Monday, 23 July 2018

The Inner Level: a review

I wasn't going to read the sequel to The Spirit Level but Spiked asked me to review it, so I did. You can find my review of The Inner Level here.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Victory Dairy Milk

Cadbury's have announced that it will be launching a new version of Dairy Milk with 30 per cent less sugar. This wouldn't normally be news but it is tied in with the government's madcap food reformulation scheme so it is.

I've written about it for the Speccie.

If Cadbury’s think that they can appease Public Health England by offering people choice, they don’t understand the ‘public health’ lobby at all. 

Do have a read.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

The Tobacco Control Plan debate


In the previous post, I mentioned the parliamentary debate on tobacco control that had been organised by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). It took place this afternoon and was streamed online so I watched it. As you can see from the photo above, it was sparsely attended. What you can't see is that was dominated by members of the All Party Group on Smoking and Health, a sockpuppet in-house pressure group created by ASH in the 1970s of which ASH remains the secretariat.

It began with a speech by Steve Brine who said that there are no plans for any more legislation but that the government would work hard to achieve its self-imposed target of having a smoking rate of no more than 12 per cent by 2022.

It is important to recognise that this is now the sole justification for the harassment, extortion and stigmatisation of smokers. The tobacco control crusade is no longer based on market failure arguments, as weak as those were. Nor is it based on equally flimsy claims about the tobacco industry somehow tricking people into smoking. The justification now is that the government has set arbitrary targets for how many people should be smoking by a certain year and that these must be met. It doesn't matter whether you want to smoke or not. It doesn't matter whether you enjoy smoking. It doesn't matter whether you understand the risks and are prepared to take them. The government has decided that the country will be 'smokefree' at some point in the next two decades (note how the meaning of 'smokefree' has changed since 2007) and that is the end of the matter.

Steve Brine might not want more legislation in the foreseeable future but ASH does. After Brine spoke, Bob Blackman, the chairman of their APPG, argued for ASH's pet policies, notably a tobacco industry levy modelled on the Master Settlement Agreement, more money for stop-smoking services and more anti-smoking campaigns. He was followed by Alex Cunningham, also an APPG member, who thanked ASH for helping him prepare his speech and called for a clampdown on smoking on TV (another ASH favourite), raising the age of purchase to 21 and licensing tobacco retailers. He also wants some sort of leaflet to be inserted in cigarette packs to tell people that smoking is bad for their health (who knew?).

Kevin Barron, the vice-chair of the APPG, stood up and called for much the same. There was some delusional stuff about eliminating the illicit trade in tobacco while continuing to raise tobacco duty, and there was much talk of tackling health inequalities which, in tobacco as in food, is code for forcing the habits of the managerial class upon ordinary people. Nauseatingly, both Barron and Cunningham gave figures of how many people would be lifted out of poverty if they stopped smoking. With tobacco duty making up 80-90 per cent of the price of tobacco products, this only confirms how regressive this form of taxation is. It is the tax, not the tobacco, that causes the secondary poverty.

Barron noted that Ireland and the UK have exactly the same anti-smoking legislation and yet the UK's smoking rate has fallen by a quarter since 2012 whereas, he said, the smoking rate had fallen by very little in Ireland. He attributed the difference to the UK embracing e-cigarettes and he is doubtless correct, but he did not draw the other obvious conclusion: that the 'world class' anti-smoking legislation which both countries have embraced is useless.

In short, the government has looked back on five years in which the smoking rate has fallen at a remarkably fast pace and decided to take a legislative breather. Tobacco taxes will continue to rise above inflation and we can expect to black market to rise further as a result, but Steve Brine is not concerned about this because he has signed a WHO treaty aimed at eliminating the illicit trade (stop giggling at the back).

None of the speakers mentioned the damage done by EU legislation on snus, e-cigarettes or novel nicotine devices, nor did they propose that this legislation be repealed after Brexit. To be fair, there was some recognition that e-cigarettes have been behind the recent trend in smoking cessation but the speakers were too blasé in assuming that the trend towards harm reduction will continue given the regulatory obstacles it faces.

ASH are in charge

Public health minister Steve Brine tweeted yesterday about a parliamentary debate on the Tobacco Control Plan that is being held today.

This makes it sound as if it was the decision of Brine and his department to organise the debate but an e-mail circulated to MPs on July 4th tells a different story:

As you may know, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) have applied for a Backbench Business debate for late-July, to note the one-year anniversary of the Tobacco Control Plan (TCP) and discuss its vision for a ‘smokefree generation’. I wanted to let you know that the debate has been secured, for three hours in the Chamber, and should be on 19 July 2018. 

The full e-mail is below...

Isn't it interesting that a tiny pressure group can get a parliamentary debate whenever it feels like it? This is only possible because ASH are, in effect, part of the government. The Department of Health outsourced tobacco policy to these extremists many years ago. When ASH says 'jump', the government asks 'how high?' As I have mentioned before, it is no coincidence that ASH's Deborah Arnott is seen grinning behind Brine in his Twitter photo.

As it happens, there are some tobacco issues that need to be discussed in parliament. The Tobacco Control Plan specifically mentions the possibilities that Brexit opens up. It would be nice to see some MPs talk about their plans to legalise snus, or repeal the Tobacco Products Directive, or allow Juul to be launched in Britain (a low nicotine version hit the market this week; the real thing is illegal under EU laws). They might also discuss reforming the advertising laws to allow reduced risk products such as IQOS to make themselves known to smokers.

Alas, I suspect that the debate will mostly be about money. ASH have virtually run out of policy proposals since the government implemented everything they could think of. They now exist to keep themselves and their fellow travellers in work.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The drinking guidelines fiddle

I've got an article in the current issue of Wetherspoons News about the lowering of the drinking guidelines in 2016 after a process that I would describe as fraudulent. Wetherspoons recently turned its back on the internet so here it is in pixels...

It is two years since the government changed its official drinking advice. Lowering the weekly guidelines for men from 21 units to 14 units, Britain became one of a small handful of countries to issue the same guidance to both sexes. When she announced the new limits, England’s Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies, took the opportunity to tell the nation that there is no safe level of drinking and that the health benefits of moderate drinking are ‘an old wives’ tale’.

Such advice is easy to ignore. You are probably ignoring it right now. But guidelines are not always designed to be followed. Sometimes they serve a political purpose.

Every indicator shows that the UK has become a more sober country in the last fifteen years. Rates of binge-drinking, underage drinking and drink-driving have all fallen dramatically. On a per capita basis, we drink no more than we did in 1980, and millennials are particularly abstemious. Lowering the guidelines for men created two million ‘hazardous’ drinkers overnight, thereby inflating Britain’s supposed drink problem and increasing the perceived need for more government intervention.

When the previous guidelines were set in 1995, the government assembled a group of experts who had no known bias for or against alcohol. They issued a call for evidence, held hearings and received dozens of submissions before making their minds up.

The process that led to the new guidelines in 2016 could not have been more different. Most of the committee’s members were openly in favour of heavy regulation and several of them were associated with temperance groups. Their agenda was simple: to regulate alcohol like tobacco. In effect, this means making a pariah of the drinks industry, portraying alcohol as a major cause of cancer and asserting that there is no safe level of drinking.

For the new guidelines, there was no call for evidence and there were no hearings. The names of the committee members were not even made public until after the guidelines had been changed. But the minutes of the meetings were eventually published and they make for interesting reading. As early as June 2013, the chair of the evidence evaluation group, Mark Petticrew, told his colleagues that the number of people who benefited from moderate drinking was ‘very small’ and that the benefits were ‘limited to a low consumption level of half a drink per day’. The ‘beneficial effects’, he said, ‘could be considered not to be relevant in the context of an overall population message, advice or guidance.’

From this starting point, it was a small step to claiming that the benefits of drinking were an old wives’ tale. There was only one problem: the science does not support it. A mountain of evidence stretching over five decades shows that non-drinkers are more likely to suffer from heart attacks, angina, diabetes, dementia and stroke. Studies have shown that people who drink up to 35 units a week live longer than those who do not drink at all. If the guidelines were to be evidence-based, they should have been raised, not lowered.

Since the empirical evidence did not agree with them, the guidelines group commissioned some computer modelling to replace it. A team at Sheffield University that was known to support anti-alcohol policies was hired to build a model to put a figure on a ‘safe level of drinking’, but this, too, failed to support a reduction in the guidelines. And so, in a scandalous move, the committee told the Sheffield team to change the model.

The original model had assumed that chronic conditions, such as alcoholic liver cirrhosis, could only develop in somebody who drank heavily for many years. The evidence for this was indisputable and yet the committee insisted that the model be based on the assumption that even light drinkers were at risk.

The Sheffield Team knew that this was absurd and protested the change, saying that ‘it does not seem right to assign people drinking at very low levels a risk of acquiring alcoholic liver disease and similar conditions’. But they were given little choice and, for a fee of £7,800, they changed their model and came back with new findings which, unsurprisingly, found moderate drinking to be more dangerous than previously thought.

The committee finally had the evidence they needed to justify lowering the drinking guidelines. Admittedly, it was only a hypothetical model that they themselves had rigged by inserting assumptions that nobody could justify, but it was enough. Why did they go to so much effort? Because, as the minutes of one of the meetings points out, ‘while guidelines might have limited influence on behaviour, they could be influential as a basis for government policies’. Lowering the guidelines was a small but important step in the growing war on alcohol.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Au revoir

I'm on holiday until 16th July so blogging will be almost non-existent. If you need some hot takes while I'm away check the sidebar of shame for the finest deviants the blogosphere has to offer.

And if you have half an hour to spare and didn't catch my longform interview on BBC Scotland a few months ago, I notice that there is now a permanent link to it here.

Don't let anything stupid happen while I'm gone.



Thursday, 5 July 2018

Chile's soda tax "success"

The sugar tax junk science just keeps coming. It's amazing how hard it is to find evidence that taxes on sugary drinks has any effect on consumption, let alone calorie intake or obesity.

First we had the Mexico study which claimed to have found a 6 per cent drop in sales. This was plausible enough for a 10 per cent tax, but it turned out to be false. Per capita consumption was almost exactly the same after the tax was introduced as it had been before.

Then we had the study of Berkeley, California where sales fell in the town of Berkeley but rose in the surrounding area where the tax was not in force. Thanks to out-of-town shopping and increased consumption of substitute beverages, the tax led to more calories being consumed in soft drinks than before.

Daily usual taxed beverage intake was 121 g/d pre-tax and 97 g/d post-tax (−13.3%, p = 0.49), while mean caloric intake of taxed beverages went from 45 kcal/d to 39 kcal/d (−19.8%, p = 0.56) (Table 1); neither difference is statistically significant. From the pre- to post-tax period, mean volume of untaxed beverage intake went from 1,839 g/d to 1,897 g/d (+3.2%, p = 0.21). Reported mean caloric intake of untaxed beverages rose from 116 kcal/d to 148 kcal/d (+27.6%, p = 0.02).

It's a pretty dismal record but the crusade for sugar taxes marches on regardless thanks to the dozy media and headlines like 'Sugar tax in Mexico cuts sales of sugary drinks by 12 per cent' and
'First US sugar tax sees soft drink sales fall by almost 10%, study shows'.

Yesterday saw the publication of a study of Chile's soda tax and it's a belter if you like quackery. Chile's tax change was so minor that no reasonable person would expect to see much effect. The tax on sugary drinks rose from 13 per cent to 18 per cent and the tax on diet drinks dropped from 13 per cent to 10 per cent. In practice that means...

... the tax change, if fully transmitted to the consumer, would increase the prices of a 500ml sugary beverage from 500 pesos (£0.60) to 525 pesos (£0.62), and it would drop the price of an equally priced non-sugary beverage to 485 pesos (£0.57).

A 2p increase on a 60p half-litre of Coke isn't much of a deterrent. At best, you might expect sales to fall by 4 per cent. In the event, it doesn't seem to have managed one per cent.

For some reason, the tax has been evaluated by some academics at York University and they have been helpful enough to show us the consumption figures:

If you can't see any difference in consumption after the tax (dotted red line), you are not alone. Neither could the researchers...

For all soft drinks and for the relevant soft drink subcategories (except the no-tax soft drinks, which show a trend increase), it is hard to detect a clear overall time trend based on pure visual inspection alone. While the peaks in the data certainly become less pronounced over time, so have some of the troughs. It is equally difficult to discern an obvious pre- versus post-tax pattern in any of the categories.

That should have been the end of it. Consumption was unchanged and so the tax can't possibly have had any obesity which, let's not forget, is supposed to be the primary outcome. But no one goes home empty hand in the 'public health' racket, so they did some modelling. What kind of modelling? They don't say, but it had one hell of an effect because...

Our main estimates suggest a significant, sizeable reduction in the volume of high-tax soft drinks purchased (21.7%)
What?! Consumption fell by 21.7 per cent as a result of a five per cent tax rise?! In what universe does that sit with basic economics and common sense, let alone tally with the graph that we can see with our own eyes?

It's as if 'public health' research is one big wind-up and they're seeing how much they can get away with before they get busted. But there's no sign of that happening if the Telegraph's coverage is any guide...

Major new study shows Chile's sugar tax has sharply reduced sales of sugary drinks

Chile’s sugar tax seems to be successfully chipping away at the nation’s preference for all things sweet, according to new research. The findings will likely encourage other countries battling their own obesity epidemics.

The study by an international team led by researchers at the University of York looked at sales of sugary drinks in Chile between 2011 and 2015.  It found purchases fell by 21.6 per cent following the introduction of the tax.

And, inevitably...

The researchers called for sugar taxes to be applied to food and well as drinks. "Policy to reduce sugar intake should not only target the sugar contained in soft drinks, but also in food," said Prof. Suhrcke.

Chile now joins the growing list of sugar tax success stories along with Mexico, where sugary drink consumption was unaffected, and Berkeley, where people drank more calories after the tax came into effect. In both cases, modelling by activist-academics conjured successful outcomes out of thin air.

Now we have the Chilean miracle in which a small tax rise had essentially no effect on anything but modelling turned this into a 22% decline in consumption. The phrase 'junk science' doesn't really do this justice. 'Junk science' implies some kind of methodological flaw or statistical trick. The Chile study is just a... lie. It's literally fake news.

Campaigners for sugar taxes are in a fantasy world of their own making. They model the effects of the tax when they are lobbying for it and then, once it has been introduced and achieved nothing, they model it again to prove that it worked. Perhaps they will one day model a decline in obesity and a decline in mortality. If we can have an imaginary decline in soda consumption, why not have some imaginary weight loss to go along with it?

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Prohibition is bad for mental health

With Canada, Uruguay and a growing number of US states abandoning cannabis prohibition, there is a real chance of European countries following suit. In Britain, enthusiasm for reform has since faded since the 1990s as a result of ‘skunk’ taking over the market. In 2004, when Tony Blair’s government reclassified cannabis as a Class C drug, it was still considered to be a relatively ‘soft’ drug and there was significant political support for its legalisation, but by the time Gordon Brown returned it to Class B status in 2008, public perception of the drug had begun to change. Cannabis is now synonymous with high potency skunk which is associated with dependency and psychosis. Around 70 per cent of the cannabis seized by police in the 1990s was resin. Today, more than 90 per cent is skunk.

Skunk is typically high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is associated with psychosis, and low in the non-intoxicating antipsychotic drug cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the main psychoactive substance in cannabis that makes the user feel stoned, but it can also cause side effects such as paranoia which tend to be mitigated by CBD. With high levels of THC and low levels of CBD, skunk poses a threat to the mental health of a small but significant minority of users. Although the number of cannabis users fell by a third between 2006 and 2014, demand for treatment of cannabis-related mental health problems increased by more than 50 per cent.

It is no wonder than the campaign for liberalisation has stalled. And yet the dominance of hazardous, high strength cannabis in the illicit market makes the case for legalisation stronger, not weaker. Opposing legalisation on the grounds that skunk has taken over the market is akin to opposing the end of alcohol prohibition because moonshine had taken over the market. Moonshine virtually disappeared after alcohol was re-legalised in the USA in 1933 and the same would happen to the strongest strains of cannabis if the drug were re-legalised today.

Legalising cannabis would alleviate the mental health issues associated with cannabis in two ways. Firstly, it would allow safer, regulated cannabis with maximum THC levels and minimum CBD levels to displace the more dangerous strains that have taken over the market. Secondly, it would generate tax revenue that could be spent on mental health services.

Instead of spending money on the lost cause of prohibition we could be saving money and generating taxable income. In a report published by the Institute of Economic Affairs today, I estimate that 255 tonnes of cannabis were sold in the UK in 2016/17 at a cost to end users of £2.6 billion. This is not a trivial sum. Under legalisation, prices would fall, but the industry would still be worth around £2 billion per annum, making it twice the size of the cider industry and three times the size of the bingo industry. It would be a small but significant part of the economy.

With maximum limits on THC levels, minimum limits on CBD levels and strict age controls, tax on the product alone could realistically produce revenues of £690 million per annum. Additional streams of revenue from income tax, corporation tax and business rates paid by the industry and its suppliers could run into the hundreds of millions of pounds. In 2015, the legal marijuana industry in Colorado - a state with a population that is less than a tenth of the UK’s - created 18,000 full-time jobs. Excise tax on marijuana is expected to reach $1 billion in California this year.

Not everything can be reduced to nickels and dimes but the public interest arguments for maintaining prohibition have collapsed. Cannabis has become more dangerous to its users’ mental health because of prohibition, not despite it. In many parts of the country, children find it easier to obtain cannabis than alcohol. Done properly, cannabis legalisation is a win-win-win: criminals lose a lucrative industry, the burden on the general taxpayer is reduced and consumers get a better product at a lower price.

Governments around the world are waking up to this. As the world’s largest producer of cannabis, albeit for medical use, the UK is well placed to lead the way in Europe. It is high time to legalise.

Cross-posted from the Telegraph. You can download the new IEA report Joint Venture here.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Smoking rate rises in first year of plain packaging and TPD

The Office for National Statistics has just released its annual publication, Adult Smoking Habits in Great Britain, with data for 2017.

2017 was the year that plain packaging and the Tobacco Products Directive effectively began. Both were introduced in May 2016 but retailers were allowed to sell their old stock until 20 May 2017. The tobacco industry made sure plenty of branded packs were available and few smokers saw a plain pack until 2017. The vaping industry also tried to make sure there were good, non-EU regulated e-cigarette fluids available for as long as possible.

Since e-cigarettes went mainstream in around 2012/13, the smoking rate had been falling sharply. It dropped from 20.4% in 2012 to 16.1% in 2016.

Now that the British and EU governments have saved us from the perils of branded cigarette packs, packs of ten and high strength vape juice, the rate must have fallen still further, right?

Wrong. As I mentioned in May, the data from the Smoking Toolkit Study show the smoking rate inching up in 2017. This has now been confirmed by the Office for National Statistics, which reports that smoking prevalence has gone up to 16.8%, the first rise in six years. 

The Tobacco Products Directive makes the most popular substitute for smoking less appealing. Plain packaging makes smokers more likely to buy tobacco on price rather than on brand, and if they want a branded pack they have to buy on the black market where cigarettes are cheaper. Banning packs of ten and small tobacco pouches means that smokers have to buy more tobacco than they might intend.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that this isn't going to reduce the smoking rate and yet the 'public health' lobby spent years - and vast sums of taxpayers' money - lobbying for these idiotic regulations. It was revealed this week that the Australian government spent $39 million on plain packaging. In Britain, hundreds of thousands of pounds were spent on billboards advertising this ridiculous policy. Their slogan used takes on a new meaning now that plain packaging has proven a damp squib in Britain, France and Australia.

The campaigners have already moved on. Banning smoking in the home, censoring television programmes, changing the colour of cigarettes... It goes on and on, without end and to no end.

Will anyone be held accountable? Of course not. The whirlwind of destruction will continue because it makes politicians feel good. Intentions are everything. Outcomes are irrelevant.


The NHS has chosen today to release its Statistics on Smoking report which is based on the Annual Population Survey and reports a decline from 15.8% to 15.1%. This is a survey of people aged 18 and over whereas the figures above, based on the Opinion and Lifestyles Survey, covers people aged 16 and over. You pays your money and takes your choice, but I have always used the 16+ figures which, incidentally, are closer to the figures that are taken every month in the Smoking Toolkit Study and also show a slight rise in 2017 (see below):

Monday, 2 July 2018

Shut down the Local Government Association

The march towards state control of the food supply is accelerating at such a pace that even the craziest ideas barely raise an eyebrow. On Friday, the Local Government Association made a new demand that passed almost without comment.

Off the back of some politically driven nonsense from Public Health England about the 'clustering' of takeaway shops in 'deprived' (ie. urban) areas, Izzi Seccombe, Chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, said:

“We urgently need to take action to tackle child obesity and councils are playing their part, but need more planning powers to help tackle this epidemic [sic] which has made the UK the most obese nation in western Europe [actually, that's Malta - CJS].

“Councils appreciate that a flourishing hospitality sector in our towns and cities is good for local economies and where they have introduced restrictions on takeaways are working with businesses to help create healthier menus for their customers.

“Numerous councils have set curbs on new fast food outlets but current legislation means they lack planning powers to tackle the clustering of existing takeaways already open.

“New legislation is needed to empower councils to help drive forward an effective redesign of damaging food environments to help address health inequalities and tackle the obesity crisis, which requires a joined-up approach.”

Leave aside the fact that the evidence does not support the belief that living near a fast food outlet makes you more likely to be obese.* And leave aside the fact that people should be free to eat wherever they want. What the LGA is saying here is incredible. Not only do they want to stop new food outlets from opening, they want to have the power to close down businesses that are already trading

'Sorry Mr Smith. We know your fish and chip shop's been here for 100 years, but our data tell us that there is an over-supply of fast food in the area so we're shutting you down.'

'Sorry Mr Wang. Your Chinese takeaway might be popular but the rate of obesity in this ward is higher than the national average, so it's the Jobcentre Plus for you.'

What are these people thinking? When did destroying local businesses become an explicit goal of the Local Government Association? How do we shut this obscene organisation down before they shut the high street down?

It somehow comes as no surprise to find that Izzi Seccombe is a Conservative councillor.

* Public Health England lie about this in their document, claiming that 'There is a growing body of evidence on the association between exposure to fast food outlets and obesity, although some studies show mixed results.'

Sunday, 1 July 2018

The domino theory revisited

As predicted from leaked reports last year, the World Trade Organisation has rejected the appeal of various countries against plain packaging. This is an unfortunate but important development because it shows that the WTO will not stand up for trademarks and intellectual property rights.

As a precedent, the implications go far beyond tobacco. With the court case settled (appeals notwithstanding), the Guardian has come clean....

'Resounding victory': Australia wins tobacco plain packaging dispute

WTO rejection of challenge seen as global test case could lead to tighter rules for unhealthy foods and alcohol

... Australia’s law, introduced in 2010, bans logos and distinctively-coloured cigarette packaging in favour of drab olive packets that look more like military or prison issue, with brand names printed in small standardised fonts.

The challenge to it was seen as a test case for public health legislation globally, and could lead to tighter marketing rules for unhealthy foods and alcohol as well as tobacco.

But, but, but, didn't Deborah Arnott of ASH reassure us - when talking specifically about plain packaging - that...

...the “domino theory” i.e. that once a measure has been applied to tobacco it will be applied to other products is patently false.

I can't believe the 'public health' people tricked us again! If only someone had warned us!

Image from the 2015 Tobacco Atlas

Oh well, I guess it's open season on the packaging of any product that displeases the puritans.

As for the legal case itself, Sinclair Davidson shows how the Australian government lied to the WTO here and here.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Legalise it

I have a report out with the IEA today that gives an estimate of how much cannabis is consumed in Britain, how much would be consumed if the market were legalised, and how much tax revenue the government would make from doing so.

In short, I estimate that 255 tonnes of cannabis were sold in 2016/17. To put that in context, this is what one tonne of cannabis looks like.

The average price of a gram of cannabis is £10 so the market is worth around £2.6 billion. If it were legalised and taxed at a rate of 30 per cent (plus VAT), a gram would retail at around £6.50 and the government it get £690 million in excise tax.

These calculations take into account the effect of lower prices on demand and assume that a small proportion of the market would remain illicit.

This would be a win for everybody, as I explain in the Telegraph today...

Around 70 per cent of the cannabis seized by police in the 1990s was resin. Today, more than 90 per cent is skunk.

Skunk is typically high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is associated with psychosis, and low in the non-intoxicating antipsychotic drug cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the main psychoactive substance in cannabis that makes the user feel stoned, but it can also cause side effects such as paranoia which tend to be mitigated by CBD. With high levels of THC and low levels of CBD, skunk poses a threat to the mental health of a small but significant minority of users. Although the number of cannabis users fell by a third between 2006 and 2014, demand for treatment of cannabis-related mental health problems increased by more than 50 per cent.

It is no wonder than the campaign for liberalisation has stalled. And yet the dominance of hazardous, high strength cannabis in the illicit market makes the case for legalisation stronger, not weaker. Opposing legalisation on the grounds that skunk has taken over the market is akin to opposing the end of alcohol prohibition because moonshine had taken over the market. Moonshine virtually disappeared after alcohol was re-legalised in the USA in 1933 and the same would happen to the strongest strains of cannabis if the drug were re-legalised today.

Legalising cannabis would alleviate the mental health issues associated with cannabis in two ways. Firstly, it would allow safer, regulated cannabis with maximum THC levels and minimum CBD levels to displace the more dangerous strains that have taken over the market. Secondly, it would generate tax revenue that could be spent on mental health services.

Not everything can be reduced to nickels and dimes but the public interest arguments for maintaining prohibition have collapsed. Cannabis has become more dangerous to its users’ mental health because of prohibition, not despite it. In many parts of the country, children find it easier to obtain cannabis than alcohol. Done properly, cannabis legalisation is a win-win-win: criminals lose a lucrative industry, the burden on the general taxpayer is reduced and consumers get a better product at a lower price.

The report has been covered by the Times, the Sun, Metro, Sky, the Daily Mail and ITV. Even the BBC and Guardian have covered it, so perhaps this is one libertarian cause whose time has come. You can download the report here.

If you are in London tomorrow evening, come to a special event at the Royal Geographical Society at 6.30pm. Featuring some very special gust speakers, we'll be going through all the reasons that cannabis should be legalised.

Clement Marfo (chair) - Multi-talented artist and performer from the UK
Jammer -
UK grime artist
Liz McCulloch -
Head of Policy, Volteface
Neil Woods -
Former police officer and chairman of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership

Richard Hurley -
Features and debates editor of the British Medical Journal
Chris Snowdon -
Head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs
Greg de Hoedt -
UK Cannabis Social Clubs CEO
Andrew Boff -
Conservative member of the London Assembly

Register for free here.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Children gambling - another moral panic

The Times has got everything it could have wanted from its weirdly obsessive crusade against sugar, and the anti-gambling killjoys have won their victory over the fixed-odds betting terminals. Both are ready for a new target and gambling adverts fit the bill, hence this in The Times today...

More children gamble than go bowling or skateboard

Gambling is now more popular among children than skateboarding as bookmakers bombard young people with adverts in an “uncontrolled social experiment on today's youth” an official report has warned.

The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board said that nine out of ten young people have seen betting adverts on TV or social media.

The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board is a quango that advertises another quango, the Gambling Commission. Our old friend Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, sits on its board. Gilmore is a liver specialist who lobbies for temperance policies. What does he know about gambling? Nothing, but puritans have never stayed in their lane.

Some of the rhetoric in the RGSB report will be familiar to anybody who has encountered anti-alcohol and anti-tobacco lobbyists. It claims that advertising leads to the 'normalisation' of gambling. It complains that children of gamblers are more likely to become gamblers themselves. At one point, there is the gratuitous and false claim that the link between alcohol advertising and increased levels of drinking is 'clear-cut' (a footnote cites an article by the fruitcake Gerard Hastings as proof).

The claim that 'nine out of ten young people have seen betting adverts on TV or social media' comes from 'Young People and Gambling' report published last December and is true. The exact figure is 91 per cent. One wonders how 9 per cent of 11-16 year olds have managed to never see an advert for a betting company or the National Lottery.

The claim that more children gamble than go bowling is also (probably) true, but only if you include placing private bets with friends and playing cards with friends for stakes. The Times doesn't define 'children' in its article but it does quote the CEO of GambleAware, saying...

Marc Etches, the chief executive of GambleAware, the addiction charity, said: “We are concerned that 1 in 8 children aged between 11 and 15 years old are gambling regularly..."

The data actually relate to 11-16 year olds, not 11-15 year olds. Marc Etches probably made the mistake because, inexplicably, the RGSB report refers to 11-15 year olds when it should be 11-16 year olds. This is not a trivial error given that 16 year olds are legally allowed to play the lottery and buy scratchcards. All of the forms of gambling that have a participation rate of more than one per cent are legal from the age of 16 and most are legal at any age.

Although 16 year olds are allowed to play the lottery, the vast majority of the children who do so are bought the ticket (or scratchcard) by family or friends. Only five per cent handed over the money themselves, ie. 0.2 per cent of all children.  

The most common form of gambling, albeit with rates of only 3-4 per cent, are fruit machines, private bets and National Lottery scratchcards. Category D fruit machines with 10p stakes can be played by people of any age and are common at the end of the pier and in family entertainment centres. In the survey, two-thirds of the children who played them did so in a family arcade or a holiday park.

However, 26 per cent played them in a pub where the machines are likely to have been for adults. That's one per cent of all children surveyed. The number of children who claimed to have gambled on bingo, in a betting shop or on a website was also one per cent.

While nobody condones children gambling in pubs and bookies, a prevalence figure of one per cent should not take us into moral panic territory, especially since surveys always end up with a few people who answer questions randomly or simply take the piss.

But it should be clear that the overwhelming majority of gambling done by 11-16 year olds is entirely legal. We can have a debate about whether 16 and 17 year olds should be able to play to lottery, or whether penny falls and Category D fruit machines should be accessible by children. The RGSB report expresses concern about both these issues but concludes that 'we do not think the balance of argument at present supports a recommendation that Category D slot machine products should be restricted to adults.' Moreover, there does not seem to a be link to exposure to such gambling early in life and problem gambling later in life.

But that is not what The Times and the anti-gambling campaigners focus on. Instead they complain about the number of betting adverts during World Cup games. These ads are almost entirely for online companies which have effective age-verification systems. The implication of the article is that advertising is driving large numbers of children into a lifelong addiction to online gambling, but the Young People and Gambling survey evidence finds that past-week participation in any form of internet gambling by 11-16 year olds 'is low, at only 1%' and past-year participation is only 3 per cent.

Three per cent is still a lot of kids. However, of those who had ever gambled online, the vast majority used their parents' accounts with their parents' permission and...

By far the most common form of online gambling using a parent or guardian’s account is on National Lottery games.

Of these online lottery players, 88 per cent had received their parents' permission.

There is a big difference between one in eight kids gambling when they should be skateboarding because they are bombarded with online gambling adverts and a minority of 11-16 year olds being given parental permission to buy a lottery ticket or play in the penny arcade.

Finally, recall that the Times article starts off by saying 'Gambling is now more popular among children than skateboarding' with the clear implication that it is on the rise. Let's see, shall we?

Can anybody say 'moral panic'?

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

The cost of vice in Canada

Another cost-of-vice report has been published, this time in Canada...

The economic cost of substance use in Canada in 2014 was $38.4 billion, or about $1,100 for every Canadian, says a report released Tuesday.

It's not a big jump from claiming that $38.4 billion amounts to $1,100 for every Canadian to claiming that every Canadian pays $1,100 a year to clean up the mess from drink, drugs and tobacco. If campaigners have not already done so, they will soon. This kind of reporting is deliberately open to misinterpretation.

There are only two estimates of this kind that are relevant to policy. If you want to implement a Pigouvian tax, you want to know what the net external costs are. If the government wants to recoup the costs to public services from the people who engage in the externality-inducing activities, you want to know what the net costs to public services are.

Studies like this do neither. They calculate the gross external costs and then add in a few gross internal costs for good measure. All savings and benefits are ignored, as are the economic benefits of production and the existing revenues from sin taxes. It would be an esoteric exercise if it were not the best way to generate a BIG NUMBER for political reasons.

Who would want to do such a thing in Canada? Step forward Tim Stockwell, the country's foremost neo-temperance advocate and a man so driven by anti-alcohol fervour that he has spent years trying to make people believe that there are no health benefits from alcohol consumption. He is also the world's second biggest source of junk science about minimum pricing.

Stockwell is the 'principal investigator' of this $1.4 million publication (now that's a real cost to taxpayers) and he has used many of the techniques that have been used to create BIG NUMBERS in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

He includes healthcare costs, regardless of whether they are paid privately or publicly, and doesn't balance the ledger by calculating what each person's healthcare costs would have been in the absence of tobacco, drink and drugs (hint: they would usually be higher).

For alcohol, he includes $5.9 billion of lost productivity costs (38% of the total) which are mostly internal costs based on what someone would have earned if they hadn't died. Lost private income is not an external cost and it is very debatable whether it is a societal cost. We wouldn't claim that somebody creates a societal cost by refusing to have children even though those children would grow up, work and pay income tax. Taxpayers are also tax consumers. Luxembourg has a much smaller economy than India but people in Luxembourg are much richer. It's the 'per capita' bit that really matters (I wish the likes of Owen Jones would remember this when they talk about the UK being the sixth richest country in the world. It isn't even in the top 20).

To be fair to Stockwell, he doesn't do what many authors of these sort of reports do and put arbitrary values on every year of life and multiply them by the total number of life years lost, although he does weirdly claim that 851 people were killed by cannabis in 2014.

Ultimately, he reckons that the gross societal cost of alcohol is $14.6 billion per annum and the gross societal cost of tobacco is $12 billion. A further $6.3 billion comes from cannabis and opioids.

What does this tell us? Nothing, really. The policy-relevant external costs make up less than half of these totals and if they were combined with savings they would be even lower (probably negative in the case of tobacco).

All we can really say is that people use alcohol, drugs and tobacco for the private benefits, and the costs that they incur, though sometimes substantial, are mostly borne privately and are no business of the government. These activities do not incur a cost of '$1,100 for every Canadian'. They incur costs to some of the people who engage in the activities and this is part of the cost-benefit trade-off that people make when making risky decisions.

If and when there are external costs, they are more than covered by sin taxes except in the case of illegal drugs which should be legalised and taxed (as is happening with cannabis). Whatever external costs alcohol induces are comfortably exceeded by the $11 billion of alcohol taxes raked in by the Canadian government. The same is true of smoking and the $8 billion collected by the government in tobacco duty.

 In Canada, as in most developed countries, people who smoke and drink subsidise those who don't. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

The childhood obesity strategy

I've written about phase two of the government's so-called child so-called obesity strategy for Cap-X....

Two years ago, the government published a childhood obesity strategy that had been drafted by David Cameron’s administration. Despite the inclusion of a sugar tax and an unprecedented food reformulation programme, “public health” campaigners inevitably complained that it did not go far enough. Evidence subsequently came to light that Theresa May’s team had indeed stripped out some of the nanny state policies favoured by her predecessor.

On Sunday, a new strategy was published with all of Cameron’s big government policies included and plenty more besides. Taken together, they represent the most draconian interference in the food supply by any government since rationing was abolished.

This time, all but the most fanatical campaigners found it difficult to conceal their delight. They will be back with a new set of demands, of course, but for the time being they have got more than they could ever have dreamt possible. If this total capitulation is how May deals with the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Sarah Wollaston, God help us when she’s negotiating with the EU.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

The growing war on food

Looks like the Tories have caved in to the nanny state vermin once again, this time on the pretext of tackling the non-existent childhood obesity 'epidemic'.

New measures to halve the number of obese children by 2030 have been announced by Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt today.

Building upon the world-leading first chapter of the Childhood Obesity Plan, the new measures include proposals to mitigate ‘pester-power’ by preventing stores from displaying unhealthy food at checkouts or including it in buy-one-get-one-free deals.

We will consult on introducing clear, consistent calorie labelling on menus in restaurants, cafés and takeaways, so parents can make an informed choice about what their families are eating, and on banning the sale of harmful, caffeine laden energy drinks to children. A quarter of 6-9 year-olds consume these energy drinks, which have as much caffeine as a cup of coffee.

The Government is also today calling on industry to recognise the harm that constant adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt can cause, and will consult on introducing new TV and online advertising restrictions to prevent children from being targeted by these unhealthy products, and to incentivise companies to reduce the sugar and calories in the products they sell.

This could include extending the current advertising watershed and considering limiting the number of unhealthy food adverts shown during programmes children watch to 9pm.

We've seen how this works many times. The army of state-funded 'public health' groups will bombard the public consultation with identikit responses and accuse the government of being in the pocket of 'Big Food' if they don't introduce an advertising ban. Within a week they will have launched their next set of demands.

I put out a comment for the IEA yesterday:

“This is more big government interference to pile on top of the regressive sugar tax and the food reformulation scheme. A ban on so-called ‘junk food advertising’ before 9pm would treat everything from fruit juice to cheese as if it were soft porn. It would be a heavy blow to commercial broadcasters and would reduce the range and quality of TV shows. Most programmes after 6pm are watched by adults and it is adults who do the vast majority of food shopping. There is no need for censorship.

Calorie labelling on menus seems a nice idea in principle but the evidence from the USA shows that it has no impact on calorie consumption and obesity. It is likely to raise costs, especially for small businesses, and discourage restaurants from introducing new dishes."

Friday, 22 June 2018

Why 5%? The sugar guidelines revisited

Looking at those sugar guidelines for Spectator Health...

Earlier this week I suggested that the ‘extremely worrying’ news that children are eating twice as much sugar as the government recommends might have something to do with the government halving the recommendation. The change was made in 2015 based on advice given by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) as part of its evidence review of carbohydrates. It recommended that people consume no more than five per cent of their calories from ‘free sugars’ (which includes sugar in honey and fruit juice). This was a significant change to the previous advice to consume no more than ten per cent of calories from ‘non-milk extrinsic sugars’ (which excludes honey and fruit juice).

In calorie terms, this implies daily limits of around 100 calories, down from the previous 200 calories. In layman’s terms, this means five or six sugar cubes for children under the age of 11 and seven sugar cubes for adults. The new guidelines are the lowest in the world and have been a boon for Action on Sugar who have issued press release after press release complaining that various everyday food products contain more than a day’s sugar.

The implication is that there is something inherently unsafe about consuming more than 30 grams of sugar in a day, but what? What harm will come to a 10 year old who consumes the recommended 2,000 calories a day but gets 200 of those from sugar rather than the recommended 100? Given that Britain’s food supply is being taxed, regulated and reformulated on the pretext of meeting this target, this is a question that should be asked more often. The answer, incredibly, is ‘nothing’.

Do read the rest.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Scotland's new tobacco plan unveiled

The Scottish government has just published the latest part of its plan to achieve tobacco prohibition 'a tobacco-free generation' by 2034. This target was set behind closed doors by politicians and state-funded pressure groups several years ago and attracted little public attention at the time. As the date gets closer, the government was always bound to resort to increasingly absurd and authoritarian measures.

And so it has proved. Since scraping the bottom of the barrel with plain packaging, the tobacco control racket has struggled to come up with any new ideas, but since ASH Scotland has to justify the hundreds of thousands of pounds it gets from Scottish taxpayers somehow, they've put their thinking caps on and these are some of its brain-farts that are now government policy...

Banning smoking in the home...

We will explore with local authorities and housing associations the idea of tobacco-free clauses in tenancy agreements and smoke-free housing alternatives being offered in social housing.

Restricting the number of shops that can sell tobacco...

Restricting the number and the clustering density of tobacco retailers could make tobacco products less available, and therefore could reduce smoking rates.

Making retailers jump through the hoops of an unnecessary licensing regime in the hope that they will decide that selling cigarettes is not worth the time and expense...

Conditional registration or licencing of retail or changes to planning guidance

One mechanism for introducing any new measures on the availability or the price of tobacco would be to introduce compliance conditions into our retail registration scheme or to introduce a form of licensing.

Extending plain packaging to reduced-harm heated tobacco products...

Introduce standardised packaging for HTP

HTP are not covered by legislation which makes packaging indistinctive or unattractive. 

Giving more money to hateful sockpuppet pressure groups...

We will continue to co-fund ASH Scotland to provide important information, advice and training on smoking and health.

Finally, and most insanely, mucking around with individual cigarettes...

There is some evidence that dissuasive colour or dissuasive messages on cigarettes could reduce the attractiveness of, and therefore the potential demand for, cigarettes. Other studies have considered composition – reducing the nicotine level or flavours that mask the true taste.

For the same reasoning which led to the introduction of standardised cigarette packaging, legislation could be made to make cigarettes less attractive. This could be done through changes to colour, composition and/or warning messages on each stick.

Where to begin with this drivel? Back in 2012, when Australia passed its plain packaging law, I asked...

...where will tobacco control go from here? With plain packaging in place, the extremists have exhausted all of the options I listed in the final chapter of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. What fresh lunacy will follow? Warnings on individual cigarettes? Smoking licences? All out prohibition?

Warnings on individual cigarettes it is then. This preposterous idea was first floated by a particularly deranged Canadian anti-smoking fanatic in the 1980s but was never taken seriously. The idea of changing the colour of cigarettes was mooted in New Zealand a few years ago but, again, was considered a joke. Only now, after every other idea has been tried, is it becoming policy in Scotland. The desperation is palpable.

The proposal to restrict tobacco outlets will encourage the neo-temperance lobby who are keen to do likewise with alcohol outlets. They publish occasional bits of junk science linking the number of outlets to the amount of alcohol consumed in an area and imply that restricting availability would reduce consumption. This very obviously gets the link between supply and demand the wrong way around, but the Scottish government seems to have been hoodwinked by similar idiotic claims about tobacco...

We have reviewed evidence on the link between tobacco availability through retail outlets and local smoking rates. This suggests that restricting the number of outlets, particularly where smoking rates are highest (such as in more deprived communities) could have a positive effect on reducing smoking rates. 

I have only skimmed the highlights in this post. If you read the report you will find other illiberal policies, such as banning smoking outdoors, as well as bizarre claims such as 'long-term smoking contributes to obesity'.

These people are off their heads.

UPDATE: Pop over the Dick's place to see what they want to do to vaping.

Monday, 18 June 2018

An endless series of hobgoblins

Three years ago, the government halved the sugar guidelines. Last week, Public Health England wailed about the scandalous news that kids are consuming twice as much sugar as the government recommends.

I have written about this transparent propaganda trick for Spectator Health.

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Lancet has become a laughing stock

Richard Horton, the Marxist victim of a midlife crisis who has turned The Lancet into a student rag, holds forth in the current issue on the World Health Organisation's failure to endorse fizzy drink taxes as a 'best buy'. WHO's 'best buys' require a modicum of evidence showing that they do what they are supposed to do (not much, admittedly, but some). Leaving aside the question of whether the WHO should really be getting involved with the price of soft drinks, it is beyond dispute that sugary drink taxes have never reduced obesity anywhere in the world and so it is right that its committee rejected them.

It is not known how many countries objected to them being included, but one of them was certainly the USA. The USA has more experience with taxing soda than any other country, so it knows that they don't work.

Cue Richard Horton who bemoans the lack of a sugar tax in the final list of best buys while consoling himself that the sessions 'flushed out the chief opponent of political progress—the US Government'...

As Jamey Keaten and Maria Cheng reported for the Associated Press, it was the US representative on the Commission, Eric Hargan, who “torpedoed” efforts to add a recommendation on taxing sugar-sweetened beverages. Now we have a target: the US administration, which has adopted an anti-science position [!!!] on fiscal interventions and whose raison d'être is to defend health-harming industries. Second, the controversy over the Commission's report highlights the context of the debate about NCDs [noncommunicable diseases]—namely, the pervasive and escalating dangers of neoliberalism.

You have to remind yourself that you're not reading The Canary or The Morning Star. Let there be no doubt that the ludicrous battle against NCDs is part of a war on what Horton calls 'neoliberalism' but what most people call a market economy in which people get what they want rather than what arrogant elitists think they should have.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

The EU's taxpayer-funded racket

FOREST EU have recently published an interesting report about the army of NGOs in Brussels who exist solely to make smokers' lives miserable. You won't be surprised to hear that they are mainly funded by the EU (ie. by taxpayers). The four most vociferous anti-tobacco groups are shown below:

This is a racket, as the report suggests...

...the European Commission is proposing a particular policy framework and then funding groups to lobby them for the introduction of those very same policies.

The sums involved are far from trivial. The four groups listed above get more than €1.5 million a year between them and millions more are dished out to other supposedly 'non-governmental' organisations with similar agendas.

For example, I was interested to see that a group called TackSHS gets 100 per cent of its €750,000 budget from the EU. Their mission seems to be to get smoking banned in every conceivable place. Ever ready for the next logical step, they have moved beyond SHS (secondhand smoke) and are now looking at 'e-cigarette emission exposure'. In one of several studies they presented at the recent anti-tobacco conference in Cape Town, they claim that such secondhand vapour 'contains various toxic chemicals' and 'has potential adverse health effects in non users'. Your tax money at work.
This racket isn't confined to anti-smoking zealots, of course. As I outlined in Europuppets, single-issue campaigners of every hue can fill their pockets with our money so long as they say what the European Commission wants to hear. Can we leave yet?

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Junk polling

Last week I argued that people who are in favour of a ban on 'junk food' advertising before 9pm don't know what they're supporting. When useful idiots like Jamie Oliver talk about 'junk food', they really mean HFSS food (high in fat, sugar or salt) and this is an extremely broad category that includes things like raisins, butter, mustard, yoghurt, jam, breakfast cereals and cheese.

Add this ignorance to the fact that most people don't care for advertising in general and it's no surprise that a majority supports such a prohibition. I mentioned a YouGov survey which found that 65 per cent of people surveyed support a watershed ban but I couldn't find the raw data on the YouGov website.

Yesterday, the Mirror reported that 76 per cent of Britons support a ban...

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who has led calls for a ban through his #AdEnough campaign, said: “It’s great to see the support of the British public when it comes to the very logical idea of simply extending the current 6pm junk food advertising ban to 9pm."

This time I was able to find the survey results on the ComRes website. I suspected that the question would use the pejorative term 'junk food' rather than 'food that is high in fat, sugar or salt' and I wasn't wrong, but the survey question was even more misleading that I expected...

Do you agree or disagree with this statement? There should be a ban on junk food adverts targeted at children before 9pm.

How did 'targeted at children' get squeezed in there? The proposed ban has nothing to do with whether the ads are deemed to be 'targeted at children' nor will it only apply to programmes that are targeted at children (hardly any programmes shown between 6pm and 9pm are targeted at children in any meaningful way). The ban will apply to all programmes shown before 9pm and will apply to the vast range of products that are defined as HFSS by the puritanical Nutrient Profile Model (which is currently being revised so that it includes pure fruit juice, amongst other things, as a 'junk food').

This is dishonest polling. The proposal being considered by the government would ban an advert for Anchor spreadable butter during the Channel 4 News. No reasonable person would consider that to be a 'junk food advert targeted at children'.

There is no way the government could ban 'junk food adverts targeted at children' because there is no legal definition of 'junk food'. It would also be very difficult to decide if an advert was targeted at a child but this obstacle is not an insurmountable as the meaninglessness of the term 'junk food'. In any case, that is not what is being proposed.

By making emotive but irrelevant references to 'children' and 'junk', the survey is pushing respondents towards supporting a ban without giving them any idea of what it will entail. Indeed, they are being actively encouraged to believe that the ban will be far more limited in scope than is being proposed. As I said last week, they are being sold a pig in a poke.

Monday, 11 June 2018

The Truthiness about Carbs

I've written about carbohydrates for Spectator Health. I know it's an emotional subject for some, but do have a read. The article is a review of a programme that appeared on BBC1 last week, ludicrously titled The Truth About Carbs.

Forgotten moonshine

I've been reading Kevin R. Kosar's Moonshine: A Global History which I commend to you. It is easy to for those of us in rich countries to forget how much illicit, homemade and unlicensed alcohol is consumed in low and middle income countries. A report published by IARD today gives some estimates and they are pretty staggering.

45 per cent of the alcohol consumed in low income countries is unlicensed. In places like Uganda and Mozambique, it exceeds 60 per cent. Rates in middle income countries are lower but still surprisingly high: 28 per cent in Brazil, for example, and 38 per cent in Russia.

Among the problems with moonshine is its tendency to kill large numbers of people all of a sudden. The IARD report various examples from Indonesia to the Czech Republic. In some cultures, homebrew and moonshine are part of the culture and are relatively harmless, but it is fair to say that most illicit alcohol is consumed because people are unable to acquire the commercial product. In some instances this is because of prohibition, but generally it is because of the lack of affordability, which is driven by a combination of poverty and taxation.

I recently wrote about how the World Health Organisation has become a vehicle for the concerns of middle class white people in the first world. This is evident in its response to alcohol abuse. It wants every country to raise taxes on booze despite the clear link between taxation and illicit alcohol. It demonises 'Big Alcohol' despite the fact that it would be a jolly good thing if alcohol manufacturers and their regulated products took a larger share of the market in most countries.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

It's not junk food and it's never about the children

With the government seemingly minded to crack down on the advertising of junk food to children, it's worth remembering that is isn't 'junk food' and it is never about the children.

As I say today at Spectator Health...

In the public’s mind, ‘junk food’ is synonymous with American fast food chains, an impression reinforced by the media’s tendency to illustrate every story about it with a picture of a burger. If McDonald’s has to wait until 9pm to tell us about their new limited edition bacon burger, it seems a relatively trivial encroachment on freedom.

But ‘junk food’ has no legal definition. The nearest equivalent is HFSS food – food that is deemed to be high in fat, sugar and/or salt. For the purposes of advertising regulations, Ofcom uses a definition of HFSS food that encompasses a much broader range of products than the colloquial term ‘junk food’ implies.

They use a fiddly and rather puritanical system known as the Nutrient Profile Model which condemns almost everything except raw food and health food. The model was devised by our old friend Mike Rayner who literally believes that God told him to bring about a sugar tax in Britain. All the obvious stuff gets a black mark under Rayner’s model: pizza, crisps, biscuits, confectionery, milkshakes and sugary drinks. It also rules out lots of products that are not typically considered to be ‘junk’ but which can be expected to get caught up in a system that focuses on sugar, salt and fat: ice cream, clotted cream, jam, marmalade, honey, bacon, pretzels, salted peanuts, sweetened fruit juice, smoothies and most sausages.

But then there are the foods that hardly anyone would consider ‘junk’ but which still fail the test: cheese (including half-fat cheese), raisins, sultanas, soy sauce, mustard, most tinned fruit, most yoghurts, most breakfast cereals (including high fibre varieties), peanut butter, Marmite, mayonnaise (light and regular), tomato soup, most cereal bars, many pasta sauces, all butter, fat spreads and olive oil.

All of this and more will be treated like soft porn if the campaigners get their way.

Do read it all.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Sarah Wollaston is wrong on so many levels

Almost unbelievably, the Tories are planning to ban retailers from offering multi-buy discounts on half the food sold in Britain, amongst other ridiculous measures. As I argued this week, these policies are essentially plucked out of the air with no thought given to whether they might work or what damage they will cause.

Sarah Wollaston has hit back at critics, saying...

This is bad logic, bad economics and bad philosophy.

For a start, there is no reason to compare these particular costs, and such a comparison does not imply that any particular course of action should be taken. The same figures could be equally be cited as evidence that we should spend more on the police.

Secondly, the figures are simply wrong. The UK spends £15.5 billion on police and fire services whereas the gross cost of obesity to the health service is estimated at £6 billion. Wollaston is almost certainly referencing a discredited McKinsey report which lumps together all diabetes spending on top of all obesity spending. As Mark Tovey pointed out in an IEA report...

In 2014, a 120-page report called ‘How the world could better fight obesity’ was released by the McKinsey Global Institute. The authors were promoting to the world’s governments a set of 44 interventions, and in their appeal to the UK they wrote:

‘ ..the government currently spends about £6 billion a year on the direct medical costs related to being overweight or obese... It spends a further £10 billion on diabetes. The cost of obesity and diabetes to the healthcare system is equivalent to the United Kingdom’s combined ‘protection budget’ for the police and fire services, law courts and prisons; 40 percent of total spending on education; and about 35 percent of the country’s defence budget’. 

Though the £6 billion and £10 billion look impressive together, especially when compared to various departmental budgets, they cannot legitimately be summed. The £6 billion is an inflation-adjusted version of a figure from a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Oxford, who included the proportion of diabetes costs attributable to overweight and obesity in their estimate. So the McKinsey report was double-counting, and also including costs wholly unrelated to body size when it added £10 billion on top. That did not stop the Telegraph , the Daily Mail , the Independent, the Guardian and even the Chief Executive of NHS England from uncritically reporting the offending figure.

Thirdly, the gross cost to the health service is irrelevant to taxpayers. It is the net cost to overall government spending that matters. Tovey estimates that the net cost of obesity to the state does not exceed £2.5 billion and is probably significantly less. As he says in the conclusion...

The burden on the taxpayer narrative has been exaggerated by anti-obesity policy wonks, looking to make their esoteric proposals newsworthy during a time of slow motion crisis in the NHS. Past researchers have completely omitted the fact that reducing body weight entails its own costs, because the extra life years gained lead to extra pension, healthcare and benefit spending by the government

Fourthly, the cost-to-the-taxpayer argument is only worth making if the policy being proposed is going to reduce that cost. Not only should it reduce the cost, but the savings must exceed the cost of the policy. Presumably even Wollaston does not believe that taxing milkshakes and banning food discounts is going eliminate the costs of obesity, so how much does she think they are going to reduce the obesity rate by? One per cent? Five per cent?

Let's say it is five per cent and that a five per cent reduction in obesity will cause a five per cent reduction in the net costs of obesity. That would be a saving to taxpayers of no more than £125 million per annum. It seems plausible that the cost to consumers of banning multi-buy discounts would exceed this, but neither Wollaston nor any other anti-obesity campaigner has bothered to do a cost-benefit analysis. They have no idea how much it will cost and don't know if it will reduce obesity at all, let alone by how much. Given that a ban on multi-buy discounts for alcohol failed to cut sales of alcohol in Scotland, there is good reason to think that it will have the same effect on obesity as every other nanny state policy that has been tried, ie. none.

Finally, Wollaston's argument fails at the most basic level of reasoning. She is trying to refute the accusation of paternalism by appealing to self-interest. It is not about coercing citizens into living a state-approved lifestyle, she says, but about saving taxpayers money. This is a common retort from nanny statists and is OK so far as it goes. The trouble is that they usually get the figures wrong (Wollaston is a repeat offender in this regard) and they don't really care about economic efficiency. Most preventive medicine, if successful, creates a net cost and smoking saves taxpayers a fortune, but this doesn't stop Wollaston trying to coerce people away from smoking.

Nevertheless, arguments about externalities can be valid. The problem is that they do not trump all other considerations. Wollaston avoids having a conversation about the normal policy-making considerations - costs, benefits, unintended consequences, liberty, efficiency, waste, etc. - by saying 'muh, taxpayers'. 'Something must be done', she says. 'This is something therefore it must be done.'

Her argument, such as it is, is no different to that of an authoritarian ruler who removes jury trial and tweets...

To those who say this is ‘police state’ stuff, the costs of crime are now estimated to be greater than our spend on road maintenance, foreign aid & defence combined

I am not equating BOGOFs with jury trial. The point is that it is a non sequitur. The mere existence of costs does not justify illiberal policies, particularly when there is no guarantee that the policies will reduce those costs and when the policies themselves will create new costs.