Friday 29 June 2018

Legalise it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Register for free here.

Thursday 28 June 2018

Children gambling - another moral panic

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

More children gamble than go bowling or skateboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can anybody say 'moral panic'?

Wednesday 27 June 2018

The cost of vice in Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 26 June 2018

The childhood obesity strategy

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

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

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

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

Sunday 24 June 2018

The growing war on food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I put out a comment for the IEA yesterday:

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

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

Friday 22 June 2018

Why 5%? The sugar guidelines revisited

Looking at those sugar guidelines for Spectator Health...

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

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

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

Do read the rest.

Wednesday 20 June 2018

Scotland's new tobacco plan unveiled

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

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

Banning smoking in the home...

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

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

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

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

Conditional registration or licencing of retail or changes to planning guidance

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

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

Introduce standardised packaging for HTP

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

Giving more money to hateful sockpuppet pressure groups...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These people are off their heads.

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

Monday 18 June 2018

An endless series of hobgoblins

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

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

Friday 15 June 2018

The Lancet has become a laughing stock

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 14 June 2018

The EU's taxpayer-funded racket

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 12 June 2018

Junk polling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 11 June 2018

The Truthiness about Carbs

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

Forgotten moonshine

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 6 June 2018

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

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

As I say today at Spectator Health...

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

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

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

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

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

Do read it all.

Saturday 2 June 2018

Sarah Wollaston is wrong on so many levels

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

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

This is bad logic, bad economics and bad philosophy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 1 June 2018

Sugar taxes happily absent from WHO report

The World Health Organisation published its report on 'non-communicable diseases' this morning. It's full of coercive paternalism, naturally, but despite intense lobbying by Michael Bloomberg and the state-funded nanny state racket, taxes on food and soft drink are conspicuous by their absence.

I've just been watching the webcast of the launch event in which the WHO had to defend itself from the predictable but absurd allegation that the panel was in the pocket of Big Sugar/Big Soda. It was made clear that many of the panel members would have been happy for sugar taxes to be included as one of the WHO's 'best buys' but that it was impossible to get consensus because other members recognised that there was insufficient evidence that they actually worked.

Bizarrely, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus repeatedly stated that the report would not change the WHO's position on sugar taxes (which has been rabidly pro for the last two years).

When asked why he bothered commissioning the report if he was going to ignore its findings, Tedros said that he agreed with 99 per cent of it, so it didn't matter if he ignored the little bits he disagreed with.

I put a comment out for the IEA earlier, saying:

“The WHO’s decision to exclude taxes on food and drink from its list of formal recommendations is welcome. Sugar taxes have never reduced obesity anywhere. They only raise the cost of living and clobber people on low incomes.

The WHO’s independent panel recognises that the evidence for sugar taxes is insufficient for them to be included as ‘best buys’. Although the WHO continues to support sin taxes on tobacco and alcohol, the exclusion of food and drink is good news for the world’s poor.”

Incidentally, I was interested to see this brief report in the Seattle Times...

The World Health Organization is backing away from its own call two years ago for taxing sugary drinks, in a new report that some experts slammed as being “conspicuously limp.”

In 2016, the U.N. health agency urged countries to tax sugar-laden drinks like sodas and sport drinks as a way to fight obesity and diabetes. Back then, it said a 20 percent price increase in such drinks would dramatically cut consumption.

But in a report published Friday, WHO experts pointedly dropped any recommendation to tax sugary beverages. WHO said that regarding sugar taxation, “some views were conflicting and could not be resolved.”

Jack Winkler, an emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, said that amid the rising obesity epidemic, WHO’s failure to recommend sugar taxation was “particularly absurd.”

Could this be the same Jack Winkler who wrote an article titled 'Why soft drink taxes won't work' (2012)? The same Jack Winkler who wrote in 2013...

...the core conclusion remains unaltered: soft drinks taxes will not work.

The same Jack Winkler who wrote in 2015 that soda taxes are 'especially regressive taxes that disproportionately affect poorer people' and are 'economically ineffective'...

Why are we still debating this idea? Nutrition policy needs price instruments but a more positive selection. Sugar taxes are unlikely to be adopted and would not make much difference if they were.

By George, I think it is!

Vaping, Juuling and junk science

I was on the podcast this week with Ian Dunt and Lion Shahab talking about vaping. Get it in your lugholes.

I have also written for Cap-X about the latest attempt to resurrect the gateway hypothesis for e-cigarettes...

There is much to be learnt about the vaping phenomenon but while those who study the science are cautious in their conclusions, prohibitionist hucksters yell soundbites from the roof. This, combined with the media’s love of a good scare story, has allowed junk science to flourish and cranks to prosper.

Do have a read.