

‘While preventive interventions may reduce illnesses and expenditures related to risk factors, especially when they successfully prolong life, they will increase illnesses and expenditures unrelated to those risk factors primarily in gained life years. The costs of these unrelated illnesses have been demonstrated to outweigh the savings on related illnesses for the important risk factors of smoking and obesity. In spite of this, the suggestion that prevention is cost saving remains persistent both in the academic field as well as in health-care policymaking. For many, it remains counterintuitive that a healthy lifestyle results in more rather than in less lifetime health-care expenditures. This is problematic as it may result in inefficient use of health-care resources based on overly optimistic assumptions regarding lower health-care expenditures due to prevention, and thus may cause disappointment (among policymakers) when prevention fails to meet these expectations.’ 

Bonneux et al (1998) put it still more bluntly, saying:

‘There is no evidence that healthcare costs are increasing because citizens live unhealthier lives. In fact, quite the contrary would seem to be the case.’ 

The tendency of preventive health measures to incur costs rather than save them is well documented, but the general public are not well aware of this because single-issue campaigners constantly assert the opposite.

A worthwhile article could be written by somebody at the BBC to explain this. It would have the merit of being interesting, important and true. Instead, we get a stream of misinformation from hacks like Nick Triggle masquerading as analysis.

Friday 25 March 2016

Study claiming moderate drinking has no health benefits torn apart

Hello irony, my old friend, I'm here to facepalm with you again

Tim 'merchant of doubt' Stockwell made yet another attempt to muddy the waters on the benefits of moderate drinking this week (for background on Stockwell's one man crusade, see here, here and here). Headlines like 'Evidence that alcohol lowers heart disease and extends life 'flawed and shaky at best'' are all part of his drip-drip campaign to undermine decades of scientific evidence.

Of course, it is possible that Stockwell is onto something and has found compelling new evidence to support the 'no safe limit' narrative.

Only kidding. Stockwell doesn't do much in the way of original research. His modus operandi is to trawl through the epidemiological evidence, chucking out studies that don't suit his theory (ie. most of them), hauling out zombie arguments and making generic criticisms of epidemiology.

His latest study is no different. You can read it here. He concludes:

Estimates of mortality risk from alcohol are significantly altered by study design and characteristics. Meta-analyses adjusting for these factors find that low-volume alcohol consumption has no net mortality benefit compared with lifetime abstention or occasional drinking. These findings have implications for public policy, the formulation of low-risk drinking guidelines, and future research on alcohol and health.

The reference to 'public policy' indicates what Stockwell is really about. The fringe views of this activist-academic were highly instrumental in changing the UK's alcohol guidelines recently.

If you want a flavour of how Stockwell goes about his 'research' have a read of this unusually brutal critique of his latest study from a group of scientists who specialise in alcohol research.

Here are a few key passages...

“In this new paper, Stockwell et al have again biased their meta-analysis by ‘cherry picking’ a small number of studies for their meta-analysis – they discarded 2,575 studies and analysed only 87. The studies that they analysed related reported intake to disease, but they carefully avoided hundreds of validated studies that showed reduced disease among moderate drinkers."

“Stockwell et al seem to have deliberately pretended that the many animal and human studies over the past four decades that have provided extensive evidence for the biological mechanisms supporting the findings that light to moderate alcohol consumption is cardioprotective do not exist.”

“Science should serve the truth and to do it needs to take due account of all of the evidence, including controlled clinical trials in humans and animal models. What I find more disturbing in this paper is the lack of an overall vision, missing the opportunity (that is at the heart of the meta-analysis) to learn and build an overall view from the accumulation of collective scientific expertise. This setting, incompatible with the selection of convenience (cherry picking) leads unavoidably to repeat, with monotonic obstinacy, the same mistakes and the same misdeeds.”

“We are all tired of having to counter the same self-serving polemics over and over again with unperturbed demeanor.”

“Science happens when you examine a hypothesis and use experiments to contest it. Non-science is what happens when you believe a hypothesis and quote all the evidence you can to support it, while ignoring the rest."

In the opinion of Forum members, the present paper markedly distorts the accumulated scientific evidence on alcohol and CVD. As stated by one Forum member, “The biased selection of studies that are included undermines the value of the paper, but more importantly promulgates misinformation in the name of appropriate scientific method. Failure to acknowledge the robust body of knowledge that supports the opposite conclusion, and disqualification of extensive animal and cell culture studies that offer plausible biologic explanation of observed benefits, is unconscionable.”

The Forum concludes that the overwhelming body of observational scientific data, as well as an immense number of experimental studies, support the contention that, for most middle-aged and older men and women who choose to do so, the regular consumption of small amounts of an alcoholic beverage can be considered as one component of a “healthy lifestyle.” Such a habit has been shown to be associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and of total mortality.

Thursday 24 March 2016

Fruit cakes

The sugarphobia carries on. From The Guardian (and everywhere else)...

Fruit juices and smoothies contain 'unacceptably high' levels of sugar

A 'study' has been published in BMJ Open looking at the sugar content of fruit juice, ie. some nutters from Action on Sugar read the nutritional content on the side of the bottles and copied them into a table.

Shockingly, it transpires that pure fruit juice contains sugar! The caps-lock crusader, Simon Capewell, explained why the public should be aghast...

“These are marketed intensively to children as well as to parents,” said Prof Simon Capewell of the department of public health and policy at the University of Liverpool, one of the authors. “They are routinely packaged in garish colours. They routinely have cartoons and other sort of folksy animal creatures being used to market them."

No prizes for guessing where this is leading. Plain packaging for cranberry juice, anyone?

“There is often a health halo – some claim about vitamin C or ‘packed full of fruit’. There are no restrictions around the words industry can use in their marketing. They can claim or imply quite a lot."

Actually, there are quite a lot of restrictions on marketing. Advertising claims - unlike 'public health' claims - have to be 'legal, decent, truthful and honest'. For example, fruit juice makers can say that their products contain vitamin C and are packed with fruit because their products contain vitamin C and are packed with fruit. See how that works? 

“I think it came as quite a surprise to us really that there is so much sugar hidden and that any of the most familiar brands had such a high level.”

Assuming Capewell's surprise is a genuine emotion rather than a rhetorical affectation, he has no business presenting himself as an expert. This guy is a public health professor and a member of a charity, Action on Sugar, that is entirely focused on this one ingredient. If he didn't know roughly how much sugar was 'hidden' in fruit juice, he is in the wrong job.

The researchers analysed 203 fruit juices, fruit drinks and smoothies stocked by seven major supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, the Co-op and Morrisons. They found almost half contained a child’s entire recommended daily intake of sugar, which is a maximum of 19g or nearly five teaspoons.

Obviously pure fruit juice does not contain 'teaspoons' of anything, but this seems to be the only way the public health loons can talk about sugar these days. 

If you are scandalised by idea of fruit juice containing 'nearly five teaspoons' of sugar, brace yourself as I reveal how many 'teaspoons' of sugar are in the fruits themselves.

A banana contains four teaspoons of sugar!

An apple contains five teaspoons of sugar!

An pear contains four and a half teaspoons of sugar!

A bunch of grapes contains five teaspoons of sugar!

A slice of watermelon contains four and half teaspoons of sugar!

An orange contains four teaspoons of sugar!

Remember, each teaspoon of sugar contains 16 deadly calories! What's more, some of these fruits are packaged in 'garish colours'.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a 'study' to submit to BMJ Open.

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Let there be light (in the evening)

The clocks go forward this weekend. That is my annual cue to talk about what a marvellous thing British Summer Time is. This year, however, following a disagreement I had with Peter Hitchens in October (see below) and on the centenary of BST, I will making my case at the IEA where we hope to settle the issue once and for all. Tickets are free. If you are also free, come and join us.

Discussion: Rage, rage against the dying of the light

In 1916, the clocks went forward by one hour and the tradition of British Summer Time (BST) began. Introduced as a war-time measure to increase economic productivity and reduce energy consumption, the issue still provokes controversy 100 years later.

On the centenary of daylight saving time, join us at the IEA to debate the motion: 'British Summer Time should be scrapped'.

Speaking for the motion we are pleased to welcome back the Mail on Sunday's Peter Hitchens who describes BST as "fanatical and dictatorial" and says the system amounts to "lying about the time". Opposing the motion will be the IEA's head of lifestyle economics, Christopher Snowdon, who describes BST as "glorious" and wants it to be rolled out across the year.

RSVP via email or on 0207 799 8900.

Et cetera...

Tuesday 22 March 2016

Jamie Oliver costs us another £1 billion

Most unintended consequences are quite predictable, but I hadn't thought of this one.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that George Osborne's tax on fizzy drinks will increase inflation by a quarter of a per cent. This will have a more profound effect that you might think because it affects index-linked government debt.

The Guardian recently reported that the inflationary impact of the tax will require an additional £1 billion in debt interest payments. This sounds hard to believe and yet it is true. The OBR made precisely that forecast in its assessment of the Budget and yesterday confirmed it to Brook Whelan (from People Against Sugar Tax, for whom I am an unpaid advisor) by e-mail. This is what they said:

...the soft drinks industry levy feeds through to a price increase in 2018-19 in our forecast. This in turn increases the growth rate of the retail prices index (RPI) and this in turn is used as the measure by which index linked government debt.

So the increase in the RPI adds to the cost of debt interest. This is set out in para 1.34 bullet 5 in our Economic and fiscal outlook.

This is not the cost of implementation to firms and you are correct that this is solely the effect on the public finances.

Osborne must have known about this massive dead-weight cost when he was contemplating the sugar tax and yet he proceeded with it anyway in an attempt to distract from other parts of the Budget (that went well!).

It beggars belief. Not only will the British public have to pay half a billion pounds a year for a regressive tax that campaigners now admit is largely 'symbolic', we also have to pay a billion pound set up charge! And inflation will rise, leading to increases in other index-linked payments.

Jamie Oliver should be tarred and feathered.

Monday 21 March 2016

Still tolerant after all these years

It's hard to believe that it is ten years since Scotland banned smoking in every so-called 'public place' in the country. In many ways, the ban opened the floodgates for the endless barrage of anti-smoker policies that followed. Given all the hateful propaganda from the 'public health' racket, combined with the fact that only one in five Britons smoke, it is perhaps impressive that most people would still support a relaxation of the ban, as Taking Liberties reports...

Conducted by Populus, the survey of 1,011 adults living in Scotland found that over half (54 per cent) think pubs and private members’ clubs, including working men’s clubs, should be allowed to provide a well-ventilated designated smoking room to accommodate smokers.

Only two fifths (40 per cent) were opposed to the idea.

A more pessimistic way of looking at this is that two in five people are intolerant bigots, but that is about the ratio I would have guessed from general observation.

The result from FOREST's Populus poll is quite typical of surveys which give people the choice between multiple options. Anti-smoking groups tend to simply ask 'do you approve of the smoking ban?' Nonsmokers will usually say yes to this because the presumed alternative is smoking everywhere. But if you offer people a compromise they will tend to be more liberal.

Towards the end of 2014, the IEA commissioned a ComRes poll of over 4,000 people which included a question in which people were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement: 'Owners of pubs and private members clubs should be allowed to have a private room for people to smoke in if they want to'.

51 per cent of those surveyed said they believed owners of pubs and private members clubs should be allowed to have a private room for people to smoke in, with 35 per cent disagreeing. (Excluding the don't knows, this figure supporting smoking rooms was 59 per cent.)

Way back in 2005, YouGov's Anthony Wells explained...

The simple picture is this - if you conduct polls that ask a straight yes or no question about whether people would approve of a complete smoking ban in pubs, about two-thirds say yes.

If, on the other hand, you ask people what they would like done about smoking in pubs, and give them a list of options such as a complete ban, or making all pubs have a no-smoking area, or better ventilation or so on, then most people opt for making pubs have no smoking sections (or making pubs no smoking with special smoking sections, which amounts to much the same thing) and against having an overall ban

Even after all these years, the same thing applies. The general public still do not, thank God, share the public health lobby's fanatical intolerance, despite that intolerance being enshrined in law.

Saturday 19 March 2016

Diets and incomes

Bryony Gordon has written a piece for the Telegraph about what she perceives as snobbery in the sugar tax debate.

What’s worse than the sugar tax? The pretentious, condescending presumption that it is a tax on the poor - a presumption that, by extension, implies that anyone without money belongs to some braindead underclass incapable of making intelligent choices.

I would argue that most of the snobbery comes from the 'public health' lobby, but she has a point when she says...

The idea that only the underprivileged eat rubbish is insulting to those on the breadline who are perfectly capable of making a meal from scratch -  sugar is clearly not so bad if it is packaged by Green and Blacks.

There is certainly a perception that consumption of junk food and fizzy drinks is confined to the poor and that people on low incomes are vastly more likely to be obese than the middle classes.

A few years ago, Anna Soubry got herself in hot water when she made a comment about obesity and poverty...

“When I go to my constituency, in fact when I walk around, you can almost now tell somebody’s background by their weight,” she said. “Obviously, not everybody who is overweight comes from deprived backgrounds but that’s where the propensity lies.” 

I reluctantly came to Soubry's defence. She had exaggerated, but her basic point was correct. There is a socio-economic gradient with obesity. Rates are highest amongst the poorest and lowest amongst the richest. The data show that...

For women, the proportions who were obese were higher in the lowest income quintiles (26 per cent - 31 per cent) and lower in the highest quintiles (15 per cent - 18 per cent).

For men, the proportions who were obese were also higher in the lowest income quintiles (29 per cent - 30 per cent) and lower in the highest quintiles (23 per cent - 24 per cent).

The proportion of women with a very high waist circumference was lower in the highest income quintiles (36 per cent - 39 per cent) and higher in the lowest income quintiles (47 per cent - 54 per cent).

The proportion of men with a very high waist circumference was also lower in the highest income quintiles (30 per cent) and higher in the lowest income quintiles (39 per cent to 42 per cent).

The difference is starkest amongst women. Obesity rates are nearly twice as high at the bottom end of the income spectrum than at the top. Amongst men, the difference is quite small. For every four obese men in the highest income group, there are five obese men in the lowest income group.

So while there are clearly differences, it would be easy to exaggerate them (as Soubry did), particularly with regards to men.

But if we look at diet, there are very few differences. The data show that...

Both low income households and all households have a relatively similar diet when compared to the eatwell plate.

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) looks at food consumption in detail. The usual caveats about self-reported consumption apply, but this is what the survey shows for total calorie intake in each income quintile...

As you can see, there is not a lot of difference. Insofar as there is a trend, it is for richer people to consume more calories.

The NDNS also has figures for 'non-milk extrinsic sugars' - that's added sugar to you or me. Here the differences are somewhat more marked, although it is the middle income quintile that consumes the least. The poorest quintile consumes around 20 per cent more than the middle quintile.

This is not mirrored amongst children, however. The graphs below show sugar consumption for boys and girls aged 11-18 years (the figures for 4-10 year olds are not dissimilar) .

Looking at other food groups, there are also few differences. Carbohydrate consumption is virtually the same across all groups, as is total fat consumption, but the richer groups consume slightly more saturated fat and protein.

The NDNS does not hold information for sugary drinks but evidence from the USA suggests that low income groups tend to consume more of them. It also appears that low income adults - but not their children - consume more sugar than average. But overall, the poorest groups consume fewer calories than middle and high income groups. This is true for men, women and boys. For girls, energy intake is similar across the board.

The belief that different socio-economic groups have radically different diets is therefore misplaced, as is the belief that people on low incomes consume more calories. Once you strip away scientifically meaningless terms like 'junk food' and look at food groups, there are few differences.

To be clear, the regressive nature of a sugar tax is not dependent on low income groups consuming more sugar. As an indirect tax, it is bound to be regressive unless rich people consume vastly more of the product in question, which is not the case here.

Friday 18 March 2016

Lisa McGirr's War on Alcohol: a review

Lisa McGirr has written a very good book about Prohibition. I've reviewed it for Volte Face.
Eighty three years after Prohibition was repealed, can there be anything new to say about the ‘noble experiment’? Lisa McGirr’s new history The War on Alcohol emphatically answers that question in the affirmative.

Historians have tended to write about Prohibition as if it was doomed from the start and have therefore focused on the long campaign leading up to the 18th Amendment and the rather shorter campaign for the 21st Amendment (which abolished the prohibitionist 18th). Narrative histories of the fourteen years separating these two events fill their pages with tales of organised crime, the dubious glamour of speakeasies and the comic aspects of a doomed crusade. Since Prohibition is, it is assumed, dead for good, we can afford to laugh at the fanaticism of its adherents and marvel at the antics of bootleggers.

All entertaining stuff, but less has been said about the experience of ordinary drinkers living in Dry America for whom life was neither glamorous nor fun. This is where McGirr comes in. The title of The War on Alcohol is clearly designed to invite comparisons with the modern War on Drugs. A lesser writer might have hammered the similarities between these two disastrous follies into the ground, but McGirr is content to allow readers to make their own connections. She leaves it until the end of the book before drawing explicit parallels, of which perhaps the most significant is the disproportionate harm caused to ethnic minorities and the poor, both as suppliers and consumers, in the respective ‘wars’.

Do read the rest. 

Volte Face is a recently launched online magazine that focuses on drug prohibition. Check it out.

PS. As Jean reminds me in the comments, I have also written a book about prohibition

Thursday 17 March 2016

That sugar tax

My thoughts on the sugar tax are in this post for Spectator Health. This is the nub of my argument...

The message is that drink makers are to blame for people getting fat. It is they who must take responsibility and it is they who must be punished (or be seen to be punished — consumers will ultimately pay the price).

No wonder the sugar levy has received a rapturous welcome from so many quarters. It crystallises one of the great mantras of our times, that anything bad that happens to us must be somebody else’s fault. It cannot be us who are to blame for being lazy and greedy. The blame lies with those who fulfil our desires. 

Allied to this narcissistic delusion is the belief in the painless quick fix. In this instance, the quick fix is the notion that the food industry can magically reformulate its products by removing the calories and keeping the flavour. Let the boffins and eggheads sort it out while we stuff our faces.

Do read the rest.

A sugar tax is just the start

Have you noticed how the efficacy of the sugar tax is suddenly being played down by campaigners? It's gone from being a game changer to a 'symbolic slap' and a 'first step' in the space of 24 hours.

It certainly is a first step. That's what's so concerning. Let's remind ourselves what the long term ambition of the 'public health' racket is for this tax.

From the transcripts of the Health Select Committee on Childhood Obesity (here and here)...

Maggie Throup: You mentioned tax on other substances. Some of our witnesses last week argued that cigarettes and tobacco, for example, have a tax of 700%, yet the proposal is for just 20% on sugary drinks. Do you think that it will have the impact that you really want?
Professor Jebb: I have not seen any specific Government proposals to introduce it at any level, so we will wait and see what they might set it at. Clearly, the bigger the price increase, the bigger the impact will be. I do not think that we have sufficient data to be able to be precise about how that will work out. With tobacco, of course, we have ratcheted it up over time. There would be no reason not to do that if you started to see it having some benefits.
Professor MacGregor: The other point I would like to raise is that most countries see this as an escalating tax. They start off at 10%; Mexico now wants to go to 20%, France has gradually increased it, Finland has, and last year it was blocked by the food industry, so everywhere you see the power of the food industry trying to block these moves. But like alcohol and cigarettes, once you have started it you gradually screw it up, as with cigarettes; there is, I think, about 800% tax on them now, and yet we are quite happy with that.

There are only getting warmed up. As Andrew Stuttaford says at the National Review...

And if you think this will stop with fizzy drinks, I have a restaurant smoking section to sell you.

Stop press! Physical inactivity linked to obesity

From the BBC...

People who cycle, walk or catch the train or bus to work keep more weight off than commuters who travel by car, a large UK study has found.

So moving around burns more calories that sitting down. Only in a country where half-witted cardiologists can popularise the idea that 'physical activity is not linked to obesity' could this be considered news.

You can read the study here.

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Conservative party declares war on ingredients

Unexpected and almost unbelievable. Proof, once again, that no matter who you vote for, the nanny state always wins.

I've written a quick piece for City AM about it...

George Osborne’s Budgets have a reputation for pulling populist rabbits out of hats.

Last time it was the so-called living wage. This time it was something the government has repeatedly said it was loathe to endorse - a sugar tax.

In his response to the chancellor, an angry Jeremy Corbyn berated the Budget on almost every count. But not the sugar tax. He liked that. Islington liberals do.

Do read the rest.

See also Guido.

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Quote of the day

As Australia prepares to raise the price of cigarettes to $40 a pack (plain packaging working well, then!), it's nice to hear a bit of honesty from a politician for a change. This, from Federal MP Ewen Jones...

"No government or party comes towards smokers with a position of policy purity - it is an income stream."


Monday 14 March 2016

Peer of the realm celebrates Scottish pub "catastrophe"

On Friday, there was a debate in the House of Lords about lowering the drunk driving limit in England to the same level as Scotland's. It included this telling remark from a Labour peer, Lord Rea...

The noble Lord mentioned a similar measure that was introduced in Scotland about a year ago, the results of which the Government are observing. The Scottish licensed catering association has said that the introduction of that measure has been “catastrophic” for the industry. In other words, drinking as a whole has gone down—no one has mentioned that effect of the measure—quite apart from any effect on accidents on the roads. When the prohibition on smoking in public places came in, it reduced the prevalence of heart disease. Heart attacks, for instance, came down measurably as a result of that step. Therefore, small measures such as the one we are discussing will gradually reduce the consumption of alcohol, which, when used excessively, is very harmful, as we all know.

There is no evidence that lowering the limit has reduced the number of road deaths in Scotland, but it has certainly been catastrophic for the country's pubs. You might expect this to be a concern for a politician, but apparently it is an added bonus.

Notice the amount of bollocks Lord Rea speaks in this one little paragraph. For example, it cannot be inferred from the collapse of Scotland's pub trade that 'drinking as a whole has gone down'. People might simply be drinking at home instead (excessively).

Moreover, regular readers will know that the smoking ban had absolutely no effect on heart attack incidence, let alone on the prevalence of heart disease.

Finally, he implies that reducing alcohol consumption by small amounts will reduce the damage done by excessive drinking. This is the Whole Population Approach to which the Scottish government is wedded, but it is nothing more than evidence-free temperance dogma. The idea that stopping people from having a pint in a rural pub before driving home will prevent excessive drinking is self-evidently absurd. It is actually a very good illustration of why the Whole Population Approach is misguided.

But logic be damned. Every neo-temperance policy is about reducing alcohol consumption by any means possible and if that causes a "catastrophe" for the nation's pub and hospitality sector, then so much the better.

Lovely people, eh?

PS. While the government tries to tackle drunk driving by targeting people who are perfectly sober, the free market has found a solution:

Thursday 10 March 2016


From Australia...

Since 2012, plain tobacco packaging laws forced stores to sell cigarettes absent of all branding in an attempt to dissuade young people from buying them.

A few Target stores in South Australia seemed to be doing the same thing with video games.

They believed they were following the letter of the law and — bizarrely — they might be right.

Indeed they might. Thanks to Australia's puritanical attitude to video games—many of which are banned outright—legislation in this state forces shops to keep 18+ games in a separate section of the shop or in plain packaging.

An occupier of premises (other than adult-only premises) at which computer games with a classification lower than R 18+ are sold must not display material for a computer game classified R 18+ at the premises—
(a) unless—
(i) the material is displayed in a different area (including, for example, in a different aisle or on a different shelving case, stand or table) from that in which material for other computer games is displayed; and
(ii) the area is marked as an area displaying material for computer games classified R 18+ by a notice complying with subsection (2) displayed in a prominent place near the area; and
(iii) the surface area of the material that is on display (for example, the cover of a casing containing the game, where that is on display) is not more than 300 cm²; or

(b) unless, at all times while on display, the material bears no images or markings
other than—
(i) the name of the computer game in letters of 10 millimetres or less in height
; and
(ii) the determined markings relevant to its classification

This shop went the extra mile by fulfilling several criteria all at once. And why not? If plain packaging deters children from buying cigarettes (a proposition for which there is still no evidence), why wouldn't you use it for 18+ computer games and DVDs, as well as for alcohol and gambling products? It is, as they say in 'public health', the next logical step.

Meanwhile in Australia...

Court ruling the end for e-cigarette sales

The man whose small business selling e-cigarettes sparked a case which lead to the product being banned from sale in Western Australia has failed in his bid to overturn the landmark decision.

The prosecution of Vince van Heerden by the WA Health Department made WA the first jurisdiction in the world to outlaw the sale of e-cigarettes.

After a judge found it was illegal to sell e-cigarettes containing no nicotine, because they merely resemble a cigarette or cigar, the court imposed a fine of $1750.

Awesome country.

h/t @angryexile

Tuesday 8 March 2016

I'm super, thanks for asking

Public Health England launched a health education campaign yesterday at a cost of £3.5 million. In principle, this is okay. In practice, it is very poor indeed.

I wrote a short article about it for the Telegraph...

At our expense, billboards have been erected asking us how we are. "How are you?" But don't answer straight away. Instead, log on to the "How are you?" website and tell the government how you are. Do you feel "down in the dumps", or are you "full of beans"? Are you "really knackered", or "over the moon"?

You will have to get used to this sort of baby talk if you're going to complete PHE's little survey. I have filled it out several times with different answers and the advice is always essentially the same. Don't smoke! Don't drink too much! Eat a healthy, balanced diet! Take some exercise! Never does it go beyond these laudable yet blindingly obvious platitudes. There are no handy tips. No life hacks. Just the same dull messages that have been drilled into us for decades.

Do read the rest.

Notes from a non-scandal

Further to yesterday's post, there is a comment from the Charity Commission at the bottom of this article...

A spokesman for the Charity Commission said: “To be clear the Charity Commission did not call for, and was not consulted upon, the policy announced by the government on 6 February 2016, nor was it involved in its development.

"The Commission regularly meets with charities and those involved with the sector, for example the NCVO. This is a vital part of to being a modern, effective, outward looking regulator. The meeting in question was part of the Commission’s process of keeping abreast of discussion and events in the sector."

Clear enough, no? I assume this was tucked away at the end of the article in the hope that most readers won't get that far. The rest of the article is tinfoil hat editorialising.

Will we see a correction and clarification in next Sunday's Observer? Don't hold your breath.

Monday 7 March 2016

The Observer scrapes through the bottom of the barrel

Ever since the government announced the anti-sockpuppet clause on February 6th, tax-sponging activists and their friends have been on a fishing expedition to find something to attack it with. The government let it be known that my work for the IEA partly inspired the policy and I'm sure a slew of Freedom of Information requests have been made to find evidence of something incriminating, hypocritical or embarrassing.

Thirty days have now gone by and nothing has emerged because there isn't anything. And so the Observer has had to resort to this truly pitiful 'exposé'...

Outrage over charity chief’s ‘complicity’ in bid to limit voluntary sector lobbying

The chairman of the Charity Commission has been accused of actively helping a leading critic of charities who inspired a controversial new law curbing their activities.

... Emails shared with the Observer show that Shawcross asked a commission trustee, Professor Gwythian Prins, a climate change sceptic, to approach Snowdon to discuss the issue of charities lobbying the government.

In an email dated Tuesday, 7 May 2013, which carries the subject heading “Political campaigning”, Prins writes: “Dear Mr Snowdon, the chairman of the Charity Commission, upon whose board I shall shortly start to serve, has asked me to talk to you about matters of mutual interest. I shall be happy to do so … this issue is no flash in the pan.”

This is more of an attack on the Charity Commission than it is on me. There is no suggestion that the IEA has done anything untoward. Then again, there isn't really a suggestion that Shawcross or Prins have done anything untoward.

Anyone who looks at the few facts presented in the article will see that there is no story here. Three years ago, after publishing two reports that featured charities quite heavily and which both received significant media and political attention, I was e-mailed by Mr Prins with a view to discussing the issue. We did so by phone and some months later when I was in London we met up and discussed it in person. I haven't seen him since but he struck me as a sound fellow.

The story begins and ends there. Two people with similar professional interests had a chat. If you strip all the irrelevant filler about climate change scepticism, oil companies and tobacco out of the article, that's all there is left.

I have never thought that the Charity Commission could or should do much about state-funded campaigning. I think it's primarily an issue for the government agencies that dish out the funds. I said this at the time. The Observer article even quotes me saying it to Prins by e-mail!

Sure enough, the Charity Commission hasn't done anything about it. It was the Cabinet Office that acted, following the lead of DCLG. The anti-sockpuppet clause has nothing whatsoever to do with the Charity Commission and the clause is not specifically about charities. There is, therefore, no way that anyone at the Charity Commission could be 'active and complicit' in creating it.

I will happily talk to anybody about this or any other topic I write about. If I think a policy is wrong, I will gladly say so. That is exactly what think tanks are supposed to do. Hell, it's exactly what informed citizens are supposed to do. It just so happens that in this instance I was not lobbying for a policy change and I would have been speaking to the wrong person if I had.

How many times have ACEVO and NCVO met with people from the Charity Commission in the last three years, I wonder? I strongly suspect that the answer is more than once. Isn't this the kind of 'stakeholder engagement' that they say is so valuable?

When the anti-sockpuppet clause was announced, the big charity bosses wouldn't stop talking about how important lobbying and advocacy is in a democracy. It seems that only applies when you're taking money from the government and you're saying things of which the big charity bosses approve. Tim Worstall makes the point very well in his post about this nonsense...

And there’s a delicious irony in what those sock puppets are now complaining about. They are complaining that Chris and the IEA informed government and thus changed policy. The very thing that they insist they should be allowed to do but obviously not Chris and the IEA be allowed to do. That’s the sort of argument that really should be met with a staccato burst of ripe Anglo Saxonisms.

Too right. This looks like the last desperate scrape of the barrel from the Observer on this subject.

Friday 4 March 2016

The joyless puritans of Salt Awareness Week

It was Salt Awareness Week this week so Action on Sugar cast off their robes and reverted to Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) for a parliamentary reception. The two organisations are one and the same, both operating under charity number 1098818 and living off CASH's bank account (its current income is so low that it no longer has to file accounts).

CASH is the brainchild of Graham MacGregor, a swivel-eyed megalomaniac who recently complained about sugar being used in jam and who plans to go to Argentina if the government doesn't introduce a sugar tax.

MacGregor is all about reformulation. He was instrumental in the industry-government voluntary partnership that removed some salt from the food supply from 2003 onwards. Leaving aside the fact that reducing salt consumption has no benefits except for people with high blood pressure, his new outfit, Action on Sugar, has the insane ambition of reducing sugar consumption by 50 per cent in five years. They also want to remove 20 per cent of saturated fat from the food supply. And take out even more salt.

What does MacGregor think food should taste of? Not much, if his performance at last year's Sugar Summit was anything to go by. Almost unbelievably, the 'public health' racket is now divided between those who want sugar removed from the food supply (the moderates) and those who want to remove sweetness from the human palate entirely (the purists).

MacGregor is of the latter persuasion. Even zero-calorie artificial sweeteners are too much for him. The public, he thinks, will learn to love their turnips when sugar, fat and salt are no more. Having removed a relatively trivial amount of salt from the food supply (salt consumption has fallen by around 15%, but not all this is due to reformulation), he thinks people can be weaned off sugar (and fat) like they have supposedly been weaned off salt.

We are being offered very thin gruel indeed. This tweet (sent during the parliamentary reception) says it all...

Flavourless, rotten food for all in MacGregor's Britain!

People who think taste is an irrelevance when it comes to food must not be allowed anywhere near the food supply. We are dealing with joyless puritans, the like of which we have not seen for generations. The government must give no quarter to these cranks.

Tuesday 1 March 2016

The EU shows its contempt for vapers (again)

It never ceases to amaze me that there are still people who believe the EU can be reformed. With the UK gearing up for a referendum on whether to continue to be ruled by this anti-democratic, meddling cesspool of corruption, it just keeps steam-rolling on. Despite the fact that the appalling 'Tobacco' Products Directive will come into force between now and the referendum, the EU is already plans to give vapers a further kick in the teeth... 

EU countries are preparing to tax e-cigarettes under the same regime as normal cigarettes, in a move likely to increase prices and to prompt a fight among corporate lobbyists in Brussels.

Last Friday (26 February), member states’ ambassadors agreed to take the first step by asking the European Commission to draft an “appropriate legislative proposal” in 2017.

The project is to be endorsed without further discussion when the bloc’s finance ministers meet on 8 March.

The ministers’ draft conclusions said that e-cigarettes, as well as other “novel” products, could cause “inconsistencies and legal uncertainty” in the single market if they remained exempt from excise tax.

They also said excise duties or some “other specifically designed tax” on novel tobacco items, which use steam instead of smoke to put nicotine into people’s lungs, could help meet “public health objectives”.

They added that work on the new tax regime should be “intensified” if “the market share of such products show a tendency to increase”.

 A nice little reminder, there, that it's not about health.

With several EU capitals still struggling to balance the books, the commission in a report in December also said e-cigarette taxes could have “significant long term budgetary implications” for national treasuries.

We can't have people quitting smoking, can we? Think of the budgets.

One EU official said on Monday (29 February) it was “self-evident” that the price of e-cigarettes would go up if the commission went ahead. A second official said it was “too early to say what effect the review” of excise rules might have on prices.

I can only conclude that the second official is brain dead.

The European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention, a Brussels-based group, is calling for tougher EU rules. 

An EU-funded pressure group calling for more powers for the EU. Fancy that!

If this is what the EU is doing when the British have been given an escape hatch, imagine what it will be like if we vote to stay in.

Who to believe?

Compare and contrast. Here's Cambridge University in November 2013:

New study reveals that the ban on alcohol multi-buy promotions in Scotland did not reduce the amount of alcohol purchased

Banning multi-buy promotions for alcohol, implemented in Scotland in October 2011 as part of the Alcohol Act 2010, failed to reduce the amount of alcohol purchased, according to a new study. The research, conducted by the Behaviour and Health Research Unit, a collaboration between the Universities of Cambridge and East Anglia, is published in the leading academic journal Addiction.

...The researchers found that the data as of June 2012 showed no evidence that the ban of multi-buy reduced the purchasing of beer, cider, wine, spirits, and flavoured alcohol drinks. In addition, it did not reduce the total amount of units of alcohol purchased.

...Marc Suhrcke, from the University of East Anglia, added: “More encompassing policy will be needed to achieve the goal of reducing excessive alcohol consumption and related harms. Partially banning price promotions leaves the door open for industry to just switch to other forms of price promotions, or indeed to reduce the overall price of alcohol. Imposing greater excise duties on alcohol and introducing minimum unit pricing have been shown to reduce alcohol consumption and associated harms.

And here's NHS Scotland today:

A new report has found that government policies have had a positive impact on alcohol consumption in Scotland. 

NHS Health Scotland found that a ban on multi-buy drinks promotions was among a number of successful initiatives.

However, it warned that more needed to be done to ensure the improvements continued, including the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol.

So, one report says banning discounts was a miserable failure while the other says it was a tremendous success. Needless to say, both of them say that more policies are needed, particularly minimum pricing. Win, lose or draw, the answer is always the same: more government.