Monday 30 April 2018

Killjoys and the counter-culture

When I was in Edinburgh recently, BBC Scotland asked me to do a long form interview about Killjoys for their Sunday morning radio show. The host is Bill Whiteford and he had done his homework. It was good to have a chance to talk about ideas at greater length than you normally get on the radio. There are not enough programmes like this nowadays which is, perhaps, why so many people have turned to podcast.

When I asked Bill beforehand whether he had enjoyed the book he said, 'Well, it's, er, counter-cultural'. And I supposed it is, especially in Scotland at the moment. We discussed John Stuart Mill, 'public health', campus censorship and the role of think tanks, amongst other things.

The unedited half hour discussion was broadcast (unedited) yesterday and you can listen to it here.

Friday 27 April 2018

Fanatics cannot be appeased

I ended yesterday's post by saying...

I doubt that there is any economic lever - short of rationing - the government could pull to reduce obesity rates, but even if they found a way of reducing the rate from the current 26 per cent to, say, 24 per cent, do you think that would be enough for them? Would 20 per cent? 15 per cent? Of course not. We are now set on a path of government intervention into one of the most personal parts of our lifestyles that will go on forever unless we stand up for ourselves. 

 Today, as if to prove my point, we have this...

Taxing chocolate and other sweet foods would be a more effective anti-obesity strategy than the new “sugar tax” on fizzy drinks, a new analysis suggests.

A major study by Oxford and Cambridge Universities and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, predicts that adding 10 per cent to the price of confectionary [sic], cakes and biscuits could lead to a 7 per cent drop in purchases.

In other words, the activist-academics (who include Theresa Marteau) reckon that the price elasticity of these products is -0.7. Perhaps it is, but only in 'public health' could such a mundane observation be turned into a twelve page study and national news coverage. They didn't even bother to model the impact on calorie intake or obesity and - needless to say - they gave no thought to how much these taxes would cost consumers.

Having no academic merit, the study was obviously cobbled together for political reasons. Expect to see further revelations about taxes reducing the consumption other food products in the future.

I gave a comment to The Sun about this proposal and I issued this statement on behalf of the IEA...

“Why doesn’t the government just give us ration cards and be done with it? This study shows us where we are heading if we keep capitulating to the fanatics. What people eat is none of the Government’s business and there is no reason why people in Britain, most of whom are not obese, should be ripped off in this way.

“There needs to be a moratorium on all nanny state bans and taxes while we wait to see how the regressive sugar tax and Public Health England’s food reformulation scheme plays out. The early indications are that consumers are unhappy with both of them.”

Meanwhile, Jamie Oliver has made it clear that a 9pm watershed ban on 'junk food' advertising is only the start. He wants all advertising for food that is high in fat, sugar or salt banned, including 'product mentions in TV shows'.

The government should have learned by now that fanatics can never be appeased.

Thursday 26 April 2018

The deranged war on food

The obesity panic is reaching fever pitch this week as the result of a carefully planned, three-pronged attack consisting of Jamie Oliver's #adenough campaign, the BBC's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall polemic and a (still unpublished) list of demands sent by opposition politicians to Theresa May.

The Times has published an incredible editorial supporting virtually any idea the zealots come up with, sight unseen. When it comes to the invisible childhood obesity 'epidemic', the newspaper is a full on Corbynista...

Ardent free marketeers will say the government has no business inserting itself into the process of setting prices.

I'm not sure how 'ardent' you have to be to oppose price-setting by government. Even the USSR and Cuba worked out that it was a bad idea eventually.

In a nutshell, this argument states that how businesses sell goods and at what price are for them and the market to determine, while what individuals buy is up to them. These are good guiding principles and in an ideal world they might be sacrosanct, but Mrs May operates in the real one.

Are you kidding me? The idea that it is up to individuals to decide what they buy is some sort of lofty, pie-in-the-sky idea that only works in theory?!

In the very next paragraph, The Times tells us what the 'real world' looks like...

This is a world in which Britain’s population is the most obese in western Europe; in which a third of primary school children are overweight by the time they leave; and in which millennials are on course to be the most overweight generation in the country’s history.

This is garbage. The measure used by the government to define overweight and obesity in children is utterly worthless. It is unlikely that there is a single primary (or secondary) school in Britain where you would find a third of children overweight. When we start measuring obesity in a halfway credible manner in adulthood, obesity rates plummet. The true rate of child obesity is unknown, but if we measured it as clinicians do, I doubt it would be above five per cent.

As for millennials being 'on course to be the most overweight generation in the country’s history', this is based on a press release from a pressure group. It is the latest in a long line of predictions that will likely prove to be false. I have offered to put money on it being wrong but, as usual, no one has taken me up on it.

The reality is that the proportion of overweight people in any age group has not risen this century. Here's what the graph would have to look like for the prediction to come true.

Lies are being used to convince us that freedom has failed and the state must take charge. As Mencken said:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

The nearest thing to the truth in The Times leader is the claim that Britain has the highest obesity rate in western Europe. In fact, Malta has a higher rate and if we look beyond the two dozen countries in western Europe and make a global comparison, Britain is not even in the top 30.

So there are quite a lot of fat people in Britain, relatively speaking. This is the 'crisis' that supposedly means that governments should decide 'how businesses sell goods and at what price' and Public Health England should decide 'what individuals buy'. That's all it takes? Seriously? Some people being fat?

The Times seems to give no thought as to whether its wish list of illiberal policies will do anything to reduce obesity rates, nor does it consider what the costs will be. 'Do something,' it cries, 'anything!'

But there are costs. Major costs. Let's take the proposed ban on buy-one-get-one-free offers. Discounting is an important part of any business and it is particularly important when you're dealing with perishable goods. BOGOF deals work for the consumer and the retailer. The retailer gets to clear stock more quickly while the consumer gets a better price. It also works for manufacturers because it gives them a way to get consumers to try new products (grocery shoppers are creatures of habit and the vast majority of new products fail).

There is a trade-off at work. Consumers are offered a lower price but have to store more things in their cupboards and freezers. Many of us, me included, consider this to be a fair deal. If the government gets rid of price promotions, consumers will end up paying more and retailers will find it more difficult to shift unwanted stock. This would mean more perishable goods being wasted and the cost of living going up for consumers. It is a terrible policy.

Imbeciles such as Jamie Oliver assume that people don’t store food and that if they buy two-for-one they will eat them both straight away and get fat. Ergo, if price discounting is banned, people will buy less food and not be fat. I know of no evidence for this, but I do know that there was no decline in sales when Scotland banned BOGOFs for alcohol a few years ago.

At the very least, banning BOGOFs will make shops less efficient and raise costs for consumers. Incredibly, Alison Tedstone of Public Health England says that banning BOGOFs will save shoppers money.

“You would have to be super-human to resist some promotions. They appear to offer great value but they’re actually designed to make us spend more on foods we simply don’t need. Restricting promotions would help to tackle excess calories and reduce obesity, while saving us money over time."

It's hard to know where to begin with some a stupid statement. It is terrifying that food policy is now in the hands of people who have the economic literacy of a pigeon. 

The scariest thing is that these people simply don't care whether the policy works or not. They give no thought to the costs (or, in the case of Tedstone, pretend that the cost is a benefit). They are happy to try anything to disrupt the market in the hope of affecting a single variable - and damn every other consequence. If it works, great, but if it doesn't, who cares? At least they tried.

I doubt that there is any economic lever - short of rationing - the government could pull to reduce obesity rates, but even if they found a way of reducing the rate from the current 26 per cent to, say, 24 per cent, do you think that would be enough for them? Would 20 per cent? 15 per cent? Of course not. We are now set on a path of government intervention into one of the most personal parts of our lifestyles that will go on forever unless we stand up for ourselves.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Buy one, get one free

Yesterday's news...

Food bank charity gives record level of supplies

The biggest network of food banks in the UK says it provided record levels of "emergency food supplies" last year.

The annual figures from the Trussell Trust charity show a 13% increase, providing 1.3 million three-day food packages for "people in crisis".

Today's news...

Buy-one-get-one-free deals on junk food are set to be banned after opposition parties gave Theresa May their backing to tackle the obesity crisis.

Food bank use is at an all time high, so let's ban food discounts. Hmm.

Admittedly, food bank use is a very poor proxy for food prices, poverty or anything other than the number of food banks that are open, but it is difficult to see how the problem of 'food poverty' will be alleviated by making people pay more for their food (see also: the sugar tax).

I was on the radio this morning with the meddlesome tyrant Malcolm Clark who used to be at the Children's Food Campaign but who now seems to be at Cancer Research UK (CRUK seems to be housing more and more nanny state lobbyists these days). He asked why supermarkets mostly discount 'junk food' and not 'healthy' food. There are two answers.

Firstly, there is no such think as 'junk food'. It is a campaigner's slogan, not a legal definition. If the government introduced this ban, it would apply to HFSS - food that is high in salt, sugar or fat. This is a very broad category that includes jam, cheese, bacon and lots of other things that normal people do not consider 'junk'.


It is no wonder that most BOGOF deals apply to products when the category is so broad - and Public Health England is currently trying to broaden it even further in case the government introduces a watershed advertising ban.

Secondly, fruit, vegetables, rice, pasta etc. are extremely cheap all the year round and so there is little scope to discount them further. Staple foods are always cheap, but BOGOFs are useful for dealing with gluts and promoting new brands.

A ban on BOGOFs would be very easy to get around. The shop could simply sell the products at half price (or with a 40 per cent discount - whatever produced the same sales result). Campaigners would then demand that this 'loophole' be closed and we would be on our way to state control of food pricing.

The proposal has made the front pages today because Jamie Oliver has co-ordinated a letter to the Prime Minister with his usual rubbish about children dying before their parents unless the government gets to grips with the non-existent epidemic of childhood obesity.

The letter has been timed to coincide with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's bit of agitprop which will be broadcast tonight. It has been signed by the leaders of all the main opposition parties: Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, Caroline Lucas, Nicola Sturgeon. If the Conservatives go along with it, it will demonstrate, once again, the futility of voting for a supposedly free market party and prove that we are governed by a monolithic political class in hock to millionaire activists.

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Et tu, Fearnley-Whittingstall?

I don't watch any cookery programmes because they are boring, but I know that all the celebrity chefs have a gimmick. Hestor Blumenthal uses a blowtorch, Gordon Ramsay swears, Jamie Oliver was your granny's idea of a 'lad' and then became an obesity campaigner, Keith Floyd drank a lot and Delia Smith makes food that normal people can cook. I'm not quite sure what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's calling card is but I think it's that he kills his own lifestock.

It is with a heavy heart that I must inform you that Fearnley-Whittingstall has moved his tanks onto Oliver's lawn. A decade after the mockney chef started making pisspoor documentaries about food policy for Channel 4, the BBC has produced a copycat series with Hugh taking the lead role. He will be campaigning for more legislation so it will probably be indistinguishable from the BBC's news output.

Specifically, he will be campaigning for a ban on TV advertisements for tasty food before 9pm which, by a remarkable coincidence, is what the UK's 'public health' establishment, including Jamie Oliver, has set its sights on now that the sugar tax is in effect. It will also have the happy effect, from the BBC's perspective, of crippling its commercial rivals.

I won't be watching 'Britain's Fat Fight' but I have read the article that Fearnley-Whittingstall has written to promote it.

Everywhere we go these days, we are urged to buy food and eat it - and it's never good, not vegetables or fruit or well-balanced meals, but crisps, chocolate, burgers, fizzy drinks and sugary breakfast cereals.

Every time I turn on my television there is a baking contest, a cookery competition or a programme about restaurants. Let's start by banning those, eh?

They're cleverly designed, tempting and honed by the fierce competition of the food industry. It's like an arms race for our appetites.

Because what we really want is food that is badly designed, revolting and made by a state monopoly?

And it's causing a health crisis like we've never seen before. In the UK, obesity is already the leading cause of premature death after smoking. 

If it's behind smoking, it's hardly 'a health crisis like we've never seen before', is it? What Hugh means is that it's a 'health crisis' that has the potential to be comparable to smoking. That is highly debatable but I would still sooner live in a world in which obesity is the 'health crisis' du jour rather than the supposedly lesser crises of the Black Death, Spanish Flu, TB, cholera etc.

Today, 25% of us are obese. If things don't change, by 2050 that will be 50%.

Wanna bet? Just kidding, nobody wants to bet on these ridiculous forecasts. Every obesity prediction has been laughably wrong and this one is unlikely to be any different. These people rely on fantasy predictions because the cold, hard facts do not support their hysteria.

In the past, I might have argued the responsibility for change is essentially a personal one.

But then you realised that your television career was slowing slipping away?

Only you can decide what you put in your mouth, right? But after 16 months working on these films, I'm completely convinced that a culture of blaming and shaming individuals helps no-one - and completely misses the point.

We shouldn't shame anybody. If people choose to eat too much and exercise too little, they will become fat. That is entirely a decision for them, but it is their decision.

We haven't turned into a nation of lazy, greedy people in a single generation. Biological evolution doesn't work like that.

Given the choice, people will be lazy and greedy (so will animals, for that matter). No one claims that the rise in obesity is the result of biological evolution. The claim is that over several generations, office work has replaced physical labour, domestic appliances and car ownership have facilitated sedentary lifestyles and increasing affluence has allowed over-consumption of food across the class spectrum. This is an entirely plausible explanation. It is, in fact, what has happened.

Business, on the other hand, can evolve at a terrifying rate. And the business of designing and selling mass-produced food has rapidly outstripped our ability to defend ourselves against it.

Businesses have been mass-producing high calorie food for well over a century. There were more calories in a World War I food ration than there are in the government's recommended diet today.

The fact that two-thirds of us are now overweight proves this is not a problem of the unlucky or weak-willed few. It's a problem we all face.

Something experienced by two-thirds of the population (actually 60 per cent), is not something 'we all face'. Moreover, we should not assume that everybody who is overweight sees it as a 'problem' that they are desperately trying to overcome. The health implications of being overweight are negligible, if not positive. While being overweight may be aesthetically sub-optimal, it is perfectly reasonable to see it as a price worth paying for the freedom to eat and drink whatever you want. Not everybody is a health fanatic.

Obese people may feel the same way, of course, but three-quarters of us are not obese and the number of obese people is rising very gradually, if at all, so it is difficult to claim that there is anything inevitable or unavoidable about obesity.

Early in the first film my GP warns me that my 36in (93cm) waist and BMI of 26.2 puts me firmly in the overweight stats - and at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

This is despite the fact that I'm quite useful in the kitchen, I don't eat a lot of takeaways, and I love my veg.

So how has big business and 'mass-designed food' inflicted this on poor old Hugh?

I thought I knew my weaknesses: cheese (and biscuits), chocolate (and puddings generally) and wine with my dinner.

If I'm not mistaken, all these products have been around for centuries.

But it is still a shock when I work out that, in terms of calories, my weekly wine intake is roughly equivalent to 22 cans of coke.

So it's the wine that's the problem? A product that is rarely advertised and which is taxed at ludicrously high levels has made Fearnley-Whittingshall slightly overweight. Tell me again how a big government programme of sin taxes and advertising restrictions can beat obesity.

In the end, me asking big companies to change their ways, and our government what it is doing about obesity and healthier eating, will only ever have a limited effect.

Let's hope so. It's none of the government's business and politicians have capitulated to enough gullible, attention-seeking TV chefs already.  

But you telling them, with your shopping trolley or your vote, what changes you want to see - now that, I'm absolutely certain, can make a massive difference.

No one voted for Public Health England. No one voted for the sugar tax. No one voted for Victory Lucozade. No one voted for Jamie Oliver and no one voted for Hugh bloody Fearnley bloody Whittingshall.

People voting with their shopping trolleys is precisely what the nanny statists' loathe and fear. We vote with our shopping trolleys every day and make it clear that we like a wide range of food products. Snobs like Fearnley-Whittingshall disagree with some of our choices and want to see choice constrained. A pox on him and the BBC for pushing this illiberal agenda.

Thursday 19 April 2018

Alcohol Focus Scotland's quest for relevance

Spring is in the air and Britain's state-funded pressure groups are ready for a fresh assault on freedom.

ASH, the oldest of the nanny state sockpuppets, has finally found a reason to justify its existence after successive governments capitulated to every one of its demands. It now wants to censor television programmes in case a teenager catches a glimpse of Winston Churchill smoking a cigar. 

With the sugar tax in place, censorship is also the name of the game for the diet police. Millionaire half-wit Jamie Oliver has been talked into fronting another campaign for an evidence-free policy, this time for a watershed ban on HFSS (high in fat, sugar or salt) food advertising. He is encouraging his followers to tweet photos of themselves covering their eyes to send a message to politicians.

The message seems to be that they are frightened by the sight of chocolate and want the government to shield their eyes from it. It makes them look kind of pathetic, in my opinion, but then Oliver has good reason to cover his eyes these days as his restaurant empire crumbles around him.

Finally, there is the temperance lobby. With Scottish consumers being hit by minimum pricing in less than a fortnight, Alcohol Focus Scotland needs something to justify the £500,000 of taxpayers' money that the SNP shovels to it every year and so it has turned to the oldest of all temperance policies - a licensing clampdown.

Naturally, the state broadcaster is giving them a leg up with an anonymously written article that contains no opposing views... 

Alcohol availability 'boosts crime rate'

Crime rates soar in areas where there are a large number of pubs, clubs and shops selling alcohol, according to a new report. 

Researchers found that neighbourhoods in Aberdeen, Moray and South Ayrshire were among those worst affected.

In those regions crime rates are almost eight times higher in areas with the most alcohol outlets, compared with those with the least.

Alcohol Focus Scotland called for action on the availability of alcohol.

If this seems familiar it's because anti-drink groups have been putting out similar stories for years - see here and here, for example.

They are all based on knuckle-headed interpretations of correlations from ecological studies and produce meaningless stats like this...

The report compared neighbourhoods with the highest number of licensed premises across Scotland to those with the least.

It found that, in those with the most pubs, clubs and off-licences:
  • Crime rates were, on average, four times higher
  • Alcohol-related deaths were twice as high
  • Alcohol-related hospitalisation rates were almost twice as high.

It reminds me of the endless stories about the gender pay gap. It doesn't matter how many sets of statistics these people use, they do not mean what the campaigners think they mean. Average pay differentials between men and women who do different jobs do not mean that there is endemic sexism in the workplace, and higher rates of crime and alcoholism in densely populated urban environments where there are lots of shops do not mean that the 'availability' of alcohol causes crime or alcoholism.

Firstly, inner city Scotland is different to rural Scotland for a whole host of reasons that have nothing to do with the number of Tesco Expresses. The researchers (who were commissioned by Alcohol Focus Scotland, although the BBC doesn't say that) say that they controlled for a handful of confounding factors, as if such a thing were meaningfully possible in such a crude cross-sectional study.

Secondly, suppliers respond to demand. If the 'public health' lobby could get this simple fact into their skulls they would be halfway towards understanding how the world works and three-quarters of the way towards understanding that commercial activity is not a conspiracy against the public. 

Alcohol Focus Scotland admit that they can't take licences away from existing premises but want to see a ban on new premises opening. This is exactly what some local authorities have done with takeaway food outlets, based on equally pathetic evidence, and it would have the same negative effect on consumers without doing anything to improve health.

I suppose we must brace ourselves for more of this rubbish in the years ahead until the evidence becomes 'overwhelming'.


For the second time in a week, the BBC has had to change the headline of a story fed to them by the 'public health' racket. 'Alcohol availability "boosts crime rate"' has become '"Higher crime" in areas where alcohol is most available, says study'. Somebody must have explained that whole correlation/causation thing.

That's better

Wednesday 18 April 2018

The art of advertising

Coca-Cola has always had a winning way with advertising. It is one reason why the company is so hated by the anti-capitalist 'public health' racket. Its old slogan about Coke being The Real Thing has taken on a new resonance now that several of its competitors have replaced their flagship brands with artificially sweetened forgeries.

Coke was never going to make that mistake. It will never forget the New Coke fiasco of the 1980s. Pepsi hasn't advertised its full sugar version for over a decade, but Coca-Cola is going all out with a campaign that seems designed to reassure its customers while trolling its competition.

When the sugar tax came into effect, it ran this full page ad in British newspapers...

It has now released this advert in which the company makes it clear that it listens to its customers, not nanny state killjoys.

It's nice to see a company standing up for itself for a change. The contrast with Lucozade Ribena Suntory could not be sharper. Via Dick Puddlecote, I found this scarcely believable quote from its CEO, Peter Harding, in which he explains why he decided to degrade his products.

“I was being stared at, at the school gates by other parents. Jamie Oliver was beating me up, so were other celebrities, NGOs and the media. They were demonising me as though sugar were the new tobacco. The criticism was not nice for anyone, including our employees.”

Mr Harding's soft skin has cost Lucozade £62.6 million and counting. Despite the fact that it literally cannot give the stuff away, the company announced yesterday that it would be spending another £10 million advertising Victory Lucozade. It hasn't learned the lesson from New Coke that no amount of advertising can shift a bad product. It cannot be long before shareholders are baying for Harding's blood.

It is not just Coca-Cola that can do decent advertising. At one time, the Conservative Party knew how to appeal to the public. Take this campaign ad from 1952, for instance (via Tom Harwood)...

Those were the days. The days when the Conservative Party won elections with a sizeable majority.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Who's to blame when bad science is published?

The gradual, ongoing campaign to push drinking guidelines towards zero took another step forwards last Friday when the Lancet published evidence which confirmed that alcohol has significant health benefits but dressed it up in such a way as to make the media think the opposite.

I have written about it for Spectator Health...

When bad science appears in the media, who is to blame? Sometimes it is the fault of the journalists, sometimes it is the scientists and sometimes it is the person who wrote the press release.

There was a classic example last Friday when news outlets around the world covered a study in the Lancet with headlines such as ‘One drink a day “can shorten life”‘ (BBC) and ‘Just one alcoholic drink a day will shorten your life, study shows’ (Evening Standard). As if this were not scary enough, Yahoo warned that ‘Alcohol guidelines in many countries may not be safe’ and the Guardian declared that ‘Drinking is as harmful as smoking’.

Do read it all.

Monday 16 April 2018

Reformulated Lucozade is tanking

Camilla Cavendish in last week's FT...

By designing a tax with two bands, Chancellor George Osborne created exactly the right incentive for companies to reformulate. Responsible brands and companies such as Suntory-owned Lucozade and Tesco have done so. Coca-Cola has held out, not wanting to dilute its legendary taste.

The boss of Suntory a couple of weeks ago...

Ribena and Lucozade's top boss says the introduction of the sugar tax today is a milestone moment that could secure the future of the Coleford factory that makes some of Britain's most iconic brands.

Today, back in the real world...

Lucozade has lost the title of Britain’s biggest energy drink brand to rival Red Bull following a backlash over its reformulation.

Lucozade Energy has lost £62.6m in value over the past year - the largest loss in the soft drinks category - as consumers turned away from the new lower-sugar formula.

According to IRI figures, Energy’s value sales were down 18.6% to £273.6m, while volumes fell 18.9% to 162 million litres, after Lucozade changed the recipe last April to avoid the levy.

Oh dear. How sad.

Meanwhile, Red Bull and Monster - two energy drinks that have not caved in to nanny statists - are booming...

Conversely, rival Red Bull added £20.5m to sales of its standard variant, taking its value to £279.6m and assuming the title of Britain’s bestselling energy drink.

... Coca-Cola has taken a similar approach with Monster, resulting in a £19.4m increase in sales of the standard variant, while low-calorie options soared by a further £14.1m.

I suppose that the execs at Suntory (the owner of Lucozade and Ribena) will be telling themselves that these figures all predate the sugar tax and that the money will roll in once people have to pay more for sugary options.

Unless they are totally mad, they must have taken the view that they would lose more sales from their drinks being more expensive than they would from making them taste disgusting. This was always a doubtful proposition and it now looks highly unrealistic. Would they really have lost more than 18.6% of sales if the price had gone up?

How much pain can the company take before the shareholders demand a U-turn?

Sunday 15 April 2018

Camilla Cavendish: authoritarian idiot

I have always assumed that David Cameron's weird penchant for nanny state regulation was the result of upper-middle class Tory paternalism. With the tobacco display ban, sugar tax and plain packaging, he outnannied Tony Blair.

But I am increasingly minded to believe that he endorsed so many patronising 'public health' gimmicks because he was being advised by ignorant, authoritarian fools. Articles like this from his former adviser Clare Foges support this view, as does this astonishing piece by Camilla Cavendish in the Financial Times...

How to take on ‘Big Sugar’ and win

Straight away we have the David and Goliath delusion of 'public health' lobbyists, as if the soft drinks industry was ever a threat to government.

In trying to ward off obesity, we are fighting our addiction to sugar. And we are up against an industry that risks rapidly becoming the 21st-century equivalent of Big Tobacco. I hope that doesn’t sound hysterical.

It does and it is.

Back in 2015, when I worked in Number 10 Downing Street, there was a mortifying moment when I was called a “health fascist” by one of David Cameron’s other advisers. We had just come out of the prime minister’s office, where I had been arguing that we should tax fizzy drinks. I was taken aback to hear myself described as fascist. I’d been against the smoking ban, I’d campaigned to legalise drugs, and I loathe the nanny state.

What, you might wonder, turned this supposed libertarian into the howling crank we now see before us?

The trouble was, I had come up against the horror of the obesity epidemic. As a mother, I’d experienced the full force of pester power.

Of course. Parenthood. The state must act to prevent children nagging their parents. God forbid that children might have to be told 'no' once in a while.

In Britain, one in 10 children are already obese when they arrive at primary school at the age of five. That doubles to one in five when they leave primary school, aged 10 or 11.

As I explained at length here and here, the childhood obesity figures are based on a definition of obesity that has no credibility and is never used by clinicians. As a result, the statistics are vastly inflated. I doubt there is a school in the country where you would identify one in five children as being obese. 'As a mother', Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice should have noticed this at the school gates.

Consumers are understandably confused. For decades, we were warned off saturated fat. A profitable industry grew up selling “low-fat” processed foods. But these are a con. To make them tasty, manufacturers stuff them with carbohydrates and sugar. These create spikes in blood sugar levels, which lead to addictive cravings when blood sugar falls. The health consequences are dire: insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity. 

It seems that Cavendish has fallen in with the LCHF (low carb, high fat) crowd who have been gleefully retweeting the FT article. Were the initial warnings about saturated fat overblown? Almost certainly. Did sugar replace fat in reduced-fat products? In some instances, yes. Nevertheless, Britons are consuming significantly less sugar than we did in the 1980s, a fact that Cavendish chooses to ignore (or is unaware of).

Big Food offering low-fat cakes is the equivalent of Big Tobacco offering low-tar cigarettes. They make us feel better about ourselves, while keeping us hooked.

This is second of several references to Big Tobacco from a woman who doesn't wish to be viewed as 'hysterical'. Leaving aside the obvious differences between a cake and a cigarette, a low fat cake would be better for you (in terms of weight gain) if it had fewer calories. It might not taste very nice but you'd better get used to it because it is the explicit policy of Public Health England to reduce fat, sugar and calories from nearly everything by twenty per cent over the next few years, including cakes.

The tragedy is that some scientists have known about the pernicious effects of sugar for 40 years. In 1972, when health experts were wondering how to explain an explosion in heart disease, the leading British nutritionist John Yudkin...

Blah, blah, blah. This is the standard LCHF rewriting of history in which sugar-hating Yudkin was a genius and he was silenced by Big Carb.

Industry successfully — and deliberately, according to documents recently unearthed at the University of California — shifted the blame to fat.

The documents were 'unearthed' by our old friend Stanton Glantz who, on the basis that you can't libel scientists if they're dead, used them to create an absurd conspiracy theory that has since been comprehensively debunked in this Science article (which I wrote about here).

What we now know is that sugar is as addictive as cigarettes. The American paediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig has argued...

Yes, I thought Robert Lustig would get a mention. Whose fringe view will be cited next? Malhotra's? DiNicolantonio's? Suffice to say, most scientists do not think that sugar is addictive and I do not consider Lustig, a purveyor of junk science who denies that breast milk is sweet and who claims that pasta was invented in America, to be a reliable source of information.

I read Lustig while I was working as a leader writer and columnist at The Times. Battling exhaustion after my third child, and sitting opposite a dear friend who practically mainlined Coca-Cola, I fell into the habit of needing a Coke and chocolate bar before every deadline. Since I was filing copy every day, my consumption of sugar was considerable. And pretty soon the chocolate bar was no longer a single small, elegant Green & Black’s, but a string of Yorkie bars.

This cannot help but bring to mind Alan Partridge's Toblerone habit ("I would wake up in the middle of the night and eat an entire Toblerone. And I don't mean a small one, I mean a medium-sized one"). The writers of I'm Alan Partridge picked chocolate 'addiction' because it is the lamest equivalent of a drug or alcohol habit imaginable; because it is not really an addiction and its consequences are trivial.

This kind of “mindless eating” has been brought to life, hilariously and poignantly, in experiments by Brian Wansink of Cornell University... Wansink opened my eyes to just how much we humans are influenced by our peers, and by portion size.

Two things should you know about Wansink. Firstly, he opposes the kind of nanny state interventions that Cavendish supports because he acknowledges that they are unlikely to produce benefits and are certain to incur costs. Secondly, he is at the centre of the replication crisis in the social sciences after academics spotted numerous irregularities in his studies. He is not the best person to be citing at the moment.

I wanted us to target what worked, not launch an all-out assault on lifestyles. And so did Cameron, my boss. He was instinctively wary of the nanny state. He did, however, regret not having introduced minimum alcohol pricing...

Not that wary, then. Why can't these people acknowledge what they are?

We looked at Mexico, where a sugar tax substantially reduced fizzy drinks purchases by the poorest. 

No it didn't.

We sat down with Jamie Oliver...

Of course you did.

 ...the celebrity chef and health campaigner, who presented the prime minister with a framed graph showing how poor children fare worst from the onslaught of junk food. That graph sat by the prime minister’s desk for months. And it was that argument — that obesity hurts the poor, and that sugar drives obesity — that convinced him about the sugar tax.

I've never heard of such a graph and am doubtful that the data exists to create one. Since it has had such a profound effect on public policy, shouldn't it be made public so that we can judge its veracity?

The tax could never be enough on its own. But we did hope it would reduce purchasing — especially by the teenagers who were getting, unbelievably, a third of their daily calories from fizzy drinks.

You what?! 11-18 year olds get less than five per cent of their calories from soft drinks (including fruit juice). It's scary that somebody who was at the heart of government lobbying for anti-sugar policies is so oblivious to the basic facts.

To be fair to Big Food, many companies argue that they are simply selling what people like.

'Big Food' is correct. Leave us alone.

My problem is that they don’t deal with the reality of a public health crisis brought on by our inability to resist junk, described so eloquently by Lustig and Wansink.

If I may say so, Camilla, your problem is that you've learned everything you know about nutrition from the fringes of pop science. Try speaking to a dietitian or biologist who doesn't have a book to sell.

The sugar tax shows, however, that regulation needn’t be disastrous if it’s universal. It has also showed that it’s possible for companies to change their ingredients quickly.

Consumers hate the newly reformulated Irn-Bru, Lucozade and Ribena. Lucozade lost £25 million after they created Victory Lucozade.

Reformulating food is much more complicated, for the obvious reason that processed foods contain far more ingredients than drinks (and if you remove all sugar from a cake, it will simply collapse and look like a soufflé). 

It's not just 'more complicated'. It is impossible in most cases, which is why Public Health England has largely given up the fantasy of reformulation and told companies to simply make their products smaller.

But if we humans are terrible at digesting health advice, it would be far better if responsible companies could remove temptation from us at source, rather than try and convince millions of us to change.

Millions of us do not need to change and millions more don't want to change. The fact that you used to eat too many Yorkie bars is not our problem.

There is already a model. In the 2000s, a UK government-business partnership reduced salt in many processed foods by 15 per cent. The same could be done for sugar.

The government has been doing this since 2015. Do try and keep up. 

What would I do next? I believe we need to start treating sugar like nicotine. 

Is this, by any chance, the slippery slope of regulation that the anti-smokers assured us was a figment of libertarian imaginations?

That means putting a health warning on the packet, not complex labels in small print that few of us can make sense of when we’re rushing down a supermarket aisle.

As some wag on Twitter pointed out, Yorkie bars are explicitly marketed as being 'not for girls' but that warning didn't deter Cavendish.

I’d like to see a clear, unequivocal health warning on processed food and drink in a universal language: one that Jamie Oliver suggested to me while demonstrating vividly with a can of Coke and a bowl of sugar. You simply show consumers the number of teaspoons of sugar each product contains.

A stupid idea from a stupid individual that would divert attention from the most important piece of information: the calorie count.

Governments have a moral and financial responsibility to tackle obesity.

They do not. They have a moral responsibility to allow people to live as they like so long as they do not harm others. Fat people may not be aesthetically appealing but they do not harm others. It makes essentially no difference to me whether the obesity rate is 20, 30 or 40 per cent. By contrast, sin taxes, bans and reformulations have a significantly detrimental effect on me.

I don't want my life to be regulated by experts and I certainly don't want it to be regulated by gullible ex-journalists and Jamie fricking Oliver. The fact that people like Camilla Cavendish can have such a strong influence on government policy is a perfect argument for small government.

So although it may be slower than I would like, I do think the reckoning is coming for Big Food. 

Big Food will be fine. They're doing nicely out of Public Health England's shrinkflation scam. It's ordinary consumers who need to be worried.

Aren't you glad that we have the Conservatives in power instead of those bossy socialists?

Thursday 12 April 2018

Junk science about junk food advertising

A study about 'junk food' marketing was published last October and got a bit of attention in the media with headlines like...

Kiwi kids bombarded with junk food ads - study


Kiwi kids are exposed to 27 junk food advertisements a day, study finds

As you might have guessed, the study looked at 'exposure' to junk food advertising among children in New Zealand. The researchers put a small camera on a bunch of 11 to 14 year olds for a few days to see what they were seeing. The cameras took a photo every seven seconds and provided the researchers with 1.3 million frames of footage.

The study concluded:

Children in this study were frequently exposed, across multiple settings, to marketing of non-core foods not recommended to be marketed to children.

I didn't pay much attention to this when it came out, although I vaguely remember it crossing my radar. I was reminded of it this week when I saw that the publishing company responsible, BMC, had made a video about it.

I had assumed that the study would be junk. I have been following the field of 'public health' for long enough to know that any study that ends with a political call to action is going to be at least partially fraudulent. But I hadn't guessed how bad it was.

The graphic below summarises the findings. The kids supposedly saw more than twice as much marketing for 'unhealthy' food as they did for 'healthy' food. This wouldn't be too surprising because there is relatively little advertising for raw fruit and vegetables. (What would be the point? They're generally homogenous and unbranded.)

So the kids were 'exposed' to 'non-core food marketing' 27 times a day. But it transpires that the vast majority of the 'marketing' was not marketing as most people understand it and it was certainly not 'advertising', as the media reports claimed.

Of the 27 'exposures', 17 involved nothing more that kids seeing food products, often while they were consuming them. Thanks to the BMC video and several news reports, we can see for ourselves how ridiculous this is.

Amazing, isn't it? Every time you think you've seen it all from the 'public health' racket they find a new way of flabbering your gast. Their latest wheeze is to portray kids glancing at the food they are eating as marketing. Children bombarding themselves with junk food advertising! You've got to hand it to them. It's ingenious.

These 'exposures' make up two-third of the total. Most of the rest are signs inside and outside of shops, accounting for a further 7.6 frames per day. The number of actual advertisements seen is incredibly small. The kids saw an average of 0.2 'junk food' advertisements on television per day and an average of 0.6 in print media. No wonder the authors had to widen the definition of 'marketing' so dramatically. If they had actually looked at 'junk food advertising' they would have been forced to admit that kids hardly see any of it.

Once you understand what this study was actually measuring, the conclusions of the authors seem almost comic. In their study, they say...

This research suggests that children live in an obesogenic food marketing environment that promotes obesity as a normal response to their everyday environment.

It doesn't, of course. It shows that these kids, their friends and their families prefer eating 'non-core' food products and that these products are, naturally enough, visible to them while they eat them.

You might forgive the media for assuming that the 'exposures' counted in the study were advertisements, but the researchers clearly knew that they were not. As such, the press release from their university can only be seen as a deliberate attempt to deceive...

New Zealand children are exposed to around 27 unhealthy food advertisements per day, innovative camera research from Otago and Auckland Universities reveals.

... Lead researcher Associate Professor Louise Signal says the study provides further evidence of the need for urgent action to reduce children’s exposure to marketing of unhealthy foods.

“Children in the study were exposed to unhealthy food ads in multiple places via multiple media – including an average of seven unhealthy food ads at school and eight in public places.

“These junk food ads are littering children’s lives,” says Associate Professor Signal, from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, Wellington.

'Public health' is so incorrigibly dishonest, it takes your breath away.

The authors note that most of this 'advertising' takes place in the home and at school. Of course it does. That is where kids eat their meals. But for our intrepid 'public health' researchers, this is a shocking finding:

Particularly concerning is the amount of exposure in school, an environment where children’s health is required to be protected under NZ law, and which the ECHO Commission states should be free of such marketing.

It's not marketing, it's packaging! Surely they are not recommending plain packaging for 'non-core' food?

No, wait. They are...

Given that over two-thirds of marketing is in the form of food packaging, consideration should be given to plain packaging in some specific cases (e.g. sugar sweetened beverages) as a highly effective intervention in this arena.

You can't make this stuff up. And, of course, they told the media:

"It is time for government regulation of food marketing."

By the way, if you're a New Zealand taxpayer, you may want to look away now.

The researchers received $800,000 in funding from the Health Research Council.

What a racket.

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Good riddance to bad sockpuppets

Every time a parasitic killjoy pressure group loses its taxpayer funding an angel gets its wings, but this announcement was particularly special...

Two leading Canadian anti-tobacco groups to shut down after Ottawa fails to provide funding

The two award-winning Canadian non-profit groups that led the fight against smoking and tobacco products in Canada and around the world are preparing to close their doors after the money they expected to see in the most recent federal budget failed to materialize.

The Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) and Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada (PSC) have been limping along on a combination of savings, provincial help, and the work of volunteers since their federal funding was cut by the former Conservative government in 2012.

How telling it is that the loss of state funding forces these sockpuppets to close down. They don't lay a few people off. They don't search for alternative funding. They are so dependent on the involuntary donations of taxpayers that they immediately close their doors. We saw the same thing happen with the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia a few years ago.

...the NSRA is now down to a single staff member in Montreal, has closed its Ottawa office, and is in the process of closing the main office in Toronto. Its next campaigns would have been aimed at getting tobacco out of corner stores and creating rules around second-hand smoke in multi-unit housing.

Banning the sale of cigarettes in corner shops and prohibiting people from smoking in their own flats? You can see why these vile people struggle to raise donations from the general public. Good riddance to them.

But what makes this case of defunding extra special is the reallocation of the cash...

...the government says the $11-million that was committed to the strategy this year and the $16-million promised next year will be used to stop the influx of contraband tobacco...

How very symbolic! Years of fanatical anti-smoking activity has led to a booming black market in Canada, despite repeated assurances from tobacco control quacks who insist - absurdly - that high taxes and hyper-regulation do not incentivise illicit trade. How fitting that the filthy lucre earmarked for anti-smoking liars will instead be used to alleviate the damage their policies have done.

Meanwhile, in Britain...

Thursday 5 April 2018

Sin taxes and the poor

The Tories' regressive sugar tax begins tomorrow and so the Lancet (a student union magazine masquerading as a medical journal) is trying to seize the narrative by devoting a whole issue to the wonders of taxation. As with the Gates-funded Telegraph advertorial published last week, it frames sin taxes around the silly panic about 'non-communicable diseases'.

One of Bloomberg's minions has written the main editorial. Absurdly, he claims that sin taxes do not disproportionately hit the poor. On the contrary, he says, people on below-average incomes benefit the most from them.

I have written a rejoinder for Spectator Health.

A key reason why such taxes are unpopular is that they are regressive. Excise taxes on everyday products almost invariably take a greater share of income from the poor than from the rich. Taxes on tobacco, fast food and soft drinks are doubly regressive because people on below-average incomes tend to consume more of them in the first place.

This is not a notion that is ‘outdated, misleading, or simply wrong’. It is a demonstrable fact. In Britain, the poorest decile spend 34 per cent of their disposable income on indirect taxes, including 2.9 per cent on tobacco duty and 2.0 per cent on alcohol duty. For the richest decile, the equivalent figures are 14 per cent, 0.1 per cent and 0.9 per cent respectively. There is no doubt that the sugar tax will be similarly regressive when it comes into effect on Friday.

If you were employed by one of the world’s richest men to lobby for higher taxes on the poor, you might start to wonder if you were one of the baddies. Summers’ editorial seems designed to help him and his readers sleep easier at night by redefining the meaning of the word ‘regressive’ and engaging in some wishful thinking about the efficacy of such policies.

Do have a read of it.

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Puritans in health and feminism

I did the IEA podcast recently with Kate Andrews and Joanna Williams. Between conversations about the nanny state and the #metoo movement, we tried the new formulations of Irn-Bru and Lucozade.

You can listen on iTunes by subscribing to the IEA or click below...