Friday 30 March 2018

Nanny state propaganda in the Telegraph

An article went up on the Telegraph website yesterday that is so comically one-sided and ill informed that I wondered how it could possibly be published by a reputable newspaper. It only made sense when I got to the bottom and saw this...

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security

Intrigued by this apparent advertisement, I clicked on the link to find out more about Global Health Security. At first glance it looks like they have paid to have a link at the bottom of a Telegraph article. In fact, they paid for the article.

Our Global Health Security coverage is partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This support comes without strings and we retain full editorial control over all the content we publish... The site was launched in February 2018...

To see what Bill and Melinda are getting for their money, you have to read the dreadful article in question. It is written by someone called Aisha Majid who had never written for the Telegraph until a few weeks ago. Presumably she arrived with the Gates' money.

Her article is about 'non-communicable diseases' and she shows all the signs of having spent 30 days in a locked room with the least honest 'public health' campaigners on the planet. She begins...

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes now account for 90 per cent of deaths each year in the UK.

This is a jolly good thing. Dying from a non-communicable disease is virtually the only alternative to dying from a communicable disease. Aside from those caused by suicide, accidents and violence, all deaths are from disease. 'Death from old age' does not feature in the pie charts of 'public health'. Even if you die at the age of 110, it will probably be from a non-communicable disease, usually respiratory or cardiovascular.

These so-called 'lifestyle' conditions are a well known problem in the west. Much less understood is that they now account for the majority (53 per cent) of deaths and disabilities in the developing world – taking 31 million lives a year. 

Good. That is a sign of progress. As these countries get richer and vanquish infectious disease, this figure will go higher.  

NCDs are not driven by infections and viruses but by behaviours such as poor diet, smoking, moving too little, alcohol and drugs. 

What? All of them? What does Aisha Majid think people would die of if nobody smoked, drank or took drugs, and if everybody had a perfect diet and took plenty of exercise? The answer, of course, is a non-communicable disease.

Although often referred to as lifestyle issues – implying personal choice – the rapid spread of NCDs around the world suggests they are a more universal problem, correlating strongly with economic development and urbanisation.

Firstly, this is a non-sequitur. The claim that lifestyle-related diseases are the result of personal choices is not contradicted by them being more prevalent in developed countries. On the contrary, developed countries offer people more choice.

Secondly, non-communicable diseases are less common in developing countries because these countries are still plagued by tropical, contagious diseases and suffer unacceptably high rates of infant mortality.

Globally, 70 per cent of deaths – some 40 million – are now attributed to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), with lower and middle income countries becoming increasingly impacted as there [sic] economies grow.

Again, this is a good thing. The rise of non-communicable disease is closely correlated with rising life expectancy. As countries develop, people live longer.

Non-communicable diseases are diseases of old age, first and foremost. Age is by far the biggest risk factor for cancer and heart disease, not to mention dementia.

In all regions of the world with the notable exception of Africa, more people are dying today from NCDs than from any other cause.

Gee, I wonder what the secret of Africa's success is? If only we could emulate the continent that has the lowest life expectancy on the planet, eh?

The World Health Organization predicts NCDs will be the biggest killers in Africa by 2030.

At the risk of repeating myself, that would be a good thing. Let's hope they tackle HIV, malaria and tuberculosis so it comes true. Perhaps if the WHO spent more time working on those diseases and a bit less time fighting 'Big Soda', it would have already happened by now.

More surprising perhaps, obesity is also rising in countries that only a few decades ago were experiencing food shortages. In Ghana, for example, obesity has soared by over 600 per cent since 1975 and now affects one in 11 adults.

In 1975, Ghana was a military dictatorship and suffered periodic famines. Today it is, by African standards, a relatively prosperous democracy and some people can afford to be fat. Good.

There is now a clear understanding of the relationship between NCDs and poverty in many places, said Ms Dain.

“NCDs are a cause and consequence of poverty,” she said. “It’s often the poorest that are most vulnerable to NCDs and in many countries you are seeing NCDs impacting on lower socio-economic proportions of populations.”

Quite the opposite. People in poor countries tend to be skinny and people in rich countries tend to be fat.

While the causes of chronic diseases in low and middle income countries are complex, experts and campaigners are increasingly pointing the finger at big business and the so-called "commercial determinants of health".  

Oh God, here we go...

“It’s very clear that big tobacco, big food and big alcohol are seeing many lower and middle income countries as their emerging target markets," said Ms Dain.

People in lower and middle income countries have as much right to smoke, drink and eat processed food as everybody else. If these countries were not 'target markets' before, it was only because their people didn't have any disposable income.

Abdul Razzak AlMadani, a consultant in medicine and endocrinology at Al Borj Medical Centre in Dubai and President of the Emirates Diabetes Society puts the rise [of diabetes] down to among other things changing lifestyles and eating habits in the past few decades.

“It’s fast food, but not only fast food,” said Dr AlMadani. “Most foods we eat here have a high calorie content and high carbohydrate content. That’s the food that’s affordable and tastes good.”

It's actually much less affordable than 'healthy' food but, yes, it does taste good. Thank you for finally acknowledging why people choose to eat it.

And then we get to the real reason why this article was written...

Alongside awareness, a number of countries have also started to fight back against the marketing and consumption of unhealthy foods with tax on harmful foods and drinks.

It's about taxing the poor.

Mexico, where more than 70 per cent of the population is overweight or obese, is already reaping benefits from such a levy. In 2014, the country introduced a tax of 1 peso (4 pence) per litre of sugary drink.

Indeed it did, as part of a desperate attempt to balance the budget that also included taxing pet food. It made no difference whatsoever to rates of obesity.

Although it is too early to say what impact this will have, early results are promising.

On the contrary. They are remarkable unpromising. Figures from Mexico's National Institute of Public Health show that it didn't even reduce soda consumption, let alone obesity. Between 2007-13, average per capita soda consumption was 160 litres. In 2014, when the tax came in, per capita consumption was 162 litres. In 2015, it was 161 litres.

A study of the tax by researchers in Mexico and the United States found that sugary drinks purchases fell by an average of 7.6 per cent in the two years after the tax was introduced.

They did not fall by 7.6 per cent. They were 7.6 per cent lower than a bullshit counterfactual that was conjured up by the soda tax campaigners who wrote the study, and that is a very different thing. There was no decline in consumption. 

The UK is also set to introduce a sugary drinks tax in April.

And that, too, will achieve the square root of jackshit, other than taking millions of pounds out of the pockets of consumers and giving it to ball-juggling bureaucrats and nanny state campaigners.

Ms Dain believes that the UK has many good lessons to share at this September’s UN high-level summit on NCDs that can be a model for other countries battling NCDs.

“There have been many commitments and targets but implementation in low and middle income countries, where there are many competing urgent priorities, has been slow,” said Ms Dain. “The UK has lots of good practices and examples such as plain packaging on cigarettes or tackling childhood obesity by taxing sugary drinks".

No list of stupid nanny state policies that have demonstrably failed would be complete without mentioning plain packaging, so I'm glad she managed to give that a shout out. God help the rest of the world if the UK is the trailblazer for these stupid ideas.

And that is the final sentence of an article that is little more than a hagiographic interview with Katie Dain of the NCD Alliance. Its intention seems to be to sett the agenda for 'this September’s UN high-level summit on NCDs' - a summit that Ms Dain just so happens to be chairing.

It is straight up propaganda, paid for by a billionaire. It is reminiscent of July last year when the Guardian suddenly started putting tobacco stories on its front page despite there being nothing newsworthy about them (no other papers ran them). It turned out that they were part of a series that had been commissioned by one of Mike Bloomberg's lobby groups, Vital Strategies, in support of a Bloomberg-funded WHO report released a few days later that, again, called for higher taxes.

Unlike Bloomberg, who is obsessed with tobacco and fizzy drinks, the Gates have given a lot of money to groups that provide medicine, healthcare and vaccines to people in developing countries. It's sad to see them get into bed with people who are more interested in raising the cost of living and restricting choice. Is there anything more nauseating than the sight of billionaires buying up newspaper space to lobby for higher taxes on poor people?

Wednesday 28 March 2018

The sugar tax evaluation farce

Last week I complained to the National Institute for Health Research about the decision to get the sugar tax evaluated by academics who have campaigned for the tax, staked their reputations on it working and, in at least once case, believe that God wanted it to be introduced.

By any reasonable definition, this is a conflict of interest. You can read my complaint here. Yesterday I received a stock reply from the NIHR which basically says that they intend to do nothing about it.

Dear Chris,

The Public Health Research (PHR) Programme funds independent research to generate evidence to inform the delivery of non-NHS interventions intended to improve the health of the public and reduce inequalities in health.

The PHR researcher-led work stream funds research questions proposed directly by researchers. All applications to the PHR Programme undergo a comprehensive assessment as described in the general assessment criteria. Applications are assessed by the Programme Advisory Board for their importance to the public health practitioner community, and by the Research Funding Board whose members are appointed for their academic and research expertise. External review also takes place by both professionals and members of the public. The board looks at whether the study is designed to achieve its objectives in an appropriate, feasible and ethical manner. They will also judge whether the proposal is methodologically and scientifically robust and if the team expected to carry out the research have the necessary skills, experience, project management and infrastructure for success.

Each NIHR funded project has an independent steering committee who are appointed in line with NIHR governance guidelines and is monitored through the duration of the project. On completion, all projects are published in the open access, peer reviewed NIHR Journals Library.

Best wishes


If you click on the links to their Programme Advisory Board, which assesses applications, you will find a link to their conflict of interest policy but this relates only to committee members, not to applicants. In any case, it only includes financial interests. Merely believing that 'God is calling me to work towards the introduction of soft-drink taxes in this country' does not disqualify somebody from evaluating soft drink taxes.

Interestingly, the minutes from their February 2017 meeting which resulted in sugar tax campaigners being given £1.5 million of our money to mark their own homework show that a proposal from MacGregor was rejected. It seems likely that this is Graham MacGregor, the chairman of Action on Sugar. A truly shameless application if so, but then MacGregor has previously evaluated the salt reduction scheme that he campaigned for as chairman of Consensus Action on Salt and Health, so he must have thought he was in with a shout.

To its partial credit, the NIHR rejected MacGregor's proposal and instead gave it to Martin White and his team. You will notice that Martin White is mentioned as having a conflict of interest. And indeed he does. He happens to be the Director of the Programme Advisory Board.

What a small world.

Monday 26 March 2018

Another evidence review fails to link fast food outlets to childhood obesity

A few weeks ago, the IEA published my review of 74 studies looking at the association between the number and proximity of fast food outlets to obesity. In short, there isn't one. The majority of studies find no association whatsoever. Of the 39 studies that look at childhood obesity, only six suggest a positive association (and five suggest an inverse relationship).

So I was interested to see a systematic review of the evidence published today in the European Journal of Public Health. It, too, fails to find an association, although the authors do not exactly go out of their way to highlight that conclusion. On the contrary, they strongly imply that there is a relationship which dozens of studies have failed to demonstrate as a result of unspecified methodological issues.

Few studies found were able to adequately quantify a correlation between the food environment surrounding schools and obesity amongst pupils attending those schools. The lack of reliable evidence found in this review is more a factor of the ability of the studies found to identify the correlation than the actual lack of a correlation between the two variables.

They recommend that fast food outlets be restricted 'despite the lack of good evidence' and use a ridiculous tobacco analogy to push the precautionary principle:

Planning policy is difficult to change; years may pass between the first inclination to change a policy and the change. Several more years may then pass before the built environment is significantly impacted by the policy. This makes the study of this impact difficult to analyse and time consuming.

This is reminiscent of the study of exposure to cigarette smoke and its impact on health. Tobacco smoking was identified as harmful to health in the 1940s and 1950s. The prevention of exposure to tobacco smoke in the working environment was a hard won change to the built environment and was legally enshrined in the Health Act 2005. Similarly the correlation between fast food retail location, fast food consumption and obesity is still disputed. This lack of evidence may however indicate the inability of many papers to measure the impact of hot food takeaway exposure accurately.

This is a laughable argument for so many reasons. For a start, the smoking ban was not introduced on the back of the evidence that emerged in the 1950s (not the 1940s) showing that it harmed smokers, but on the back of studies published several decades later claiming that it harmed others.

Admittedly, that was only the official justification. Most people realise that its true purpose was to encourage smokers to quit, but even if you think that the smoking ban was a reasonable response to the evidence that smoking is bad for smokers, the fact remains that there is a hell of a lot of evidence that smoking causes cancer whereas there is very little evidence that living near a fast food outlet causes obesity.

It is not that the evidence linking fast food outlets to obesity is 'disputed'. The bulk of the evidence simply does not support the hypothesis that living, working or going to school in areas where fast food is available has any impact on your chances of being obese. Those who argue that restricting the number of fast food outlets will have no effect on obesity rates are not disputing the evidence. They are asserting it.

The implication of the passage quoted above is that 'public health' campaigners should be allowed to act on their gut instincts regardless of what the evidence says. As I said in the little film we made to accompany the IEA report, so much for evidence-based policy.

As for the evidence review itself, it does not do what it says on the tin. My review included 74 studies. This one only includes 14, but that is because it restricts itself to the UK. It includes only two studies that appeared in my review (Harrison et al. 2011, Griffiths et al. 2015) and ignores another one (Heroux et al. 2012). It also includes two evidence reviews conducted by British researchers which mainly look at studies from the USA (Fraser et al. 2010 and Harrison and Jones 2012).

So there are ten studies in the new review that didn't get mentioned in the IEA report. Have I been cherry-picking? I assure you that I have not. Although the new review is titled 'The impact of hot food takeaways near schools in the UK on childhood obesity: a systematic review of the evidence' most of the studies in it do not look at the relationship between fast food outlet density/proximity and obesity. Many of them include neither data on obesity nor data on 'hot food takeaways'.

The authors claim in the abstract that...

Most included studies compared anthropometric measures with geographical location of hot food takeaways to find correlations between environment and childhood obesity.

But this is simply untrue. Here are the studies that are in the new review which were not included in mine. It should be pretty obvious why I didn't include them.

Briggs and Lake (2011) involved giving 24 kids cameras to photograph where they ate their lunch. It doesn't measure the number or proximity of fast food outlets, nor does it measure body weight.

Caraher et al. (2014) looks at the concentration of fast food outlets around schools but doesn't attempt to find any correlation with obesity rates or body mass index.

De Vet et al. (2013) is a survey of kids in four countries which finds that children who have access to takeaway food tend to eat more of it. It does not look at the density or proximity of fast food outlets. Interestingly, the authors do not tell us whether those who ate more takeaways were fatter, despite having the BMI data for each child. I suspect that this is because there was no association, but there is no way of telling.

Devi et al. (2010) is based entirely on an interview with staff and pupils at one school. It doesn't even mention fast food, let alone measure the number of outlets or measure the children's BMI.

Edwards et al. (2010) doesn't look at fast food outlets at all. The closest it gets is finding that obesity is correlated with 'perceived poor access to supermarkets'.

Ellaway et al. (2012) studies the number of takeaways around 'disadvantaged schools in Glasgow'. It does not measure obesity or body mass and makes no attempt to correlate these variables with the number of fast food outlets.

Estrade et al. (2014) doesn't look at obesity or the number of fast food outlets. It is just a summary of some interviews conducted with food shop owners.

Fraser et al. (2011) found that adolescents who were more 'exposed' to takeaway food at home tended to eat at fast food restaurants more frequently. It did not look at the proximity or density of fast food outlets.

Macdiarmid et al. (2015) is a survey of school kids which doesn't attempt to correlate the proximity or density of fast food outlets with obesity. It does, however, ask kids how often they buy food out of school at lunchtime and finds no association between this and obesity. Incidentally, the authors note that only ten per cent of them ate food out of school at lunchtime and say that this finding 'questions the emphasis, effort and likely impact of changing the food environment around schools on improving the overall diet of young people and tackling obesity.'

None of these studies are relevant to question of whether living or schooling near fast food outlets increases childhood obesity risk. However, there is one relevant study in the review which escaped my attention when I conducted my literature search and I am more than happy to give it some attention now. It is Gallo et al. (2014) and it found...

No significant association was observed between food outlet frequency and IMD quintile (F=1.125, p=0.627); obesity prevalence rates nationally or locally (both F = 0.370, p = 0.565) or Supergroup class (F = 2.314, p = 4 0.191).

.. No significant association was observed between obesity prevalence and any specific food outlet typology.

No surprise there. That is what most of the studies show. But it is worth noting that both sentences quoted above are followed in the text by the words 'Despite non-significant results...' and some whataboutery from the authors who are clearly desperate to find an association. There is a lot of that kind of thing in this literature and that is why it is important to focus on what the evidence says rather than what 'public health' campaigners say about it.

Saturday 24 March 2018

Faith-based policy

Nice to see The Sun pick up on the story first broken here a few weeks ago about the sugar tax evaluation...

Academic charged with assessing Sugar Tax ‘told by God to push for it’

A top academic hired by the Government to judge the success of the Sugar Tax claims GOD asked him to push for the soft drinks levy.

Furious campaigners hit out last night over a blog where Professor Rev. Mike Rayner said the Almighty was “calling me to work towards the introduction of soft drink taxes in this country”.

He has also previously published papers claiming a levy pushing up the price of popular fizz will cut obesity.

I have made a complaint to the National Institute for Health Research (via its website - scroll to the bottom), part of which is quoted in The Sun article. In full, I wrote:

‘Last year the NIHR commissioned Mike Rayner and others to conduct the 'Evaluation of the health impacts of the UK Treasury Soft Drinks Industry Levy'. Rayner is on the record saying: 'You may not believe that I have heard God aright but I think God is calling me to work towards the introduction of soft-drink taxes in this country'.

Given that he believes that the sugar levy has the support of the Almighty, and that he (Rayner) has previously published research which predicts that taxing soft drinks will reduce the obesity rate, it is surely inappropriate for him to be given the job of evaluating its effects.

Several of the other people on the evaluation team have also advocated for the levy's introduction and have published research which concludes that it will have positive effects. Even if we leave aside the Reverend Rayner's religious beliefs, it cannot be right for people who have advocated for the levy, and whose reputation rests, in part, on it having the predicted effect, to be given the job of marking their own homework. It is a glaring conflict of interest and should never have happened. Impartial academics should be given the commission instead.’

As I said in my original post, I don't see Rayner's religious beliefs as being any more of a conflict of interest than the equally strong, albeit secular, pro-sugar tax beliefs of his colleagues who have campaigned for it. They are all emotionally invested in it and are desperate for it to be seen to work. Those who have published studies claiming that it will work, including Rayner, are professionally invested in it. They should not be anywhere near the evaluation.

Nevertheless, Rayner's conflict of interest is unusual and, let's face it, funny. I am no theologian, but if God doesn't want people to consume fizzy drinks, surely they are easier ways for him to achieve this than by acting through Mike Rayner to get a modest excise tax than has achieved nothing whatsoever in other countries?

Approached yesterday Professor Rayner told The Sun the panel would evaluate the tax on its merits. He said: “We can always change our minds. The things I said 10 years or so ago are things I said 10 years ago.”

Does this also apply to things that God said six years ago, I wonder?


There is also a rather wonderful editorial in The Sun...

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola are continuing with their radical policy of running a business by not pissing your customers off. It could just work!

Thursday 22 March 2018

What exactly is the tobacco playbook?

A recent Guardian article portrayed bacon as the new smoking...

The meat industry’s tactics in defending bacon have been “right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook”, according to Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University.

No slippery slope there, then! But what exactly is 'the tobacco industry's playbook'? It's a phrase we hear a lot these days when campaigners are trying the poison the well against their perceived enemies. I've done a bit of searching and the tobacco playbook seems to be used by nearly everybody and includes nearly everything. Here's my top twenty...

1. Sporting associations being involved with medical organisations.

NFL’s partnership with CDC on head injuries is straight out of big tobacco’s playbook

2. Soft drink companies 'donating to adversarial health groups':

Big Soda is using Big Tobacco's playbook

A recent review found that in the past five years, Pepsi and Coke sponsored nearly 100 health-related organizations including the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and even The Obesity Society.

3. Booze companies lobbying:

A new study has found that Australian alcohol companies have successfully copied tactics straight out of the tobacco playbook to block the introduction of mandated pregnancy warning labels.

4. Mobile phone companies questioning whether their products cause brain cancer:

They have their response straight out of the big tobacco playbook and they use it. “Although we are constantly exploring the subject, currently there is no direct evidence that links cell phone usage to brain cancer.”

5. Advertising to men:

“That appeal to macho culture is straight out of the tobacco industry playbook. They are using a lot of the same tactics ... it’s targeting your kids, it’s often sexist and designed with the intent of creating the problem gamblers of tomorrow,” he said.

6. Advertising to anyone:

Old tobacco playbook gets new use with e-cigarette advertising 

The electronic cigarette ads push the same themes as old cigarette ads: sophistication, freedom, equality and individualism, said Timothy de Waal Malefyt, a visiting associate professor at Fordham University’s business school and former advertising executive.

7. Advertising e-cigarettes:

“As Big Tobacco corners the e-cigarette market, it is using e-cigarettes as a global PR scheme to gloss over its tarnished image, positioning itself as a‘solution’ to the problem it drives. In reality, the e-cigarette industry is taking advantage of the regulatory vacuum to employ the Big Tobacco playbook to hook a new generation on its products,” said John Stewart of the U.S.-based group Corporate Accountability International.

8. Distributing e-cigarettes:

Thirteen Members of Congress today called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take immediate action to protect young people from predatory e-cigarette marketing and distribution tactics that are straight out of big tobacco's playbook.

9. Hiring public relations firms:

Today, Big Soda faces the same PR challenges as Big Tobacco, and its PR strategy is straight out of the Big Tobacco playbook. In fact, the soda industry taps many of the same PR firms that helped Big Tobacco deceive the public for so long.

10. Taking legal action (about wording in a referendum on soda taxes):

“This lawsuit is straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook that Big Soda is now using,” Martin Bourque, executive director of the nonprofit Ecology Center and a member of the Measure D campaign committee, said in an email.

11. Publishing peer-reviewed studies:

“This comes right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook: cast doubt on the science,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research. “This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It’s shameful.”

12. Partnering with a non-profit organisation:

By partnering with a group that could otherwise be one of its staunchest critics, Walmart is taking a page right out of the Big Tobacco playbook: Buying silence.

13. Funding scientific research:

Taking a page right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook, five major beverage manufacturers are ponying up $67.7 million to prove that a glass of wine, beer or cocktail every day will increase one’s chances of avoiding a heart attack and live longer.

14. Supposedly advertising to children:

“Predatory marketing to children was the hallmark of Big Tobacco nearly two decades ago,” Madhusoodanan wrote in an e-mail. “McDonald’s and the fast food industry have taken a page right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook and are driving an epidemic of diet-related diseases by getting kids addicted to their junk food at a young age and building brand loyalties that last a lifetime.”

Read more here:

15. Paying CEOs a lot of money:

Sabet said the marijuana industry is taking "pages right out of the big tobacco playbook."
"I think no doubt we are going down the path of creating Big Tobacco 2.0," Sabet said. "When you look at the techniques of the marijuana industry, they downplay risks, they produce marijuana candies and other fun items, they fund research and political advocacy and most of all they are corporate CEOs poised to make millions, the comparison couldn't be more perfect."

16. Advertising to people while they do everyday tasks:

The editorial also compared the people behind “pot-peddling” to those who sell cigarettes. “Marketing pot to consumers while they carry out everyday tasks is right out of the old Big Tobacco playbook,” the piece stated.

17. Talking about personal choice:

Out of the tobacco playbook

Tactics employed by the food and drink industry to influence the public health debate are “identical” to those used by the tobacco industry 30 years ago, experts have warned.

“It’s exactly identical to tobacco,” said Professor Timothy Noakes, an authority on nutrition who has witnessed colleagues accepting funding from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

“The only difference is, in the past the public was not as aware as they are today of the dangers and benefits of different products. Now the companies have to be cleverer and they have to target scientists who are particularly influential.”

Both tobacco and junk food companies emphasise the importance of personal choice.

 18. Pointing out that regressive taxes are regressive:
Is the anti-sugar tax lobby taking a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook?

This week, the Institute of Race Relations became the latest organisation to attempt to discredit research showing that taxing sugary drinks could save lives in South Africa. Hofman cautions that attacks on the public health rationale behind the tax may be similar to ploys that health activists, particularly anti-tobacco campaigners, have seen before.

The institute questioned the rationale behind the proposed tax, arguing that it would only be a burden on the poor and would not reduce obesity.

Hofman has hit back, saying that the tobacco lobby spent years trying to discredit scientific research that revealed the dangers of smoking.

“This is a strategy from the tobacco playbook, in which they [the industry] tried to discredit peer-reviewed scientific research."

 19. Having a trade organisation:

Salt Industry Takes Page from Big Tobacco's Playbook

Remember the Tobacco Institute? The "research" organization set up by Big Tobacco that served mainly to obfuscate and distort what they and other scientists knew about the incredibly harmful effects of smoking?

Meet its reincarnation: the Salt Institute.

20. Borrowing from the oil industry:

Evidence Suggests the Oil Industry Wrote Big Tobacco's Playbook, Then Used It to Lie About Climate Change 

It has long been assumed that, in its efforts to deceive investors and the public about the negative impact its business has on the environment, Big Oil borrowed Big Tobacco's so-called tactical "playbook." But these documents indicate that infamous playbook appears to have actually originated within the oil industry itself.

I hope that's cleared things up.

Wednesday 21 March 2018

The temperance lobby's problem with supply and demand

With minimum pricing starting in Scotland in a few weeks, state-funded temperance groups are looking for new dragons to slay. Advertising is the number one choice, but our old friend 'availability' is also a priority.

From the BBC...

Scotland's poorest people suffer most from having easy access to alcohol in their area, a new study has suggested.

Researchers at Glasgow and Edinburgh universities found those on the lowest incomes were more likely to drink too much if availability was high.

They have suggested the Scottish government should look at cutting the number of shops selling alcohol - particularly in areas of low income.

Sigh. We have been through it time and time again. As I said when a similar piece of junk was published in 2014...

Look, areas of high demand will have more supply. That is as true of alcohol as it is of any other product. If supply was sufficient to create demand then alcohol retailers would open more and more off licences everywhere until they were evenly distributed across the country on a per capita basis. They don't do that because they follow demand instead. Off licences are more densely concentrated in certain areas for the same reason that bookmakers, coffee shops and Polish food shops are more concentrated in certain areas, ie. because that's where the customers are.

Just as the alcohol retail industry cannot expect to increase aggregate demand by opening a new off licence, temperance activists should not expect to reduce aggregate demand by closing them down. Alas they do expect that because they're simple folk who believe, like every temperance crusader before them, that demand for alcohol is somehow created by the sneaky alcohol industry. Hence their quixotic battle against availability and advertising that flies in the face of everything we know about the workings of markets.

Alas, the BBC couldn't be bothered to ask somebody with half a brain to explain how supply and demand works. 

The team's findings suggested that interventions to reduce drinking which focus exclusively on consumer behaviour - such as media campaigns and warning labels on bottles and cans - were unlikely to make significant improvements to health. 

That's a bit awkward for their 'public health' colleagues given that the third part of their neo-temperance agenda is putting cancer warnings on alcohol, but never mind.

They argued that radical policy changes were needed to address health inequalities in alcohol-related harm. Changes, they said, should include reducing the availability of alcohol. 

Of course they did. What do you expect from these people? Either they are stopped or they continue their whirlwind of destruction until alcohol is illegal.

If they genuinely believe that people drink excessively because they have five off licences within walking distance rather than three then they are profoundly stupid. If they don't believe that, they are deceitful activists. Either way they should not given a platform to spout their obvious nonsense unchallenged.

Tuesday 20 March 2018

More jobs for the boys on the obesity gravy train

Further to my previous posts about the copious studies showing that living near fast food outlets does not make you fat, here's another example of a 'public health' activist-academic ignoring the evidence.

In January, The Times ran a story in which it was claimed that the number of fast food outlets around schools has risen by 67 per cent in the last eight years. Professor Russell Viner of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health was quoted...

Russell Viner, of RCPCH, said that fast-food chains were “cashing in on school-age footfall” and “enticing young people and their pocket money . . . [with] devastating consequences for the overall health of our children.”

... Professor Viner said that fast-food chains “bombarded” children with adverts. “While it’s not surprising that fast food franchises tend to concentrate in poorer areas and those with bigger populations, which means nearer schools, this is even more reason for concern.”

This is not what the evidence says, and words like 'bombarded' and 'enticing' make Viner sound more like a campaigner than a scientist.

It turns out that he has some strongly held views on policy. In the same month, he was using emotional language about children reclaiming their childhood in his efforts to urge the government to ban 'junk food' advertising before 9pm... 

"We urge Government to show it is serious about protecting children’s health by banning junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed. Only then can children reclaim their childhood.”

More recently, in response to the ridiculous Cancer Research claim that overweight/obesity among millenials is rising (it's not), Russell Viner was the lead signatory of a letter to The Times...

The government is considering further measures to reduce childhood obesity. Health leaders are unanimous that protecting children from junk food adverts must be prioritised: last weekend, for example, more than a third of the adverts shown during a popular family-time programme were for high fat, sugar and salt foods. These adverts were seen by more than a million children.

Policymakers from all parties must listen to the sector and to the public. We need to get to grips with obesity now before it is too late.

Viner is entitled to his views and is free to campaign for whatever policies he likes. He's obviously already made his mind up, but hopefully the government will commission some impartial academics to evaluate the evidence and recommend policies.

Oh wait, they already have. A £5 million cheque was written last August for set up a new group...

The Department of Health has announced £5 million of funding for a new obesity policy research unit at University College London.

One year on from the launch of the childhood obesity plan, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Obesity Policy Research Unit has been set up to provide resource for long term research into childhood obesity.

It will give independent advice to policy makers and analysts, and develop understanding on the causes of childhood obesity, looking at social inequalities, the early years of childhood, and marketing to children and families.

Independent advice, splendid! And who, I wonder, has been put in charge of this lavishly funded outfit?

Professor Russell Viner, Policy Research Unit Director and Professor of Adolescent Health who will lead the Unit...

What with all the cash being given to sugar tax campaigners to evaluate the sugar tax, the obesity gravy train/echo chamber is shaping up very nicely for some people, isn't it?

Monday 19 March 2018

Motivated reasoning - a case study

Last week, the IEA published my report Fast Food Outlets: What is the Evidence? As the title suggests, it is a review of the published evidence on the proximity and density of fast food outlets to obesity. It shows that only 20 per cent of the 74 studies conducted have found a positive association between fast food availability and body weight. Of the studies related to children, only 15 per cent have found a positive association.

This is no secret to those who are familiar with the evidence. Several previous evidence reviews have come to much the same conclusion.

Williams et al. (2014: 372) ‘did not find strong evidence at this time to justify policies related to regulating the food environments around schools’. Gordon-Larsen (2014) found that: ‘Studies of access to fast food and body weight generally showed null results’. Cobb et al. (2015) found that two-thirds of the associations between fast food availability and obesity in the literature were null, as did Mackenbach et al. (2014: 12) who took the methodological quality of the studies into account when conducting their review before concluding that ‘the overall evidence for an association between environmental factors and weight status is weak.’

Public Health England and its minions in local authorities have chosen to either ignore the academic literature or cherry-pick the few studies that appear to support 'zoning laws' (ie. banning new fast food outlets opening in certain areas). If they are not going to be honest about what the evidence says, it is up to people like me to shine a light on it.

This hasn't gone down well with a man called Greg Fell. Greg is Sheffield's Director of Public Health and is on £106,000 plus expenses and benefits (his predecessor was on an almost unbelievable £178,000). He is not some hikikomarxist living in his mum's basement. It is easy to forget that as you read his blog post.

Given the source, I’d guess it’s been funded by KFC, maybe the Colonel himself.

This is Fell's opening gambit. Going straight in with the ad hominem is what the bottom feeders on Twitter do and that is about Fell's level. It's his 'guess' that the IEA report was 'funded by KFC'. I can tell you categorically that it wasn't. The IEA doesn't do commissioned research and I've never heard of KFC, or any other fast food outlet, giving money to the IEA in all my years working for them. I can tell you with 100 per cent certainty that the first time anybody in the fast food industry, from the biggest burger chain to the smallest kebab shop, heard about this report was the day it was published.

But let's pretend for a moment that the IEA is mostly funded by McDonald's and that this particular report was commissioned by Pizza Hut. Hell, let's say it was written by Pizza Hut. Would its findings be any more or less true? Of course not. Leaving aside the fact that the report is only a summary of studies written by other people (mostly 'public health' people), the validity of a study's conclusions cannot be judged by the identity or motivations of its author. If it turns out to be a pack of lies then the motivations of the author might explain why, but these motivations do not automatically make it a pack of lies. This is basic critical thinking.

However, as I say, no such commercial interests were involved in this report so Fell's 'guess' is worthless. But that doesn't stop him putting it at the heart of his blog post's title:

The McKentucky-Hut review of fast food zoning evidence

It is worth noting how casually these people lie. Whether something is true or false seems wholly irrelevant to them. The only thing that matters is the effect that saying it will have on the reader.

Having indicated that evidence is not really his thing, Fell confirms it...

Bluntly, I can’t be bothered to go through it line my line. It seems of pretty poor quality academically speaking – a bit opaque re methods, selective quoting, flawed lines of argument. Of course maybe it doesn’t present to be an academic work, but it will still be presented as evidence to decision makers – who may or may not be able to pick through the flaws.

Not only is Fell not prepared to 'go through the it line by line' (ie. read it properly), he is apparently too busy to explain what the 'flaws' are. What are the 'flawed lines of argument'? What examples can he give of 'selective quoting'? Alas, he can't be bothered to provide a single example.

Or, more likely, he can't find any 'flaws' in a report that is mostly just a list of studies and a summary of their conclusions, but he has seen critiques of other people's work that use these phrases and thinks that he can poison the well by repeating him here. 

Some extracts of the studies reviewed are given. Obviously there’s no way of knowing whether the extract actually represents the conclusion of the original study.

I laughed out loud when I read this. Obviously there is a way of knowing whether the extract reflects the conclusion. You can read the study. To Fell, the idea of reading an academic study all the way through is not just alien, but completely unthinkable.

I don't expect readers to go through 74 studies to check that my conclusion is sound. I know better than anyone what a long and tedious process it is. On the other hand, if you're going to effectively accuse me of lying then the onus is on you to read the evidence and prove it.

What you don't do is say that you can't bothered to read the evidence while showing that you can be bothered to write a blog post implying that I'm making it all up. That would be true of any blogger, but it is doubly true of a Director of Public Health who should be familiar with the evidence anyway.

But who needs evidence anyway?

It is important we don’t become our own worst enemy in the pursuit of evidence.

As I said in a prior blog, Lack of evidence is frequently cited as barrier for not doing something. This is fine, but that must be considered in terms of counterfactual – what’s the evidence for the counterfactual or maintaining the status quo. Is doing noting an option. Establishing a level of burden of evidence proof in a complex system is different. Some say we need to move to a decision logic framework, not hypothesis testing – ie not a criminal burden of proof, but balance of probability and what is happening in the background.

But there is not a 'lack of evidence' in this area. There are 74 studies looking at this specific issue. There may be a lack of evidence to support the policies for which Fell advocates, but that is not remotely the same thing as a lack of evidence. If you have twenty well-conducted, peer-reviewed studies looking at mobile phone use, for example, and none of them found an association with autism, it would be dishonest to claim that there is a lack of evidence or that 'we just don't know'. We would conclude that mobile phone use does not cause autism. If one or two of them found a weak association, we would conclude that, on the balance of probabilities, mobile phone use does not cause autism.

It would obviously be wrong to claim that people who live near fast food outlets were more likely to be obese if no research had ever been conducted. But it is arguably even more wrong to make this claim after dozens of studies had been carried out all over the world for fifteen years and the majority of them had failed to find any such association.

There will always be those who are opposed to a policy proposition, sometimes on the basis of evidence, sometimes on pure ideological or commercial grounds.

Whether the Planning Authority should pay any attention to it is also debatable

The Authority might ask who sponsored the IEA to do this review, and why. 

Accusing someone of being 'ideological' is what Twitter bottom feeders do when ad hominems fall on stony ground. If the IEA presents evidence that free markets are the solution to a certain problem, an imbecile might respond by pointing out that the IEA is a free market think tank and therefore 'would say that, wouldn't they?' The appeal of this line of attack is the same as that of the ad hominem. It allows idiots to dismiss evidence without having to deal with its substance, or even read it.

In the lines quoted above, Fell commits both fallacies. He thereby concludes his blog post in the way he started it, with not a single substantive criticism of the research and with a claim about funding which is simply untrue.

I will leave the reader to judge who is being 'ideological' here but, as my colleague Kristian says, Fell's response is a wonderful example of a dull mind in motivated reasoning mode.

Friday 16 March 2018

Last Orders returns

The Last Orders podcast is back! Join me, Tom Slater and Brendan O'Neill to discuss Public Health England's calorie crusade, minimum pricing and the absolute filth being propagated by Love Island and Geordie Shore.

LISTEN HERE or subscribe on iTunes.

PS. I was also on the Heartland podcast this week talking about the American Cancer Society's volte-face on e-cigarettes.

Thursday 15 March 2018

Fast food outlets and obesity

I was on the radio last year with some woman from a 'public health' group who wanted fast food outlets banned around schools because there was 'overwhelming evidence' that proximity to these shops increased the risk of obesity.

It's a pretty good rule of thumb that if someone from the 'public health' racket claims that there is 'overwhelming evidence' of something then there is probably little or no evidence of it. So I looked into the literature, expecting to find a dozen studies or so. Instead I found 74 studies and this bit of fact-checking turned into a full blown project.

Today sees the publication of the resulting report: Fast Food Outlets and Obesity: What is the Evidence? You can download it for free but the basic conclusion is easy to summarise. There are far more studies showing no association between both the density and proximity of fast food outlets and obesity among both children and adults. In the case of children, null studies outnumber studies showing a positive association by more than four to one.

My report includes more studies than any previous evidence review in this area and its conclusion is the same as the six evidence reviews published by other researchers. The evidence that restricting fast food outlets will have any impact on obesity is extremely weak. If 'public health' was an evidence-based enterprise, it would have abandoned the idea years ago.

Do have a read of the report or read this short blog post about it.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

The futility of divestment

I was in Edinburgh last week at a pensions and investment conference talking about the divestment movement. I have written about this idea before. It suggests that if you disapprove of an activity, you should sell your shares in the industry that facilitates it. In doing so you will achieve, er, absolutely nothing.

As I said at the conference, if you really dislike an industry you might not want to feel that you have to cheer it on because you have a stake in its success. Fair enough. But the divestment movement seems to think that selling off shares has some tangible effect on a company's activities. I see no mechanism by which a private investor selling a share in a fossil fuel company could have the slightest impact on the demand for fossil fuels or the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. The same principle applies to tobacco, guns, alcohol, gambling, sugar or any other 'sin stock'.

If you only want to invest in 'ethical' companies and you are prepared to get potentially lower returns, that is up to you. What I object to is local authorities selling off high-yielding shares from their pensions portfolio for the sake of futile virtue-signalling. These losses ultimately have to make up by taxpayers. That is unethical.

I was on the panel with someone from Tobacco Free Portfolios. If you visit their website or watch their TED talk, you will notice that they do not offer a single reason why divesting from tobacco will have any impact on the number of cigarettes sold or the number of people who smoke. Action on Smoking and Health recently published a briefing paper encouraging local authorities to divest from tobacco. Nowhere in its eight pages is there any indication that divesting will do any good.

Given that there is no theoretical reason to assume that divesting has any effect on the supply or demand for the product in question, and given that proponents of divestment are unable to offer even a bad argument for it, you have to conclude that the whole thing is a pointless gesture.

The ASH document focuses on trying to persuade councils that tobacco stocks are not a good longterm prospect. The woman from Tobacco Free Portfolios made a similar argument. ASH are probably overestimating the efficacy of their anti-smoking policies, but it could nevertheless be true. Who knows?

Either way, that is an investment decision, not an ethical decision. If ASH knew for certain that BAT shares would be the best performing investment of the next decade, they would still encourage divestment. Claiming that tobacco shares - which have been extraordinarily lucrative in the past, despite increasing regulation - are going to head south is a way of wriggling out of giving a single tangible benefit of divestment.

In any case, why would we trust single issue pressure groups over the combined wisdom of investors? As somebody in the audience pointed out, future risks are priced into share prices. You don't have to be a strict believer in the efficient market hypothesis to see that share prices are a better guide to the value of a company than the value put on it by people who hate the company.

Let's remember that anti-smoking groups also claim that it is not in the interest of retailers to sell cigarettes and that tobacco farmers would make more money planting different crops. If either of these claims were true, you would expect retailers and farmers to have worked it out or themselves and changed their business model accordingly. It is hard to believe that organisations with an extreme prejudice against tobacco know more about the economics of the market than people who have got skin in the game.

You can watch the discussion below:

Monday 12 March 2018

The scandal of 'public health' money being spent on health

A lot of the 'cuts' in the supposed era of austerity are imaginary. The education budget was ring-fenced from the outset and the NHS budget has risen year-on-year. Pensions have increased in line with the ludicrously generous triple lock. Between them, these three budgets make up the majority of government spending.

But one area where there really have been cuts is in central government grants to local authorities. Councils get most of their money from central government and these grants have fallen appreciably - and look set to continue falling.

Among these grants is the money they get from Public Health England. There has been a lot of chatter about 'public health' budgets being 'slashed' by the evil Tories and a lot of junk economics from those whose livelihoods depend on the gravy train continuing.

In January, born again teetotaller Nick Cohen wrote an overwrought piece for the Observer in which he bemoaned the cuts to 'public health' but failed to mention the size of the budget, perhaps because it is so enormous that people would be sanguine about a five per cent cut. In 2016/17, Public Health England's budget was £4.5 billion, of which £3.4 billion went to local authorities.

Moreover, the 'public health' budget for local authorities has risen over the years, from £2.8 billion in 2014/15, to £3 billion in 2015/16 and then to £3.4 billion. Bear these figures in mind when you hear that the 'public health' budget is going to be 'slashed' by £170 million in the next two years. In real terms, the budget will still be bigger than it was three years ago.

This gigantic stack of cash is ring-fenced for 'public health' which is great news for fat cat Directors of Public Health and the various parasitic 'stakeholders' that live off the 'health and wellbeing' industry. It is not so good for residents.

Many local councillors resent being forced to spend money on useless nanny state projects while budgets for genuine public services are cut. Hats off, then, to Northamptonshire City Council for this...

Northamptonshire County Council: £10m public health grant probe

A council dubbed the "worst-run in the country" is under investigation over allegations it used millions of pounds ring-fenced for public health to prop up other services.

Northamptonshire County Council is in talks with Public Health England about the possible "claw-back" of up to £10m.

It comes after the authority voted for almost £40m in budget cuts.

Conservative council leader Heather Smith said the money "may have been spent in adult social care".

She added: "It is debatable whether that was a public health need or not."

Social care may not be a 'public health' need, but it is a health need and I suspect that if local residents were asked if they wanted the money to be spent on helping the sick and infirm or spent on hassling people about their lifestyles, there would be a strong majority for the former.

The county council received more than £70m in funding from Public Health England over a two-year period.

It was meant to be used only for specific purposes, such as health education and smoking cessation services.


Mrs Smith said the money "may have been spent in adult social care, looking after people in some way or another".

Shocking stuff. We can't have 'public health' budgets spent on looking after people!

The fact is that Northamptonshire County Council is skint. Really skint. And yet, like other councils, it has been forced to employ an army of bureaucrats and busybodies to run fatuous, jargon-riddled projects which stretch the concept of 'public health' to breaking point by including things like 'financial wellbeing' and 'social wellbeing'. Its Public Health Director is on £155,000 a year and it has created a 'public health' mini-quango called First for Wellbeing (budget: £17 million) which does lots of 'fun activities' that are enjoyed by a tiny proportion of the local population.

It also parrots the usual inaccurate nanny state propaganda such as...

It might not seem like you are drinking too much, but even having just one or two drinks on most nights can do serious harm to your health, both physically and mentally.


Frequent exposure to other people’s smoke will almost put them at as much risk as an actual smoker!

You can see why councillors might think that 'looking after people in some way or another' is a better use of £10 million than continuing to pour it down this money pit. Northamptonshire County Council may be the 'worst-run in the country' but in this instance it is a beacon of hope that every other council should follow.

Saturday 10 March 2018

The World Conference on Tobacco or Prohibition

No matter how low the bar of reason and integrity is set, the anti-smoking racket finds ways to limbo dance beneath it. This week, I have been following the #WCTOH2018 hashtag in awe. There is no shortage of charlatans and spivs in the anti-drink, anti-soda and anti-food cults, but for shameless hypocrisy and junk science, no one can touch the anti-smoking lobby.

WCTOH is the World Conference on Tobacco or Health. If memory serves, it has been taking place since 1967 and was a more or less serious science conference until around 1983 when the prohibitionists began to take over (see my book Velvet Glove, Iron Fist for details). It is now a playground for fanatics and tax spongers. Britain was well represented, with various activist-academics running up a quarter of a million pound bill for the taxpayer to pick up.

After a decade writing about this issue, I shouldn't be surprised by the pitiful standard of the rhetoric but it just keeps getting worse. Consumers are never mentioned except, perhaps, as victims of Big Tobacco. Ridiculous assertions abound, such as the claim that cigarette taxes were 'once thought regressive' but are no longer because, er, it doesn't help the cause to admit it.

As for the science behind reduced-harm claims of new products, the response of the tobacco control cult is to simply ignore it.

Perhaps my favourite non-argument of the week was a 'debunking' of the Nanny State Index (which I edit). The Index is only a league table of policies that 'public health' people lobby for so they should be proud if their country is at the top, but a Finnish 'public health' professional gave a whole presentation about it, including the killer argument that the Index is 'rubbish'. Alas, this was also the only argument.

How old are these people?

The most striking aspect of this year's event was how much of it was devoted to in-fighting and the preservation of funding. The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, funded by Philip Morris, has a billion dollars of research funding which the tobakko kontrol establishment can't access because it would blacken their names in the eyes of their colleagues. This is driving them (even more) mad and a lot of energy has been expended turning their own friend Derek Yach into a non-person.

Then there are e-cigarettes. Tobacco control is explicitly morphing into nicotine control. The target is almost irrelevant. The key word is control and the emergence of a viable, low risk alternative for cigarettes is an existential threat to their racket. The same goes for snus. Naturally, therefore, the speakers at this (Pfizer-funded) conference are opposed to harm reduction and use classic merchant-of-doubt tactics to suppress them (or, in the case of snus in the EU, to keep it suppressed).

They are quite prepared to resort to blatant lies to this end...

Carl Phillips and Dick Puddlecote have covered some of the lowlights from this event so I won't go through them all, suffice to say that rank hypocrisy is a running theme, from demanding 'nothing about us without us' to complaining about the WHO shutting out civil society.

Shutting people out is what the WHO does, of course, as we shall doubtless see again in Geneva this October. This week, the corrupt WHO capitulated to demands from China to exclude delegates from Taiwan. Tobacco controllers who rightly described this as an outrage seem to have no problem with the press and public being kicked out of the COP meetings every two years, just as those who 'demand nothing about us without us' never ask smokers what they think about being under their 'control'.

That brings us to smoking, which is supposed to be reason for the conference's existence. After years of denial, the prohibitionists are finally owning up to being prohibitionists. There was even an official declaration.

You might think that the experience of alcohol prohibition and the war on drugs would make 'experts' wary of endorsing a ban on a product consumed by a billion people. But according to Tobacco Control's news editor, there is nothing to worry about:

If smokers had any doubts about what these people have in store for them, an official declaration at the world's foremost tobacco control conference to ban the sale of cigarettes should put an end to them.

Let's not mince words any more. These people are not the tobacco control lobby and they are certainly not public health professionals. They are prohibitionists and should only be described as such.

Thursday 8 March 2018

What is the real rate of child obesity?

Since I started digging into the methodology used to estimate the rate of childhood obesity in Britain, I have been shocked by how shoddy it is. The figures that are routinely cited are quite simply a lie. They vastly exaggerate the number of kids who are obese.

In my previous post about this for the Spectator I said that the real rate is at least half of that claimed. That much should be obvious. A rate of 23 per cent among 11-15 year olds is extremely unlikely when the rate among 16-24 year olds is only eleven per cent.

In my new post, published today, I show some more credible evidence and argue that the true rate of obesity among children in this age group is closer to one in twenty, not one in five. Indeed, it could easily be one in fifty.

Do read it.

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Food is the new tobacco

As reported by the Sun and a few of other newspapers, Public Health England is going ahead with its insane plan to withdraw a fifth of calories from the food supply. Not quite the whole food supply, as the quango has admitted that it can't take energy out of vegetables, but the targets apply to the following:

Egg products, potato products, meat products, processed meats, poultry, fish, meat alternatives, pies, pastries, sausages, burgers, pasta, rice, noodles, savoury biscuits, crackers, bread with additions (e.g. ciabatta with olives), cooking sauces, table sauces, dressings, crisps, savoury snacks, ready meals, takeaways, dips, hummus, coleslaw, pizza, ‘food-to-go’, sandwiches, composite salads and soups.

Biscuits, chocolate bars, confectionery etc. have already been covered by the sugar reduction plan and so are not included.

So much for only reformulating 'food that contributes most to intakes of children up to the age of 18 years', as PHE originally claimed when the 'childhood obesity' plan was devised. PHE bureaucrat Alison Tedstone now admits that everything is fair game:

“Our children don’t eat special children’s food,” she said. “We buy the same food for our entire family.”

As usual in 'public health', it's not really about children. It's about treating adults like children.

But PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie said the steps were as much about influencing the diets of adults.

"Britain needs to go on a diet."

But Britain doesn't need to go on a diet. Some people need to go on a diet, but 74 per cent of us are not obese and a fair proportion of 26 per cent do not want to go on a diet. Some of us need to eat more. And for the many millions of people who consume roughly the right number of calories, cutting energy content in food by 20 per cent is the equivalent of raising the price by 25 per cent. 

Meanwhile, PHE are sticking to their bizarre 400-600-600 rule; 400 calories for breakfast and 600 calories each for lunch and tea. This obviously adds up to 1,600, well below the 2,500 calories the agency maintains are needed by men every day, and so they advise us to consume an extra 900 calories in snacks, soft drinks and alcohol. Even nanny statist Susan Jebb raised her eyebrows at this:

While she welcomed raising calorie-awareness, she [Jebb] noted that the recommendation to eat a total of 1,600 calories for main meals was well below daily levels and assumed people were snacking. “Maybe it is better to have a slightly bigger meal and not to snack,” she said.

In December I wrote...

This seems to be a case of PHE deliberately giving people false information with the intention of tricking them into eating less, based on the assumption that we underestimate how much we eat, even to ourselves. The idea is that if you tell people to eat 1,600 calories, perhaps they will eat 2,300 calories.

...PHE are no longer pretending to be a source of accurate advice. They are in the business of nudging, manipulation and deliberate deceit.

This has now been confirmed by Alison Tedstone who told the Times...

She says people should stick to 1,600 calories a day for meals, leaving room for drinks and snacks. “This is not official calorie guidance; it’s a handy rule of thumb,” she said. Men are still advised to eat 2,500 calories a day and women 2,000 but after seeing that people did not admit to a third of what they ate Dr Tedstone said that the advice would help them to keep to the targets.

Woe betide anybody foolish enough to take the country's leading 'public health' agency at its word.

These people are dangerous idiots, but the food industry will have to go along with them because it has been none-too-subtly threatened with advertising bans, taxes and mandatory limits if it doesn't acquiesce.

As for consumers, the best we can hope for are smaller portions and a higher cost of living.

I have written about this for Spectator Health.

It is difficult to find the words to describe how demented this policy is. Imagine a Soviet commissar, drunk on power and vodka, who had been driven mad after contracting syphilis. Even he would not issue an edict like this. It is off the scale of anything the ‘public health’ lobby has tried before. It represents the final severing of the thread that once connected Public Health England to the real world.

Do have a read.

Monday 5 March 2018

Jamie Oliver and 'middle-class logic'

Jamie Oliver is on the front of today's Times with some ill advised comments about fat people.

“When you get trapped in the disadvantaged cycle, the concept of middle-class logic doesn’t work. What you see is parents who aren’t even thinking about five fruit and veg a day, they’re thinking about enough food for the day,” he told The Times.

“Willpower is a very unique personal thing . . . We can’t judge our equivalent of logic on theirs because they’re in a different gear, almost in a different country."

Oliver believes everything he is told by his friends in organisations like Action on Sugar and then regurgitates their views to the media, not always very well. In this instance, he is talking about the socio-economic gradient of obesity and the idea is that people on low incomes are so stressed and cash-strapped that they can't help but stuff their faces with crisps and pizza. Victims of circumstance, they inevitably become obese.

Fortunately for them, there is a white knight - St Jamie of Essex - who will rescue them by taxing soft drinks and banning food discounts in supermarkets. The poor plebs are incapable of making decisions for themselves so the government must make their decisions for them.

You can see why the 'public health' lobby likes this argument. They are always looking for ways to sidestep the issue of choice and personal freedom. If being slim depends on having access to what Oliver calls 'middle-class logic', the case for state intervention appears stronger.

The problem with this analysis is not just that it is incredibly patronising but that it doesn't explain why so many rich people are obese and so many poor people are slim. For all the talk about the 'obesogenic' environment and lack of choice, the fact remains that the majority of us (74%) are not obese. Even in the 'most deprived' groups, 68% are not obese. It seems that a very large number of people from every social class is able to exercise willpower and 'logic'.

Indeed, obesity only has a socio-economic gradient among women. As the Health Survey for England shows, there is virtually no relationship between income and obesity for men.

Among women, the relationship is much stronger, but the obesity rate is still 20 per cent for the wealthiest women. If poverty-related factors are the cause of obesity, why are so many rich women obese and why do these factors seem to have no influence on men?

Even if the relationship between poverty and obesity were stronger, it would not necessarily imply a lack of willpower. People on low incomes are more likely to ignore government health advice on a number of issues and George Orwell nailed some of the reasons for this in The Road to Wigan Pier. The decision to prioritise taste and convenience over healthy is not irrational, per se.

More to the point, even if we accept the premise that obesity is caused by poverty, stress and unhappiness, Jamie Oliver is in no position to solve these problems. He is not going to improve the living conditions of working people. Instead, he is going to force his millionaire preferences on them and if they don’t comply, he is going to make them poorer, starting with his regressive sugar tax before moving on to banning food discounts.

This is a classic characteristic of middle class reform movements. They tackle symptoms rather than causes and ultimately punish the people they are supposed to be helping.