Thursday, 12 September 2019

Public Health England admits that its policies won't reduce childhood obesity

According to the Daily Mail...

Childhood obesity rates in the UK are to continue to spiral over the next five years, a damning report has found.

Continue to spiral? Let's have a look at the existing trend from the Health Survey for England.

If it looks like the rate hasn't risen for fifteen years and is lower than it once was, congratulations, there is nothing wrong with your eyes.

In its latest forecast, Public Health England predicts the number of obese primary school children could jump by up to four per cent by 2024.

More than 34 per cent of 10 and 11 year olds are currently classified as obese, with the new forecast now between 33.4 per cent and 38.1 per cent.

No. That's the number of children who are classed as overweight or obese. The childhood obesity measure has no basis in reality, and the overweight measure is even more absurd. None of the children who are classed as overweight are fat, nor are most of those who are classed as obese.

If you look at the projection, PHE reckons the number of 11 year olds with 'excess weight' will rise from 34.3 per cent to 35.7 per cent, but the confidence interval ranges from 33.2% to 38.1% so it doesn't really tell you anything, even if obesity predictions were based on something more than guesswork, which they aren't, and if the government's measure of childhood obesity reflected childhood obesity rates, which it doesn't.

In any case, obesity forecasts are consistently wrong.

Professor John Newton, the PHE's director of health improvement, admitted it was a 'reminder we need to redouble our efforts on childhood obesity'.

Ah, yes. Doubtless this was the entire purpose of this worthless prediction.

But he claimed it was 'important not to interpret this trend as a sign that what we're doing at the moment isn't working'.

Heaven forfend! What a balancing act Professor Newton is having to perform. It must be tricky trying to scare the public into believing that the situation will get worse having introduced policies that you insist will make the situation better.

By 2024, Public Health England intends to have taken 20 per cent of calories out of food. Its target for taking 20 per cent of sugar out of food is supposed to have been reached by next year. By 2024, the sugar levy will have been in place for six years. And yet the impact of all this (and more) on childhood obesity will, according to PHE's own figures, be diddly-squat. Can we have our money back please?

Out of around 556,000 children of primary school-leaving age in the UK, 170,000 are overweight to some degree, figures showed in May last year.

Where are they? Show me them.

Professor Newton also called for tighter advertising laws around promoting junk food to children. 

Of course he did.
'Advertising is the other thing - there is good evidence we need to ensure children and families are not bombarded by advertising for unhealthy foods,' he said. 

Thus, Public Health England continues to sell us a web of lies. Its measure of childhood obesity is obviously, demonstrably, laughably wrong. Its projections are based on nothing. Its anti-obesity policies have not worked in the past and will not work in the future.

Can we shut this money pit down now?

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The American Vape Scare

The USA is in the grip of a classic moral panic about vaping. It’s been years in the making and is now reaching its crescendo.

The spark came from a spate of health problems caused by black market THC vape cartridges which seem to have been cut with dangerous thickening agents. America’s mendacious anti-vaping lobby has capitalised on these individual tragedies and seems on the verge of banning e-cigarette flavours.

They are beneath contempt, as is that hateful skeleton Mike Bloomberg who has just given £160 million to science-denying bottom-feeders to stamp out vaping.

I have written about this for Spiked. Have a read.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Sugar levy cash gets swallowed

Last summer the IEA published a little paper written by me about sin taxes. In it, I mentioned the ringfencing trick in which politicians and campaigners lure voters to sin taxes by promising the money will be hypothecated for feelgood causes.

.. history shows us that tax hypothecation is rare. The public are more likely to support sin taxes if they are told that the revenue will be ring-fenced for health or education, but the money is usually diverted towards general state spending sooner or later (Hoffer and Pellillo 2012; Jacobson and Brownell 2000). Tobacco and alcohol taxes have been used to finance routine government expenditure for centuries and if the USA is any guide, sugary drink tax revenue will be treated no differently (Tanenbaum 2018).

Recent examples of soda tax revenue being syphoned off to the general pot after being promised for cuddly initiatives include Philadelphia and Oakland.

When the UK government promised to use the filthy lucre from the sugar levy to fund a school's breakfast programme and school sports, I thought there was a chance that it would happen. It was such a high profile commitment.

But it seems that I was not cynical enough...

Sajid Javid admits Treasury has swallowed sugar tax cash

The Treasury has pocketed taxes raised through the soft drinks sugar levy that were supposed to support children’s health, new chancellor Sajid Javid has admitted.

This week’s spending review promised an extra £13.4bn in public spending for 2020-21 as he promised to “turn the page on austerity”.

However, the Treasury confirmed that earlier commitments to ringfence the taxes raised by the levy to help tackle the obesity crisis in schools had been dropped.

Forecast to raise £340m in 2020-1, the prospect of the sugar tax disappearing into the Treasury’s coffers appeared was confirmed as the review failed to contain any commitment to ringfence the income for spending on programmes to improve children’s health and food.

And the earth still shifts on its orbit.

It was met with fury by campaigners who accused the government of backtracking on a promise to help children in schools via the tax.


“We’re profoundly disappointed not to get a clear reassurance from the chancellor today that the levy on sugary drinks would continue to deliver a direct dividend for children’s health,” said Children’s Food Campaign co-ordinator Barbara Crowther.

Might as well scrap the tax then, eh?

Monday, 9 September 2019

Soda taxes still not working

A noted anti-obesity campaigner was recently celebrating Scotland introducing more nanny state laws and promised that evidence of their efficacy would be forthcoming. When I asked her about this evidence, she told me that you would have to be literally crazy to expect an anti-obesity policy to actually reduce obesity.

Note that I didn't ask for this tranche of policies to 'solve' obesity, merely that they would reduce it somewhat. She seems to think that they won't, so that makes two of us.

Meanwhile, real world evidence on sugar taxes continues to appear.

Oakland's Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Tax: Impacts on Prices, Purchases and Consumption by Adults and Children

We find that roughly 60 percent of the tax was passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. There was a slight decrease in the volume of SSBs purchased per shopping trip in Oakland and a small increase in purchases at stores outside of the city, and we find some evidence of increased shopping by Oakland residents at stores outside of the city.
We do not find evidence of substantial changes in the overall consumption of SSBs or of added sugars consumed through beverages for either adults or children after the tax.

Yet another 'public health' win!

Friday, 6 September 2019

The Social Market Foundation's alcohol tax report

In a report that was "kindly supported" by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (neé UK Temperance Alliance), the Social Market Foundation calls for a reform of Britain's alcohol duty system. They rightly point out that the system is incoherent and irrational. I said likewise in 2017 when I proposed taxing all units of alcohol at the same rate to make the system genuinely Pigouvian. This implied a flat rate of 9p per unit and a large decline in the amount raked in by the government.

The SMF are broadly right about what is wrong.

While a relatively weak 6% ABV bottle of wine faces duty of 50 pence per unit of alcohol, as of the time of writing a 6% ABV cider faces duty of just 7 pence per unit of alcohol.

This is because the UK has traditionally imported its wine while producing its own cider, but that is not a valid reason.

Given that alcohol consumption generates externalities – impacting government, families and other individuals as well as the direct consumers of alcohol – the overall rate of alcohol taxation should be reflective of the size of these externalities. 

It would be easy to misread this as saying that the impact on 'direct consumers of alcohol' is an externality. Obviously it isn't, but assuming that's not what they mean, they are right. 

Brexit could open up possibilities to rationalise alcohol taxation in the UK.

Very true.

Given the political nature of duty changes, the UK has been lumbered with a system of alcohol taxation ill-suited for meeting key objectives of government: raising tax revenue, protecting jobs or improving public health and other social outcomes. Rather than examining the evidence base and reflecting on the alcohol duty regime as a whole, the system has been tweaked according to political whims over time.

Also very true.

Arguments often used to justify duty freezes and favourable treatment for certain beverages are deeply flawed. For example, jobs-based arguments used to justify cider and spirits duty freezes ignore the fact that cider accounts for a very small number of jobs in the economy

Indeed. Economists are generally dismissive of jobs-based arguments. A reduction of employment in one area tends to lead to a growth in another.

But the SMF is also wrong about quite a lot too...

Jobs-based arguments also ignore work lost through excessive alcohol consumption. Analysis by Public Health England found that, in 2015, there were 167,000 working years of life lost due to alcohol consumption – 16% of all working years lost in that year.

That's not a jobs argument. People dying doesn't cause unemployment, just as people being born doesn't reduce unemployment.

Arguments related to the regressive nature of excise duties are also flawed. Firstly, alcohol taxation does not appear to be particularly regressive, given relatively high rates of non-drinking among lower income households.

Only if you look at people as groups. If you look at individual drinkers, it is clearly regressive.

Secondly, regressivity alone is not a strong argument against alcohol duty.

That's a matter of opinion.

Studies suggest that the total costs of alcohol to UK society could stand at between 1.3% and 2.5% of GDP.

This is a statistic that first appeared in Public Health England's woeful report on alcohol which quickly turned into the claim that alcohol misuse costs society 'up to £52bn a year, far more than previously thought'. This is based on looking at a range of international estimates which do indeed range from 1.3% to 2.5% and picking the biggest one.

But guess where the cost is estimated at 1.3%. That's right: the UK. So it's not necessary to use a range of estimates from around the world to estimate the UK figure when one of those figures is the UK itself, is it? This is a small but typical example of the 'public health' lobby lying with statistics.

Moreover, that estimate of 1.3% (£21 billion) is nearly 20 years old and is mostly made up of costs that are not external.

Hazardous and harmful drinkers account for a staggering 78% of alcohol consumed in England. 

This is based on the discredited lie that it is hazardous to drink more than 14 units a week.

There is also growing evidence suggesting that even moderate rates of alcohol consumption are associated with higher risks of cancer.

That evidence is very weak.

The SMF have five main policy recommendations:

1. Introducing a duty strength escalator, to focus alcohol duty on the higher strength products disproportionately consumed by heavy drinkers, and create stronger incentives to produce lower strength products.

If you have a flat tax on each unit of alcohol, stronger drinks are taxed more almost by definition. That should be sufficient. If, however, it could be shown that certain drinks create greater externalities, a case could be made for the kind of system proposed by the SMF. There is some evidence for this, but it is far from clear that taxing those drinks more would not simply displace consumption, with the effect that another form of alcohol becomes associated with the same externalities.

2. Levelling the playing field across same-strength products. Products of the same strength should face the same rate of duty and duty should be a function of the pure alcohol content of drinks, rather than the volume of the final product. This would help simplify the alcohol duty system.

.. We recommend taxing alcohol on a consistent basis, according to the pure alcohol content of the beverage.

So do I.

3. Allowing pubs to claim back a proportion of alcohol duty through a new “Pub Relief”. This would focus alcohol duty on the off-trade, which is particularly reliant on sales to hazardous and harmful drinkers.

.. We assume that our proposed “Pub Duty Relief” rate is set at 50% - meaning that duty rates in the on-trade are half as much, per unit of alcohol, than on the off-trade.

No one loves pubs more than me, but this sounds like the kind of tweaking of the system according to political whims that the SMF complain about at the start of their report.

To be fair, they come up with a superficially plausible justification for what seems like rent-seeking...

...heavier drinkers are more likely to consume alcohol on the off-trade. Therefore, in line with our proposed framework of focusing alcohol duty where harms are most generated, we suggest explicitly favouring on-trade consumption of alcohol in the tax system.

This could be right but there are reasons to doubt it. Whilst the majority of health harms are linked to off-trade alcohol (most alcohol is sold on the off-trade, after all), those harms are to the drinker and are thus not externalities (for the most part, at least). It is less clear that the external harms are disproportionately associated with the off-trade. Most alcohol-related violence takes place in and around the on-trade. Drink driving is also, I suspect, more closely linked to the on-trade than the off-trade.

In any case, if this is an attempt to 'support the pub sector', as the BBC claims, the SMF's own figures show that it won't work:

The impact of switching to the duty regime described above would be to cut overall alcohol consumption by 5.4%, compared to the current regime. This would come from a 1.9% decline in on-trade alcohol consumption and a 6.8% decline in off-trade consumption.

On-trade consumption of alcohol falls, in the model, despite declines in on-trade prices. This reflects cross elasticities of demand for alcohol products. Increased prices in the off-trade can reduce demand in the on-trade as well.

I have explained one of the reasons for this here.

4. Explicitly linking alcohol duty to the social costs of alcohol, rather than treating it as a cash cow. At the very least, alcohol duty should cover the health, crime and welfare costs to government and wider society (the “externalities” associated with alcohol consumption). 

It should cover the net externalities, yes.

At this point, regrettably, the influence of the 'Institute of Alcohol Studies' becomes apparent...

Paternalistic arguments, which consider the ability of individuals to make “bad” and regrettable lifestyle choices (such as those that undermine their job prospects), could justify a higher tax take.

Coercive paternalism has no place in a free society and there is no point producing a lengthy report about alcohol taxation if you're going to throw out your economic analysis and resort to saying 'but muh paternalism'.

.. We do not take a strong position on the degree of paternalism that should be embedded in the alcohol duty system in this report – ultimately, we believe this is a matter for politicians and the electorate. 

You work for a think tank, for God's sake. Get off the fence!

Our key argument is that tax take from alcohol duty should be focused on alcohol-related costs, whether that be the externalities of alcohol consumption or a broader measure covering private costs drinkers.

Drinkers already pay the private costs. If you pretend those costs are externalities and add them to the tax, they end up paying twice. There is no ethical or economic justification for that.

5. Regularising the uprating of alcohol duty, with inflation or earnings uprating being the “norm”. This would help depoliticise the setting of alcohol duty.

I'm comfortable with automatically increasing the tax by the rate of inflation once we've reformed the system. In practice, that means significantly reducing the rate of tax charged on most, but not all, drinks.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Next up: the snack tax

With crushing inevitability, the first UK modelling study promoting a tax on food has been published in the BMJ. And guess what? The researchers reckon that it will work. In fact, they think it will work even better than taxes on sugary drinks - which have never worked anywhere. An accompanying editorial in the journal gives the policy its blessing.

The BMJ's modelling study promoting sugary drink taxes has now been largely forgotten, despite being highly influential at the time, but it promised a fall in obesity of 1.3 per percentage points. Today's study predicts a decline of 2.7 percentage points.

One of the authors told the Guardian:

Dr Pauline Scheelbeek from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the lead author of the study, said a snack tax could cut obesity in the UK population from about 28% to about 25%. “That is, on a population level, a huge impact,” she said.

'Public health' has a wretched record of health-economic modelling. It repeatedly promises outcomes that are not delivered and then uses retrospective modelling to make it look as if they were (eg. Mexican sugar tax, English smoking ban).

Models are only as good as the assumptions fed into them by the researchers. If the researchers tell the model that the policy will work, all the model can do is estimate how well it will work to the nearest decimal point.

The modellers of this new study don't look at how much their tax on confectionery, biscuits, and cake will cost consumers, but it would clearly run into many millions of pounds and hit people on low incomes the hardest. The researchers brush this off with the usual rhetoric about the health of the poor benefiting the most, despite there being no evidence that this is how sin taxes operate in practice.

I would bet a pound to a pork scratching that if the tax proposed has any effect on obesity it will be far, far smaller than is reported in this model. But let's imagine that it is correct. Let's imagine that it really does reduce the adult obesity rate from 28% to 25%. Do you think the nanny statists will congratulate themselves on a job well done and leave the public alone? Or do you think they will devise new ways to tax and control us?

You don't need a wonky predictive model to work that one out.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Junk alcohol statistics laid bare

Geoffrey Rose, the doyen of modern public health, wrote in The Strategy of Preventive Medicine (1992) that:

..from the average alcohol intake of a population one can predict precisely the number of heavy drinkers.

He borrowed this idea from Sully Ledermann who had come up with the single-distribution theory in the 1960s. Rose's highly influential book essentially applied Ledermann's hunch to a broad range of other health issues, in each case concluding that the solution to extreme behaviour lay in changing average behaviour.

Evidence for this theory was always scant. At best, it came from the tautological observation that averages tend to be higher when there are many large numbers (eg. per capita alcohol consumption is higher when there are many heavy drinkers to push up the average).

Despite its logical and empirical shortcomings, the single-distribution theory became popular in 'public health' because it implied support for the 'whole population approach' in which blunt policies are applied to all consumers rather than targeted policies being applied to at-risk individuals.

As John Duffy and I showed in this IEA report five years ago, the theory hasn't stood up in the real world. There are many examples of per capita alcohol consumption going down while alcohol-related harm goes up and vice versa.

This seems to have been the case in the UK in the last fifteen years, as even the Sheffield University alcohol researchers had to acknowledge in this recent study.

This conclusion and the findings above therefore present major challenges to collectivity theory and the total consumption model. They suggest that a complex mixture of strong age and cohort effects, hard and soft collectivity, and some polarised trends underpin the findings of general collectivity observed when examining simple time trends in previous studies. These more complex findings do not imply a consistent relationship between population-level consumption and harm over time.

Today, the World Health Organisation published its 'status report' on alcohol in Europe. It was launched with a press release that lamented Europe having the highest rate of alcohol consumption in the world, and called for the usual grab bag of temperance policies. 

“Alcohol consumption has decreased in many European countries, but progress is grinding to a halt. Policy-makers need to implement the strategies we know are effective, such as increasing prices, limiting availability and banning advertising. With as many as 800 people dying every day in parts of the Region due to alcohol-attributable harm, we must do more to continue the fight,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

The report contains two points of interest. First, it provides more figures that do not fit the single-distribution theory. It finds that the European region saw a statistically insignificant decline in annual alcohol consumption from 11.5 litres per adult to 11.3 litres between 2010 and 2016. In other words, levels of consumption stayed essentially unchanged. If you believe in the whole population approach, you might expect the number of alcohol-related deaths to stay essentially unchanged. In fact there was a substantial decline...

• the age-standardized alcohol-attributable death rate decreased from 35.5/100 000 to 30.5/100 000, a proportional 14.1% reduction

• the absolute number of alcohol-attributable YLL [years of life lost] decreased by 11%, from 8.6 million to 7.6 million

• the age-standardized alcohol-attributable YLL rate decreased from 1234/100 000 to 1016/100 000, a proportional 17.6% reduction

Confused? You will be - because the WHO doesn't reckon the decline is real.

Socioeconomic inequalities are an important determinant of diminished life expectancy. At the same time, trends in alcohol-attributable mortality are greatly impacted by trends in overall mortality; if the death rates on which alcohol operates go down, alcohol-related death rates inevitably will also go down, even if there is no change in alcohol consumption.
This means that the observed changes seem to be driven mostly by overall improvement in health and health care for the EU+ population rather than by reduction in prevalence of heavy episodic drinking and alcohol consumption in current drinkers.

Take that in. It is the nearest you will get to the WHO admitting that their estimates of alcohol-related deaths, which are based on alcohol attributable fractions (AAFs), are worthless.

The AAF system simply hives off a certain proportion of deaths from different diseases and classifies them as alcohol-related. No clinician ever diagnoses them as 'alcohol-related'. It all comes from a dubious interpretation of epidemiological studies which is then applied to data from spreadsheets.

This is one of the reasons why there has been an implausibly large rise in the number of 'alcohol-related' hospital admissions in the UK in the last fifteen years despite alcohol consumption falling. The overall number of hospital admission has risen by 50 per cent in that time, largely thanks to the ageing population. There was bound to be a rise in the number of 'alcohol-related' admissions recorded, even if there was no actual rise.

In today's report, the system has backfired on the WHO and so they have had to admit the truth, or at least hint at it.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Canada's cannabis revisited

I was in Canada in June with Volteface, three MPs and a BBC documentary crew to look at the legal cannabis market. After the embargo finally ended a few weeks ago, I caught up for a beer with Volteface's Paul North to discuss the trip.

We recorded it for this podcast. It's a nice, relaxed chat with lots of behind-the-scenes information. Do check it out.

It reminded me to check up on the latest figures from Statistics Canada. As I have previously discussed, the black market has remained much larger than the legal market, thanks to high prices and excessive regulation in the latter. In the first quarter of this year, only 34 per cent of the market was legal (including medical cannabis).

The latest stats released two weeks ago show that this has increased slightly, to 39 per cent. Looking only at recreational cannabis, the legal market makes up just under a third. Overall, cannabis sales have gone down very slightly after a notable rise.

Still much to be done. Prices have to come down.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Ten years of the Velvet Glove blog

On 2 September 2009, I put the first post on the Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog, saying:

This blog will look at issues surrounding tobacco, alcohol, food, liberty, health scares and anything else that takes my fancy. How often it gets updated, I don't know. How many people will ever read it, I can't say.

Ten years, 2,243 posts and 6.4 million page views later, I'm still here. I know the blogging scene isn't what it used to be. Most of the big bloggers from ten years ago have given up the game or been poached by the mainstream media. Twitter and Facebook are sufficient for many people.

Although I'm active on Twitter and write for various outlets, I still relish the ease, immediacy and editorial control of blogging here. Enough of you read it to make it worthwhile and it is a place where I can test ideas and pursue niche topics.

Looking back at my early posts, I see that the split between the US and and UK attitudes to vaping was already becoming evident, a precursor to the full blown moral panic seen in America this year. I am also reminded that the plain packaging campaign initially started out as a way to stop people being 'misled' by low tar cigarettes.

In the years since, this blog has covered smoking ban miracles, fake alcohol guidelines, minimum pricing, fixed-odds betting terminals, thirdhand smoke, the Tobacco Products Directive, the sugar levy, sock puppets, blatant scientific malpractice, snus, casinos, loony academics, Brexit, Aseem Malhotra, Stanton Glantz's #metoo allegations and so much more. It has outlasted three prime ministers, several Surgeon Generals, countless public health ministers, Alcohol Concern, the National Obesity Forum, Smokefree Southwest, the UK Health Forum, the Health Equalities Group and Jamie's Italian.

Whether you've been here from the beginning or started reading in recent years, I hope you've enjoyed it. I'll be here for as long as you are.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

The economics of preventive health

I'm at the Big Tent Ideas Festival today talking about public health spending. The blurb for the event is as follows:

There is an old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, however, in the UK we do not seem to practice this. Of the Government’s total Department of Health expenditure, almost 75% goes on funding NHS England (which largely treats people) compared to the 0.2% which goes on funding Public Health England (which aims to prevent people from getting sick). This imbalance between treatment and prevention expenditure highlights a problem - how can we prevent people from getting sick in the first place? This session will explore the prevention/treatment imbalance and ask how we can make an ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure. 

I don't know where the 0.2% figure comes from. I think it might be PHE's operating budget. It's certainly not its full budget which exceeds £4 billion, of which £3.2 billion is sent to local authorities as their ring-fenced public health budgets.

£4 billion is a lot of money, but overall spending on preventive health is even higher. When you take NHS spending into account, the total was £9.6 billion in 2015 (I can't get a more recent figure). The proportion of the Department of Health budget spent on prevention is five per cent, not 0.2 per cent.

Should we spend even more? A lot of outlandish claims are made by people in the 'public health' industry about the efficacy of their interventions. It is often claimed, as the BMJ says, that...

Every £1 spent on public health in UK saves average of £14
Every £1.00 spent on public health returns an extra £14 on the original investment, on average—and in some cases, significantly more than that—concludes a systematic review of the available evidence, published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

The recent cuts made to public health budgets in the UK are therefore a “false economy” and are set to cost an already overstretched NHS and the wider economy “billions,” conclude the researchers, who warn other countries to think again before going down a similar route to claw back cash.

If it were possible to save £14 of NHS spending further down the line by spending £1 today, it would certainly make sense to make a greater 'investment' in public health. Alas, that is not what the evidence shows.

A study published in the Journal of Public Health in 2012 looked at a wide range of public health interventions in the UK and found that only 15 per cent of them save money in the long term. This echoed the findings of a systematic review published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008 which found that fewer than 20 per cent of interventions are cost-saving.

People need to abandon the delusion that preventive health interventions cuts costs in the long run. They do the opposite. If you can prevent an 18 year old from falling off a motorbike and spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair, you'll save the health service money. But if you prevent someone dying at the age of 80 so they live to 85, with all the hip replacements, cataract operations and pension payments that requires, it will cost money. The bulk of modern public health work involves the latter.

So what's all this about a 14 to 1 return on investment? That comes from this study published from 2017 (regular readers may be interested to know that one of its authors was Simon 'Caps Lock' Capewell). It is based on two assumptions from health economics:

1. NICE considers a health intervention to be cost effective if it produces one quality adjusted life year (QALY) for less than £20,000.

2. The Department of Health values a QALY at £60,000.

At the £20,000 threshold, Owen et al. (2012) estimated that 85 per cent of public health interventions were cost effective (not cost saving), ie. they cost less than twenty grand for every additional QALY. When the same researchers updated their work in 2018, this had fallen to 63 per cent. Still, not too bad by NHS standards.

The 14:1 ratio comes from comparing the cost of intervention against the £60,000 value of a QALY. So, if an intervention costs £10,000 and produces one QALY, it has a return on investment of 6:1 (£60,000 to £10,000). According to Capewell's study, the average public health intervention costs one fourteenth of £60,000 (14:1).

That's all well and good, but it's not a financial return, nor is it a future saving to the NHS. Unfortunately, the authors of the study portray it as both. The text of the study contains gross misrepresentations like this:

‘First, even with the most rudimentary economic evaluations, it was clear that most public health interventions are substantially cost saving…’

‘Overall, the results of our systematic review clearly demonstrate that public health interventions are cost-saving, both to health services as well as the wider economy… The cuts to public health budgets therefore represent a false economy. They are likely to generate billions of pounds of additional costs to the health services and wider economy.'

They even have the nerve to write this...

‘An ROI [return on investment] of 14.3 implying a cash return of 1430% would sound too good to be true in the financial world.’

Indeed it would. The crucial difference is that the authors' ROI is not a cash return. It sounds too good to be true because it isn't true. It's a common misunderstanding which certain people in the 'public health' industry do nothing to correct.

The only valid use for an ROI in this context is to compare the cost effectiveness of different health interventions. In a world of limited resources, that is worth doing. So is there a case for spending more on prevention and less on healthcare? Possibly - it's difficult to tell from the data - but probably not.

NHS healthcare produces a QALY at an average cost of £13,000. That's a lot of money, as you might expect from something that uses highly trained professionals, expensive technology and a vast, centralised, bureaucracy. £13,000 implies an ROI of 4.6 to 1. If preventive health can produce an ROI of 14 to 1, it would make sense to put more money into it.

But it's not that simple. There are several important caveats.

First, the ROI for prevention provided by local authorities is only 4:1. This is significant because it is local authorities who spend the ring-fenced public health budget in England.

Second, there is no single preventive health intervention. The 14:1 estimate comes from averaging out a wide range of interventions which vary massively in their cost effectiveness. The most recent study found that the cost per QALY ranges from £300 to £82 million!

If 'public health' professionals are competent and rational actors, they will spend their first pound on the most cost effective intervention and spend their last pound on an intervention that is less cost effective but better value for money than any of the remaining alternatives. In other words, the more money they spend, the lower the marginal returns. At some point, it becomes less efficient to spend money on prevention than on healthcare. We cannot tell from the available data where that point is, nor whether it has already been reached.

If, however, 'public health' professionals are not competent and rational actors, the situation will be worse because they will waste money on projects which are relatively inefficient, if not absolutely useless. That, alas, seems to be the case in the UK where Public Health England spends money promoting policies which have no credible evidence of efficacy, such as food reformulation and minimum pricing, while local public health directors pursue policies such as fast food zoning laws that are demonstrably ineffective.

Third, cost-benefit calculations which depend on intangible benefits being bestowed on individuals fall apart when the intervention inflicts intangible costs on the individual. The intangible costs of traditional public health policies are trivial to nonexistent (eg. the slight pain of a TB jab), but they have become more significant since 'public health' turned towards coercive lifestyle regulation.

Assuming individuals understand the health risks of excessive drinking, smoking, sedentary behaviour and over-eating, the intangible costs of a lost QALY are priced in by the individual. They are making a trade off between the private benefits they enjoy from their risky lifestyles and the potential cost to their health. If, for example, I am prepared to take a 50 per cent chance of dying ten years early to enjoy my vice of choice, I am valuing my vice at more than £300,000 - (£60,000 x 10 = £600,000) divided by two - plus the out-of-pocket cost of buying the product.

If the state uses coercion to make me abandon my vice against my will, I will be worse off; I will have lost thousands of pounds of intangible benefits. People in 'public health' may not value those benefits, but you cannot make a cost-benefit calculation on the basis that life years are the only intangible benefits that matter.

In conclusion, it is impossible to tell whether preventive health requires more or less funding in general, but there are certainly areas of 'public health' that should receive zero funding.

A few facts about the UK economy

I'm on a panel at the Big Tent Ideas Festival today discussing this report by the IPPR which proposes 'fundamental reform' to the UK economy. In my view, the reforms are not particularly fundamental. Most of them involve setting targets, stating aspirations and creating more quangos. Most of it could have been written by Theresa May.

The report starts from several false premises and there are bound to be disagreements about the facts that won't be resolved in front of a live audience so I am posting some evidence here so I can point people towards it if they're interested.

'Most people are no better off than a decade ago' (IPPR, p. 6)

Not true. Provisional data from the ONS published last month shows that median household disposable income is well above the level of 2009 and has been for some time.

The ONS's last full (ie. not provisional) release showed that every quintile has a bigger income than it did in 2008/09, with the biggest gains going to the bottom (poorest) quintile.

I think the IPPR has confused wages with incomes here. At the last count, median wages were still £4 a week lower than their pre-crash peak, but this does not imply that 'most people are no better off'. The labour market has expanded greatly in the last decade. The median wage earner is not the same person as he was then, as I explain in this post and as the ONS explains here.

'The UK is the fifth most unequal country in Europe in terms of income...' (IPPR p. 6)

No, it isn't (original figures from here).

'...while inequality of wealth is even greater'. (IPPR p. 6)

This is true but misleading. Wealth inequality is greater than income inequality everywhere. But the UK is less unequal in this respect than most comparable countries.

'Many more people work in insecure jobs than in the past, with almost a million people on zero-hours contracts...' (IPPR p. 6)

Between 2012 and 2013, there was a huge rise in the number of people who said they were on a zero-hours contract. In fact, it was so huge that it could only be a methodological issue. Sure enough, it coincided with Ed Miliband and others getting the term 'zero-hours contract' into popular use. I have written about this before...

‘Zero-hours contract’ is a relatively new term for what used to be called casual labour. It was almost never used by the media before 2012. And so, although the number of people who said they were in these contracts more than doubled between 2012 and 2013, the ONS concludes that this ‘appeared to be due mainly to increased recognition and awareness of “zero-hours contracts”’. The fact that the trend flattens out after 2016 suggests that the term has now become universally understood.
.. Moreover, the majority of zero-hour contract workers seem to be satisfied with the hours they are given and there is evidence that they are more satisfied with their work-life balance than those on full-time contracts.

The shortcomings of the data make it difficult to establish whether there are more people in casual work than in the past, but, as the ONS explained on BBC More or Less earlier this year (from 9 minutes), the number of people working only a few hours per week has declined.

Share of GDP going to labour

The share of GDP going to labour has fallen since the 1970s, as the TUC often says. The IPPR says the share of wages in national income has dropped 'from almost 70 per cent in the 1970s to around 55 per cent now' (p. 11).

But if you look at the data, it is clear that it only rose to 'nearly 70 per cent' during an unusual period in the mid-70s when the economy was in crisis, inflation was at 20 per cent and GDP was low, so it is not the most representative era to compare it to.

Nevertheless, GDP share to labour has fallen. The IPPR blames this on the lack of bargaining power of trade unions, but the same decline occurred in more heavily unionised countries and to a greater extent. Indeed, the share of GDP going to labour has declined more in other countries than it has in the UK.

The IPPR don't claim that income inequality is rising or has been rising, but someone on the panel might. For the record, it isn't and hasn't - not for thirty years.

Nor do the IPPR claim that the UK's low rate of unemployment is due to people who hardly work being classified as employed, but it is a common misconception so it might come up. For the record, it isn't true.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Warnings on individual cigarettes - another scrape of the barrel

It looks like the tobacco control industry has settled on health warnings on individual cigarettes as their next make-work scheme. The idea goes back many years; it was discussed by the lunatic fringe of the anti-smoking movement in Canada in the 1980s. I mentioned it in my book Velvet Glove, Iron Fist in 2009 and again in 2012:

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? 

As I noted last year, this dozy idea made an appearance in the Scottish government's tobacco control plan:

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.

Spotting a slew of research grants and the chance to extend their careers by a few more years, the dregs of the 'public health' research community have leapt into action, producing risible studies that are virtual carbon copies of the focus group-based garbage used to promote plain packaging. The latest was published this week. I don't advise wasting your time reading it but it's here if you want a reminder of what a Mickey Mouse field 'public health' academia is.

It was funded by Cancer Research UK so here's your regular reminder not to give them any money. There isn't much else to say about it, but I gave a comment to the Daily Mail when they asked for one:

'There isn't a single person in Britain who is unaware of the risks of smoking. People are bombarded with anti-smoking messages from the day they are born. 

'Cigarette packs are sold with graphic warnings covering two-thirds of the surface area. People smoke despite the risks, not because individual cigarettes haven't informed them about the risks.

'After years of being harassed by health zealots, smokers might relish the idea of setting fire to a health warning, but this is not a serious policy. 

'It is a desperate attempt by anti-smoking campaigners to keep themselves in business now that the campaign for plain packaging has ended.'

The lead author is serial trougher and chancer Crawford Moodie. If you want a laugh, check out his recent 'study' in which he throws leading questions at focus groups about adding audio warnings to cigarette packs:

This focus group study provides an understanding of smokers' immediate responses to cigarette packs which played a short health message when opened. Smokers generally viewed them as annoying or embarrassing, and some suggested the use of alternative storage.

.. Cigarette packs with audio messaging may have a role to play, now or in the future, as a novel way of communicating health and cessation information.

These people should be sectioned.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

The nanny state - why do we put up with it?

I was interviewed by Douglas Carswell for his Room for Thought show recently. Check it out.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Public Health England's great chess board

Yesterday, the Daily Mail reported the findings of a study which found that packaged food in the UK is healthier than it is in eleven other countries. This isn't very meaningful because the authors averaged out tens of thousands of very different products.

Useless though it may be, it's the kind of aggregate data that Public Health England is relying on in its reformulation efforts, so I wrote about it for the Telegraph...

A study recently evaluated the nutritional quality of packaged food in twelve countries. It may surprise you to hear that Britain came top and the USA came second. The least healthy food was found in two of the world’s least obese nations: Hong Kong and India.

According to the research, average sugar content of packaged food in the UK is 3.5 grams per 100 grams; the lowest of the twelve countries studied and less than half of the 7.7 grams found in China. The overall energy content of Britain’s packaged food was also the lowest. With 252 calories per 100 grams, our processed grub is much less calorific than that of India, where the average is 380 calories per 100 grams.

These findings may strike you as counter-intuitive. After all, Britain is one of the fattest countries in Europe and the USA has the highest obesity rate in the western world. But crude averages don’t tell us much about the diet of individuals. In the UK alone, the researchers found 68,153 different packaged food and beverage products to study. In the USA, the number was 162,297. Taking an average from such a vast range of options is almost meaningless.

The average doesn't dictate what people eat. People have choice. Even under PHE's reformulated regime, people will still be able to switch from low-calorie food to high-calorie food.

After citing this sadly overlooked study, I end with a bit of Smith...

The great economist Adam Smith mocked central planners for believing that they can "arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board". They forget that "in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it."

It is a mistake to see the world through averages. The bureaucrats at Public Health England should lift their eyes from their spreadsheets, heed the warnings of Adam Smith and remember the power of human agency.

Do read it all. It's paywalled but you get two articles a week if you register for free.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Does alcohol really cause breast cancer?

The anti-alcohol lobby got very excited in April when a Mendelian Randomisation (MR) study suggested that there are no overall health benefits from moderate drinking. Put very simply, MR takes account of genetic differences to see if an epidemiological association has been confounded by genes or other factors.

The authors of the study chose to look at people living in a specific area of China where two genes associated with teetotalism are very prevalent. They didn't explain how these genetic differences explain the J-Curve and - more importantly - they didn't explain what relevance their findings had to countries like the UK where these genes are rare. As I said at the time...

In short, the study looks at a Chinese population and argues that the J-Curve showing lower levels of stroke risk for moderate drinkers is an artifact of genetic differences. Two genotypes - ALDH2-rs671 and ADH1B-rs1229984 - are identified as suspects. The problem is that the former 'is mainly absent among Europeans but is prevalent in populations in East Asia' and the latter 'is found in 19 to 91% of East-Asians and 10 to 70% of West-Asians, but at rates ranging from zero to 10% in other populations'. Since most of the evidence for the J-Curve comes from western countries, it is not at all obvious that this explanation would hold up outside of Asia.

Nevertheless, it was good enough for The Lancet which published an extraordinary editorial pronouncing the death of the J-Curve, declaring that there is no safe level of drinking, and calling for a Framework Convention on Alcohol Control. Hello confirmation bias, my old friend.

The 'no safe level' claim is largely based on epidemiological studies of drinking and breast cancer, which purportedly show an increase in risk from very low levels of alcohol consumption. The evidence for this, in fact, very weak and a new MR study - currently in pre-print and based on a large sample of people in the UK - has found that the relationship between drinking and breast cancer doesn't exist at all. Moreover, it found that there is a threshold (ie. a safe level) for the handful of rare cancers that are genuinely associated with alcohol consumption.

Alcohol was observationally associated with cancers of the lower digestive system, head and neck and breast cancer. No associations were observed when we considered those keeping alcohol consumption below the recommended threshold of 14 units/week. When Mendelian randomisation was used to assess the causal effect of alcohol on cancer, we found that increasing alcohol consumption, especially above the recommended level, was causal to head and neck cancers but not breast cancer.
Our results where replicated using a two sample MR method and data from the much larger COGS genome wide analysis of breast cancer. We conclude that alcohol is causally related to head and neck cancers, especially cancer of larynx, but the observed association with breast cancer are likely due to confounding. The suggested threshold of 14 units/week appears suitable to manage the risk of cancer due to alcohol.

Strangely, the temperance lobby alcohol research community hasn't said much about this, even though it was reported in New Scientist.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

The madness of food reformulation

I've written about the government's food reformulation ruse for Spiked...

At the heart of the reformulation delusion is an ignorance of market forces, a deep suspicion of industry and a naive faith in the power of bureaucracy to remedy supposed market failures. One of David Cameron’s greatest mistakes as prime minister was creating Public Health England in 2013. This quango, which relieves the taxpayer of over £4 billion a year, was always going to attract ideologues and activists from the clown show that is ‘public health’ academia. These people are relatively harmless when confined to their echo-chamber conferences and rinky-dink journals, but are a menace when allowed off the leash. At Public Health England, they have real power and influence. It is telling that the only ‘stakeholders’ from civil society involved in the reformulation work are Action on Sugar and the Obesity Health Alliance, two mouthpieces of the fanatical Graham MacGregor, who flood the media with hysterical claims about the ‘shocking’ levels of various ingredients in normal, everyday food.

As Josie Appleton showed in her superb report for the IEA last week, these activist groups are the outriders of reformulation, working hand in glove with PHE to soften the public up for further interventions in the food supply. The bone-headed approach of these extremist pressure groups has been bought wholesale by the apparatchiks at PHE. They allow no room for personal autonomy. As they see it, the public will buy whatever products the food industry throws at them. For some mysterious reason, the industry has traditionally chosen to put lots of unnecessary fat, sugar, salt and, er, calories in these products. Therefore, all the government needs to do is to tell them to use saccharine and brown rice instead and the British public will lose weight without even noticing.
It is the kind of idea you might hear from someone who owns a collection of bongs, but thanks to Public Health England it is official government policy.

Do read it all.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Cooking For Bureaucrats

The IEA has an important new report out today - Cooking for Bureaucrats - which looks at the government’s food reformulation scheme. With the noble exception of Laura Donnelly at the Telegraph, journalists have shown little interest in this deranged plan to remake the food supply to satisfy the loonies at Action on Sugar.

Combining investigative journalism and economic analysis, Josie Appleton shows how vast and crazy the whole thing is. It is devoid of common sense and divorced from the wants of consumers. PHE are making it up as they go. For example...

Many of the targets are surreal, such as the recommendation that sweets should contain less than 50 per cent sugar, when boiled sweets are almost solely made up of sugar; or the request that fudge, made from sugar and butter/cream, should decrease its sugar content without increasing its fat content. The guideline for sugar content in nut butters is less than that naturally occurring in cashew nuts. The calorie guideline for olive bread (254kcal per 100g) is lower than that of a plain baguette or ciabatta. The calorie reduction figure for crisps and nuts is 403kcal per 100g, whereas plain peanuts (not allowing for roasting) are 600kcal per 100g.

PHE is also trying to introduce ‘calorie caps’ for a huge range of food products. Josie got hold of the documents showing how these are calculated. They are extraordinary. PHE takes the sales weighted average and simply knocks off 20 per cent. As the graphs below show, this often means making food which is currently at the extreme end of the distribution. It is at the extreme end because hardly anybody wants or needs it.

She has also used Freedom of Information requests to obtain emails between PHE and two groups: the food industry and the nanny state lobby groups Action on Sugar/Salt. These are also illuminating. For example...

This private communication shows that PHE work closely on the development of policy with NGOs. Policies are run past the pressure groups in their early stages, and only released to industry for consultation much later. For example, OHA was briefed on the calorie reduction programme in August 2017, seven months before consultation with industry food bodies (March 2018). In September 2017, OHA had a ‘catch-up meeting’ with PHE, discussing excess calorie definitions, and portion size recommendations, timelines and reporting mechanisms, and the role of the NGO sector. They arrange meetings not to formally consult, but to ‘swap notes’ or ‘catch up’, or to ‘update you on some work we are doing’. They congratulate each other on report launches or media appearances. 
Interest groups are included in policy plans at an early stage, and play a role in the development of these plans, which are later presented to industry as a done deal, to be tweaked but not substantially changed. PHE and Action on Sugar (AOS) exchange emails almost every week, and seem to have a meeting in person around once a month (after each meeting they email to ‘get another date in the diary soon’).

...These health lobby groups appear to be dismissive of the actual public - the choices that people make and the opinions they actually have. They see themselves as speaking in the name of public health, which they present as being a matter of life and death, and are therefore above any profane manifestation of the public, such as what people themselves may think or want. In an email to PHE, AOS said that the aim of the reformulation policy is to ‘save millions of children from disability or early death’, and that ‘[t]his is the priority - not the profits of the food industry, or even public opinion’. The interest of public health policy, then, is something that stands above - and even against - public opinion: it claims a higher mission. So AOS is able to masquerade as the true public good, as standing above the millions of people who actually form the public.

You can download the report for free. I recommend you do. It will be an eye-opener.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

The Nanny State Index conference 2019

The new Nanny State Index was published in May, bigger and better than ever. Next month sees the Nanny State Index conference. It's in Brussels and free tickets are available to anyone who registers.

There will be a keynote speech at 9am followed by three panel discussions and a lunch. Needless to say, I will be there. Join us if you can.

The panel discussions are:

09.30 – 10.30: Benign paternalism across the EU: does the end justify the means?  
Many European countries implemented sugar taxes, plain packing of tobacco products, and other policies that claim to improve the health of their citizens. What are the outcomes of these policies; did life expectancy improve faster in countries with stricter lifestyle regulations than in the countries without such restrictions? Did junk food consumption decrease as a result of the ‘fat tax’ in Hungary or Denmark? Do nations consume less alcohol where minimum pricing and/or high sin taxes were implemented? This panel reviews with local decision makers and public policy experts, how the intended and unintended consequences of lifestyle regulations have been realized.

10.50 – 11.50: Whose responsibility? 
Paying more attention to health and well-being has been both a priority for the political and the corporate sector. Now, more than ever, there is increased attention to provide healthier alternatives in all sectors. Who bears the primary responsibility for improving health outcomes of individuals? Do policy makers on the regional, national, or EU-level have a duty of care? What are the responsibilities of corporates, when it comes to providing healthier alternatives or discontinuing certain products? Should there be a focus on individuals and their particular lifestyle choices? If so, are there clear lines, between benevolent nudging towards certain choices, and arbitrary limitations on the freedom of choice?

12.10 – 13.10: Overregulation & the shadow economy
Regulations often have unintended consequences which were never the aim of policy makers in the first place. Unrealistically high tax rates, bans, and other restrictions on consumer choice push a certain segment of consumption from the legal and regulated area into illegality.
What are the concrete impacts of such regulatory policies on the shadow economy? What plays a more important role in fighting the shadow economy – levels of taxation, the amount of regulation, public perception, detection & penalties, or the income level of citizens? New empirical research from the Lithuanian Free Market Institute provides unique evidence of the actual drivers of the shadow economy and a comprehensive cross-country perspective.

Speakers to be confirmed.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Burning injustice tackled

This advert has just been banned in the UK after three cranks complained. See if you can work out why.

The answer, such as it is, can be found here. Thank you, Theresa May.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Panorama on gambling - wrong again

It looks like Panorama is going to have yet another pop at gambling tonight. Having dealt with fixed odds betting terminals, it now reports that people can bet much larger sums of money online - as I repeatedly pointed out when I was virtually the lone voice opposing the anti-FOBT crusade.

A BBC article promoting the show ('Addicted to Gambling') says...

High stakes betting machines have been banned from the High Street, but there are no legal limits for online games. That means customers can lose thousands of pounds in just a few minutes.

No kidding. If only someone had mentioned this earlier, eh?

The article - and I presume also the programme - makes a striking claim about the amount of money spent (or 'lost' as the BBC sees it) on gambling. It says that there has been 'a sharp increase in UK gambling over the past decade' and that...

The industry has expanded rapidly since the government relaxed restrictions on betting and advertising in 2007.

It also claims that...

Gamblers are now losing almost twice as much to the betting companies as they were a decade ago. Last year, punters lost a record £14.5bn.

How 'sharp' has the increase been since in the last decade? The Gambling Commission records a gross gambling yield (ie. money taken minus winnings paid out) of £8,365 million in 2008/09 which, adjusted for inflation, is £11,400 million in today's money. The figure for 2017/18 was £14,529 million.

That's a rise of 27 per cent in real terms. An increase, but not an especially sharp one and certainly not 'almost twice as much', as the BBC claims.

However, as anyone who is familiar with these figures knows, the totals from the last few years are simply not comparable with those from a decade ago. Until 2015/16, most online gambling revenue was not included in the figures. It wasn't until the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act of 2014 that remote gambling by UK consumers was regulated (and taxed) at the point of consumption, with any company trading on the British market having to hold a Gambling Commission licence.

This was George Osborne's way of taxing the offshore industry. Once introduced, billions of revenue that had not previously been recorded suddenly appeared on the books. In 2013/14, remote gambling spend was recorded at £1.1 billion. Two years later, it jumped to £4.2 billion.

Needless to say, this did not reflect a quadrupling of online gambling in Britain. All it showed was that a lot of offshore gambling spend had previously gone unrecorded because the companies were not based in the UK, did not pay tax in the UK and did not hold a UK gambling licence.

If you look at the Gambling Commission's figures, the step change between 2013/14 and 2015/16 is obvious. Click to enlarge.

For some reason, the Commission has switched from financial years to October-September years in the most recent year, but that's not important. The big picture is that gambling spend has fallen in real terms in arcades, betting shops, bingo halls in the last ten years. (Yes, you read that correctly - it has fallen in betting shops). Spending on the National Lottery has also fallen.

Gross gambling yields have remained about the same in casinos and have risen in the relatively small non-state lottery sector.

The only substantial sector that has seen an increase in real terms spending is online. That should come as no surprise, but we don't know the scale of the increase in the last decade because the figures are not comparable.

Has gambling spend increased in real terms in the last decade? Probably, but not by much, and if there has been a rise, it has come almost exclusively from online and we know that most online gambling spend was not recorded until 2015/16. The claim that overall gambling spend has nearly doubled is absurd. Panorama really needs to be put out of its misery.

Friday, 9 August 2019

The smoking ban miracle revisited

Remember this, from 2013?

The number of children admitted to hospital with symptoms of asthma has fallen since the ban on smoking in enclosed public places came into effect, a study has found.  
Research shows there was a 12.3% fall in admissions in the first year after the law was introduced in July 2007, and these have continued to drop in subsequent years, suggesting that any benefits of the legislation have been sustained.

The claim was a lie and the study was junk science, as I showed at the time. Stanton Glantz was one of the authors. Nuff said.

It was followed shortly afterwards by this equally false claim...

The smoking ban in public places has been linked to 1,900 fewer emergency hospital admissions for asthma patients every year, researchers have found. The ban, which came into force in England in July 2007, has been associated with an annual 5% drop in adult admissions, they said.

Anyone who bothered to look at routine hospital data could see that none of this was true. There was no downward trend in admissions for children or adults.

Emily Humphreys, head of policy and public affairs at the charity Asthma UK, said: "Eight out of 10 people with asthma tell us that other people's smoke makes their asthma worse. 
"That's why we campaigned for the smoke-free laws and are delighted to see evidence of the benefits these are having on the millions of people with asthma in England.

But reality has a way of intruding on the carefully constructed fictions of the nanny state industry. Two years earlier, in 2011, Asthma UK had noted that the number of emergency admissions for asthma among young people had ‘remained unchanged for a decade’.

Today, the same organisation released figures showing that...

Asthma deaths in England and Wales 'highest in a decade'

Deaths from asthma in England and Wales are the highest they have been in more than a decade, according to analysis of official data.

Sadly, they are much higher than they were in 2007 when the smoking ban came into effect.

Yet another big win for ‘public health’.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Last Orders with Julia Hartley-Brewer

There’s a new episode of the Last Orders podcast out. Our special guest is Julia Hartley-Brewer and we discuss cannabis legalisation, tobacco prohibition and the collapse of AG Barr’s shares since the company degraded Irn-Bru.

It’s a good one. Give it a listen.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Canada's cannabis experiment

I was on field trip in Ontario last month with several MPs and charities to check out the legal cannabis market that has been in operation since October. The event was organised by the splendid drug reform group Volte Face and filmed by a BBC crew whose documentary went online yesterday.

It's well worth watching the documentary. Prior to the trip, the views of the three MPs differed. Norman Lab (Lib Dems) was firmly in favour of legalisation, David Lammy (Labour) was tempted but not convinced by arguments, and Jonathan Djanogly (Conservative) was open-minded but basically supportive of the status quo.

As the BBC reported on Monday, all three now believe that legalisation is inevitable, and Lammy is firmly in favour. Djanogly has written a thoughtful piece for Cap-X in which he weighs up both sides and discusses what is needed to make the best of legalisation.

For me, the surprise was how big the black market still is. At least two-thirds of recreational cannabis is purchased from illegal suppliers and that is unlikely to change until the government makes the legal product more attractive. The most important thing is to get legal prices down; they are currently 50 per cent higher than black market prices. It would also help if the government allowed shops to use some of the nudges of consumer capitalism. Getting rid of plain packaging would be a start...

I've written about the trip for the Spectator...

I had forgotten how much I disliked cannabis until I found myself under its influence, in the rain, trying and failing to find Toronto’s Union Train Station so I could get to the airport and go home. The plan had been to enhance my mood for a long journey, floating back to the UK in a higher state of consciousness. In practice, I just got confused, wet and was lucky to make my flight.

I had intended to purchase the kind of low-THC, high-CBD weed that disappeared from Britain’s black market when skunk took over in the 1990s. Put simply, THC is the psychoactive component that gets you high but is associated with psychosis, while CBD is the antipsychotic component that gave cannabis its natural balance before it was bred out of the plant by drug dealers. Alas, laziness prevailed and I settled for a ready-rolled joint which my vendor candidly admitted was made up of scrapings from whatever they’d been chopping up that day.

In truth, the spliff had been bought on the ‘when in Rome’ principle. Recreational cannabis has been legal in Canada since last October and I was on a fact-finding trip with a BBC film crew and a cross-party group of MPs, including Norman Lamb, David Lammy and Jonathan Djanogly. In a few months time, Illinois will become the eleventh US state to legalise recreational marijuana. With the dominos falling, it is only a matter of time before a European country, possibly Britain, follows suit. We were there to see how it works.

Do read it all.