Friday 29 April 2016

Meanwhile in Brussels...

So the Royal College of Physicians have put out a non-prohibitionist report on e-cigarettes, which was nice. It would have been nicer if they'd said something along the same lines when the EU was plotting the destruction of the vaping industry, but it's better than nothing.

And yet the fact remains that the EU's regulations on e-cigarettes (and tobacco) will come into force in three weeks time and there's nothing anybody can do about it. Nor is there much anybody can do to stop the European Commission meddling in our private lives in other ways. Events of the last fortnight have demonstrated once again that the EU has an unquenchable thirst for lifestyle regulation. 

Last week, I mentioned that the EU's latest Health Commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, has decided it is his job to make people drink less, whether they want to or not.

'I am in favor of reducing the use of alcohol in the EU; not only alcohol-related harm, but also use.'

This week, Andriukaitis upped the ante on his control freakery when he expressed his desire to stamp out e-cigarettes...

'I personally believe that electronic cigarettes must be regulated as strong as possible because from my point of view it is a danger for public health.' 

And then on Wednesday, he attended an EU debate on tobacco lobbying at which nobody from the tobacco industry - nor any of its customers - were invited to speak. Politico's report gives a good flavour of the censorious paranoia of the public health racket in Brussels.  There is a full video of the 'debate' online which is pretty hard to stomach since it involves tax-sponging prohibitionists taking soft ball questions from puppet NGOs like the European Public Health Alliance, but it is a valuable reminder of the cult-like echo chamber in which these people live.

The topic under discussion was Article 5.3 of the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which 'public health' scoundrels like to pretend prohibits tobacco industry employees from talking to politicians. They want this extended and strengthened so that the only voices heard in the debate are their own.

I've said before that I would prefer politicians to listen to consumers than to lobbyists, but that idea never seems to occur to EU officials, let alone to anti-smoking fanatics. Lobbying is nevertheless a necessary evil and if you are obsessed with using the law to stop one side sharing their evidence and opinions it strongly suggests that you are not very confident in your own evidence and opinions.

Furthermore, if you are a special interest group with an extreme agenda - in this instance, ending all tobacco use on planet Earth - it is important for democracy that other perspectives to be heard, even if they are financially motivated.

The anti-tobacco elite does not see it this way, of course. They do not see themselves as a special interest group at all. At one point during the debate Pascal Diethelm made an unintentionally amusing attempt to distinguish 'bad' lobbyists from (his own) 'good' lobbyists, saying...

'If you defend the public interest, you are not a lobbyist. You are someone who defends the public interest.'

No, Pascal. You are someone lobbying for a special interest, like every other lobbyist.

Students of the slippery slope will not be surprised to hear that the 'public health' racket wants the principle of Article 5.3 extended to everybody who disagrees with them. At 1 hour 17 minutes, Roberto Bertollini says...

'The FCTC is a sort of model, in my view, for other areas where we do not have an international treaty of the same value but we have interference of vested interests in "public health" policies. I'm thinking about sugar and nutrition and alcohol and other areas. [The FCTC is] a model - a first case - which could become, hopefully, a practice more extensively used for all the other issues of concern for "public health".

So there you have it. Silencing your opponents, crushing e-cigarettes and forcing down alcohol consumption. All in a day's work for the lifestyle regulators. And with unelected bodies like the WHO and the European Commission onside, they've found just the way to do it without having to bother with all that pesky democracy stuff.

Monday 25 April 2016

On processed foods

I've been waiting for someone to write a post like this about 'processed' food and the Angry Chef has stepped up to the plate in style. Read it. Read it all.

On convenience foods and pasta sauces in particular...

I am not going to defend every aspect of food manufacturing and I fully admit that there are many manufactured products that are nutritionally poor, but I will staunchly defend jars of tomato based pasta sauce. They are cooked in pretty much the same way a decent cook would make a tomato sauce at home, with pretty much the same ingredients. They are simple, convenient, have loads of tomatoes in them and are a really useful in helping a lot of people make a decent, cheap and balanced meal for their family. They are packed full of nutrients. They have no need for preservatives, no need for artificial colours, no need for artificial flavourings. The tomatoes, garlic, onions, olive oil and herbs have plenty of flavour already and the heat processing preserves them perfectly. That ‘processing’ is simply the addition of heat. This is a process, but if you did it at home, you would call it cooking. You do not say ‘I’m just processing this chicken for dinner', you say that you are cooking it.

I would challenge anyone who advocates with the demonization of processed foods to argue with me over this. There is nothing wrong with manufactured pasta sauce. There is also nothing wrong with a tin of soup. It is made, filled into a can and heated. Homemade soup may be nicer, but tinned soups are not bad for you because they are processed. The process they undergo is heating, or to use another term, cooking. Just because something comes out of a factory does not make it bad. And just because something is homemade does not sprinkle it with some magic fairy dust that makes it good for you.

On food snobs...

People need convenience food. People need shortcuts that can get a satisfying meal on the table when they are so tired and stressed they can’t think. We do not all live in middle class Nigella-land where the most you have to worry about is putting together a vegetarian gluten free spread when friends drop round unannounced. Real people worry about not having enough for rent, electric and food this month. Tell them that they will save money if they buy real ingredients from their local farmers’ market and they will rightly tell you to fuck off because it isn’t true. Telling people that if they cook with real ingredients they will save enough to buy organic if absurd, unrealistic and stupid. People need cheap simple stuff they know the kids will eat. They buy brands because they know that they will not be wasting money and they do not have the time or energy to experiment. Real people do not want to be lectured about your fucking food philosophy. They do not give two shits about farm to fork. They do not need to be brought in touch with the land to develop a good relationship with produce. They do not want to be publically shamed into rejecting the convenience products they love. They do not care how quinoa is pronounced because they are never going to buy it.

Obesity happens because people make poor food choices. If you took away convenience foods, they would still make poor food choices. People would make chips from scratch or buy them from the chippy and that would be a lot less healthy than the oven chips they use today. They would also be pissed off, because you would have taken away the time they saved using the convenient option and even more pissed off because they would have to think about cooking tonight when they are tired and the kids want some attention.

Bravo. Do read the whole thing.

Sunday 24 April 2016

Water, water everywhere

The fussbuckets are running out of things to complain about if this, from the Telegraph, is any indication...

Restaurants have been accused of fuelling the nation’s obesity crisis by failing to put tap water on tables.

Restaurant owners should “take responsibility” and give families tap water before they ask for it, instead of relying on them to choose it over soft drinks and alcohol, the Local Government Association has said.

Note who has to 'take responsibility' here. Not the individual. Never the individual.

Fizzy drinks are now the biggest source of dietary sugars for all age groups in the UK, and the National Hydration Council has found children only get a quarter of the daily water they need.

There is no such thing as the National Hydration Council. Presumably the Telegraph means the Natural Hydration Council which is a trade association for bottled water companies and perhaps not the most objective source of information. 

Obesity annually costs the NHS £47bn - half its total budget.

How can anyone be dumb enough to believe this factoid? The £47 billion estimate - bollocks though it may be - never claimed to be the cost to the NHS. The Telegraph keeps making this mistake. Its health reporting really is among the worst in the world.

Only a third of diners drink tap water when eating out, found a survey by the LGA, which represents all English and Welsh councils but four.

To be frank, a third is more than I would have expected. When you go out to eat you want to treat yourself, not drink tap water. The LGA seems to be suggesting that a third isn't enough. If so, what is the right proportion? A half? Three-quarters? Should everybody be compelled to drink tap water in restaurants? Alas, they do not say, but what they do say is absurd...

Izzi Seccombe, the LGA’s community wellbeing spokeswoman, said: “While most restaurants will happily provide a glass of tap water on request, we’re saying it shouldn’t be something you have to ask for. Some people may be too embarrassed. Others may simply forget it’s an option."

Where to begin? People forget that they can drink water? Seriously?

In the unlikely even that someone is too 'embarrassed' to order tap water, they should buy bottled water. If you're in a restaurant, you're going to have to communicate your desires to the staff using a system known as 'ordering'. Here's my suggestion. Order your food and then say '...and a jug of tap water please.' If that sounds simple, it's because it really, really is. It's a system that's worked for years. It's a lot better than telepathy or compulsion or whatever the LGA has in mind.

What has any of this got to do with the Local Government Association anyway? Perhaps they have been awarded a particularly large grant for 2016/17 and want to start the financial year as they mean to go on (you may recall they were clutching their pearls over tooth decay earlier this month). Or perhaps they just wanted to give everybody a laugh over the weekend.    

Either way, they are not the only ones spouting drivel...

Russ Ladwa, chairman of the British Dental Association’s health and science committee, said: “Diners deserve a choice, but shouldn't feel they have to ask for the one option that doesn't come bundled with sugars, acids or calories."

They have to ask for every other option, Russ. That's how it works. Tap water is already free. If that isn't sufficient incentive for people to order it then we can probably assume they don't really want it. And if people don't want it, it's a waste of time and labour to give it to people as a matter of course.

Meanwhile, as Timmy points out, in the USA every diner is given a glass of water whether they want one or not (although it is not the law). Not only does America have one of the highest rates of obesity in the world, but there is a campaign to ban the practice on environmental grounds. In California, where nearly everything is illegal, there is already a ban in place.

Regular readers will know that I do not wish to emulate California, but there is a third way between compulsion and prohibition called the free market. Let's stick with that, shall we?

Thursday 21 April 2016

No, the EU won't be changing

Like an abusive husband, EU officials occasionally claim that they can change. Yesterday, Jean-Claude Juncker said:
"I think that one of the reasons why European citizens are stepping away from the European project is due to the fact that we are interfering in too many domains of their private lives."

In many of those areas, individual states were "better placed to take action and to pass through legislation."

Today, however, business returned to normal, with the EU's Health Commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, saying this:

“I am in favor of reducing the use of alcohol in the EU; not only alcohol-related harm, but also use,” he told Laure Alexandre, director of spirits and society at SpiritsEurope, during a conference on chronic diseases, speaking emphatically.

Get that? Not just reducing alcohol-related harm but reducing alcohol consumption. Proof once again that it's not about health.

Is it the EU's business how much we drink? No. Is it their business how much our alcohol taxes are? No. And sadly for this unelected apparatchik, there isn't a lot the EU can do about alcohol consumption, so instead he attempts to, er, interfere in the affairs of sovereign nations...

Further taxation would be a good instrument to fight alcohol abuse, Andriukaitis said, and he asked the European Public Health Alliance to lobby national governments to increase excise duties on alcohol.

“Please send letters to prime ministers of countries which have the lowest level of excise duties, please send letters to presidents, please encourage member states together with me to introduce taxation instruments at home,” he said.

As the European Public Health Alliance is mostly funded by the European Union, this is sock-puppetry at its most blatant.

It seems that when Juncker said that member states were "better placed to take action and to pass through legislation" he meant that they were better placed to take action if the EU was legally prevented from doing so and only after taxpayers' money had been spent on astroturf lobbyists to tell them what to do.

See Euro Puppets for more on the EU's endemic funding on cheerleaders and fake charities.

The nanny state we're in

This, from the New Zealand Institute, is very good. It is a serious and very readable discussion of lifestyle regulation underpinned by sound economic reasoning. Nearly all of it applies to the UK (and elsewhere).

Read it.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Smoking licences rear their ugly head again

More health fascism from the Emerald Isle...

Health authorities in developed countries, where the most headway against smoking has been made, now talk about playing the “endgame” with tobacco, that is, reducing the percentage of smokers in the overall population, currently about 20 per cent, to 1 or 2 per cent.

1 or 2 per cent is less than the prevalence of frequent illicit drug use in the UK and is considerably less than the prevalence of illicit drug use in the past month. Whatever euphemism you choose to use, it is obvious that the 'endgame' would have to involve prohibition to even attempt a smoking prevalence rate of 1-2%.

Some have suggested the licensing of cigarette smoking as a significant step towards achieving this end result.

Well, Julian Le Grand suggested it back in 2008 but backed down when people quite rightly pointed out that it was incompatible with a free society. Since then, the only person to have seriously mooted it is Simon Chapman, a narcissistic fanatic who is wrong about everything.

In a highly cited article in Plos Medicine (November 2012), Simon Chapman, Sydney University public health academic, outlined the case for a smoker’s licence, whereby smokers would apply for a smart swipe-card licence and retailers could sell cigarettes only to cardholders. Before receiving a licence, smokers would have to pass a test of smoking risk knowledge. 

Yes, that's the fellow. He's an idiot.

At this point, our intrepid neo-prohibitionist - one William Reville - embellishes this authoritarian nonsense with further sprinklings of prodnosery...

Three levels of licence would exist, corresponding to different levels of smoking: one to 10 cigarettes per day, 11-20 per day and 21-50 per day. Annual licensing fees of about €100, €150 and €200 respectively would apply to each of the three categories and smokers would precommit to a smoking category. This category could be changed later online or on annual licence renewal. 

Because Irish smokers aren't being taxed heavily enough already, obviously.

The licence fee in itself is a disincentive to smoking, but more significantly, smokers who stop smoking and surrender the licence would be refunded, with compound interest, all licence fees paid during their licence history. 

As if the government would ever do that in practice.

Licence surrender would be permanent and reapplication not permitted.


Let me get this straight. An adult smoker who chooses to stop smoking and later chooses to start smoking again is PERMANENTLY BANNED from ever buying cigarettes again?

Yes, folks, that is what he is saying.

Tobacco is a dangerous drug. We strictly license the use of all other drugs that are potentially dangerous if improperly used, for example pharmaceuticals. When your GP writes you a prescription to treat your ailment, he/she gives you a temporary licence to purchase a limited supply of pharmaceuticals from a licensed pharmacy. In contrast, tobacco, a drug that kills half of its long-term users, can be purchased by any adult in unlimited quantity in any shop.

Show me someone who's overdosed on a pack of cigarettes and we'll talk. The risks from smoking come from daily consumption of many cigarettes for decades. The difference between acute and chronic risks make any comparison with pharmaceuticals - some of which can be bought over the counter, by the way - invalid.

What about the “slippery slope” objection to a smoking licence? Would it not encourage the “nanny state” to call for a licensing system for alcohol drinkers, consumers of junk food and so on? However, Chapman argues that this slope is less slippery than we fear.

Chapman would argue that a horse in an ox if it furthered his prohibitionist agenda. His claim that there is no slippery slope is shown to be massively and hilariously wrong on an almost daily basis, not only in his native Australia but also in Ireland.

Drastic controls, greater than apply to any other consumer product, have already been introduced to regulate tobacco marketing, packaging and public consumption – cigarette ads are banned across all media, tobacco sponsorship of sport is banned, plain packaging of cigarettes with graphic printed warnings is required, smoke-free zones are widespread – without significant spillover of such controls to other consumer goods, for example alcohol.

Really? Perhaps you could tell this to your Health Committee because they want to see 'the introduction of health warnings on alcohol products "in a similar fashion to tobacco legislation... with an emphasis on visual graphic designs for maximum effect". And then you should tell the state-funded sockpuppet Alcohol Action Ireland because they want the government to 'legislate comprehensively to regulate the promotion of alcohol including a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport'.

When I first heard the idea of licensing cigarette smokers I dismissed it as a crude Orwellian instrument of state control. 

Your first impression was correct.

I am a nonsmoker but I don’t like the state curtailing citizens’ personal freedoms. 

Except when it involves banning people from buying cigarettes ever again.

However, the cumulative health effects of smoking are so grave they may well justify this extra step.

All they wanted was non-smoking sections in restaurants, remember?

Monday 18 April 2016

Brexit and the nanny state

The Institute of Economic Affairs has today published a weighty tome entitled Breaking Up is Hard to Do. Over fifteen chapters, various commentators discuss what Brexit would mean for the UK in practice. This being the IEA, the focus is on whether things would be better or worse from the perspective of liberty and free markets.

I wrote the last chapter which - you will not be surprised to hear - is about lifestyle regulation/the nanny state/'public health'. I wanted to answer the question of whether life would be better or worse for an adult consumer who wants to eat, drink and smoke without being taxed, punished and stigmatised.

Looked at from this narrow perspective - and rather against my natural instinct - I had to conclude that the EU is not a bad thing. In fact, it is quite a good thing for three reasons:

Firstly, the common market allows British consumers to buy virtually unlimited quantities of alcohol and tobacco from the continent at prices that are almost invariably cheaper than they get at home.

Secondly, as a result of this price competition, there is a limit on how much the UK government can rip off consumers with sin taxes. As high as alcohol and tobacco duty is, it would probably be higher if we didn't have low duty markets on our doorstep.

Thirdly, the EU's free trade rules give consumers some sort of shield against their own venal, half-witted governments. For example, the EU has prevented minimum pricing legislation in the past and looks as if it will do so again in the case of alcohol.

Several caveats need to be added. This book has had an unusually long gestation. I originally wrote this chapter two years ago. At the time, it wasn't clear how the Tobacco Products Directive would pan out, in particular with regards to e-cigarettes. The ridiculous new rules on e-cigarettes (and normal cigarettes to some extent) are a major negative to balance against the positives.

The other issue is the possibility of the common market being undermined by a 'public health' carve out in which nanny state campaigners argue that free trade shouldn't apply when products carry a risk to health. This is the argument being used by minimum pricing advocates on the basis of Article 36 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2007) which allows exemptions 'on grounds of public morality, public policy or public security', ie. nearly everything.

As I say in the book...

If the lifestyle regulation agenda is to progress at EU level, perhaps the best hope for campaigners lies in the exemptions set out in Article 36 of the TFEU for ‘the protection of health’. If risky lifestyle products are considered to be special cases, they might be subject to a different set of rules. Minimum pricing will provide an important test case. If the ECJ (or a national court) rules in favour of the Scottish government on the basis of Article 36, British public health groups expect it to ‘set an important precedent that could encourage Member States to introduce further public health legislation’. It would be a groundbreaking victory for lifestyle regulation over the single market, with implications that extend far beyond the field of health (Article 36 also mentions ‘public morality’ and ‘public security’ as possible grounds for exemption). Theoretically, the internal market could become riddled with so many exemptions granted to special interest groups that it becomes like a Swiss cheese.

For the time being, this remains only a theoretical possibility. The reality is that over the course of the last fifteen years, the EU has been less keen on the nanny state than has the British government. Not only has it been less keen, it has afforded British consumers some protection from it. You only have to look at the Nanny State Index to see that the UK has an unusually strong appetite for micromanaging people's lives. As bad as the TPD is, most of its tobacco regulations were borrowed from the UK and its not as if our representative, Anna Soubry, put up a fight against the e-cigarette regulations - she was too busy making sure the UK would be able to go above and beyond the TPD by bringing in plain packaging.

The UK, Ireland and Scandinavia are in a league of their own when it comes to alcohol taxes. Scotland and Ireland are the only EU countries who are seriously contemplating minimum pricing. And while the European Commission is forcing Finland to drop its tax on confectionery, the UK is gearing up for a sugar levy.

There are many arguments for leaving the EU, but I'm afraid anyone who thinks Britain would be less of a nanny state if we left is kidding themselves.

Download Breaking Up is Hard to Do for free. My chapter starts on page 301.

Friday 15 April 2016

Public health starts using 'industry arguments'

Another piss-poor study was published in Tobacco Control this week, this time claiming that point-of-sale (POS) e-cigarette displays make kiddies take up vaping. A bunch of researchers from Stirling University surveyed some 11-18 year olds and found that those who recalled seeing e-cigarette POS displays were more likely to be interested in using e-cigarettes than those who didn't. Or as they put it...

...recall of e-cigarette POS in small shops and supermarkets, recall of e-cigarette adverts online, and recall of other types of e-cigarette adverts all significantly increased the odds of intending to use e-cigarettes in the next 6 months.

Surprise, surprise, the researchers raise the possibility of banning these displays. Think of the children, etc.

There are a number of good reasons to criticise this conclusion. Kids can't legally buy e-cigarettes so it shouldn't matter if POS displays appeal to them. E-cigarettes aren't particularly dangerous so it is not the end of the world if some underage people use them, especially if smoking cigarettes is the alternative. And, from the supposedly all-important 'public health perspective' e-cigarette advertising is a useful way to encourage smokers of any age to switch to vaping.

But there is one particularly good reason to criticise this study: it's junk science. It is extremely likely that people who are interested in e-cigarettes will notice e-cigarette promotion more than people who are not. It is also very likely that people who use e-cigarettes will recall seeing e-cigarette promotion in the past even if they have not actually seen more of it.

This was a point made by several members of the pro-vaping faction of the 'public health' lobby yesterday when they were slamming the research. Paul Aveyard, chair of Cancer Research UK Tobacco Advisory Group, said:

'The authors found that young people who recalled e-cigarette advertising were more likely to intend to use e-cigarettes in the future and suggest this could be because the advertising prompts them to intend to do so. However, an obvious explanation is that people with no interest in smoking or e-cigarettes will tend not to notice them on display, whereas those who do will notice them. We look at what we are interested in and this is the most likely explanation of the study’s findings.'

Robert West, the vapers' friend at the journal Addiction said...

'...the results could simply be due to people who have tried e-cigarettes being better able to recall having seen e-cigarette advertising. Researchers need to set a higher bar for methodological quality when deciding whether to press-release findings in this area.'

Well said. The methodology is rubbish.

But hang on a minute. It's exactly the same methodology that was used to promote the tobacco display ban and it's exact the same methodology that is used by researchers who claim that alcohol advertising makes young people drink more.

In each case, kids are asked if they recall seeing POS/advertising. The researchers then cross-reference their answers with their smoking or drinking habits/intentions. Compare the methodology of this tobacco display study with this week's e-cigarette display study and you will see that the methods are fundamentally identical and, therefore, both equally flawed.

The 'public health' lobby claims that the evidence on tobacco retail displays is rock solid and dismisses the obvious rebuttal (that people with an interest in a product are more likely to notice its promotion) as an 'industry argument'. Aveyard and West are making that very same 'industry argument', presumably because they think (rightly) that e-cigarette advertising is a good thing for getting smokers to switch.

But you can't have it both ways. If point-of-sale promotion of cigarettes encourages young people to start smoking, it is hard to see why point-of-sale promotion of e-cigarettes wouldn't encourage young people to start vaping.

And you certainly can't have it both ways when the junk science you rely when banning tobacco displays is qualitatively indistinguishable from the junk science being used to ban e-cigarette displays.

The 'public health' racket did not suddenly start using quack science when e-cigarettes became popular. They've been doing it for years. There was a code of silence when they were unified in their aims but now that they have become divided by the e-cigarette issue, one side is having to call bullshit on the other. Oh, what a tangled web we weave...

Thursday 14 April 2016

Soda down, obesity up

A new study from Australia's Obesity Policy Coalition claims that a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks would reduce consumption by 12.6 per cent. The authors reckon the tax 'could save more than 1600 lives and raise at least $400 million a year'.

In Britain, we've heard all this before from campaigners with their computer models. Sugar tax models are simple. Too simple. They assume that if prices go up, sales goes down and calorie consumption declines.

The first assumption is reasonable. All things being equal, we would expect sales to fall when prices rise, although the scale of the decline is far less predictable than is implied by the spurious accuracy of the Australian study's 12.6 per cent.

It is the second assumption that is problematic. If people spend less money on one source of calories they might spend more on another source of calories. This is known as the substitution effect and it is not just a theory. It is exactly what happens when people drink fewer sugary drinks. In the USA, where most states already have a soft drink tax, a study of young people concluded that the 'reduction in soda consumption is completely offset by increases in consumption of other high-calorie drinks.'

If, as Jamie Oliver and his cohorts claim, sugar in soft drinks was such a significant factor in the rise in obesity, you might expect obesity rates to fall when sugary drink consumption falls. But consumption has been falling for years. In America, it is at a thirty year low and yet rates of obesity continue to rise.

Surprised? You shouldn't be. As Dr. Rafael Perez-Escamilla, a Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale School of Public Health, recently explained to Discovery News...

'The fact that the obesity epidemic in the USA remains unabated in spite of significant reductions in consumption of sugar sweetened beverages, including sodas, over the past years may be related to consumers simply replacing the lower consumption of calories from sugar-sweetened beverages with calories from other food products. In other words it is possible that individuals deciding to consume diet sodas or water instead of regular sodas, are not ‘saving’ those calories but rather are simply consuming the same amount of calories or even more from other foods.'

The American experience can be filed under 'things that actually happen in the real world' and is therefore of no interest to sugar tax campaigners. Never mind. They will always have their computer models.

Cross-posted at Spectator Health

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Inconsistent alcohol guidelines

From The Times (but you can read it in The Australian):

If you like a drink but are worried about your health, you might want to move to Chile, or the United States. Men there can get through five glasses of wine a night before doctors think they are having too much, according to a study that found huge variations in national alcohol guidance.

... "It’s not scientifically possible that women should drink [a bit] less than men, half as much or the same as men. But we find all these things in the guidelines,” Professor Humphreys said.

He argued that guidance reflected cultural choices, not pure science. “Governments and countries make judgments that are more than empirical,” he said. “In some it’s socially unacceptable for women to drink whereas in others there’s a feminist understanding that women shouldn’t be embarrassed to drink as much as men.”

All countries agreed that large amounts of alcohol were dangerous, he said. The debate was “more around whether it’s one, two or three” daily drinks.

That is pretty much what I said in the recent Spectator Health debate about whether we can trust health advice. I started my speech like this...

Before answering the question of whether we can trust health advice we must first ask: ‘Which health advice?’ It varies so much over time and between countries. In 1979, the government advised men to drink no more than 56 units of alcohol a week. This was later reduced to 36 units, then 28 units and then 21 units. Last month, the Chief Medical Officer reduced it once again, this time to 14 units. Upon announcing this, she also asserted that there is no safe level of drinking and that the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption were ‘an old wives tale’.

Male drinking guidelines vary enormously around the world, from 52 units a week in Fiji to 35 units in Spain, all the way down to seven units in Guyana. There is no other country in the world that has the same guidelines as the UK. The day after Sally Davies released her report, the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism announced the results of its review of alcohol guidelines and maintained the recommendation for men of up to 25 units per week. This government organisation estimates that 26,000 deaths a year are prevented by moderate alcohol consumption thanks to reduced risk from heart disease, diabetes and stroke. In America, the guidelines for women are lower than they are for men, as they are in all but a handful of countries worldwide. Britain is now one of the few.

Therefore, in order to trust this latest piece of health advice from our Chief Medical Officer, we must believe not only that every previous Chief Medical Officer got it wrong but that every other country in the world has got it wrong. That requires a degree of patriotism that I am unable to summon up, particularly since the current advice bears no relationship whatsoever to the scientific evidence.

The author of the Addiction study sounds surprisingly reasonable...

Uncertainty in the evidence is at least partly a result of people lying about how much they drink and Professor Humphreys said that “a certain amount of humility would be appropriate” from the authorities. “Public health people approach life in terms of risk minimisation but the rest of us approach life at least partly in terms of fun,” he added.

He's not going last long in 'public health' with that kind of attitude.

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Regulation junkies

The Liberal Democrats published a report calling for the legalisation of cannabis last month. I'm afraid I wasn't impressed. I've written a critique for Volte-Face.

After successful experiments in Uruguay and parts of the USA, the relegalisation of cannabis in Britain is no longer a distant dream and the Liberal Democrats should be applauded for spelling out what a post-prohibition cannabis market could look like. It is only a shame that they have allowed their blueprint to be shaped by regulation junkies like David Nutt and Steve Rolles (of Transform) who would restrict the sale of Sherbet Fountains to pharmacists if they were given the opportunity.

... For Rolles et al., cannabis is a Bad Thing and the fewer people who smoke it the better. Drug dealers are also a Bad Thing, however, and their plan is to replace them with benign government and all-knowing regulators. To that end, they call for the creation of a ‘Cannabis Regulatory Authority’ to ‘license the production of a fixed volume of specified products’ for licensed retailers. These retailers would not be able to advertise or create any brands because ‘plain packaging should be mandatory for all retail cannabis, with standardised non-branded designs along the lines of prescription pharmaceuticals’. Resin would remain illegal, as would edible cannabis, and there would be no Amsterdam-style coffee shops.

Products would not only be labelled with ‘mandated information and warnings about key health risks’ but would be sold in ‘re-sealable childproof containers’ with ‘more detailed health information […] on printed inserts […] similar to those that accompany all prescription medicines.’ A eighth of weed in a plastic bag from a man in a pub suddenly seems glamorous.

As if that weren’t enough, retailers would not be able to set their own prices because the government would introduce ‘either direct price fixing, or maximum and minimum price controls’. In other words, in the unlikely event of a Lib Dem government, the state will decide how much cannabis can be commercially produced, where it can be sold, what its packaging will look like, what can be said about it and how much it can be sold for. This is a market in the loosest sense of the word. Indeed, it is barely a market at all. 

The scary thing is that this is how the authors of the report want to regulate tobacco and alcohol as well.

Do read the whole article.

Saturday 9 April 2016

Slip sliding away

You may recall Aussie 'public health' sociologist Simon Chapman mocking concerns about the slippery slope 2012:
Look, if the slope is slippery, it's the most unslippery slippery dip I've ever seen in my life. We started banning tobacco advertising in 1976 and there has been no other commodity where there has been anything like a serious move to do what we've done with tobacco.

So, you know, the comparisons with hamburgers and chocolate bars and alcohol and such with like that, they're just really don't stack up.

Meanwhile, in 2016...

Advertisements for gambling would be treated like tobacco promotions and banned completely under a policy announced by the Greens.

The Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, said on Friday the ban would “make it possible for people to sit down with their kids and watch a game of footy without being bombarded by constant messages to bet”.

He likened it to the prohibition on tobacco advertising instituted in 1992.

This comes a few days after the Royal Australasian College of Physicians called for graphic warnings on alcohol packaging. In the UK, the British Medical Association has been demanding a total ban on alcohol advertising for years, and the campaign to extend plain packaging to food, drink and even toys has already begun. Many other examples are available.

I'm sure Chapman is shocked and appalled to see anti-smoking policies being applied to other products in a way that nobody could possibly have foreseen. No doubt he will condemn the inappropriate comparison between smoking and other behaviours in the strongest possible terms and apologise for giving people the impression that none of this would never happen.

He'll definitely do that, right? I mean, he wouldn't want to get a reputation for being some sort of spiv.

Tuesday 5 April 2016

Australia goes full wowser

Australia is sliding into the abyss. It's nanny state has always been active but in the last seven days the wowsers have gone into full-throttle, batshit crazy, fetch-the-tranquilisers overdrive. Here's the evidence...

Exhibit A (April 4th): Women of child-bearing age should be teetotal

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has called for all women “of reproductive age” who consume more than two standard drinks a day to be subject to “interventions” on the basis that they might be pregnant, in a remarkable submission to a Senate inquiry.

...These guidelines mean that drinking just two 375 ml full-strength beers or two average-sized glasses of wine a day is risky, and drinking three is “binge drinking” of more than four standard drinks on any single single occasion.

The RACP would therefore appear to want all woman below, say, 50 to be subject to monitoring and “early intervention” if they drink two beers or wines a day or drink three beers or wines on a single occasion; these are distinguished from the “brief interventions”  (one-on-one doctor-patient counselling) discussed elsewhere in the submission.

Exhibit B (March 31st): Plain packaging for toys

Children’s toys should be subject to plain-packaging laws similar to cigarettes, an inter­national women’s group says. 

In a submission to the domestic violence and gender inequality Senate inquiry, ​the Adelaide branch of Zonta International says some toys teach girls to be sexy and submissive and boys to be macho and dominant.

“Sexualisation of young children through products, dress, toys and cosmetics reinforces that girls should be sexy, submissive, and boys should be dominant, macho, important and strong,” it says. “These products reinforce boys to grow to males that can be powerful and strong, and that girls need to be attractive and submissive to males. (We) suggest making a campaign like the successful plain packaging of cigarettes.”

Exhibit C (April 4th): $758 fine for smoking outdoors

Beer gardens and outdoor areas of cafes would become entirely smoke-free under a new Victorian proposal supported by more than a dozen leading health and community groups.

The government announced last year that smoking would be banned in outdoor venues where food is served from August 2017, with on-the-spot fines and a maximum penalty of $758 for people who break the law.

But the heads of 15 organisations including the Australian Medical Association, Cancer Council Victoria and the hospitality workers union, United Voice, say the new rules do not go far enough and could lead to bans on diners eating outside.

Exhibit D (April 3rd): Anti-gambling academic claims companies are trying to normalise normal things

Sports betting agencies are adopting similar marketing techniques used by the powerful tobacco lobby to convince people that online gambling is an intrinsic part of Australian culture, new research suggests.

As the Turnbull government prepares to unveil reforms to crack down on foreign bookmakers, a study has found that betting giants are increasingly using gender stereotypes, fan rituals and images of mateship to "normalise" online wagering through highly targeted advertisements.

"The same playbook that we saw in tobacco and alcohol is happening again," said Samantha Thomas, a public health academic at Deakin University, which led the study.

"It's being depicted in advertising as though it's part of Aussie culture – this idea that if you're a true Aussie bloke, you go to the pub, you hang with your mates, you watch your sport and now you also gamble on sport as well. [This women lives in Australia, right? That's what they do - CJS] We should all be smarter about the way these companies seek to normalise their product."

Exhibit E (April 2nd): Graphic warnings and other wowser lunacy for alcohol

Access to alcohol would be drastically reduced under a radical rethink of liquor laws, taxes and sales being urged by one of the country's most influential groups of doctors.

The proposed regime recommends:
  • The legal age for buying takeaway alcohol should be raised immediately, ahead of a public debate about lifting the drinking age
  • State governments should ramp up last drinks and early closing laws such as those implemented in NSW, including shorter trading hours for bottle shops and bars
  • Local councils should be given the power to reduce the number of licensed premises in their communities by challenging existing liquor licences and implementing caps on the number of bars
  • Sports sponsorship by alcohol companies should be banned, as a precursor to a total ban on advertising alcohol to young people
  • Alcohol packaging should carry warning labels, akin to cigarettes, under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code

Australian control freaks are only ever half a step ahead of the British nutters so brace yourself.

Monday 4 April 2016

Last Orders podcast

In a new Spiked podcast, Tom Slater, myself and a special guest will be providing a monthly update on the decline of Western civilisation. In the first episode, we are joined by Clare Fox (Moral Maze, Institute of Ideas) to discuss the failed Welsh vaping ban, the sugar tax and the youth of today.

Listen/subscribe here.

Friday 1 April 2016

Endless obesity babble

Here we go again. How many prophecies have to fail before we build up a resistance to them? I have written about obesity predictions before so I won’t bore you with the details again, but the key facts are these. In 2007, the government’s ironically-titled Foresight report predicted that 36 per cent of men would be obese by 2015. When this forecast was made, the male obesity rate in England was 24 per cent. By 2014 - the year for which we have the latest data - it had rocketed to, er, 24 per cent. 

In 2011, the Lancet predicted ‘a rise in obesity prevalence in men from 26% to 41–48% and in women from 26% to 35–43% [by 2030].’ The female obesity rate is currently 27 per cent whereas the male obesity rate has dropped slightly to 24 per cent. There is still time for the Lancet to be proven right, but the current trajectory is way off target.

Figures from the rest of the UK are similar to those from England. Adult obesity in Wales is currently at 22 per cent. In Scotland it is 28 per cent. In Northern Ireland it is 25 per cent.

If obesity rates are rising, they are doing so very slowly. I would not be foolish enough to make a prediction of my own, but the evidence from the last decade is more consistent with a levelling off than a surge. Since 2002, the male obesity rate in England has hovered between 22 and 26 per cent. For women, it has kept within the range of 23 and 27 per cent. At the most, adult obesity has risen by two percentage points since the Foresight report was published under Tony Blair. Childhood obesity peaked in 2004 at 19 per cent and has since fallen to 17 per cent.

The woeful track record of obesity predictions can be explained in four words: ‘If current trends continue…’ Between 1993 and 2002 there was a clear and steep increase in obesity. The adult rate in England rose from 15 to 23 per cent. If that trend had continued we would indeed be looking at half the population being obese by 2030. But it didn’t and there was never any reason to assume it would. It now seems clear that the 1993 to 2002 period was exceptional. It is absurd to assume that an exceptional trend is going to continue in a linear way indefinitely, particularly when the trend in question is no longer 'current'.

Extrapolating from current trends is a terrible way to make a prediction. At the time of the Foresight report, the bankers had looked at current trends and decided that house prices would keep on rising forever and, therefore, that there was no risk in lending money to people who had no chance of paying it back. Like the obesity forecasters, they were making a crude and naive error.

Given what has happened to obesity rates in the UK over the last ten years, you might expect obesity forecasters to be more circumspect, if not apologetic, but you would be wrong. Today saw the publication of yet another study from the Lancet which doubles down on its previous gamble by forecasting a 38 per cent obesity rate in Britain by 2025.

Actually, it doesn’t. The study contains no specific predictions for the UK. The 38 per cent figure only appears in a sexed-up press release sent to journalists. Readers can make up their own minds about what this says about standards at The Lancet these days, but it cannot be denied that they know how to play the media. The 38 per cent prediction is all the newspapers and, as always with these guesstimates, is being treated like the written word of God.

Contrast this media fanfare with the radio silence that greeted the publication of the official obesity figures in December. Those figures went almost entirely unnoticed, presumably because they once again failed to show any change. For the umpteenth year running, the Health Survey for England noted that around a quarter of adults are obese. Ho-hum.

Something has surely gone wrong when highly implausible, unpublished obesity predictions are given blanket media coverage while actual data is routinely ignored. No one has reflected on the dismal track record of all previous obesity forecasts, nor has anyone asked how the two percentage point rise in obesity seen in the last ten years translates to a twelve percentage point rise in the next ten years (as would have to take place for the Lancet’s latest piece of soothsaying to be correct). The increasing reliance on outrageous predictions about the obesity 'time bomb' seems designed to deflect attention from the stubborn refusal of the bomb to go off.

Cross-posted at Spectator Health

PS. Sarah Knapton, the alleged science editor of the Telegraph, confirmed that she is a nitwit with this gem in her article about the Lancet's claim...

Obesity currently costs the health service £47 billion a year,  just under half the entire NHS budget.

Half of the NHS budget spent on obesity?! It beggars belief that anyone could type these words and not think 'hang on, that can't possibly be right'.

It's not right, of course. The £47 billion is made up of societal costs (intangible costs, lost productivity, etc.). The costs to the NHS are a tenth of that.