Tuesday, 16 July 2019

The chickens come home to roost at AG Barr

Before the sugar tax was introduced, someone on Twitter bet me that AG Barr’s share price would be higher in April 2019 than it was in April 2018 (when the tax came into effect).

I didn’t bet against him, but he was right. Fair play. The makers of Irn Bru have done a good job of keeping up investors’ confidence by increasing dividends and putting out good news stories like this....

Irn-Bru maker AG Barr has reported a rise in sales and profits after shrugging off the new sugar tax, the March cold snap and CO2 shortage. 
The Cumbernauld-based firm reported a 4% rise in underlying pre-tax profits to £18.2m for the six months to 28 July after sales climbed 5.5% to £129.8m. 

Earlier this year, headlines such as ‘Low-sugar Irn-Bru still hits sweet spot’ may have led you to believe that delisting your best-selling brand and replacing it with a government-approved, artificially sweetened forgery was the route to success for a soft drinks manufacturer.

Alas, today the chickens came home to roost...

AG Barr's share price plummets after profit warning

Irn-Bru maker AG Barr's share price fell sharply on Tuesday after the company issued a profit warning.  
The Cumbernauld-based said it expected sales to drop by 10% and profits by up to 20% as they struggle against a strong year in 2018. It cited poor weather and "challenges" facing some of its brands, particularly its Rockstar energy and Rubicon juice drinks. 

The weather in Scotland is becoming an all-purpose excuse for the broken promises of the ‘public health’ lobby, isn’t it?

More realistically...

AG Barr's Rubicon division has faced challenges since the introduction of the sugar tax, with several drinks companies having to change their recipes to reduce sugar levels. 

Narrator: They didn’t have to reduce them.

This has led to a backlash among some customers, who have complained about the new tastes.

No kidding. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh.

Imagine sitting on a recipe that is proven to make you money and voluntarily refuse to sell it to people who have told you repeatedly that they don’t mind paying more for it.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Last Orders with Timandra Harkness

There's a new Last Orders podcast available. This month our special guest was the performer, author and radio presenter Timandra Harkness. We had fun discussing San Francisco, Spice (the drug) and sin taxes.

Check it out.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Sugar taxes still don't work

Adam Briggs did some of the modelling for the sugar levy back in the day and is an advocate of the policy. The 'public health' racket being what it is, he has since been put on the team tasked by the government with evaluating it.

In the meantime, he has written a response to Boris Johnson's criticisms of sin taxes for the Telegraph. Under the headline 'Revealed: The evidence which shows we need the sugar tax to fight the obesity epidemic', Briggs claims that sugar taxes are evidence-based, and yet he is unable to provide any evidence that they have ever had the slightest impact on obesity.

Ten years’ ago, evidence for the impact of soft drink taxes on behaviour was all based on mathematical modelling (hypothetical projections) but now there are over 30 countries with such taxes and the ‘real-world’ data are filtering through.

You'd think, therefore, that sugar tax campaigners could point to at least one country where obesity has declined as a result. Alas, no.

Perhaps the most well-studied country is Mexico, where a soft drink tax of a peso per litre (around a 10 per cent price increase) led to an average 8 per cent reduction in purchases over the first two years. 

But it didn't. A model designed by soda tax campaigners (ie. one of those 'hypothetical projections') claimed that sugary drink consumption would have risen if the tax hadn't been introduced. In reality, per capita consumption of sugary drinks stayed the same.

More recent data from Philadelphia in the US has shown a 40 per cent fall in sales following a 1.5c per ounce tax.

Indeed it does. That's because people started shopping out of town. The tax was bad for business in Philadelphia (as was always the intention), but good for neighbouring areas.

So what was the net effect on calorie consumption?

Due to cross-shopping and compositional changes in demand, we do not detect a significant reduction in calorie and sugar intake.

Oh dear.

Briggs continues:

A systematic analysis of all such real-world evaluations published last month concluded that a 10 per cent price rise in soft drinks leads to – on average – a 10 per cent fall in purchases.

Yes, that's roughly the price elasticity for soft drinks. If the price of any good goes up, consumption will generally go down. That's the law of demand. It does not make a sugar tax a 'genuine evidence-based public health policy', as Briggs claims, nor does it mean that 'as single interventions go, sugary drink taxes are right up there'.

What is remarkable about soda taxes is how rarely they produce a measurable decline in sugary drink consumption, let alone in calorie consumption or obesity.

There is plenty of other real world evidence that Briggs could have cited. None of it supports his case. If sugar taxes are 'right up there' as anti-obesity policies, it is a damning indictment of all the other anti-obesity policies, which are not really anti-obesity policies but anti-smoking policies rebadged by people with no imagination and inappropriately applied to a more complex and totally different issue.

Catch up on a decade's research into sugar taxes here.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Triggernometry interview

Since Eurosport started covering all the snooker tournaments, I probably spend more hours watching Triggernometry than I do the BBC. And so I was delighted to go on the show to discuss drugs, sugar, smoking, obesity and advertising with Francis and Konstantin. Click on the link below to watch it on Youtube.

And click here for Triggernometry's excellent back catalogue.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

The year of the milkshake

I wrote a piece for the Telegraph about Boris Johnson's opposition to a milkshake tax...

Insofar as sin taxes encourage behavioural change, they encourage people of modest means to cut expenditure in other parts of the household budget. There’s an old Russian joke in which a boy asks his father if he will drink less now that vodka is so expensive. "No, my son," he says. "You will eat less."

Tax receipts from alcohol, tobacco, gambling and sugary drinks rake in £24 billion a year. This is a colossal sum of money that far exceeds the associated costs to the NHS and is difficult to justify in a free society. Of all the tax cuts that have been proposed during the Tory leadership contest, the most progressive – in the true sense of the word – would be to slash sin taxes.

If you have a subscription, do read it all.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Boris says no to a milkshake tax and calls for a review of other sin taxes

Britain has had a nanny statist as prime minister for the last thirteen years (I'll give Blair a pass for his early years). Could it be that we are finally going to get a PM who stands up to the killjoys?

There are signs from the bookies' favourite, Boris Johnson, that we might...

Boris Johnson today declares war on ‘sin taxes’ on sugary and fatty foods – as he warns they hit the poorest with higher bills.

The Tory leadership frontrunner will promise to review Theresa May’s flagship sugar tax on fizzy drinks if he reaches No10, and insists it will not be extended to milkshakes.

He will also vow to freeze new taxes on foods which are high in salt, fat or sugar – and argue those who want to lose weight should just exercise more.

The policy would amount to a major reversal of government efforts to combat obesity. Last night news of the announcement sparked a backlash from health campaigners who accused Mr Johnson of ‘turning back the clock’.

Cue squealing from the nanny state lobby. Excellent.

Boris says:

‘The recent proposal for a tax on milkshakes seems to me to clobber those who can least afford it. If we want people to lose weight and live healthier lifestyles, we should encourage people to walk, cycle and generally do more exercise. Rather than just taxing people more, we should look at how effective the so-called ‘sin taxes’ really are, and if they actually change behaviour.’

‘Once we leave the EU on 31 October, we will have a historic opportunity to change the way politics is done in this country. A good way to start would be basing tax policy on clear evidence.’ 

This is in contrast to some depressing comments made by Jeremy Hunt recently, who seems to think it is his job to threaten businesses into forcing artificial sweeteners on consumers:

“The quickest way to deal with this [obesity] crisis, is for the people who manufacture milkshakes and other products to reduce the levels of sugar in those products so that the taste doesn’t change very much but they are much healthier.

“So, you threaten them, you say ‘we have been prepared to legislate if you won’t play ball’. But in my experience, if you make that threat, you don’t need to follow through with the dreaded milkshake tax.”

It is time for an independent review of sin taxes to be carried out without the involvement of true believers and their worthless computer models. Encouragingly, Boris's team seems to have looked at some of the empirical literature. Today's press release contains some unusually detailed notes to the editor:

In the last ten years there have been a series of academic papers that have both argued for and against the proposition that ‘sin taxes’ change people’s behaviour. While there have been some studies, and overviews of academic literature, that have concluded that ‘sin taxes’ are effective (for example, Wright et al., BMC Public Health, 2017, link), there have also been a number of studies that have raised questions over their overall effectiveness. For example, for sugar, some research has suggested that the tax could increase alcohol consumption (Quirmbach et al., Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, link).


In the last ten years there have been a series of academic papers that have both argued for and against the proposition that ‘sin taxes’ are regressive and hit the poorest the most. While there have been some studies that have concluded that this is not the case (BMJ, link), other studies have concluded that these taxes are regressive. For example, some studies have claimed that a 20 percent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would take three times as much from lower-income households than from higher income households, as a percentage of disposable income (Sharma et al., the effects of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages across different income groups, Health Economics, link). In addition, recent studies have suggested that sugar taxes do not reduce socioeconomic inequalities in diet-related health (University of York, July 2018, link).

It is very difficult to argue that sin taxes are not regressive. Indirect taxes on widely consumed items invariably hit the poor harder than the rich. The BMJ editorial (cited above) claimed otherwise by resorting to logical contortions and bald assertions.

As I said at the time, the BMJ article sought to redefine the word regressive, taking it away from economics and framing it in terms of health. Its basic argument is that although the poor pay more as a proportion of their income, they also benefit the most because they respond more to the tax.

Even if this were true, it would not stop sin taxes being regressive. But it is not true. There is no evidence that taxing soft drinks improves anybody's health, and rich people are more responsive to cigarette price hikes than poor people.

If Boris wants chapter and verse on the economic literature, he should read my short discussion paper Of Course Sin Taxes Are Regressive:

Many studies have shown the regressive impact of taxes on food, alcohol, tobacco and soft drinks; the very taxes that the Lancet wants to see increased. Often the studies are written by proponents of such taxes who acknowledge the added financial burden on the poor even while advocating for them. Lorenzi (2004: 61), for example, accepts that ‘[s]in taxes are regressive in practice if not in their design’ and Sharma et al. (2014: 17) accept that a 20 percent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would take three times as much from lower-income households than from higher-income households, as a percentage of disposable income.

A systematic review of the literature on sugary drink taxes found that ‘[a]ll of these studies reported the tax to be financially regressive whereby lower-income households would pay a greater proportion of their income in additional tax’ (Backholer et al. 2016: 11). The findings of Chudá and Jansky (2016: 445), who use empirical evidence from the Czech Republic, ‘confirm the overwhelming evidence from other countries, that fat taxes are regressive in income.’ Chouinard et al. (2015) found that taxes on high-fat foods (in the USA) are ‘extremely regressive, and the elderly and poor suffer much greater welfare losses from the taxes than do younger and richer consumers.’ Interestingly, they also found ‘almost no behavioural effect’, with even a 50 per cent tax only lowering fat consumption by three per cent (ibid.: 20). Badenas-Pla and Jones (2003: 130) note that ‘excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco are regressive with respect to income (the usual measure of ability to pay), if poorer and more affluent consumers smoke and drink at the same rate. The regressivity is exacerbated if the prevalence is inversely related to income.’

The regressive impact is plain to see if we look at expenditure of whole income groups (quintiles, deciles etc.), but since not everybody in the group consumes the taxed product, we also need to look at the expenditure of individual consumers. When we do this, the impact is even more pronounced. Farrelly et al. (2012) found that expenditure on tobacco among low-income smokers in New York City increased from a sizeable 11.6 per cent to a staggering 23.6 per cent of disposable income following large rises in the excise tax on cigarettes. Across the USA in general, low-income smokers spent 14.2 per cent of their income on cigarettes in 2010/11 whereas high-income smokers spent just 2.2 per cent (ibid.).

Such taxes are not just regressive in the short-term. They also tend to be regressive over the course of a lifetime. Lyon and Schwab (1995: 405) found that the regressivity of cigarette taxes in the life-cycle is ‘virtually identical’ to the regressivity over one year (i.e. highly regressive). Alcohol taxes become ‘slightly less regressive’ if they are studied over the lifecycle but they remain ‘firmly regressive’ compared to general sales taxes (ibid.).

The regressive nature of such taxes was even apparent in the issue of the Lancet which implied otherwise. It included a study by Sassi et al. which focused on middle- and low-income countries where wealthier people tend to consume more tobacco, alcohol, snacks and soft drinks than the poor. Despite this, the authors were forced to conclude that ‘[l]ow income households bear the largest tobacco tax burden consistently across all countries’. When it came to ‘price policies targeting soft drinks and snacks ... again, the low-income households consuming these products tend to bear the largest financial burden’ (Sassi et al. 2018: 2067). Alcohol taxes were the only partial exception. They took a larger share of income from the richest quintile, but only because there were more teetotallers in the poorest quintile. When rich drinkers were compared to poor drinkers, ‘the burden borne by just the low-income households that consume alcohol is proportionately larger than the burden borne by high-income households consuming alcohol’ (ibid.).

This is so well established that most 'public health' campaigners don't bother trying to deny it (many of the studies mentioned above were written by dyed-in-the-wool nanny statists).

As for behavioural change, this is usually small to nonexistent because the products being taxed are price inelastic. Soft drink taxes have remarkably little impact on soft drink consumption, let alone calorie consumption, and have never reduced obesity anywhere, ever. Alcohol taxes have little impact on the heavy drinkers and alcoholics whose health is realistically at risk. And tobacco taxes have to be sky high before they have the kind of effect campaigners expect - at a huge cost to those of us who choose to smoke.

A lot of tax cuts have been promised during the Conservative leadership campaign, not all of them sensible or affordable. This is more like it from Johnson. The priority should be slashing the taxes which hit the poor hardest and punish people for their lifestyles.

Britain has extortionate taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and the sugar levy will soon spread to other products unless we get a prime minister who is prepared to stand up to the killjoys. 

Monday, 1 July 2019

The 'public health' budget hasn't been cut enough

Earlier this year, the Local Government Chronicle asked me to write a response to an article by Jo Bibby complaining about cuts to the 'public health' budget. I don't know whether they ever ran it (it's not online), but here is her article followed by my reply.

Jo Bibby: Keeping us healthy is not just a job for the NHS

For years the British public have been told that staying healthy is entirely their responsibility – so much so that they are starting to believe it.

It’s no wonder that some people want to perpetuate this view. Much of the rhetoric about prevention places the responsibility for staying healthy firmly on you, me and our Fitbit. But this lets governments duck their responsibility to tackle the root causes of ill health.

The recently-published NHS long-term plan puts preventing poor health at its heart, including finding and treating disease earlier and calling on the NHS to help tackle unjust differences in health between the best and worst off. These steps are welcome.

But the numbers living with health conditions that could and should be avoided is rising. Whether we are talking about respiratory problems linked to air pollution, smoking or poor housing; cancers caused by obesity, tobacco and alcohol; or the increasing levels of depression and anxiety arising from myriad factors such as debt, loneliness and insecurity, they have two things in common.

First, they all have roots in the political choices governments make. And second, by the time they are on the NHS’s radar it is largely a case of mitigating the consequences of disease rather than prevention.

It’s not that the emphasis on prevention in the long-term plan is futile. Good NHS care can be the difference between your type 2 diabetes being manageable or it leading to your foot being amputated – the fate of over 6,000 people each year.

But just looking to the NHS to prevent ill health is akin to thinking that investing in prisons will reduce levels of crime. Of course, prisons have a role in preventing re-offending; they don’t stop people committing crimes in the first place.

Poor health is the consequence of circumstances that limit people’s ability to secure the basics for a healthy life – a home, a job and a friend – thereby increasing their exposure to multiple risk factors. Any government committed to the prevention agenda needs to be look far beyond the NHS.

Putting responsibility for keeping healthy on individuals alone sidesteps the root causes of ill health – poverty being common to most of them. It also diverts attention from the commercial interests of the food and alcohol industries.

Yet the degree of control any of us can exercise over our own health is shaped by the conditions we find ourselves in. Living in poorer conditions increases the exposure to factors harmful to health: poorly-paid and poor-quality work, inadequate housing, greater air pollution, a lack of green space and affordable, healthy food.

As highlighted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, healthcare spending has risen from 23% of public service spending in 2000 to 29% in 2010. It is set to reach 38% by 2023-24.

Meanwhile, other areas of government spending that create the conditions for healthy lives have seen big cuts. Education spending has fallen by 8% per pupil in real terms since 2009-10, welfare changes since 2011 have cut incomes for the poorest households, and Sure Start and early years services have been cut by over 40% since 2010.

Perhaps the starkest illustration of disconnected policy making is the £85m cut to the public health grant announced before Christmas, when our analysis shows that they need an additional £3.2bn a year to meet demand and address inequalities.

This situation is no longer tenable. The number of years lived in good health is falling for people who face the harshest socioeconomic circumstances. This is despite record spending on healthcare and medical advances. As such there is a growing recognition that a healthier society is about prevention.

Tackling the issue facing millions across the UK of spending years in ill health will only happen through a comprehensive prevention strategy that harnesses the contributions of all areas of government.

This demands an industrial strategy that creates the opportunity for good quality work across the whole country, a more muscular commitment to regulating the food and drink industry – particularly where it impacts on children – and investment to bring back the social infrastructure that supports the most vulnerable.

The government’s forthcoming prevention green paper provides the chance to do this and it must be done alongside adequate funding for wider public services that have a direct impact on people’s health, including those delivered by local authorities.

Creating a healthy society is good for all of us. The additional spending for the NHS will help mop up the poor political decisions of the past but isn’t enough to create a healthy future.

Jo Bibby, director of health, the Health Foundation

Christopher Snowdon: Cut deeper 

Jo Bibby complains about cuts to the public health budget but never mentions how large that budget is. It is a very large sum indeed. The figure usually quoted is around £3.5 billion, but even that large number is an underestimate since it is only the amount given to local authorities. The operating budget of Public Health England in 2017/18 was £4.3 billion. In the context of this king’s ransom, a cut of £85 million is trivial.

I would like to see the government go further and take more money out of the ‘public health’ slush fund to give to frontline services. The usual argument against this is that prevention saves money in the longterm but this stitch-in-time narrative is a self-serving myth. There is plenty of economic evidence to show that most preventive interventions are not only costly in themselves but create further costs down the line when people develop other diseases. It is the ageing population, not the phoney ‘time bombs’ of obesity and alcohol, that has led to NHS costs skyrocketing in the last twenty years.

I am assuming here that preventive interventions are effective in prolonging life, but that is by no means certain. Despite the vast expense, there is little evidence that many public health initiatives, such as the fatuous Change 4 Life campaign, have any positive effect. Some public health initiatives, such as vaccinations and sexual health, are important and necessary but it is not obvious why these cannot be provided by the NHS directly. Monitoring and tackling infectious disease is a legitimate public heath goal. Pestering grown adults about their lifestyle is not.

Public Health England urgently needs auditing by independent academics to show that its billions could not be better spent on actual healthcare. The restructuring of public health in 2013 created a gravy train for single-issue zealots and left-wing political activists to masquerade as health experts, not least by appointing dozens of Directors of Public Health with an average salary of £150,000 in local authorities across the country. These pocket dictators make a nuisance of themselves in whatever way they can. Amongst their trivial obsessions is a fanatical desire to stop people smoking in hospital car parks and a keen urge to prevent new alcohol outlets and takeaway outlets from opening, as if any of this would have the slightest impact on the health of residents.

There is no doubt, as Bibby says, that financial security, sound employment and a good social life are beneficial to both mental and physical health. The question is whether public health professionals are in any way equipped to create economic prosperity, other than by constantly demanding the government spends money it doesn’t have. Not only do they lack the tools to tackle poverty and social isolation, they actively support  regressive policies such as minimum pricing and sugar taxes which are tailor-made to exacerbate them. It is thanks to their smoking ban that thousands of traditional venues for socialising, fun and friendship - pubs, bingo halls and working men’s clubs - have closed since 2007.

There is an almost comical disconnect between the grand political ambitions of the public health lobby and the policies they spend so much time and money campaigning for. We can all agree on the need to improve living conditions, help children get a good start in life and have a clean environment, but these are complex and expensive tasks which are not made any easier by pretending that they are public health issues. Faced with these massive socio-economic challenges, what does the public health propose? A ban on buy-one-get-one-free food deals. A calorie cap on vol-au-vents. Brown cigarette packs.  Smaller wine glasses. Putting 10p on a can of Coke. Banning Tony the Tiger.

By no means all of the public health budget is spend on such ludicrous schemes, but despite the supposedly savage cuts, it is notable that there has been no decline in the volume of nanny state hectoring in recent years. Quite the reverse.

If people wish to campaign for their pet projects, they should be free to do so, but the taxpayer should not be forced to subsidise them. As far as this taxpayer is concerned, the problem is not that the public health budget has been trimmed, but that it has not been trimmed enough.

Christopher Snowdon is head of lifestyle economics at the IEA

Friday, 28 June 2019

State propaganda for minimum pricing

Not a single newspaper has covered the statistics published by the Scottish government on Wednesday showing a rise in alcohol-related deaths in 2018. Given the extensive coverage of the decline in alcohol consumption a week earlier, this is shameful bias.

In fact, only one article appeared this week about minimum pricing. It was written by Sarah Devine at the Scotsman and was published yesterday (and put online today). It makes for very strange reading.

Indications are that the introduction of the minimum unit pricing of alcohol has lowered consumption, and hopes are high that a correlative reduction in drink-related violence is on the way, writes Sarah Devine.

It has been little over a year since Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce minimum unit pricing (MUP), and the latest official figures show that the policy is clearly working.

As mentioned, the latest official figures actually show that alcohol-related deaths rose but this fact doesn't get a mention in Sarah's article.

MUP was first called for by Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) in 2007 before being implemented by the Scottish Government in May last year to challenge cheap prices charged for alcoholic drinks in Scotland.

Numbers released by Holyrood this month show that there has been a 3 per cent fall in alcohol sales per adult in the country since then, while the volume of alcohol sold per adult in Scotland in 2018 reached its lowest level in 25 years.

SHAAP, which was established in 2006 by the Scottish Medical Royal Colleges and based within the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, is a clinical group aimed at tackling the public health issue of alcohol-related harm to improve the health and wellbeing of people in Scotland through a range of evidence-based approaches. It is also working to change the public’s perception of alcohol and reduce its negative impact on young people.

This is starting to read like a press release from SHAAP.

Last month, SHAAP was named as the first sponsor of Scottish Women’s Football’s National Performance League and NPL Cup, the elite level for girls’ club football in Scotland and the body lauded its stance on not accepting alcohol sponsorship.

Since SHAAP began, the number of alcohol-related crimes has also decreased substantially.

Given that the number of alcohol-related crimes has fallen substantially in England over the same period, this is a pretty clear case of the post hoc fallacy.

SHAAP’s work is led by a steering group with representation from the Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties in Scotland as well as invited experts.

SHAAP this, SHAAP that. Where is the news? Where is the opposing viewpoint? Where are the death statistics?

One such member is Dr Christine Goodall, who co-founded the Scottish charity Medics Against Violence (MAV) two years after SHAAP began, and who welcomes this reduction in the number of violent crimes.

The rest of the article is a puff piece for Medics Against Violence.

Combined with minimum unit pricing, work on issues such as adverse childhood experiences and the reduction of the availability of alcohol in deprived areas, in line with the WHO approach, Goodall is hopeful that the number of violent and alcohol-related assaults will continue to fall.

This is like something out of Pravda and it is very odd. It only makes sense when you look again at the top of the page and see this...

'Promoted by' means sponsored by, ie. paid for. Note that SHAAP is based out of the Royal College of Physicians, as the article says.

It turns out that Sarah Devine has a history of writing articles favourable to this pressure group, such as this piece promoting sponsorship of women's football and this piece promoting a temperance conference...

I don't hold this against Sarah Devine. Journalism is a tough trade these days. The problem is that SHAAP is entirely funded by taxpayers, with 87 per cent of its income coming directly from the Scottish government.

It seems, therefore, that the Scottish government is indirectly paying for biased, positive coverage of one of its pet policies in a Scottish newspaper. If so, Scotland's sockpuppet state is worse than I thought.

San Francisco is broken beyond repair

Since the demise of the Islamic State, the task of over-turning the Enlightenment has fallen to California. And what a fine job it is doing in the fight against science and reason, condemning glyphosate by jury trial, putting cancer warnings on nearly everything and leading the world in thirdhand smoke research.

San Francisco is the epicentre of the Golden State's insanity. The city has recently plumbed new depths by announcing a ban on e-cigarette sales. Leaving aside the issue of personal freedom - which is irrelevant to people in the Bay Area - why would you ban the safest form of recreational nicotine device and leave the most dangerous on the shelves?

It's a question that a few people have asked and one of Stanton Glantz's cohorts, Lauren Lempert of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, has the answer. Make sure you're sitting down before you read it.

"It's a fair question to ask why there are still legal cigarettes, which may be at least as dangerous, and possibly more dangerous [than vape products]," said Lempert. 
 "May be"??? "Possibly"??! What do they teach them at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education?
"But that doesn't mean you shouldn't at least address this immediate problem of e-cigarettes, and then if you want to move on from there and ban all tobacco products, then do that." 
Good grief. These people are fully deranged. 

The more pressing question for the city is whether it will lose any tax revenue from wiping out the vaping sector. But don't worry, they've looked into it...

Ted Egan, the city’s chief economist, said his office reviewed the legislation and found it would not have a material impact on the San Francisco economy because the money spent on vaping products would continue to be spent in the city on other nicotine products like cigarettes.
That's alright then!
Meanwhile, the guy who led the moral panic about vaping as commissioner of the FDA has just joined one of the world's leading manufacturers of pharmaceutical nicotine products. What a small world.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Theodore Dalrymple on the British Medical Journal

Theodore Dalrymple has written an excellent article about the state of the British Medical Journal, inspired by the BMJ's recent attack on the Institute of Economic Affairs. It's full of gems so read the whole thing, but here's a sample...

To most modern doctor-philosophers, everything, up to and including a meal, is either health-giving or health-harming, and it is the most important function of a government, under their expert direction, to promote the health and prevent the harmful. They are the Islamic fundamentalists of human welfare: their religion allows the healthy and forbids the unhealthy. They do not recognise any ambiguities. Vested interest for them arises only from the possibility of making a commercial profit: their own demand for control over ever more resources, or for ever more power to forbid, is purely and objectively for the good of humanity. As the BMJ puts it, concern has been “prompted” that the current Health Secretary might be “listening to the views of vested interests above those of the health community”. The “health community”—assumed to be of one mind, incidentally—has no vested interests, because its interests by definition cannot be vested. 

.. I am not so much concerned that the views expressed in this article should be expressed (everyone is entitled to his opinions) as that there is not likely to be much debate about them. One has the impression on reading the medical journals—the New England Journal of Medicine, the Lancet, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the BMJ—that a kind of stifling pensée unique has overtaken or infected an important part of the medical world: a pensée unique from which it is increasingly harmful to a career to dissent.  

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Alcohol-related deaths rose in Scotland last year

Remember last week when statistics showed a fall in alcohol consumption in Scotland in 2018 and everybody pretended that minimum pricing was responsible for the decline?

You can hardly have missed the news. It was reported everywhere and it inspired the Irish prime minister to get moving with minimum pricing... 

Ireland will move quickly to implement a minimum price below which alcoholic drink cannot be sold, the Taoiseach has said.

Mr Varadkar said the recent data in Scotland – which brought in the measure in May of last year – showed it was working well. This encouraged the Irish Government to implement the measure already contained in an alcohol control law passed by the Dáil and Seanad.

However, as I explained at the time, it's difficult to read too much into the figures for the calendar year of 2018, for a few reasons. 

First, minimum pricing didn't begin until May, so for a third of the year alcohol was sold at the market price. The figures I have seen for off-trade sales in the post-MUP period (May 2018 to April 2019) show no decline.

Second, alcohol sales have fallen in nine of the last eleven years, including a 3.7% fall in 2011, a 4.2% fall in 2012, a 2.5% fall in 2013 and a 1.9% fall in 2016. There is nothing special or unusual about the 2.95% fall recorded in 2018.

Third, if you dig into the spreadsheets of the MESAS study, you'll see that the decline in the on-trade was almost identical to that in the off-trade (2.9% and 3.1% respectively). If minimum pricing was behind the decline, you would expect it to be driven by the off-trade since that is where the price rises were experienced.

None of this was allowed to intrude on the celebrations last week. We all had to pretend that 2018 was the post-MUP period and minimum pricing was responsible for whatever happened in it.

Today, the figures for alcohol-related deaths were published. This was the moment that Alison Douglas of Alcohol Focus Scotland had been looking forward to, as she said in April:

"Really importantly, we'll get the first data on alcohol specific deaths in Scotland because that's the first indicator of what's happening to harm. Lets not forget the whole policy here is about reducing alcohol related harm and consumption is the means to improving peoples heath and lives."

This time, however, there was no press release from NHS Scotland, no comment from the Scottish Health Minister and not a peep from any of the newspapers. Why not? Perhaps because the figures show a rise in the number of alcohol-related deaths in Scotland between 2017 and 2018, from 1,120 to 1,136 (1.4%). 

Let's remember that the sainted Sheffield Model predicted exactly 58 fewer alcohol-related deaths in the first year of minimum pricing.

But 2018 was not the first year of minimum pricing. It was year in which minimum pricing was in force for eight months, as today's report makes clear...

Minimum unit pricing for alcohol was implemented in Scotland on 1 May 2018, with a minimum price of 50p per unit. The 1% increase in the number of alcohol-specific deaths between 2017 and 2018 is not conclusive evidence on whether or not the policy is working because (for example) it is well within the range of the ‘random’ year-to-year fluctuations that have been seen in many previous years and, in any case, the figure for 2018 as a whole includes deaths which were registered in four months (January to April 2018) in which there was no minimum unit price for the sale of alcohol.

This applies equally to the alcohol consumption figures. The 2.95% decline in 2018 was 'well within the range of the ‘random’ year-to-year fluctuations that have been seen in many previous years'.

All I want here is a bit of consistency. If we're going to pretend that the calendar year of 2018 was the post-MUP period and use post hoc rationale, then minimum pricing drove down alcohol consumption while failing to reduce alcohol-related deaths. Today's statistics should have received at least as much attention as the sales figures did last week ('the whole policy here is about reducing alcohol related harm', after all).

Instead, today's figures have been released to the sound of crickets and tumbleweed.

Ever get the feeling you're being played?

Monday, 24 June 2019

Did childhood obesity really fall in Leeds?

At the start of last month, there was a good news story from Leeds...
Leeds becomes first UK city to lower its childhood obesity rate 
Leeds has become the first city in the UK to report a drop in childhood obesity after introducing a programme to help parents set boundaries for their children and say no to sweets and junk food.

Only a few cities in the world, notably Amsterdam, have managed to cut child obesity. Like Amsterdam, the decline in Leeds is most marked among families living in the most deprived areas, where the problem is worst and hardest to tackle.

“The improvement in the most deprived children in Leeds is startling,” said Susan Jebb, a professor of diet and population health at Oxford University, whose team has analysed the city’s data. Over four years, obesity has dropped from 11.5% to 10.5% and the trajectory is steadily downwards. Among the more affluent families, there was also a decline from 6.8% to 6%. Overall the drop was from 9.4% to 8.8%.

Jebb seemed confident in the statistics:

“This is four years, not one rogue data point,” she said at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow where she presented the research, also published in the journal Paediatric Obesity.
“Everybody is going around saying Amsterdam is doing something amazing. Well, actually, Leeds is too.”
The news was covered by the BBC with a story headlined 'Has Leeds cracked the obesity problem?', and the Guardian ran an op-ed by the head of business development at the organisation that was credited with success: Henry (Health, Exercise, Nutrition for the Really Young). He said:

Since 2009, when Henry started working in Leeds, obesity rates at age five have fallen significantly (from 9.4% to 8.8%), while rates for cities with similar socio-demographic characteristics, and as a whole, have remained high.

I mentioned it on this blog at the time because it seemed promising. Alas, via ConscienHealth, I see that it has been debunked. As Eugene Milne, the director of Public Health for Newcastle, explains:

But what was missing from the news coverage and responses was the fact that there is now a fifth data point in the Fingertips data—for the period 2013/14-2017/18—and this shows the prevalence of obesity in Leeds to have risen again to 8.98%. This is because the single-year data for the city in 2017/18 showed a rise to a prevalence figure of 9.5% in the reception age group.

This true. If you look at the data, you'll see that the rate of 'obesity' among reception age children has been between 8.4% and 10.3% since 2006/07. Aside from a small spike between 2008 and 2010, there is no discernible trend. In 2017/18, the figure was 9.4%. Looking at other figures, it's not clear why anyone ever concluded that there was strong evidence of a decline.

This therefore looks like junk research in support of another cash-burning 'public health' initiative. It's another reason to be sceptical of the barrage of stories that appear in the press when the European Congress on Obesity is in town.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Ten years of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist

Boisdale, 2009

As Simon Clark notes on his blog, today marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of my first book, Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking. You can see some photos of the launch event, which was also FOREST's 30th birthday party, here.

I've been re-reading the last couple of chapters of the book to see how it stands up. What struck me was how many things that I thought were relatively recent developments were already underway by 2009. In my mind's eye, anti-obesity campaigners had started on fat and only turned on sugar in the last few years, but re-reading Velvet Glove I realised that chocolate and biscuits were already in their cross-hairs in the noughties. I had also forgotten that local councils were denying planning permission for takeway shops more than a decade ago.

Most of my predictions about the slippery slope have been confirmed by events. The war on perfume never gathered the momentum that I thought it might, although when I was in Toronto recently I was in a building that advertised itself as a 'scent-free zone'. 'Electrosensitivity' never really took off, perhaps because the ubiquity of smartphones and wi-fi made the cost of having this trendy diagnosis too high. Even the most high profile 'sufferer' - arch anti-smoker and former WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland - is now using a mobile phone.

Of course, there are some things that no sane person could have predicted, such as Thailand banning smoking in the home on the pretext of preventing domestic violence, but there isn't much I would change about the book if I could have my time over.

Having said that, I keep meaning to revise and expand Velvet Glove for a second edition. One day I will get around to it, but it is a big job. The rise of e-cigarettes, which began shortly after publication, probably requires a whole chapter of its own, and there are a whole slew of policies - plain packaging, display bans etc. - that were only a glint in the eyes of a fanatic in 2009.

The obvious endgame for the anti-smoking lobby has always been prohibition. By the time I get round to updating the book, tobacco prohibition may well underway. It would be the natural final chapter.

Beverly Hills recently got the ball rolling by announcing a ban on the sale of tobacco and vaping products. I was struck by the comments of Doug Blanke, Executive Director of the Public Health Law Center at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota, which brought to mind Billy Sunday's hilariously over-optimistic speech about 'John Barleycorn' when alcohol Prohibition began...

“The tobacco epidemic is the greatest manmade catastrophe of all time: it’s on track to kill a billion smokers before the century is out.  But we may look back and say that this was the day that changed all that. Because with this bold action, Beverly Hills is showing the world an alternative path.  A path to zero tobacco deaths. To a world where we don’t just ‘control’ tobacco products, we phase them out completely. A world free of tobacco-related death and disease.”

In January, it will be exactly a century since Prohibition began. Are we destined to repeat the same mistake again? I suspect so. Once Beverly Hills has had the ban in place for a while there will be studies published claiming that it has been a glorious success. California will then follow, then whole countries. Who will be first? Thailand? Australia? Singapore?

As Laurent Huber, Executive Director of Action on Smoking and Health says:

“Beverly Hills is the first domino falling for tobacco sales, and other jurisdictions with no doubt soon follow their lead.”

Remember when all they wanted was non-smoking sections in restaurants? How things snowball.

Friday, 21 June 2019

The IEA is closer to power than it has been for decades

The Institute of Economic Affairs is 'closer to power than it has been for decades' and 'may now hold the key to No 10'.

So said a peer-reviewed article in the British Medical Journal recently, so it must be true.

As you can imagine, those of us who work for the IEA were delighted to see our awesome power and influence being recognised by a top journal. Unfortunately, the article was written by gutter freelancer Jonathan Gornall so we can't pretend that it's an entirely accurate representation.

I've written a response for the benefit of the peculiar subset of people who think that 'who funds you?' is an argument.

When the BBC reported last month that Arron Banks had given £450,000 to Nigel Farage, I tweeted ironically: “So now we know why Mr Farage keeps banging on about leaving the EU. He’s been funded by a notorious Eurosceptic”. As should be obvious, the joke here is that everybody knows that Nigel Farage has been campaigning to leave the EU for 25 years. He attracts funding from people who share their ambition. The idea that the relationship works the other way round, with Farage’s opinion of the EU being dictated by the views of his financial backers, is laughable and yet that is how the British Medical Journal seems to view the relationship between the IEA and our donors.

Do read the rest.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Scottish government spinning last year's alcohol statistics

The newspapers are full of 'good' news stories about minimum pricing today...

Scottish alcohol sales drop as minimum price kicks in (BBC)

Alcohol consumption in Scotland falls to 25-year low following minimum pricing introduction (Telegraph)

Minimum pricing policy for alcohol has sobering effect (Times)

Scottish alcohol sales at lowest level in 25 years after price controls (Guardian)

This seems to contradict previous reports of alcohol sales rising since minimum pricing, and the Scottish government is milking it for all it is worth. So what's the story?

The figures come from Scotland's annual MESAS study and look at the calendar year of 2018. Minimum pricing wasn't introduced until May 2018, so the figures do not show what happened after minimum pricing came in. They show what happened in a year in which minimum pricing was in force for eight months.

Nielsen data show that sales in Scotland went up by every measure - volume, value and units - in the first nine months of minimum pricing. A sharp decline in cider and perry sales was more than offset by a rise in sales in other categories, particularly spirits, lagers and fortified wine, leading to a two per cent increase in the number of units sold overall - a rise of 25 million units. (Unfortunately, these data are not available in full online.)

None of this is irreconcilable with the MESAS figures released today (which are also based on Nielsen data) for two reasons.

Firstly, as mentioned, the MESAS figure is for the whole year and it is quite possible that sales were lower than average in the four months before minimum pricing began.

Secondly, the MESAS figure is - quite properly - an estimate of per capita sales. Per capita figures are obviously affected by population growth. If there has been significant immigration, per capita sales could fall even while overall sales rise.

The MESAS authors say that they use the mid-year population estimates from National Records Scotland. Interestingly, however, those estimates show little population growth between 2017 and 2018. The population rose from 5,424,800 to 5,438,100, a rise of just 0.24 per cent. The more relevant comparison is the adult population but this, too, has only grown slightly, from 4,560,646 to 4,572,359 (0.26 per cent).

Notwithstanding the different time periods involved, the difference between the unit sales figures and the MESAS per capita figures remains unexplained. A set of monthly Nielsen figures covering 2017/18 and 2018/19 would clarify things, but I have yet to see this. (UPDATE: I've been reminded that the Nielsen figures do not include sales from Aldi and Lidl. MESAS estimates sales from these two shops, somehow. This could have an effect.)

In any case, it's worth looking at the trends in the MESAS report. If you only got your information from the BBC, you would think that sales plummeted in 2018 as a result of minimum pricing.

Scottish alcohol sales drop as minimum price kicks in

Scots bought less alcohol in 2018 than any year since records began in the early 1990s, according to a new report.

Hmm, sort of. Last year's MESAS report showed that alcohol consumption was 'at a level similar to that seen in 1994' in 2017, so this is hardly an historic moment. 

Leaving aside the fact that the figures don't actually show what happened after minimum pricing (let alone as a result of minimum pricing), the per capita estimates for 2018 don't show anything special.

Sales in the on-trade declined, as they have done for years (note the sharp decline in the years following the 2006 smoking ban) and sales in the off-trade dipped a bit. The off-trade decline was of the same magnitude of that seen between 2015 and 2016 and was less steep than that seen between 2011 and 2012. 

If you don't recall the BBC reporting those sales declines it's because they didn't, although they did report the rise between 2013 and 2014, perhaps because the Scottish government put out a press release saying that the figures 'reinforce [the] need for minimum unit pricing'. See how it works? 

When the 2016 figures were published, I said...

If a rise of 0.1 litres is enough to garner headlines, you'd think that a fall of 0.3 litres would be newsworthy, but you'd be wrong.

But that was then, this is now. Today, a fall of exactly 0.3 litres per head is suddenly highly newsworthy because it can be wrongly attributed to a policy that wasn't even in place for a large part of the year in question.

If minimum pricing hadn't been introduced last year, the drop in per capita consumption wouldn't have been reported at all, just as it wasn't when a drop of exactly the same size occurred in 2016. And with good reason: it is neither large nor unusual.

In conclusion, if you want to see what happened to alcohol sales after minimum pricing began, I humbly suggest you look at alcohol sales after minimum pricing began.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Prohibition doesn't prohibit - prison edition

The erstwhile legal high Spice was banned in the UK in 2016. At around the same time, a ban on smoking in English prisons began to be phased in. Scottish prisons followed suit in November 2018.

Action on Smoking and Health predicted that the smoking ban wouldn't lead to prison riots. It led to a lot of prison riots. Violence in prisons is now at an all-time high.

And now we discover that...

Prison staff are falling ill from spice drug fumes

More than a third of prison officers and nurses have felt ill as a result of inhaling second-hand smoke from the drug known as spice that is plaguing jails.

A survey of more than 1,600 members of prison staff found that 53 per cent had been exposed to psychoactive substances taken by prisoners; 39 per cent said that they had felt unwell from the effects of the drugs, with 97 per cent of those affected reporting symptoms including dizziness and confusion.

Great success! Is there any problem that prohibition can't exacerbate?

In May, a group of activist-academics in Scotland found that levels of tobacco smoke had fallen in Scotland, and said:

“This research confirms that exposure to second-hand smoke has been drastically reduced and, ultimately, this will have a positive impact on the health of prison staff and prisoners.”

Meanwhile, back in the real world:

Scotland’s jails are in the grip of a new drugs crisis with the number of prisoners needing medical attention rising five fold in the last three years.

More than 1,600 prisoners needed medical attention after using psychoactive substances – formerly known as legal highs – last year.

And the number of cases continues to increase – with 1,100 prisoners affected already this year.

Banning smoking in prisons has caused the problem to escalate, warders say, with inmates now using government-issued e-cigarette devices to inhale the drugs.

Perhaps the authorities will now ban e-cigarettes, thereby further increasing the risk of violence?

Prison officers say the situation across the country’s jails is already out of control.

One said: “We seen prisoners foaming at the mouth and rampaging around with their eyes bulging out of their heads.

“Others look as if they are zombies.

“They exhibit super-human strength and are just completely out of control – it’s like walking into a zombie apocalypse.

“They don’t feel pain. We’ve seen then inflicting terrible injuries on themselves and others.”

Spice and other drugs are substitutes for tobacco. Tobacco has a calming effect on people, but the simple and effective solution of repealing the ban, at least outdoors, will never be entertained because British lawmakers are in the grip of fanaticism.

And so the carnage will continue.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Critiques of the Lancet's 'no safe level' study

A study appeared in the Lancet last August which claimed to have virtually erased the J-Curve from alcohol epidemiology. The authors used an unconventional methodology, modelling aggregate data from whole countries rather than looking at risk to individuals, and came up with this:

According to their model, there is no reduction in mortality risk from moderate levels of alcohol consumption. It did not quite show that there is 'no safe level', despite the authors claiming that '[o]ur results show that the safest level of drinking is none', but it came close. It has since been cited by the Lancet and others as conclusive evidence that no amount of drinking is safe and that alcohol should be treated like cigarettes.

The methodology was too opaque to allow a full immediate critique, but David Spiegelhalter discussed it here and I wrote about it at the time. Among its flaws was the inclusion of tuberculosis as an alcohol-related disease (debatable in itself) which lifted the risks of drinking even in countries where TB is virtually nonexistent.

The Lancet has now published criticisms from three groups of scientists. You can read them here, here and here, along with the authors' reply here. The authors defend themselves by saying that their conclusion is broadly supported by two reviews by Tim Stockwell and another study published in The Lancet last year. In fact, the latter study found clear evidence of a J-Curve and Stockwell's one man crusade against the J-Curve is based on extreme cherry-picking and 'questionable statistical methods'. In the end, the authors say:

Debates concerning whether the safest level of consumption is zero or near zero are missing the point.

You see what they did there? That's what you call moving the Overton window. It's not actually a question of zero or near zero. It's a question of moderate consumption versus not so moderate consumption; 20-odd units a week versus 30-odd units a week. Either way, more than the UK government's evidence-free 'safe drinking' guideline of 14 units.

If you're interested in this issue, hit the links above.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Last Orders for Jamie Oliver

I'm off to the Global Nicotine Forum until Saturday so I will leave you with the latest Last Orders podcast with me, Tom Slater and TV's Kate Andrews. It's a special Jamie Oliver schadenfreude edition. Look at our sad faces.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

American idiots

I haven't written about vaping in the USA for a while because the debate over there is so incredibly stupid that it's senseless to try to intervene.

Take this, for example. Anti-smoking groups want to raise the age at which people can buy tobacco to 21 because, well, they like bans. The tobacco industry says that is in favour of this policy. That has discombobulated the tobakko kontrol movement because they put the infantile 'scream test' at the heart of their dogma (ie. "the louder tobacco companies scream, the more impact we know a measure will have"). By their logic, if the manufacturers of cigarettes support an anti-smoking policy, it can't work.

Bear in mind that the Americans ludicrously define e-cigarettes as tobacco products. The Tobacco 21 policy is really an attempt to crack down on vaping, not smoking - and on Juul in particular - so you see why some tobacco companies might look kindly on it.

Jeffrey Hardesty, research program manager at Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Global Tobacco Control, says he’s skeptical of the tobacco industry’s sudden support for Tobacco 21, noting that it “does not make amends for decades of obituaries.”

Whatever. Policies should be judged by their merits. This one is illiberal, although given that the US government treats people under the age of 21 like children when it comes to alcohol, it is harder to argue against it than it would be in Britain.

But even still, he says the laws are a good idea at their core.

How many dark nights of the soul did he have before aligning himself with the evil tobacco barons, I wonder?

Hardesty agrees that Big Tobacco’s involvement “has the markings of corporate social responsibility.” Nonetheless, he says grouping vapes and traditional cigarettes under the same regulatory umbrella is a smart strategy for improving public health.

No, it's an exceptionally dumb strategy because they are substitute products, one of which is vastly safer than the other. Any regulation designed to deter use of the safest form of a product will have a similar effect to regulation designed to encourage the use of the most dangerous form of the product.

“If you’re only applying legislation to e-cigarettes…you could drive people back to a potentially more harmful product,” Hardesty says. 

Only applying them to e-cigarettes would be lunacy, even by American standards, but I don't think anyone is suggesting that. What is being suggested is that paternalistic regulation be commensurate with the relative risks.

It doesn't take much brain power to invert Hardesty's argument and conclude that if you only apply the regulation to tobacco cigarettes, you could drive smokers towards the least harmful product. This is Harm Reduction 101.


Sunday, 9 June 2019

Panorama and alcohol, a toxic combination

A few weeks ago I was asked by BBC Panorama to do an interview about alcohol. Panorama has an atrocious history of making one-sided, error-riddled programmes about booze which amount to temperance propaganda. However, the new episode is hosted by Adrian Chiles, who I have always quite liked and who made a half-decent documentary about his own drinking last year, so I thought there was a glimmer of hope of it being reasonably objective and I agreed to the interview.

That hope was quickly snuffed out when he gave a speech to the fanatics of the Alcohol Health Alliance a few days after we met and I have since been told that my interview won’t feature in the programme at all.

To end all doubt, Chiles has written an article for The Observer in which he implicitly blames the alcohol industry for him drinking above the guidelines and portrays those guidelines as evidence-based (which they are not).

Judging by the article - and my unaired interview - the Panorama show tomorrow will be mainly about labelling, with Chiles concluding that the booze industry is lying to its customers by not advertising the new, evidence-free guidelines on their products.

People should be able to drink what they like, but they should do so with complete information. And that’s something the industry seems intent on keeping from us.

Consider a pub, with its long row of beer taps. On some you will see the percentage of alcohol in the beer. But why doesn’t it tell you how many units of alcohol there are in a pint? For that matter, why doesn’t it also tell you how many calories there are?

This, I think, is fair enough and I said so when he asked me about it. I don’t think it would make much difference to how much people drink - let’s face it, Chiles was smashing the old guidelines so there’s no reason to think he would abide by the new ones - but I’m not against consumers having information.

Labelling on beer taps doesn’t strike me as a big enough issue to justify 30 minutes of primetime television, but it gets worse when he actively defends the new guidelines...

In 2016 our chief medical officers set the safe drinking guidelines at a new lower level – 14 units a week for both men and women. Three years later, on the vast majority of products we looked at for Panorama, most producers still aren’t seeing fit to mention this. 

Good. No company should put manifestly untrue information on its products.

Small wonder that fewer than one in five of us are aware of the crucial 14-unit figure, as it’s on hardly any packaging at all. In most cases, the old advice – 28 units for men and 21 for women – is all you’ll get.

That’s not what is shown on most alcohol packaging. The guidelines haven’t been 28 units for men and 21 units for women since the 1980s. Most alcohol bottles and cans show daily guidelines with a warning to not regularly exceed them. Fairly sound advice.

As regular readers know, the new 14 unit guideline for both sexes has no empirical evidence to support it and was created in a demonstrably corrupt process. If Panorama was interested in investigative journalism, rather than being a mouthpiece for special interest groups, this is the story it would cover. Instead...

As for the 14-unit weekly safe drinking guidance, for what it’s worth – unlike many in the alcohol business – I choose to believe the conclusions of countless studies by scientists all over the world.

Utter guff. Not a single epidemiological study supports the 14 unit limit whereas countless studies show that people can consume around 30 units a week and still have a lower risk of mortality than a teetotaller. The only evidence for 14 units is a modelling effort from the hired guns at Sheffield University whom Public Health England paid to change their methodology at the eleventh hour because their original modelling supported the previous guidelines. Chiles’ claim is the exact opposite of the truth.

One piece of junk science from Sheffield is not enough for Adrian, so he doubles down by claiming that...

...most of the industry’s profits have to come from the other 30% of us. We need to keep pretty hard at it for them. If we were all to drop our drinking to safe levels, those profits would be hit to the tune of well over £10bn.

This can only be a reference to a laughable study published last August which claimed that alcohol revenues (not profits) would fall by £13 billion if all drinkers consumed exactly 14 units a week each.

I wrote about this economically illiterate piece of garbage at the time (see here and here). In short, the UK booze industry doesn’t make anything approaching £10 billion of profit so it cannot possibly lose ‘well over £10bn’. (You’d hope that someone who used to present a TV show about business could have worked that out for himself.) The authors of the study confused revenues with profits and ignored production costs and taxation. It should never have been published. In any serious academic field, it wouldn’t have been.

I hope the fact-checking is going to be better in the show itself, but despite Panorama getting itself in hot water in 2012 when it took a dodgy alcohol statistic on trust (yes, it was those lads at Sheffield Uni again), I have a feeling that it won’t be.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Plain packaging for food, part 94

The IPPR, a left-wing think tank, got a lot of media attention yesterday when they called for plain packaging of sweets, cakes, crisps etc. Their report is an intellectually thin document with multiple typos (they write a lot about confectionery but rarely spell it correctly) and none of the analysis that you might expect from a think tank.

If you're going to propose Soviet-style regulation of the food supply, you need to answer a few basic questions. What is the source of the problem you are trying to solve? What is the likelihood that your policies solve it? What are the costs? What are the benefits?

The IPPR doesn't even ask those questions. The policy conclusions seem to have been cobbled together down the pub, mainly borrowing ideas that have been tried (and failed) in tobacco control.

I doubt the IPPR is particularly interested in obesity, but it is interested in having a go at capitalism, so it makes sense for them to get into bed with the 'public health' lobby. It describes plain packaging for food as a “challenge to the power of corporate manufacturers”, so that's nice.

The plain packs stuff got the headlines but other policies proposed were equally bizarre and illiberal. They want to 'extend the smoking ban to all public places' which presumably means banning smoking outdoors. They want to raise the smoking age to 21. They want to not only prevent new fast food shops opening near schools but shut down existing fast food shops to meet their target of 'no fast food restaurants with [sic] 0.1 miles of schools in England.' And they want to extend the sugar tax to various foods which displease them.

Pretty grim stuff, but good clickbait for the IPPR and another vindication for those of us who warned that this would happen.

I've written about it for The Sun today...

Those of us who opposed the sugar levy warned that the nanny state zealots would soon demand similar taxes on a range of everyday food products.

Similarly, we opposed plain packaging for tobacco because it would create a slippery slope, with food, soft drinks and alcohol next in the firing line.

A report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) proved the naysayers correct.

Not only are they calling for plain packaging for sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks, the IPPR is calling for tobacco-style sin taxes on cakes and confectionery, plus an extensive advertising ban for anything that the Government considers to be high in fat, sugar or salt.

Some of the IPPR’s justifications for these Stalinist diktats border on the ­surreal.

They claim that plain packaging for so-called “junk food” will “level the playing field between confectionary [sic] products and fruit and vegetables”, as if children would be eating turnips rather than chocolate bars if it weren’t for colourful wrappers.

Do read it all.

The Sun's leader is pretty solid...