Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Science and Technology Committee on e-cigs - the government responds

The government has responded to the Science and Technology committee's report on e-cigarettes and there are some encouraging signs. In particular (emphasis is mine)...

Recommendation 5 The Government, together with the ASA and the MHRA, should review all these regulatory anomalies and, to the extent that EU directives do not present barriers, publish a plan for addressing these in the next annual Tobacco Control Plan.

The Government broadly accepts this recommendation and is committed to reviewing tobacco legislation as and when appropriate. While the UK Government is a member of the EU it will continue to comply with the requirements of the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive 2014/40/EU (TPD), transposed into UK legislation through the Tobacco and Related Products Regulation 2016 (TRPR). The Government has made a commitment to review the TRPR by May 2021 to consider its regulatory impact. In addition, as announced in the Tobacco Control Plan the Government will review where the UK’s exit from the EU offers us opportunities to re‐appraise current regulation to ensure this continues to protect the nation’s health. The Government will explore those areas identified by the Committee, such as the 20mg/ml maximum nicotine refill limit, a size restriction of 2ml on the tank, a block on advertising e-cigarettes’ relative harm-reduction potential and the notification scheme for e-cigarette ingredients.

Although there are advertising restrictions on vaping, they are less stringent than those which apply to tobacco products. The Government will of course consider when it reviews the legislation whether these restrictions fully reflect the differing risks of harm arising from tobacco products and e-cigarettes. We would note to the Committee that the Government has issued a direction to Ofcom clarifying that under the current code on television and radio advertising it is permissible for public health campaigns to promote the generic use of e-cigarettes for quitting smoking. This direction will support campaigns such as Stoptober which have promoted the use of e-cigarettes for quitting.


Recommendation 7

The Government should conduct a review of regulations on e-cigarettes and novel tobacco products which are currently applied under EU legislation, to identify scope for change post-Brexit, including an evidence-based review of the case for discontinuing the ban on ‘snus’ oral tobacco. This should be part of a wider shift to a more risk-proportionate regulatory environment; where regulations, advertising rules and tax/duties reflect the evidence on the relative harms of the various e-cigarette and tobacco products available. While an evidence-based approach is important, it also may help bring forward the behaviours that we want as a society—less smoking, and greater use and acceptance of e-cigarettes and novel tobacco products if that serves to reduce smoking rates.

The Government accepts this recommendation. We have committed in the Tobacco Control Plan to review where the UK’s exit from the European Union offers us opportunities to re-appraise current regulation to ensure this continues to protect the nation’s health. We will look to identify where we can sensibly deregulate without harming public health or where current EU regulations limit our ability to deal with tobacco. The Government’s goal will remain to achieve a proportionate approach to managing risk, one which protects the young and non-smokers, whilst giving smokers access to products which will reduce harm. As part of this the Government will consider reviewing the position on snus and whether the introduction of this product onto the UK market would promote that kind of proportionate harm reduction approach.

The report also recommends that heated tobacco products should be taxed at a lower rate than cigarettes (a much lower rate is implied). You can read the response here.

Friday, 7 December 2018

The whole population approach doesn't work

The latest stats on alcohol-related mortality were published this week. According to the Whole Population Approach beloved of temperance/'public health' campaigners, a significant decline in alcohol consumption must lead to a commensurate fall in alcohol-related deaths.

It's what the World Health Organisation believes:

... lowering the population mean for alcohol consumption will also predictably reduce the number of people suffering from alcohol abuse.

And it is the official policy in Scotland and Ireland. As Alcohol Focus Scotland say (emphasis in the original):

The specific outcome of the Scottish Government’s alcohol strategy is to achieve a reduction in overall alcohol consumption.

Moreover, the theory suggests that reductions in mortality should happen rapidly because the 'lag effect' is minimal. Some benefits are apparent almost immediately, other take no more than a few years.

It is now 14 years since per capita alcohol consumption peaked in the UK. According to the latest BBPA figures, consumption among people aged 15+ fell from 11.6 litres to 9.7 litres between 2004 and 2017. This is a fall of 16.4 per cent.

So how has the biggest decline in drinking since the war impacted alcohol-related mortality?

Age-standardised alcohol-specific death rates per 100,000 people (UK)

2004:  11.5

2017: 12.2

Can we put this myth to bed now?

Thursday, 6 December 2018

The gambling industry feeds the crocodile

Farewell, sweet prince

From the BBC...

Gambling firms agree 'whistle-to-whistle' television sport advertising ban

Britain's biggest gambling companies have voluntarily agreed to a "whistle-to-whistle" television advertising ban.

The Remote Gambling Association (RGA), which includes Bet365, Ladbrokes and Paddy Power, has struck a deal to stop adverts during live sports broadcasts.

It follows political pressure about the amount of betting advertising on TV.

This is not wholly surprising. In recent months, some of the big players have come out in support of the further restrictions on gambling ads. Why would a business want its commercial speech to be curtailed? There are three possibilities.

Firstly, incumbent businesses tend to benefit from advertising bans because they raise a barrier to entry for new competitors.

Second, advertising does not increase aggregate demand (contrary to what campaigners claim) and is a zero-sum game. There is a large element of game theory to it. Each company advertises because the other companies are advertising. If one company doesn't keep up, it will lose market share, but if all the companies give up at the same time, they save a great deal of money. This is exactly what happened with tobacco.

Thirdly, the industry hopes to fend off further regulation by capitulating on this issue. There is a belief that the bookies could have avoided a £2 stake if they had voluntary reduced the stake below the controversial £100 mark (very few people gambled at £100 a spin anyway). Anti-FOBT campaigners Derek Webb and Matt Zarb-Cousin were probably right when they said in 2017...

“If [the gambling industry] had the ability to understand who we were and accept what the truth is, then they could have come up with [a maximum stake] of £20 a few years ago, and they might have got away with it,” says Mr Webb.
“Not now. It’s too much of an issue now,” adds Mr Zarb-Cousin.

But you only to read the BBC's article today to see that the voluntary ban will encourage, not prevent, further statutory regulation...

Could shirt sponsorship be next?

Matt Zarb-Cousin is a spokesperson for Fairer Gambling, a not-for-profit entity campaigning to reduce gambling-related harm and crime.

It is long overdue, there has been a huge amount of pressure on the sector over the volume of advertising which has increased exponentially year on year.

But for it to be truly effective, it should also include shirt and league sponsorship and digital advertising around a pitch.

Will it make a difference?

Marc Etches is the chief executive of GambleAware, a leading charity committed to minimising gambling-related harm.

We have been saying for a long time now that gambling is being increasingly normalised for children. They are growing up in a very different world than their parents, one where technology and the internet are ever present.

So while we welcome this move by betting companies, it is important to pay attention to analysis that shows the marketing spend online is five times the amount spent on television.

Without missing a beat, these anti-gambling campaigners have moved onto sponsorship and online advertising. What defence is the industry going to put forward for these forms of advertising now that it has implicitly accepted that gambling advertising is an evil?

Businesses should be far more robust in defending their right to free speech. Neither they nor the broadcasters have sold the benefits of advertising to the public.

I have a particular interest in this as a snooker fan. The game suffered terribly when tobacco sponsorship was banned. Prize money fell dramatically, as did the number of events. For a while, the entire sport only had five or six tournaments a year. In recent years, Barry Hearn has done a fine job of reviving the game by selling TV rights and getting new sponsors, most of which seem to be gambling companies. For example, the Betway UK championship is currently being played. In January, the Dafabet Masters will begin.

There are now more tournaments than ever and most of them are shown on Eurosport. Eurosport is a relatively niche channel which largely relies on gambling ads. The ads are shown between frames. A 'whistle to whistle' ban would be ruinous. A fall in advertising revenue would reduce the value of TV rights which would mean less money going into the game. Same applies to a ban on sponsorship.

Note that the proposal is not actually 'whistle to whistle'. According to the BBC, 'no adverts will be broadcast for a defined period before and after a game is broadcast' in addition to during the game.

Note also that a 'whistle to whistle' ban is the policy of the Labour Party, not the government. The fact that the industry has introduced such a ban to prevent the government doing it first tells you where Theresa May gets her policies from. To quote Webb and Zarb-Cousin again...

The campaigners also cite last year’s referendum on UK membership of the EU, which led to Theresa May becoming prime minister, as a key moment.
Mr Zarb-Cousin describes Mrs May as a “Red Tory” — a social conservative less inclined to listen to industry claims that curbs to FOBTs would lead to job losses at betting shops. “It’s one of the most important positives of Brexit,” says Mr Webb.

He adds he may broaden CFG’s focus to target online gambling next. “I want to fight where I can win,” says Mr Webb.

Say what you like about the casino tycoon and his young apprentice but they know what they're doing and who they're dealing with.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Temperance censorship

I'm late to this because I've only just come across it, but print workers in Lithuania are having to cover up alcohol ads in imported magazines to protect people from the sight of booze. A small country of less than three million souls, it imports a lot of foreign magazines, but it's either that or ripping the pages out completely, as Reuters reports...

Print distributors in Lithuania are being forced to tear pages out from magazines such as Vogue and National Geographic after the country introduced an alcohol advertising ban on Jan. 1.

The situation is an unintended consequence of an alcohol control bill signed into law in June by President Dalia Grybauskaite, who herself likened the outcome to medieval times and said it brought shame on the country.

It certainly looks a bit totalitarian when you see the photos of them at work...

Banning advertising is censorship, plain and simple. Needless to say, the Alcohol Health Alliance wants to follow in Lithuania's footsteps with a total ban on alcohol advertising and sponsorship.

Bartasevicius said the country’s largest retail chain had refused to stock the altered magazines, deeming them “damaged goods”.

However, he said the publishers of National Geographic had told him they could not create an edition of a magazine free from alcohol ads for a country which only sells up to 500 copies of a title per month.

Politicians do not yet have any solution to a problem they have created.

Sounds familiar.

“It is reminiscent of medieval times and it brings international shame on Lithuania,” Grybauskaite told reporters on Wednesday. “We must have laws without such flaws.”

This is what happens when you let the ignorant zealots of the 'public health' lobby make laws. They neither know nor care about the unintended consequences. To quote H.L. Mencken, their solutions are clear, simple and wrong.

We're going to see this kind of unravelling in the UK where the government has taken naive ideas from fanatics and imported them wholesale into its ludicrous obesity strategy policy.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Energy drinks are safe so let's have minimum pricing!

The Science and Technology Committee published its review of energy drinks today and found no scientific justification for banning their sale to minors.

In our view, there is insufficient evidence as to whether children’s consumption habits are significantly different for energy drinks compared with other caffeinated products such as tea and coffee.

.. On balance, we conclude that the current scientific evidence alone is not sufficient to justify a measure as prohibitive as a statutory ban on the sale of energy drinks to children. Single portions are within the European Food Safety Authority’s suggested limit for caffeine intake by children. This limit may be exceeded if other products containing caffeine are also consumed, or if energy drinks are consumed in excess, but the same can be said for many products available for sale to young people, including other drinks containing caffeine.

Recognising that the government is already committed to this policy, the committee adds that it might still want to introduce a ban 'on the basis of societal concerns and qualitative evidence, such as the experience of school teachers'. If so, the government 'should set out the reasoning for its decision.'

I, for one, look forward to hearing the government explaining why it ignored empirical, scientific evidence in favour of anecdotes from teachers.

The ban on energy drink sales to under-18s has always been a solution looking for a problem. As I said in August, it is arbitrary and illogical. If the issue is caffeine - and if a ban to minors is appropriate - then the logical approach is to ban the sale of caffeinated products to children. If the issue is sugar (the proposed ban is part of the childhood obesity strategy) then it should logically be extended to all products which contain a similar quantity of sugar/calories.

Neither approach would strike the general public as reasonable or proportionate and so the government has to portray energy drinks as being in some way special. But why? A can of Red Bull has less caffeine than a cup of filter coffee and the sugar content of energy drinks is no higher than that of Coca-Cola. I dare say the zealots who pushed this policy on the government would like to ban the sale of sugar and caffeine, but we are not there yet.

So how has the 'public health' lobby reacted to the Science and Technology Committee's evidence-based conclusion?

Professor Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said it was "disappointing not to see a recommendation today to ban the sale of these drinks to children.

"We believe that the evidence is already compelling that energy drinks bring no benefits and only harm to children."

Well, Russ, you are wrong.

Prof Viner said the Government should introduce "a minimum price for energy drinks as we know their cheap price tag is a key driver for their purchase".

Talk about doubling-down! On the day that a cross-party committee recognises that these products are safe, Russell Viner demands not only their sale be banned to minors but that the price be hiked up for adults.

If the name Russell Viner rings a bell it's because the government gave him £5 million in 2017 to carry out research and give 'independent advice to policy makers'. This is not the first time he has made statements that fly in the face of evidence. Not very encouraging is it?

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Deal or no deal?

"If I were you, I wouldn't start from here" is the punchline to a joke about a tourist asking a local for directions. If you were looking for a satisfactory resolution to Brexit, you certainly wouldn't start from here. Theresa May has made a catastrophic misjudgement in assuming that Leave voters are as obsessed with immigration as she is. The European Commission exploited her weakness and myopia to negotiate a deal that is widely, and accurately, regarded as a national humiliation.

The Conservative Party has inexplicably stuck with a leader who lacks every leadership quality apart from perseverance and who lost a 20 per cent poll lead against an antediluvian Marxist. Meanwhile Momentum (t/a the Labour Party) only cares about rerunning the general election and Stronger In (t/a People's Vote) only cares about re-running the referendum.

Every road now leads to something approximating ruin. A so-called People's Vote might resolve the issue in the short term but it would not resolve the question of whether Britain wants to leave the EU. A second referendum would have to offer a binary choice (the idea of having two Leave options and one Remain option would shamelessly rig the result in favour of the europhiles). The options would be May's version of Brexit versus staying in the EU. Given this Hobson's choice, many people will stay at home. Remain could still lose the referendum, but if it won it would be on a lower turnout and with a blatantly restrictive question. It would not show that the UK had changed its mind about leaving, only that people considered May's deal worse than remaining.

It would also poison politics for a generation and whichever party was seen to be responsible (and this would not necessarily be the Conservatives) would be held in contempt. The same would apply if parliament somehow kept Britain in the EU without a second referendum, perhaps more so.

A general election would solve nothing. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives are likely to get a majority, let alone a sufficient majority to push through a Brexit plan, and Labour doesn't have a Brexit plan anyway.

Given how unsatisfactory these options are, many people are tempted to damn the establishment's eyes and go for no deal, AKA a 'clean Brexit', AKA WTO terms. This is the legal default unless something changes, but it is also a road to ruin. In fact, it is the road to greatest ruin.

Far too many people on the Leave side are complacent about a so-called clean Brexit. They do not take the predictions of the Treasury and the Bank of England seriously because they were laughably wrong about what would happen in 2016. It is true that the pre-referendum predictions were woeful as anything other than propaganda. It is also true that last week's predictions from Mark Carney were based on such implausibly pessimistic assumptions that Paul Krugman scoffed at them from across the water.

Remainers have engaged in so much ridiculous scare-mongering in the past three years that it is tempting to ignore their every warning. This is a mistake. Just because the boy falsely cries wolf does not mean there isn't a wolf. It was never likely that planes would be grounded and EU nationals deported, but these wild claims should not us distract us from the real problems that no deal would entail.

Queues at the border are an obvious example. Interestingly, Krugman is relatively relaxed about this, writing:

Britain is an advanced country with high administrative capacity — the kind of country that history shows can cope well with huge natural disasters, and even wars. Would it really have that much trouble hiring customs inspectors and installing computers to recover from an 8 or 10 percent drop in GDP?

And even in the short run, I wonder why Britain couldn’t follow the old prescription, “When all else fails, lower your standards.” If laxer enforcement, special treatment for trusted shippers, whatever, could clear the bottlenecks at the ports, wouldn’t that be worth it, despite the potential for fraud, as a temporary measure?

I'm not so sure. As the Economist notes...

Small delays add up to large tailbacks. Researchers at Imperial College London have calculated that two minutes more transit time per lorry at Dover and the Channel Tunnel translates into a 47km traffic jam.

This is important because...

Britain’s big supermarket chains hold as little as one-and-a-half days’ worth of fresh food in their supply chain at any given time, and say they have no capacity to hold more.


Consider the plant in Oxford where BMW churns out 1,000 Minis a day. Each is made up of 4,000-5,000 parts. Bringing 4m parts to the factory on 200 lorries every day is a “significant logistical challenge”, says Graham Biggs, the firm’s communications director. Three-fifths of them come through Dover or the Channel Tunnel; their contents are unloaded directly onto the apposite part of the production line. Reconfiguring its supply chains to circumvent hold-ups and tariffs would take years if it were possible at all.

It is true that most of our trade is already with non-EU countries, though it is a slim majority and many of them have trade deals with the EU. It is not beyond the wit of man to invest in customs inspectors and IT projects. We should have started doing it in June 2016, not least because we would have got a better deal if Brussels thought there was a realistic prospect of us walking away (it would have cost money but what's the worst that could have happened - shorter queues?). We didn't. Even now, with less than four months to go, there appears to be very little planning for no deal. In the long run, we could adjust but in the short run we would have supply problems that would make the fuel protests of 2000 look like the lettuce shortage of 2017.

This is not the fault of people who voted to leave the EU. The government has let us down. Still, you wouldn't start from here.

There are plenty of other potential problems with a clean Brexit. Passporting for financial services, the Irish border, the European Exchange Warrant and countless logistical issues which are obscure but important. Some of them may be easier to solve than they first appear. Others may prove almost intractable. We won't find out until March 30th when the government will have to tackle them all at once. Has the government and the civil service done anything in recent years to make you confident that they are up to the job?

The biggest issue is tariffs and we can predict with reasonable certainty what will happen here. As a third country, the EU will put its tariffs on our exports. No ifs, no buts. For example, there will be a 12.8% tariff on lamb, a 13.6% tariff on cauliflowers, a 16% tariff on tractors, a 10% tariff on cars and an 8% tariff on many clothes. For some items, tariffs exceed 20%. Some even exceed 100%.

It is not Project Fear to point out that these tariffs will make our goods unappealing to consumers in the EU; that is kind of the point of them. A large number of British businesses - whole industries - will be affected and many of them will go bust or, if possible, relocate in the event of a no deal Brexit. Industries which cannot relocate, such as Welsh lamb farmers - who depend overwhelmingly on exports - will go to the wall and they will not go quietly (nor should they).

On the other hand, consumers will be free of EU tariffs on imports and will be able to buy New Zealand lamb, for instance, at a lower price. This is an undoubted benefit of leaving the EU properly but under no deal it is debatable whether these benefits outweigh the costs of widespread unemployment, recession and falling incomes that will come from what Michael Gove describes - with some understatement - as the period of 'considerable dislocation and disruption'.

I happen to be in favour of unilateral free trade, but even I would not introduce it overnight. There is no evidence that the government is in favour of it at all. The most likely outcome is that the government will choose to introduce its own tariffs (which Remainers dishonestly portray as 'WTO tariffs') on anything that competes with British industry. It may even impose them on some products that are not made in Britain. These tariffs - which will have to apply to non-EU imports as well - will naturally lead to a higher prices and exacerbate the inflation caused by the inevitable drop in the pound, but they are not as senseless as they may seem. The government will have concluded, with some justification, that the EU will be in no rush to sign a trade deal with a country that has already dropped its tariffs.

None of this is a natural consequence of Brexit as some Remainers will claim. The EU has always been keen to have tariff-free trade with Britain and tariff-free trade is one of the few things that Mrs May has successfully negotiated. It would have been part of a Canada+ deal, a Norway+ deal or any other deal. It is only absent from no deal and it would not be a temporary problem. It would probably take years to negotiate a free trade deal if we walked away from the deal that is currently on the table, especially if we walked away with the £39 billion that the EU considers - rightly or wrongly - to be theirs as a matter of legal fact.

(It has been suggested that we could use the £39 billion to alleviate the problems suffered by the industries that are harmed by tariffs. I have no idea whether this sum would be sufficient - I suspect not, and the EU would certainly pursue some portion of it through the courts - but a system in which our exporters have tariffs imposed on them while consumers pay higher prices and the government spends billions trying to prop up industries that have been screwed by protectionism is not the free trade Brexit I voted for.)

Time is now running very short. It is conceivable that a better deal could yet be negotiated. It is conceivable that EFTA/EEA could be the solution. Conceivable - but it becomes less likely every day. Unless Article 50 is extended, it is a choice between May's deal and remaining in the EU and, as Gove points out, remaining in the EU could be worse than it was before:

Like a guilty partner who had threatened to leave for another and come crawling back, we would be forced to accept far tougher terms than we have now.

Keeping the rebate? Forget about it. Stopping a tide of new EU laws? No way. Halting progress towards a European army? Nope. Guaranteeing we wouldn’t have to pay billions to bail out euro members in the future? I’m afraid not.

You don't need to be a Brexit purist to consider May's deal a betrayal. In a normal political environment, May would resign and the Conservatives would be punished by the electorate for their incompetence. But British politics is in a period of extreme abnormality and the only realistic alternative to the Conservatives is the far-left sect that has taken over the Labour Party who would relish no deal because it would make the winter of discontent look like the summer of love and do to the Tories' long-term electoral prospects what that winter did to Labour's. It would also remove many of the legal and constitutional barriers to the planned economy that John McDonnell has in mind.

There are some who think that Britain needs a short, sharp shock to push the government towards the kind of liberalisation and deregulation that would put a rocket under the economy. A no deal Brexit certainly offers the opportunity to reform the economy but, as Sam Bowman points out, there is no reason to think that the current government - and Mrs May in particular - have any interest in seizing it...

Theresa May is the most illiberal, anti-market Prime Minister the UK has had since at least the 1970s. She seems obsessed with cutting immigration. Her government is pushing through unprecedented new powers to allow the politicians to block or intervene in takeovers of British firms that might come with unpopular job cuts or factory closures. She has brought in price caps in energy instead of doing anything to make the market more competitive or consumer-friendly. Her government cannot stop banning things as trivial as plastic straws, on ludicrously thin evidence that doing so provides any benefit to anyone anywhere.

May would surely be forced to quit under no deal and it is likely that her successor would be more liberal, but it is doubtful whether he/she could bring about sufficient reform in time to outweigh the damage done by tariffs. In any case, no deal would not be a short, sharp shock because it would not be short.

If Brexit is cancelled it will be nauseating to see people like Andrew Adonis gloating but it will be worse to hear them say 'I told you so' when the economy collapses under no deal. The only way for Brexit to end up approximating the Project Fear predictions would be for us to leave without a deal.

There was nothing inevitable about our current predicament and you wouldn't start from here, but now that we're here it would be irresponsible to jump from the frying pan to the fire. The European Commission and the British establishment have won. The Brexiteers have been outmaneuvered. We have lost and it is not worth wrecking the economy and opening the door to socialism to make a point. The only realistic choice now is between remaining in the EU and accepting May's deal. No deal is a no go.

Having said that, I would be delighted to be wrong, so if you disagree with my analysis please leave a comment.