Friday 31 August 2018

Red Bullshit

The government announced a ban on the sale of energy drinks to 'children' yesterday. This was actually announced in the childhood obesity strategy months ago, but there was so many awful proposals in the strategy that no one really noticed it.

It became front page news yesterday because the government has launched the public consultation and because it's August. I wrote about the policy for Spectator Health (spoiler: I'm agin).

His restaurant empire may be falling apart but Jamie Oliver can console himself that he’s still running the country. At the start of the year, the celebrity chef launched a campaign to ban the sale of energy drinks to children. When Mr Oliver says jump, the government invariably says ‘how high?’, and so it came to pass – a mere eight months later – that Theresa May has interrupted her overseas trip to announce such a ban.

Do read it all.

See also this Daily Mail article about a 'backlash' against the proposal that seems to be just me.

Thursday 30 August 2018

Oppose the EU vape tax

The EU has been eyeing up a tax on e-cigarettes for a while and its public consultation will be closing on September 3rd. Time is therefore running out if you want to respond.

The consultation also asks about taxation of tobacco products, including conventional cigarettes and heat-not-burn.

There is no reason why the EU should be getting involved with any of this, but no doubt the nanny state lobby will be inundating the consultation with responses, so take ten minutes out of your day and let them know what you think.

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Money and drugs

I was interviewed by Paul North from Volteface recently for CLG.TV, the TV station for local government. We discussed free market solutions to the war on drugs.

As cannabis legalisation gains favour with the public, it's important to set out a blueprint of how the market should be regulated. I disagree with the regulation junkies at Transform who want prices to remain high and consumers treated like hospital patients. There are some who want alcohol, tobacco and cannabis to be regulated in the same draconian way, with plain packaging, advertising bans and high taxes. You might not be surprised to hear that I favour a more liberal approach that reduces harm and restricts underage access.

Watch the video here.

And don't forget that you can watch all six of the short videos from the High Time to Legalise Cannabis event here.

Tuesday 28 August 2018

Would moderate drinking be 'financially ruinous' for the booze industry?

Last week I discussed a laughably inept study from the Sheffield alcohol team and the Institute of Alcohol Studies which claimed that a 38 per cent cut in alcohol consumption - caused by drinkers suddenly deciding to drink 'moderately' - would reduce expenditure on alcohol by £13 billion in England.

From this plausible premise they went badly wrong by claiming that the booze industry would have to raise prices by £13 billion to make up for the loss. The lead author, IAS's Aveek Bhattacharya, claimed that their study proved that such a loss of revenue would be 'financially ruinous' for the alcohol industry.

In the IAS/Sheffield model, the price of a pint of beer would need to rise by £2.64 and a bottle of spirits would need to rise by £12.25. The underlying message is clear: people won't be prepared to pay this premium, therefore the industry's business model depends on selling 'cheap' alcohol to heavy drinkers.

I wrote about this here on Velvet Glove, Iron Fist and also at the Spectator. I explained that companies set profit targets, not revenue targets, and that if the booze industry increased prices by an extra £13 billion while selling 38 per cent less product, it would not be breaking even, it would be getting fantastically rich.

I expect that most readers understood what I was saying. It's not even a question of understanding economics. You just need to have some common sense and a basic idea of how business works. 

But it seems that one or two people are still confused, including one of the authors of the paper, so I'll explain it again with pictures.

The authors used figures from 2014 when the alcohol market was worth £35 billion in England. The authors describe this as the alcohol industry's revenue, but it isn't because £10.5 billion of it was duty and VAT.

Where does the rest of the money go? A lot of it goes on making the product, paying staff, investing in infrastructure, deliveries and so on. Some of it goes towards paying for the retailers' overheads, whether they are bars, restaurants, clubs or shops. The retailer then gets a cut and then the booze company takes its share.

How much profit are we talking? Ten per cent would be a healthy and fairly typical margin. Let's say that the retailer also gets ten per cent, although margins in retail vary enormously, with supermarkets typically only making around two per cent. 

The image below offers a reasonable estimate of where the money spent on alcohol goes...

To simplify matters, let's assume that the £35 billion comes entirely from 10 billion pints of lager being sold at £3.50 each. Here's where the money from each pint goes...

When sales fall by 38 per cent, spending drops to £22 billion (according to the IAS/Sheffield and there is no need to quibble with that for the purposes of this illustration). We are now only selling 6.2 billion pints and the industry's profit has fallen from £3.5 billion to £2.17 billion. The retailers' profit has also fallen to £2.17 billion. Since we are producing less beer, our costs have fallen by 38 per cent and the government has 38 per cent less beer to tax.

Alcohol industry profits have plunged to £2.17 billion. To get back to its £3.5 billion profit, it needs an increase of around 60 per cent. If it was going to achieve this by selling more beer, it would require the public to spend an extra £13 billion, but that's not going to happen because Dame Sally has persuaded everybody to stick to 14 units a week.

Fortunately, it doesn't need people to spend an extra £13 billion. It only needs them to spend an extra £1.33 billion on the beer that's already being drunk (£2.17bn + £1.33bn = £3.5bn).

(Note: In standard economics, we would assume that raising prices would lead to a further drop in consumption, but in the IAS/Sheffield scenario the raising of the prices and the 38 per cent drop in consumption happens simultaneously so don't worry about that.)

To get an extra £1.33 billion out of 6.2 billion pints requires a price hike of 21.5p per pint. With VAT, this means a price rise of 26p to a grand total of £3.76. In total, it requires a retail price rise of 7.2%.

The important thing to note is that there are no other upward pressures on costs. When sales fell by 38 per cent, pubs closed, redundancies were made and production was scaled down. If the industry was trying to make £1.33 billion by selling more beer, it would have to scale production up to make the damn stuff, but that isn't what's happening.

If more beer was being sold, the government would collect more beer duty, but that isn't happening either. Whether the beer costs £2 or £10 makes no difference to beer duty. Alcohol duty is a fixed cost charged by the litre.

With a 26p price hike, the industry is making the same profit as before despite total spending on alcohol having fallen from £35 billion to £23 billion.

IAS/Sheffield include all pubs, restaurants, bars, convenience stores and supermarkets as part of the 'alcohol industry' even though they are part of the hospitality and retail industry, but that's OK (although it means that their demand for the 'alcohol industry' to be excluded from policy making is more far-reaching than it appears). Retailers can also return to their previous profit by adding 26p to their retail price.

If both sectors raise their price by 26p, total expenditure on alcohol is around £25 billion and both the retail and alcohol industries are getting the £3.5 billion profit that they are accustomed to. The taxman is getting an extra £0.5 billion in VAT and the price of a pint has gone from £3.50 to £4.02, a jump of 14.8%.

The 'alcohol industry' has increased its margin by 60 per cent and yet the price to consumers has risen by only 15 per cent.

52p is not a trivial price hike but it is approximately the difference between a pint of Fosters and a pint of Peroni in the current market. And that's the point. It is clearly not ridiculous to imagine people paying this kind of premium, especially if they are drinking fewer pints. Many consumers are already doing so.

The mistake made by IAS/Sheffield is assuming that the price of alcohol needs to go up by 60 per cent for the industry's profits to go up by 60 per cent. That would be true if it was trying to make more money by selling more alcohol, but it is not true when moving from a budget market to a premium market.

The figures shown above are designed only to illustrate a basic economic point. There are other considerations, such as how many of the costs are fixed and what the economies of scale are, which would need examining before a more exact estimate could be made. We do not know - and IAS/Sheffield do not ask - how much the production costs differ between Fosters and Peroni, nor do we know what the respective profit margins are. It is, however, safe to say that the profit margin on premium brands like Peroni is higher in both absolute and relative terms. That is why the industry wants us to buy them. In no conceivable scenario would prices have to rise by 60 per cent, or anything close to it.

It is therefore perfectly possible for the industry - however it is defined - to make the same amount of money from selling a smaller quantity of pricier alcohol than a larger quantity of cheaper alcohol. Revenue is totally irrelevant and, therefore, the IAS/Sheffield study that focuses entirely on revenue does not answer the question it sets itself.

Whether this could actually happen in real life is another matter. It seems to me that it would require a combination of cartel behaviour and mass brainwashing, but that is not the point. IAS/Sheffield suggest that it is almost mathematically impossible for the industry to profit from moderate drinkers because prices would have to rise to unfeasible heights. Their hypothesis is that the industry 'depends on heavy drinkers' and would face financial ruin without them. This is nonsense. As I mentioned last week, the industry has done fine since 2004 despite an 18 per cent drop in consumption.

In every industry, the manufacturer's net profit margin is very small relative to total expenditure on the product. This is especially true in the alcohol industry where prices are inflated by hefty sin taxes. We know that tax amounts to about 30 per cent of retail price and various production, marketing and retail costs make up the bulk of the rest. The price rise needed to offset the lost profit may be greater or smaller than that suggested above, depending on what the margins are in practice, but it should be obvious that it would be a fraction of what IAS/Sheffield claim.

Monday 27 August 2018

Nanny statist arrested

You may be familiar with Thomas Frieden. He led the charge for sky-high tobacco taxes in New York and was the architect of the city's draconian smoking ban...

Although Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is more closely associated with a law that bans smoking citywide, the legislation was actually developed by Dr. Frieden, who was also given responsibility for helping to push it through the City Council.

He pushed for a ban on large servings of fizzy drinks (thankfully overturned by the courts) and is a keen supporter of sin taxes on soft drinks...

In 2009, Frieden took to the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine to sell the need for a soda tax. “It is difficult to imagine producing behavior change of this magnitude through education alone, even if government devoted massive resources to the task,” Frieden wrote. “Only heftier taxes will significantly reduce consumption.”

After persecuting smokers in New York, he became the head of the Centers for Disease Control where he conflated vaping with tobacco and lied about e-cigarettes...

It is shameful that the CDC, the nation’s leading institute of public health, doesn’t acknowledge the value of e-cigarettes as a substitute for cancer-causing cigarettes.

In an ad campaign launched three weeks ago, Dr. Frieden, a longtime critic of vaping, went so far as to warn that e-cigarettes do not help people quit and even lead to collapsed lungs. These claims are patently false but they are part of a larger anti-e-cigarette agenda that simply keeps smokers puffing on deadly cigarettes – after all, why switch if vaping is as bad as smoking?

Since leaving the CDC, he has been given a fortune by his old mate Michael Bloomberg to promote his illiberal lifestyle regulation agenda worldwide.

And so I am delighted to report that he's been arrested.

Former CDC head Tom Frieden charged with forcibly touching woman

Dr. Thomas Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was arrested Friday and charged with forcible touching, according to the New York Police Department.

A law enforcement official told CNN that authorities filed three charges against Frieden stemming from an alleged incident in his home in Brooklyn Heights in October.

 Frieden, 57, who left the CDC in January 2017, was arraigned in Brooklyn Criminal Court to face one count of forcible touching, one count of sex abuse in the third degree and one count of harassment in the second degree, authorities said. He was released on his own recognizance.

It's important to stress that these are only allegations and nothing has been proven. The same applies to the alleged sex pest Stanton Glantz. These men are innocent until proven guilty and it is not for us to speculate about whether they are a pair of criminals who have got their comeuppance.

Friday 24 August 2018

The return of "no safe level of drinking"

In 2012, I wrote a post on this blog titled 'Towards Zero':

For the last couple of years I have been predicting that the time will come when the recommended drinking guidelines (colloquially known as "limits") will fall to zero. One day we will be told that the daily/weekly units system is too confusing for the plebs and that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. The best advice, the experts will say, is to not drink at all.

I predicted this not because the evidence of health benefits from moderate consumption was getting weaker - it was getting stronger and has continued to do so - but because it would be politically expedient for the 'public health' lobby if the optimal level of drinking was zero.  

History told us this, as I said in a subsequent post:

The reason I have predicted that the 'no safe level of alcohol' and 'alcohol has no medicinal benefit' claims will gather pace in the years ahead—despite plenty of evidence that they are lies—is because they were two of the core beliefs of the nineteenth century temperance movement. They were integral to the nonsense of Scientific Temperance Instruction and they helped clear the way for full Prohibition in the twentieth century.

But it is not twentieth century prohibitionists who provide the blueprint for the twenty-first century war on alcohol. It is the modern anti-smoking lobby. Charles Moore was perceptive enough to see this after Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, made her 'no safe level' remark in 2016...

The model in their minds is tobacco. Having succeeded in virtually outlawing smoking, they want to do the same with alcohol. If they can create the public “fact” that there is no such thing as safe drinking, they can then attack everyone who brews, distills, makes wine, or runs a pub, club or restaurant, for pushing something which is unsafe. They can also have a go at anyone who advertises any of the above, and insist on health warnings and, later, bans.

The health benefits of moderate consumption make no difference to the liberal and economic arguments against anti-alcohol policies. Informed adults should be free to drink as much as they like so long as any external costs are internalised through Pigouvian taxation.

But they are a real headache for anti-alcohol campaigners, hence the concerted effort to convince the public - and, more importantly, politicians - that they do not exist.

And yet the J-Curve (below) showing lower rates of mortality at moderate rates of drinking survives, and while efforts to undermine it have gained pace in recent years, it has been a stop-start affair. Every now and again, Tim Stockwell will pop up with a cherry-picked meta-analysis to 'debunk' it but then a string of new epidemiological studies will be published confirming the benefits of drinking for dementia, cardiovascular disease and overall mortality.

Modelling provides the campaigners with their solution. Let's be blunt. You can make a model say anything, as Public Health England proved when they told the Sheffield University Alcohol Research Group to change their model to justify lower guidelines.

A simple model can be useful for illustrating a theory and a predictive model is the best you can hope for when looking to the future, but recent years have seen the 'public health' lobby not only use models to predict the future (as with minimum pricing) but also to rewrite history (as when reviewing smoking bans and sugar taxes) and rewrite science itself (as with the guidelines).

Today's widely reported study in The Lancet is in the latter category. It represents the most concerted effort yet to erase the J-Curve and claim, as the prohibitionists once did, that every drink is deadly.

The study makes little attempt to hide the political agenda that inspired it. Here are some snippets...
These results suggest that alcohol control policies might need to be revised worldwide, refocusing on efforts to lower overall population-level consumption.
.. it is crucial for decision makers and government agencies to enact or maintain strong alcohol control policies today to prevent the potential for rising alcohol use in the future
Our results point to a need to revisit alcohol control policies and health programmes, and to consider recommendations for abstention.
Governments should consider how these recommendations can be implemented within their local contexts and broader policy platforms, including excise taxes on alcohol, controlling the physical availability of alcohol and the hours of sale, and controlling alcohol advertising.

The results themselves - even if they were true - would not imply a particular set of policy recommendations. This is pure editorialising, and there is more of it elsewhere in the journal with an op-ed which emphasises that the study provides 'strong support for the guideline published by the Chief Medical Officer of the UK who found that there is “no safe level of alcohol consumption"' and calls for 'a minimum price per unit (MUP), closely followed by marketing regulation, and restrictions on the physical availability of alcohol'.

Tellingly, the authors of the op-ed (who include Nick Sheron) claim that these are 'the most effective measures for curbing tobacco-related harms, another commercially mediated disease, with an increasing body of evidence showing that controlling obesity will require the same measures'. So much for there being no slippery slope.

The study virtually eliminates the J-Curve. I suspect we'll be seeing this graph a lot in the years ahead as decades of epidemiology are quietly discarded...

How did they do it? The study contains no new evidence and uses an unusual modelling approach based on population-wide data from various online sources. If you look at this massive appendix you can see the kind of data they were using. The figures are extremely crude.

The authors don't dispute the benefits of moderate drinking for heart disease but they claim that the benefits are matched by risks from other diseases at  low levels of consumption and are outweighed by the risks at higher levels of consumption. Some diseases which have been associated with benefits of drinking, such as dementia, are excluded from the analysis entirely. They also ignore overall mortality, which you might think was kind of important.

The study is essentially ecological (the weakest form of epidemiology), with the authors looking at alcohol consumption in different countries and comparing rates of disease. They say that one of the unique selling points of their study is that they adjust for under-reporting of alcohol in countries where there is a lot of illicit or illegally imported booze. They fail to note that illicit and surrogate alcohol, which is drunk in vast quantities in poor countries is inherently more dangerous than the stuff produced by Big Alcohol. Nevertheless, it is Big Alcohol they are gunning for.

The weakness of the methodology and the global perspective mean that the findings have little relevance to any individual country and have no relevance to developed countries like Britain. For example, the authors find a strong, linear association between alcohol consumption and tuberculosis which starts from the first drink. This makes moderate drinking seem riskier than previously suggested, but the risk of getting tuberculosis from drinking at any level in the UK is approximately zero so what relevance does it have to us?

If you want to know the effects of moderate drinking in western countries, look at the evidence from western countries (spoiler: it's good for you). If you want to know if drinkers live longer than teetotallers, you follow large groups of people over time and track their rates of disease and overall mortality. You don't try and work it out by going online to find national averages from vastly different societies, nor do you confine your analysis to alcohol-related diseases. 

The fact of the matter is that the modelled estimates in this study don't align with a mountain of epidemiological evidence (both cohort and case-control studies) and they don't even align with national estimates of disease prevalence (countries with higher rates of alcohol consumption have longer life expectancies). The study tries to do something with aggregate data from whole nations that is much better done by studying human beings. And it has been much better done by studying human beings, with the evidence showing time and time again that moderate drinkers live longer than teetotallers. 

This study is a fundamentally political piece of work and it is no surprise to see it published in the most political 'public health' journal. It is another step on the road to 'alcohol control' and is aimed at the delegates who will be attending next months UN meeting on 'non-communicable diseases'. Whatever its academic merits - and they are few - its ramifications for drinkers could yet be profound.

You can read my comment for the IEA about this here and David Spiegelhalter has some interesting thoughts here.

Thursday 23 August 2018

Amateur hour in alcohol research

The hired guns at the Sheffield University Alcohol Research Group have lowered the bar again. In making a relatively simple back-of-the-envelope calculation, they commit so many howlers that you wonder how it is possible for six people - all self-professed alcohol experts - to know so little about the business of selling alcohol.

Their aim was to prove that it is impossible for the booze industry to remain profitable if every drinker consumed the 14 units recommended by the Chief Medical Officer (after a corrupt process in which the Sheffield mob were culpable). The industry says that it is happy for people to drink less but better, ie. consume more expensive - and more profitable - drinks. Indeed, that is exactly what Britons have doing in recent years.

The Sheffield muppets, in collaboration with the so-called Institute for Alcohol Studies, want to demonstrate that people would be faced with unfeasibly high prices for industry profits to remain at their current level. They work out how much the industry would lose from people drinking less and then work out how much prices would need to rise for profits not to fall.

But they don't look at profits. They don't even look at turnover. They look at total consumer spending on alcohol (£35 billion in England) and slice off 38 per cent of it because this is what they estimate sales would decline by if everybody drank 'moderately'.

This is where they go wrong. As almost anybody could have told them, that £35 billion is not the alcohol industry's money. A very large chunk of it - more than £10 billion - goes to the taxman and billions more go to retailers, pubs and restaurants.

Moreover, only a sliver of what's left is profit and so the loss to booze industry profits would be only a fraction of what the authors claim, particularly since their overheads would be much lower once they are producing less product. Alcohol producers would not put up prices by £13 billion, as they claim, but by a relatively small amount (assuming they were able to - the authors admit that this is only a 'thought experiment').

If they did raise prices by £13 billion to make up for the supposed shortfall, they would become fabulously rich because they would be pulling in the same money for shifting 38 per cent less product. Any price rise would be pure profit with no marginal cost of production to worry about. There is no reason whatsoever for raising prices by such an amount and yet the authors claim that it would be 'financially ruinous' for them to do anything less.

It is the sheerest, blithering nonsense. If they had done their sums properly, the research would have demonstrated that an alcohol market in which people drink less but better is perfectly possible.

This is really, really basic stuff and yet it seems to have floored them. I have written about it for Spectator Health so do have a read.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Tobacco on TV

If your life ever seems pointless console yourself with the thought that you are not Jo Cranwell. Cranwell is an archetypal 'public health' researcher, a a psychologist with no background in health or medicine who spends most of her time watching television at the taxpayers' expense and demanding restrictions on freedom. She is a 21st century curtain-twitcher.

You may recall her from her essential work looking for 'inferred alcohol use' in Geordie Shore but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Her CV also includes looking for tobacco use in top-grossing films, looking for alcohol content on British television, looking for alcohol use in music videos, looking for tobacco content in music videos, and - in an exciting twist - looking for alcohol and tobacco content in music videos. All of this crucial research was paid for by the Department of Health.

She has now returned with 'Content analysis of tobacco content in UK television', a self-explanatory study in which she watched four hours of TV on the five terrestrial stations for three weeks each to see if she could find some 'tobacco content' to complain about.

Tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, including all TV advertising and paid product placement, is prohibited in the UK by the 2002 Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act. However, tobacco imagery included in TV programmes, including trailers, for artistic or editorial purposes is exempt from the Act, instead covered by the Office of Communications (OfCom) Broadcasting Code. 

Note the subtle way in which she implies that the depiction of tobacco use is a form of advertising. It is not, of course, and it was never exempted from the advertising ban because nobody in their right mind suggested it should be included in the first place.

But there's only one way to find out how much tobacco non-advertising appears on screen and that's to put your feet up and watch hundreds of hours of telly...

We analysed 420 hours of footage including 611 programmes, 909 adverts and 211 trailers. A total of 27 083 intervals of 1 min were coded, of which 22 960 were from programmes, 3663 from adverts and 460 from trailers.  

I guess it beats working for a living.

So what did she find?

Tobacco content occurred in 33% of all programmes and 8% of all adverts or programme trailer breaks... These findings are virtually unchanged from our earlier analysis of programme content from 2010. Audiovisual tobacco content remains common in UK television programmes. 

If 33% and 8% seem a bit high, you need to understand that Cranwell isn't just looking for people smoking. She is looking for...

The presence of tobacco or tobacco related materials, coded by the type of appearance (including cigarette or other tobacco pack, matches, lighter, ashtray, no smoking or smoking area signs).

That's right. A pack of matches, an empty ash tray and a no smoking sign all count as 'tobacco content', as does...

Any inferred tobacco use without any actual use onscreen (eg, holding a cigarette without actual smoking or a comment about going for a cigarette), coded as verbal or non-verbal.

Let's start with 'actual tobacco use' (which includes e-cigarettes, so it's not actually tobacco use). Note that Cranwell et al. split their viewing into one minute intervals, of which there were 27,083 in total. They were watching between 6pm and 10pm.

Actual tobacco use appeared in 207 intervals (1% of the total), in 76 (12%) of programmes and 13 (1%) of adverts/trailers. 

I cannot think of any TV commercials that have featured smoking in donkey's years, except for anti-smoking advertisements and nicotine replacement therapy, so I assume that is what the 'tobacco content' is. In other words, it is anti-tobacco content.

Then there is 'implied tobacco use'...

Implied tobacco use was found in 203 intervals (1% of all intervals) and in 118 of all broadcasts (programmes/adverts/trailers combined).

And what was the most common form of implied use?

Tobacco-related objects accounted for the most content appearing in 438 tobacco intervals (2% of total) and in 202 of all broadcasts. Up to 260 intervals (66%) containing tobacco-related objects occurred before the 21:00 watershed. No smoking signs accounted for the most tobacco-related objects.


Finally, there are 'tobacco brands'. As you might expect, there were very few of them and all but one appeared either in a news story about the illicit trade or in The Simpsons.

There were 11 intervals (37 actual appearances) which contained tobacco branding, occurring in seven different programmes. Most of these appearances arose from cigarette packets or tobacco boxes shown during two news reports on illegal cigarettes (five intervals, 45.5% of the total branding intervals) or from appearances of the fictitious brand ‘Laramie’, which featured in ‘The Simpsons’ (five intervals, 45.5% of the total branding intervals). There was only one appearance during a TV programme in one interval.

No detail is too small for this 'study' and so we get a full account of how an imaginary brand consumed by two unappealing and continuously coughing characters in The Simpsons is 'advertised'...

Moe’s Tavern, advert for Laramie cigarettes is visible; Kwik-E-Mart, a poster for Laramie stating ’Smoke em'; Supermarket, Selma and Patty buy packets of Laramie cigarettes; Truck has Laramie logo on the side; Moe’s bar, a poster on wall which says 'Try Laramie'.

And if you're wondering what the sole appearance of a real brand outside the news was in over 400 hours of television, it was in a drama called The Catch in which...
The skipper smokes a cigarette on the bridge with a non-smoking deckhand. In the galley, a branded tobacco packet can be seen.

This is risible stuff. Anybody can see that tobacco use is far less common on television than it is in real life. This is why Cranwell has to include no smoking signs, anti-smoking advertisements and news reports about illegal cigarette sales to make her point.

And what is her point? Surprise, surprise, it's that there should be more regulation/censorship...

This study demonstrates that tobacco content, including smoking, occurs frequently on UK prime-time TV in programmes which are likely to be viewed by young people, as such, this is likely to lead to experimentation and uptake among young children. We suggest that guidelines on tobacco content need to be revised and more carefully enforced to protect children from exposure to tobacco imagery and the consequent risk of smoking initiation.

Anybody else remember when all these people wanted was non-smoking sections in restaurants?

Friday 17 August 2018

E-cigarette reform and fake outcry

The Science and Technology Select Committee have published their report about e-cigarettes and it is rather good. Like most sensible people, they acknowledge that the EU's Tobacco Products Directive has set the vaping market back and suggest that the government should abandon the pointless and petty vaping regulations in Article 20 after Brexit. They also suggest repealing the crazy ban on snus, encourage employers to permit vaping in the workplace and reject the idea of taxing vape juice.

As I said in Vaping Solutions last year, this is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit for Brexit. Never mind the libertarian arguments for a moment, the health arguments for repealing legislation that makes it more difficult for smokers to quit are difficult to quibble with.

That hasn't stopped the usual suspects from throwing their toys out of their pram, however. The Daily Mail covered the story on its front page today with a claim about a non-existent 'outcry'.

Inevitably, the 'outcry' comes from Simon 'caps lock' Capewell and Martin 'toad' McKee, two dinosaurs who pop up with their nonsense whenever e-cigarettes are in the news. The fanatical anti-vaping hack Sarah Knapton sought them out for her Telegraph article, in which McKee is quoted as saying:

“Those involved in tobacco control outside England will be amazed at these conclusions although not entirely surprised as the committee took oral evidence almost entirely from individuals who are strong supporters of e-cigarettes."

The committee took evidence from, amongst others, Deborah Arnott (Action on Smoking and Health), Hazel Cheeseman (Action on Smoking and Health), John Newton (Public Health England), Gillian Leng (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), Steve Brine MP (public health minister), Tim Baxter (Department of Health), David Harrison (UK Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment), Jamie Brown (Deputy Director, Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group, University College London), Ian Hudson (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) and Heather Thomson (Nottinghamshire NHS).

If all these people are 'strong supporters of e-cigarettes' then maybe there's a lesson there for throwbacks like McKee?

In the same article, Capewell adds some bollocks about 'passive vaping' and claims that Big Tobacco is 'using e-cigarettes as a 'Trojan Horse' to normalise the act of smoking'. These two clowns will keep fighting to the bitter end but they are further from the mainstream than ever. History will be the judge of them and their 'outcry'.

I wrote about the need for e-cig reform in today's City AM. Click to enlarge.


Speaking of clowns, how's this for a stunted intellect?

Thursday 16 August 2018

Six reasons to legalise cannabis

On June 30th, the IEA and Volteface hosted an event in London to talk about cannabis legalisation. Six speakers from different fields gave a brief summary of their reasons for wanting prohibition to end. Here they are...

Andrew Boff, London Assembly Member (Conservative):

Richard Hurley, features editor at the British Medical Journal:

Neil Woods, Law Enforcement Action Partnership and author of Drug Wars:

Liz McCulloch, head of policy at Volteface:

Greg de Hoedt, founder of the UK Cannabis Social Clubs:

And me...

Wednesday 15 August 2018

A strange argument about obesity

George Monbiot has written an unfathomable article for the Guardian in which he blames the food industry for making people eat too much while admitting that people eat less than they used to.

I've written about it for Spectator Health.

Thursday 9 August 2018

A very Canadian booze revolution

Doug Ford, the brother of the late, great Rob Ford, is now the Premier of Ontario and has set about a populist revolution by cutting the minimum price of beer from $1.25 to $1.00. This represents a near abolition of minimum pricing for beer since it is difficult to manufacture and sell a beer for $1.00, let alone for less than that.

And as if that weren't enough to drive the temperance lobby to despair...

In order to encourage producers to lower their prices, Ford said his government would launch the buck-a-beer challenge, which would offer promotional programs, in-store displays and advertising to those who sell their beer at the minimum price.

There was a time when politicians offered the public cheaper beer in exchange for their vote. Since they fell under the spell of the nanny state lobby, the likes of Nicola Sturgeon seem to think that voters will mistake more expensive alcohol for freedom. Ford is turning back the clock and although the 'buck a beer' pledge hasn't gone down well with some of the breweries, even the BBC admits that his booze reforms are popular with the public.

I'm grateful to my Spectator Health colleague Mathieu Vaillaincourt for sending me this report...

The Canadian province of Ontario was in the British press yesterday, as the recently elected Progressive Conservative government led by Doug Ford (who is the older brother of the late mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford) wants to find ways to lower the price of beer. This was done because of a promise he made in his manifesto during the last election campaign. Since Mr Ford's PC Party won a comfortable majority last June, he has a carte blanche to implement his manifesto as he wishes. The intended goal of this Ford government policy is to return to the era where a can of beer was one dollar. This is far cry from other jurisdictions in the western world who want to put a higher and higher minimum price on alcohol.

This Doug Ford policy is a huge reform in a province known for having very restrictive alcohol laws which are a relic from the prohibition era. Ontario is not Saudi Arabia or Utah, but it's really far more restrictive than what's considered normal in the United Kingdom, France or Belgium.

Before Ford's upcoming reforms, corner stores were unable to sell any kind of beer and wine. Only a few hand-picked supermarkets in a few cities in Ontario were able to sell beer and wine, and only for a couple of years now.

If you want to buy alcohol other than beer or wine in Ontario, you still need to to go to your local LCBO store and if you wanted a beer you were supposed - up until a few years ago - to go to the Beer Store which is a joint-venture between the government of Ontario and a couple of big beer companies. The LCBO looks like your average self-serve liquor store, but the Beer Store is a Soviet relic. It's a very foul, austere and smelly place where you must look through a catalogue and ask the attendant which beer you want which they then get out of the back of the store.

Akin to the United States or Australia, each province in Canada has its own laws regarding the sale of alcoholic beverages. For example, Quebec, because of a gallic influence and because prohibition was always very unpopular in this majority French-speaking province, has had a relatively liberal liquor law for decades now with beer and wine sold at almost every corner store.

But the situation in Canada generally is a far cry from most of Western Europe. Most provinces in Canada have state-owned monopolies who sell and control the trade of alcohol beverages. Only the province of Alberta has completely liberalised the retail selling of booze.

As a proof of what a hot potato the trans-provincial trade of liquor in Canadian politics is, a recent case in the Supreme Court of Canada (called the Comeau case) made it virtually illegal to export a large amount of alcohol between two Canadian provinces.

Just as his cannabis policy more liberal than the Ontario Liberal Party's (he will allow private stores to sell cannabis when it becomes legalised in a couple of months) Doug Ford, who is labelled a populist, is more liberal and less nanny-statist on alcohol than the Ontario Liberal Party itself.

Saturday 4 August 2018

Kellogg's do a Lucozade with Coco Pops

Kellogg's Coco Pops have been reformulated with 30 per cent less sugar but - bizarrely - with only one fewer calorie per bowl. Isn't this supposed to be about obesity?

If Twitter is any guide, the consumer response has been overwhelmingly negative. The Telegraph reports on this latest round of Public Health England's reformulation fiasco, with a quote from yours truly:

Christopher Snowdon, director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, told The Telegraph: "Consumers are right to be upset about their food being reformulated to hit government targets. Public Health England thinks we won’t notice when sugar is removed for food and soft drinks but the experience with Ribena, Lucozade and now Coco Pops shows how wrong they are.

"Nobody voted for this crazy reformulation programme and yet this is only the beginning of the government’s plans for the wholesale desecration of the food supply. To add insult to injury, the new Coco Pops only have one less calorie per bowl than the original. The taste of food is being ruined and it is not even being made less fattening."

If Kellogg's think they can appease the government by taking sugar out of Coco Pops and replacing it with 'premium cocoa powder', they are forgetting about the target of reducing calories by 20 per cent that they are also expected to meet.

The entire food industry should stand up and tell Public Health England where to shove their targets. They would have the British public behind them.

Friday 3 August 2018

Alcohol advice and the noble lie

This, from by Julian Baggini in the Guardian, is rather good....

Want the truth about alcohol? You won’t hear it from the government 

.. For some time, studies repeatedly produced graphs with a J-shaped curve, showing both abstinence and excessive consumption associated with the worst health outcomes, with moderate drinkers enjoying the best health. It was only in January 2016 that the Department of Health revised its guidelines and claimed the best evidence now suggested that there was no “safe” level of alcohol consumption and every glass increased cancer and heart disease risk.

These new guidelines have been contested, but whether they are right or wrong, the point is that for years people who looked at the data repeatedly found the J-shaped curve, but no official source ever recommended the lifestyle it pointed to: one of moderate drinking. Changes in evidence don’t change the general tenor of anti-alcohol advice, they merely change how forcibly the authorities dish it out.

Why should this be so? One reason is that we like to think in clean, clear categories of good and bad. With our puritanical Protestant history, alcohol has always fallen on the dark side of this divide. So when the truth turns out to be complicated, rather than accept this maturely, we refuse to acknowledge the good and carry on as though it were all bad.

This is doubtless true, and there is more religious influence in the 'public health' crusade against alcohol than most people realise, but the 'no safe level' rhetoric is taken directly from the anti-tobacco campaign. Whilst the government has never recommended moderate drinking to teetotallers, it has only recently shifted towards an implicit message of total abstinence. This is because they are copying the anti-smoking movement in both messaging and policy.

Aside from the pure moralising, a more understandable but no less erroneous reason for refusing to recommend any consumption of intoxicants is fear of the slippery slope. Even if 21 units of wine a week does turn out to be healthy, 21 bottles of wine is not. Similarly, drug use can slide into drug misuse. Give a green light to moderate drinking, so the fear goes, and heavy use is sure to follow.

This paternalism might be benign in intent but it is malign in effect. If it is to have any credibility, health advice must be consistent with the evidence, not gerrymandered to anticipate its potential misuse. Sadly, however, health advice almost always goes through the distorting filter of officials anticipating behaviour change.

Again, this is true. Health authorities do not trust the public with information. But simplistic and misleading advice is not just about influencing the behaviour of people. It is about influencing the behaviour of government. The minutes of one of the alcohol review meetings says that it is ‘important to bear in mind that, while guidelines might have limited influence on behaviour, they could be influential as a basis for government policies’

When I wrote about this in 2016, I concluded that: 'Influencing government policy is the real aim of the game. They don’t trust us to handle accurate information. As a result, we can no longer trust them to give us it.' That is pretty much the conclusion Baggini comes to...

Health advice too often follows the principle of the noble lie. Rather than being told the plain truth, we are told what the authorities believe will lead us to behave properly, when “properly” means not just in the way that is most prudent for ourselves, but what is seen to be morally appropriate. This means that whatever the truth about healthy drinking or drug-taking is, we can’t trust government health advice to provide it. When the best current scientific evidence meets moralising paternalism, it is truth that starts to bend.

 Do read his whole article.

Thursday 2 August 2018

Alcohol and dementia - more dishonest reporting from the BBC

A study was published in the British Medical Journal today showing that moderate to moderately heavy drinkers have a lower risk of dementia than teetotallers. As always happens when epidemiology finds benefits from drinking, there has been a rush to cast doubt on the findings by talking about 'sick quitters', confounding variables, recall bias etc. These are valid caveats to make, but they are mostly generic criticisms that apply to all observational epidemiology. And yet these points are only raised when a study shows benefits from alcohol consumption. They are almost never raised when risks are reported.

An example of this is Tom Chivers' article for CNN but if you want an absolute classic of the genre, read the BBC's report. The headline sets out the anonymous author's stall straight away...

Alcohol and dementia - is moderate drinking safe?

There is no question that moderate drinking is 'safe' for dementia. The question is whether being teetotal is 'safe'. This study provides yet more evidence that it is not, but by reframing the question, the BBC moves the Overton Window and implies that there are only two possibilities for moderate drinkers: greater risk or no greater risk.

There is no doubt that alcohol abuse is bad for the brain - but could there be health benefits for moderate drinkers?

How do we know that alcohol 'abuse' is bad for the brain? Because that's what the epidemiology shows. When it comes to harm, the BBC is satisfied that epidemiological studies can provide sufficient proof. But when it comes to benefits, it requires an impossibly heavy burden of proof.

The research is contradictory and so the answer isn't straightforward.

The research is actually pretty consistent. A meta-analysis of 15 studies published in 2009 concluded that light and moderate drinkers were 28 per cent less likely to develop dementia. A further meta-analysis of 20 studies published last year concluded that...

Modest alcohol consumption (≤12.5 g/day) is associated with a reduced risk of dementia with 6 g/day of alcohol conferring a lower risk than other levels while excessive drinking (≥38 g/day) may instead elevate the risk.

Does the BBC discuss these evidence reviews or any of the studies in them? Does it heck. So why does the BBC reckon the science is unsettled?

Some research suggests that drinking one or two units of alcohol a day - particularly red wine - could be of benefit to brain health, but other scientists are more sceptical.

The link is to a BBC story about a study which found no evidence that resveratrol - an ingredient in red wine - prevents heart disease. It doesn't mention dementia at all because the study wasn't about dementia.

Another study found that, even in moderation, drinking alcohol could increase the risk of dementia.

The link is to another BBC story, this time reporting the findings of an unpublished study that was presented at a conference in San Francisco in 2012. It is telling that the BBC chose to report this at all, but it did so at length and with the headline 'Drinking alcohol, even in moderation, "a dementia risk"'.

The only peer-reviewed study by the named researcher on this subject was published in 2014. It found that old women who reduced the amount they drank were at increased risk of dementia. You won't be surprised to hear that the BBC did not cover the study when it was published.

The BBC's claim that the research is contradictory starts and ends with those two stories. That's it.

Another study has come out to add to the confusing picture of public health advice around drinking.

It's not confusing. There is a J-Curve of risk that has been shown repeatedly for dementia and several other diseases. The advice should be to drink moderately.

The British Medical Journal study found that a group of people who did not drink alcohol in middle age were more likely to develop dementia later on than people who drank moderately. 

You can read it here. It used the famous Whitehall II cohort of civil servants, following them up over a period of 23 years. It found familiar J-Curves across the board, with those who were teetotal throughout the period being 47 per cent more likely to develop dementia that light/moderate drinkers.

The authors try to argue that this vindicates the new drinking guidelines (14 units) that were set in 2016 after a rigged process. This is a strange interpretation. Although risk is at its lowest at around 14 units per week, it does not follow that drinking more than this is unsafe. Common sense and convention dictate that drinking becomes 'unsafe' when the risk exceeds that of a teetotaller's, not when it exceeds that of the lowest risk drinker. As the graphs above show, you have to drink much more than 14 units before your risk reaches that of a teetotaller's.

There is a big difference between a safe amount and an optimal amount. If we are going to tell drinkers to consume 14 units a week because that is where the optimal health benefits lie, we should also be telling non-drinkers to consume 14 units a week. Neither the BMJ nor the BBC are going to do that, however.

So should non-drinkers take up the habit for the sake of their health? The answer is almost certainly no.

Why? The BBC won't explain its reasoning. Instead it makes the usual generic criticisms about epidemiology which are conspicuous by their absence when it is reporting that, for example, half a glass of wine increases breast cancer risk.

First of all, it can only really say that more of the people observed who didn't drink in midlife went on to develop dementia - it cannot say that abstaining from drinking itself is causing dementia. 

Yes, correlation doesn't prove causation. This applies to literally every epidemiological study ever published.

And people in this group may have drunk heavily in the past or had to give up drinking for health reasons. 

Hello sick quitter hypothesis, my old friend. I'm here to obfuscate with you again. The non-drinkers in this study were not all necessarily lifelong teetotallers, but they were certainly long term teetotallers of at least 23 years standing. It is possible that some of them may have been heavy drinkers when they were young. Is there evidence that heavy drinking in youth followed by decades of abstinence increases the risk of dementia? I don't know of any and the BBC doesn't cite any. It just throws out the possibility to cast doubt on the findings.

The study only looked at whether people drank during a particular snapshot in time, so some of that group might already be in poor health.

That sentence doesn't make any sense whatsoever. It takes two separate issues - 'sick quitters' and misreporting of consumption - and garbles them together in a way that suggests that the author doesn't have the first idea what he or she is talking about. In any case, the study didn't look at what people drank in one 'snapshot in time'. The civil servants were asked how much they drank on eight occasions over the course of the study.

Misreporting is an issue for all epidemiological studies that are based on questionnaires but the real issue in alcohol epidemiology is under-reporting of consumption. Since we know that people greatly under-report the amount they drink, it is highly likely that the people who have the lowest dementia risk are consuming around 20 units, not 14 units. The BBC doesn't mention this.

There have been a number of studies in this area with conflicting results...

As discussed above, this is misleading at best. A study was published earlier this year which was reported to show that light drinking increases dementia risk but, as David Spiegelhalter explained, it actually confirmed the J-Curve.

...and this one doesn't provide enough evidence to suggest that anyone should go ahead and change their drinking habits.

Somehow I suspect that the message would be different if moderate drinkers were 47 per cent more likely to get dementia than non-drinkers, but never mind. They don't call the BBC 'Auntie' for nothing.

Wednesday 1 August 2018

"Whilst we cannot ban food..."

News from the Democratic People's Republic of Scotland...

Food shoppers should be confronted with graphic images of tooth decay and bowel cancer on products such as confectionary [sic] and red meat to encourage them to make healthier choices, according to a psychologist hired to advise Food Standards Scotland.

Leave aside the blatant slippery slope. Ignore the relentless, patronising, miserable nannying. Forget the fact that Scotland has no authority to introduce mandatory food labelling.

Instead, ask this question. What the hell has it got to do with Food Standards Scotland

Food Standards Scotland is the Scottish equivalent of the Food Standards Agency. I mentioned the Food Standards Agency in Sock Puppets as a classic example of mission creep in the public sector:

Public choice theory provides a plausible explanation for why governments fail to deliver what is expected of them, both in terms of public services (which are hampered by bureaucratic inefficiency) and legislation (which is hijacked by special interests). It explains why bureaucracies become ever more bloated and taxes rise ever higher, even under governments which come to power on a ticket of deregulation and smaller government. It explains why bureaucracies are so resistant to budget cuts and why it tends to be frontline services, rather than management, which bear the brunt of such cuts if and when they arrive. It explains why an organisation like the Food Standards Agency can go from having a tiny staff investigating restaurant poisonings to having a staff of 2,000, a budget of £135 million and a mission that has expanded to campaigning against salt, fat and eating crisps during football matches.

These organisations are supposed to ensure that the food we buy on the high street is safe. They were not set up to deter people from eating food.

So who is this expert who is having taxpayers' money shovelled at her via Food Standards Scotland?

Emma Kenny, a behavioural psychologist who has commentated on television shows such as Celebrity Big Brother in the past...

The hallmark of a serious scientist! She is also a vlogger and writes a column for the renowned scientific journal Closer.

Why has a pop psychologist been recruited by the government?

Ms Kenny has been consulting with FSS as part of the agency's new obesity campaign against upsizing, which warns consumers to be more aware of the tricks the food industry uses to persuade them to 'go large' and how it drives up calorie intake.

As mentioned above, this is not the job of a food standards regulator. But it all makes sense when you realise that...

The campaign comes amid plans by the Scottish Government to outlaw junk food multi-buy deals, force restaurants and takeaways to display calorie contents and cap portion sizes, potentially leading to a ban on 'super-sizing' or all-you-can-eat buffets.

So, once again, we have the SNP using a state-funded quango to promote its own policies. This is the way the way the SNP operates. Whether it is ASH Scotland, Alcohol Focus Scotland, Obesity Action Scotland or this mob, the Scottish government has taken the sock puppet state to a shameless new level.

Still, let's hear what Emma has to say about food, shall we?

"The western world would be a far healthier and happier place if the food industry were regulated in a truthful manner.

"If when you went to buy red meat you were confronted with pictures of bowel cancer, or were confronted with pictures of tooth decay when you picked up those sweets for your kids, the chances are that you would think twice about buying them."

It is very debatable whether this would make the world a healthier place, but only a lunatic could think that confronting people with endless images of death and disease would make it a happier place. The whole point of graphic warnings on cigarettes is to make smokers feel miserable. They may have that effect in some small way, but they do not reduce smoking prevalence. You don't need to have studied welfare economics to work out that the net effect is therefore to make the world a less happy place.

Ms Kenny said the success of public health interventions such as the smoking ban showed that people's behaviours can be changed, and cautioned against normalising obesity.

"There is a limiting belief in society that is held by too many, this involves one where the expectation is that ‘nothing will change’. Actually, what we have seen from the smoking ban is an absolute transformation on peoples’ attitude toward smoking in general."

Insofar as the smoking ban (and its associated propaganda) has had an effect on attitudes, it has been to make smokers pariahs. If the morally repellent doctrine of 'denormalisation' is now going to be extended to people who eat sugar and meat, we're going to have a lot of deviants. This could be a good thing, for once the deviants are in the majority, it will be easier to topple people like Emma.

"Whilst we cannot ban food..."

This gives us a clue as to what Emma's first instinct is whenever she is confronted with a problem.

"...I think we should at least regulate the type and quantities of food that can be sold to us, and any measure that attempts to do this is a welcome one."

Do you? That's what you think, is it? Well, I think you should go back to commenting on Big Brother and leave food policy to somebody with some knowledge and principles rather than some cretin who drools over hateful anti-smoking policies and fantasises about them being extended to everybody who eats food.