Thursday 31 January 2019

Coco Pops are the new tobacco - Tom Watson

'Elementary, my dear Watson'
The Advertising Association invited Tom Watson to harass them give the keynote speech at their conference yesterday and the great man shared his insights on Twitter afterwards. Watson lost a lot of weight last year after going on the kind of low calorie, high exercise diet that anyone can do.

At the time he explained that he 'basically stopped taking sugar, refined sugar, and then I started walking 10,000 steps a day and walking up staircases and when a bit more weight came off I started to jog and cycle.' He has retrospectively dropped the bit about vigorous exercise and, under the spell of Aseem Malhotra (picture above), has decided that sugar consumption is the sole cause of obesity and that other people are not clever enough to lose weight without government coercion.

His talk to the Advertising Association was straight out of the anti-tobacco playbook... 

There is no 'dental crisis' and you will be hard-pressed to find a scientist who agrees that sugar is 'every bit as deadly as tobacco', but facts are optional in the growing war on food.

Nor is packaging a form of advertising, for that matter, but Watson uses anti-smoking rhetoric to get around that...

This is uncannily similar to the claim that cigarette packs are 'mobile billboards' and 'mini-billboards', but don't worry because when the campaign for plain packaging was underway, ASH's Deborah Arnott assured us that 'the “domino theory” i.e. that once a measure has been applied to tobacco it will be applied to other products is patently false'.

I'm not sure if the allusion to heroin is deliberate or not, but it's worth remembering that Kellogg's cut the sugar content in Coco Pops by 40 per cent last year in an attempt to appease the fanatics. This is twice as much as the 20 per cent reduction demanded by Public Health England but it is clearly not enough to satisfy Tom Watson.

As the food industry will learn over the next few years, fanatics can never be appeased.

PS. In a busy week for the slippery slope, Lewisham's Director of Public Health is earning his £139,923 salary...

Wednesday 30 January 2019

Last Orders with the Angry Chef

Three wise men

There has been some crazy talk about food and obesity this month. Things are moving in a dangerous direction - and quickly. Here's the lead author of Monday's Lancet report tweeting earlier today...

As a counterweight to all these madness, Tom Slater and I got the ever-reasonable Angry Chef, Anthony Warner, onto the Last Orders podcast. As always you can listen on iTunes or online here.

Please remember that the Last Orders is now on its own channel so if you were listening via the Spiked channel before, be sure to subscribe.

Anthony Warner's new book, The Truth About Fat, came out a couple of weeks ago. I'll be reading it soon and will probably post a review.

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Soda and cigarettes

New York City taxpayers' money at work...

You can watch the whole thing by clicking the tweet below.

If only someone had warned us about this slippery slope...

1994 advert from JTI

Monday 28 January 2019

The slippery slope becomes a runaway train

Less than two weeks after setting out its bizarre near-vegan diet, the Lancet has published a lengthy report detailing how it expects the government to force us to eat it. In short, it wants to bypass democracy by getting a global treaty based on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control passed by UN agencies. To that end, it wants a billion dollar slush fund for activists to lobby the government (courtesy of the taxpayer, natch).

This is the anti-smoking blueprint copied to the letter - complete with state-funded sockpuppet campaigners and the equivalent of Article 5.3 to keep industry experts out of the conversation - and they make no bones about it.

I put out a comment for the IEA:

“This is the final vindication for those us who have warned about the slippery slope of regulation. Nanny state zealots are no longer hiding their intention to use the anti-tobacco blueprint to control other areas of our lives. They are openly contemptuous of freedom of choice and make no secret of their desire to bypass democracy and use unaccountable global institutions to further their agenda.

“If such authoritarian regulations come to pass, a thriving and competitive food market which responds to consumer demand will be replaced by a “state anchored approach” in which bureaucrats and activists decide what the public is allowed to eat. The idea of taxpayers being forced to contribute to a $1 billion slush fund for them to lobby for such a future is nauseating.”

The Lancet has well and truly jumped the shark. It's almost painful to watch. If only editor Richard Horton had done the honorable thing and resigned after the Andrew Wakefield scandal, things could have been so different

The report itself is a 56 page diatribe against 'Big Food'. You can read it here or read all about it in my Spectator Health article.

The increasingly loony Lancet is on a roll this month. After causing global mirth two weeks ago by publishing the EAT-Lancet diet (no more than a quarter of an egg, a tenth of sausage a day, etc) the once great medical journal has now laid out how it expects the government to make us eat it.

Published today, a lengthy report from the Lancet Commission on Obesity gives a detailed overview of what it sees as the problem (capitalism), the solution (higher taxes, more state control) and the means by which the great transformation will take place (more money for activist groups to lobby the UN). It is explicitly modelled on the anti-tobacco blueprint and is the final vindication for those of us who have warned that the slippery slope of nanny state regulation is becoming a runaway train.

The lead author of the report is Boyd Swinburn, a New Zealand doctor and food campaigner who declared last week on Twitter that the EAT-Lancet report shows where diets need to get to while his report shows how to get there. They are two sides of the same coin and whilst there is no shortage of policy suggestions in the EAT-Lancet document, including rationing and the outright prohibition of certain food products, the Lancet Commission takes it a stage further by calling for a global treaty.

Do read the rest. 

You can also see my colleague Kate Andrews giving it with both barrels on Sky News last night...

Friday 25 January 2019

Clutching at straws

More words of wisdom from Colin Shevills of the 100% state-funded temperance group Balance...

Great news! But what are community pubs? They are, as the Morning Advertiser explains, 'pubs owned as community businesses'.

Cool. And how many are there in the UK?

During the period, 14 new pubs opened, bringing the number of community pubs in Britain to 15.

Wow, fifteen pubs are 'thriving'! Let's put alcohol taxes up!


With pubs already closing at a shocking rate of 18 a week, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) figures, the future of the great British pub is very much in question

On second thoughts, let's cut business rates, cut alcohol duty and repeal the smoking ban.

Wednesday 23 January 2019

The ugly face of the nanny state

The slippery slope heuristic says that anything that is tried in tobacco control will be copied in food control, alcohol control and gambling control sooner or later. Anti-smoking advertisements have used repulsive imagery for years and so it is no surprise to see it being used by the anti-sugar wowsers in Australia. As with the graphic imagery of the anti-tobacco lobby, the purpose is not to educate but to repel.

It's funny to think that the so-called public health lobby accuses every industry it doesn't like of 'aggressive advertising' and using the 'tobacco playbook'. The reality is that commercial advertising is extremely tame compared to the vile, manipulative and frequently dishonest output of the nanny state, and the only 'playbook' being used is the neo-prohibitionist blueprint written by the anti-smoking lobby. 

Shrinking food

According to the Guardian on Tuesday, Brexit has caused food to get smaller. It's not true, as the Office for National Statistics explicitly says. Neither the ONS nor the Guardian mentioned one of the real reasons for shrinkflation: the government.

I've written about this for Cap-X.

Limiting calories in everyday food items, backed up with the threat of legal coercion, has been government policy for several years. So too is shrinkflation. They are features, not bugs, of Britain’s ‘health by stealth’ strategy.

Do have a read.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

The 5% sugar guideline is not evidence-based

Last June I wrote an article for Spectator Health in which I promised a follow-up article to explain why the UK's new(ish) sugar guidelines have no basis in science. After Public Health England's car crash interview on More or Less, I thought I'd better get on and write it so here it is.

It's actually worse than I thought. The new guidelines are based on a report from the Scientific Advisory on Nutrition Committee. I'd read the report before but I hadn't read the studies cited by the committee. Foolishly, I'd assumed SACN would would have fairly represented the science. In fact, not only do the studies offer no support for the arbitrary 5% guideline, many of them flatly contradict the whole sugar=poison narrative.

Here's a summary of them, in the order they are listed in the SACN report...

Drummond and Kirk (1998) advised one group of men to reduce their fat intake and another group of men to reduce both fat and sugar. After six months, the men who had only been advised to reduce fat intake had lost the most weight. The authors conclude that ‘it is surprising that many dietary guidelines recommend a reduction in sugar.’

Drummond et al. (2003) used the same methodology as above but this time neither group succeeded in reducing their fat intake. Although the men who were told to reduce their sugar intake did so, they compensated by consuming more calories from other carbohydrates and therefore did not reduce overall energy consumption.

Reid et al. (2010) gave a litre of sugary drinks to a group of overweight women every day and gave a litre of artificially-sweetened drinks to another group of overweight women. They were not told whether their drinks had sugar in them or not. Those given the sugary drinks increased their overall energy consumption in the first week but, surprisingly, energy intake then fell and within four weeks it was lower than it was when the study began – despite sugar now making up 20 per cent of these women’s daily calorie intake. This was because they reduced their consumption of fat, protein and non-sugar carbohydrates, totally offsetting the extra sugar. They did not gain weight.

Saris et al. (2000) divided 398 obese men into three groups. One group was given a diet low in fat and high in sugar while another was given a diet low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates. The third (control) group ate a normal diet. After six months, both low-fat groups had lost weight, with the high complex carbohydrate group losing the most. The authors note that ‘[i]n the search for dietary factors associated with the development of obesity, sugar intake is commonly proposed. However, epidemiological and experimental data do not support this idea.’

Aeberli et al. (2011) split their subjects into six groups and gave five of them soft drinks with varying degrees of sucrose, fructose and glucose. The control group was advised to reduce fructose intake. The researchers found that ‘total energy intake did not differ significantly between the baseline and any of the 6 interventions.’ It is not clear what relevance this has to the question SACN sought to answer.
Brynes et al. (2003) split seventeen men into four groups and gave each group different diets. Those on the high fat diet spontaneously consumed more calories, those on the high sugar diet did not.

Poppitt et al. (2002) split 39 people into three groups in the same way as Saris et al. (2000) above. Both low-fat groups lost weight, with the high complex carbohydrate group losing the most. The authors conclude: ‘A high sugar intake has been proposed as a causal factor in the etiology of obesity. The results of epidemiologic studies, however, oppose this view and are supported by our current trial. Despite a considerable increase in sugar intake, there was no evidence of weight gain in the LF-SC group.’

Njike et al. (2011) gave one group of men two cups of sugary cocoa a day and gave another group two cups of sugar-free cocoa a day. After six weeks neither group had lost weight compared to a group of men who were given a placebo, although the sugar-free cocoa ‘had a modest, favorable influence on waist circumference’. Overall sugar consumption was not measured.

Raben et al. (2002) split 41 overweight people into two groups. One group was given a very high sugar diet (28 per cent of daily energy), mostly in the form of soft drinks. The other group was given a large quantity of artificially sweetened soft drinks. Both groups were told that their supplements were artificially sweetened and they could eat whatever they wanted. Unsurprisingly, the high sugar group consumed more calories and gained weight, but the additional calorie intake was entirely due to the extra sugar. Energy intake from other food fell, partially offsetting the additional sugar calories.

Reid et al. (2007) gave half their subjects a litre of Irn-Bru a day. The other half were given Diet Irn-Bru. Specially branded bottles were marked ‘sugar’ or ‘diet’ but these were deliberately incorrect 50 per cent of the time. Subjects given the sugary drinks increased their overall energy intake, with calorie consumption rising by around half the amount of that contained in the drinks, ie. they partially offset half of the calories by reducing consumption of fat, protein and non-sugar carbohydrates. There was surprisingly little weight gain, perhaps because all the women were on a low fat diet. ‘Overall,’ the authors conclude, ‘there was no evidence that sucrose was a unique or problematic substance.’
SACN built a meta-analysis out of these studies and concluded that people shouldn't consume more than 5% of their calories from sugar, despite the fact that the studies are not comparable, most of them didn't measure sugar intake as a percentage of calorie intake and those which did measure it didn't in any way imply a five per cent limit.

It's junk science, plain and simple. Do read the whole article.

Friday 18 January 2019

Cooking with The Lancet

The Lancet has got into bed with EAT to transform the global food supply. EAT is a campaign group run by a Norwegian billionaire who flies around the world in a private jet telling people to eat less meat to save the planet. The Lancet's interest is in getting people to live off lentils for the good of their health.

How much less meat do these people think we should be eating? Much, much less. Less than a sausage a week would be the pork ration in their brave new world.

Inevitably, the authors of the EAT-Lancet report call for tough government action to get the plebs to eat a peasant diet. I have written about it for Spectator Health.

To comply with these extraordinary demands, the UK would all have to cut meat consumption by 80 per cent and massively increase its consumption of beans, lentils, soy and nuts. This is not going to happen voluntarily and the committee knows it. It calls on politicians to do more ‘choice editing’ (ie. banning things).

The authors want more taxes on food, more advertising restrictions and the ‘banning and pariah status of key products’ (which ‘key products’? Fizzy drinks? Chips?). They want local authorities to ban new takeaway food outlets ‘in low-income areas’ (but apparently not in high income areas) even though they admit that the evidence that ‘zoning regulations could increase healthy food consumption or reduce BMI [body mass index] is scarce’ (indeed it is).

They state their preferred option bluntly: ‘restrict choice’ or, better still, ‘eliminate choice’. In wealthy countries such as Britain, ‘a priority is to offer less than what is currently offered by reducing portions, choice, and packaging’. They even propose ‘rationing on a population scale’.

Do have a read.

To see how puritanical the Lancet's guidelines are, watch me try to make some meals out of them in these three videos....

Tuesday 15 January 2019

The slippery slope: gambling edition

In an interview with the FT in 2017, casino tycoon Derek Webb announced his plans for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling once the government had stamped out fixed-odds betting terminals.

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

As I recall, he made a similar comment about going after internet gambling at the Conservative Party conference at around the same time.

The FOBT clamp-down takes place in April and the All Party Parliamentary Group on FOBTs is already looking for new dragons to slay...

The press release says:

The Fixed Odds Betting Terminals All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has today (14 January) formally announced that it will be changing its name to the Gambling Related Harm APPG.

.. Going forward, the group will now begin looking at gambling related harm more widely.

Carolyn Harris MP, the chairwoman of this lobby group masquerading as an APPG said:

'... many of us are deeply concerned about the harms caused by online gambling and particularly the impact and harm of online gambling on children. We are therefore beginning our new work programme but [sic] undertaking an inquiry looking at the harm caused specifically by online gambling.'

Online gambling is virtually non-existent among children, unless you include kids buying lottery tickets for their parents, so this is another disingenuous think-of-the-children justification for interfering in the lives of adults.

But isn't it a coincidence that the APPG is going after online next, just as Derek Webb said he would? Still, it should go down well with the APPG's selfless donors, such as Bacta, Electrocoin, Sutton Bingo, Club 2000, Southsea Island Leisure, Game World, Summertime Leisure, Hippodrome Casino, Riva Bingo Club, Caesers, Marshalls Amusements, Genting UK, Praesepe and, of course, the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.

After the FOBT clamp-down was announced last year, the Independent published a story that explained what had really been going. It was the first time a mainstream journalist had broached the subject...

Why are MPs patting themselves on the back over the FOBTs crackdown? They've been played by the gambling industry

.. [MPs] have failed the very problem gamblers they claim to speak for by jumping on the bandwagon of a debate almost entirely devoid of facts, and which has been heavily influenced by competing gambling industry interests.

Those interests, facilitated, it must be said, by a compliant media, have fed the public a simple morality tale that makes for easy journalism and plays well on social media; a battle fought on behalf of innocent gamblers by plucky politicians against greedy bookmakers.

Will MPs and the media fall for it again?

Philadelphia's soda tax flop

The results are in from much vaunted soda tax in Philadelphia and it's the same old story...

We analyze the impact of a tax on sweetened beverages, often referred to as a “soda tax,” using a unique data-set of prices, quantities sold and nutritional information across several thousand taxed and untaxed beverages for a large set of stores in Philadelphia and its surrounding area. We find that the tax is passed through at a rate of 75-115%, leading to a 30-40% price increase. Demand in the taxed area decreases dramatically by 42% in response to the tax. There is no significant substitution to untaxed beverages (water and natural juices), but cross-shopping at stores outside of Philadelphia completely offsets the reduction in sales within the taxed area. As a consequence, we find no significant reduction in calorie and sugar intake.

This is exactly what happened in Berkeley, California.

National Review has more...

Poor Philadelphians were hardest hit by the tax because residents with the means to leave the city to make their soda purchases — the well-off — did so. A 42 percent decrease in soda sales within city limits was more than made up for by a large increase in soda sales in stores within two miles outside Philly. And the expected gusher of revenue didn’t quite materialize either, as receipts fell about 15 percent short of projections. “In summary, the tax does not lead to a shift in consumption towards healthier products, it affects low income households more severely, and it is limited in its ability to raise revenue,” the study said.

Five dollars to the first person who spots a 'public health' lobbyist citing this study.

Monday 14 January 2019

So-called junk food consultation

The UK's banny state government has yielded to the Jamie Oliver/Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall/Action on Sugar axis of evil and proposed a clampdown on so-called junk food. It now has a legal obligation to put its harebrained schemes to a public consultation.

There is no legal definition of 'junk food'. The nearest approximation is High in Fat, Sugar or Salt, but this is a very broad category. The government doesn't seem to care about consumers losing out from a ban on buy-one-get-one-free deals (BOGOFs) and free soft drink refills.

It also wants to tell shopkeepers where they can and can't position their products. There is no end to their meddling.

Join me in telling them to BOGOF here.

Friday 11 January 2019

The facts about sugar

More or Less, the BBC's much needed fact-checking show, began its new series today with a look at sugar consumption. I urge you to listen to it.

Last week Public Health England told us that British children have eaten 18 years' worth of sugar by the time they are 10. This claim and others like them, such as the claim that kids have eaten their annual allotment of sugar by June, is the result of Public Health England halving the sugar guidelines in 2015. It is not because sugar consumption has been rising.

I was interviewed for the show and explained that sugar consumption has been falling for many years and that the guidelines were halved for no good reason. More or Less took a look at the figures and agreed with me but that is not why I want you to listen to it.

I want you to listen to it for the interview with Public Health England's Louis Levy who thought he could bluff his way through by asserting falsehoods with confidence. He flat out denied that sugar consumption has fallen at all, he made claims about the health effects of sugar that are not borne out by the evidence and - having been challenged by the facts - ultimately resorted to repeating the claim that people are eating twice as much sugar as the guidelines recommend.

Which, of course, is a circular argument. The fact remains that nobody has ever been able to explain what harm will come to you if you consume 10% of your calories from sugar, as opposed to the 5% now recommended, so long as you do not exceed the daily calorie guideline. There is no convincing answer to this question because the risk doesn't exist. The goalposts were moved to create the illusion of a worsening problem. It was, in effect, a political decision.

Canada's liberal fascism

Justin Trudeau's brand of liberalism is a real curate's egg.

On the one hand, he has introduced ultra-nanny state policies like plain packaging, on the other hand he has legalised cannabis.

On the one hand, he has introduced compelled speech laws, on the other hand he has, er, legalised cannabis.

But this is next-level stuff...

Police in Canada can now demand breath samples in bars, at home

It may sound unbelievable, but Canada’s revised laws on impaired driving could see police demand breath samples from people in bars, restaurants, or even at home. And if you say no, you could be arrested, face a criminal record, ordered to pay a fine, and subjected to a driving suspension.

You could be in violation of the impaired driving laws even two hours after you’ve been driving. Now, the onus is on drivers to prove they weren’t impaired when they were on the road.

Canadians are now guilty unless they can prove their innocence, thereby overturning the most basic principle of justice. And that is not the only step towards the police state in this law...

Under the new law, police officers no longer need to have a “reasonable suspicion” the driver had consumed alcohol. Now, an officer can demand a sample from drivers for any reason at any time.

When I saw the headline, I hoped - and kind of assumed - that the facts were being exaggerated and that the law wasn't as bad as it seemed. So let's see what lawyers reckon...

“It’s ridiculous, it’s basically criminalizing you having a drink at your kitchen table,” Paul Doroshenko, a Vancouver criminal defence lawyer who specializes in impaired driving cases, told Global News.

Oh dear.

“The public has completely missed this one,” said Joseph Neuberger, a Toronto criminal defence lawyer. .. In an instance where someone was drinking in a public place, Doroshenko said it would be hard for someone to prove they weren’t impaired when they were driving earlier.

“If [the police] come and find you at the restaurant they can take you out of the restaurant despite the fact you’ve been drinking at the restaurant, maybe you weren’t going to drive away,” he said, arguing the rules are excessive.

“It is profoundly stupid, so most people assume it can’t be. But that’s what the law is now, you will see it happen — I guarantee it.”

Oh dear, oh dear.

“It’s a serious erosion of civil liberties,” said Toronto criminal defence lawyer Michael Engel, whose practice focuses almost exclusively on impaired driving cases.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

“We’re in a brave new world now,” said Engel.  

Thursday 10 January 2019

Evidence-based puritanism

As the paternalistic state expands, it is shifting its attention from substances to behaviours. In the 2020s, the focus of the nanny state is likely to move beyond alcohol, nicotine, drugs and food and start targeting video games, social media, sex and shopping. It has already begun by speciously redefining gambling as a public health issue.

The rhetoric will be the same. Consumers will be portrayed as dupes and addicts. The blame will be placed on advertising and availability. The solution will be bigger government. As I argued in Killjoys, the great trick of the paternalist is to take freedom away in the name of making people free.

An article in The Guardian yesterday illustrated this nicely. It comes at a time when the World Health Organisation is trying to classify 'gaming disorder' (video games, not gambling) as a bona fide disease. The article's basic argument is that 'from sex to sugar to social media, people are in the grip of a wider range of compulsive behaviours'.

Before we begin, here are four propositions, all of which I am inclined to believe.

Firstly, every society has a minority of people who are so unhappy that they will seek pleasure to an extent that can become seemingly self-destructive and irrational. Unconcerned about the future, they discount future costs heavily - sometimes entirely - in pursuit of short-term benefits. They engage in pursuits which most people enjoy without developing a problematic relationship, eg. drinking alcohol, taking drugs, gambling, having sex, playing video games, eating food, shopping.

The activity can be almost anything and it is often several activities at once. It is not the activity per se that causes the problem, as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of consumers do not develop an unhealthy relationship with the product. It is the person's circumstances. When the circumstances change or the person changes, the excessive consumption will stop.

Secondly, every society has a minority of people who feel moral revulsion towards frivolous or risky pursuits (puritans) and a majority of people who feel moral revulsion towards at least one frivolous or risky pleasure. They portray the people mentioned above as addicts and the activities listed above as inherently addictive, undesirable and harmful. They use addiction as an excuse to clamp down on activities that displease them, but they are not bothered about compulsive behaviour per se. They don't mind people getting addicted to hill-walking, hoarding or Hollyoaks. Their true aim is to extinguish the activity, not free the individual. 

Thirdly, genuine addiction - ie. physical addiction and withdrawal symptoms - is real but it is relatively rare and is only possible when the addiction involves substances (as opposed to behaviours).

Fourthly, the psychiatric and pharmaceutical industries have a huge incentive to medicalise normal human behaviour and have been doing so for years.

Now let's look at the Guardian article (by Amy Fleming)...

Addiction was once viewed as an unsavoury fringe disease, tethered to substances with killer withdrawal symptoms, such as alcohol and opium. But now the scope of what humans can be addicted to seems to have snowballed, from sugar to shopping to social media. The UK’s first NHS internet-addiction clinic is opening this year; the World Health Organization (WHO) has included gaming disorder in its official addictions diagnosis guidelines.

The first glimmer of this shift was in 1992, when tabloids reported that Michael Douglas – Hollywood royalty, fresh from starring in the erotic thriller Basic Instinct – was holed up in an Arizonan rehab facility with sex addiction. No matter that, to this day, Douglas stringently denies ever suffering from the condition – the way we perceive addiction had begun to unfurl.

Back then, the broadening of the term was often viewed in medical circles as lazy appropriation; however, neuroscience has now largely accepted that it is the same brain chemical, dopamine, driving these irrepressible cravings. What’s more, our 21st-century world is so heavily baited with cues and stimuli – from stealthy marketing to junk food, not to mention the nagging lure of online life – that it appears to be rigging our dopamine systems to become “hypersensitised”.

A great deal of nonsense is talked about dopamine. You will often hear campaigners claim that a pleasurable activity, such as eating sugar, 'hijacks' the brain by stimulating dopamine in the same way as cocaine. But there is no pleasure without dopamine and the whole point of dopamine from an evolutionary perspective is to encourage things like procreation and energy consumption. The brain is not being 'hijacked' when it releases dopamine in response to the consumption of high-calorie food. It is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. The fact that cocaine produces a similar reaction artificially does not mean that everything which stimulates dopamine is like cocaine.

Peter Gray explained this nicely in an article about 'gaming addiction' last year:

The research that Kardaris referred to demonstrates that certain pathways in the forebrain, where dopamine is the neurotransmitter, become active when people are playing video games, and drugs like heroin activate some of these same pathways. What Kardaris’s and similar articles leave out, however, is the fact that everything that is pleasurable activates these pathways. These are the brain’s pleasure pathways. If video gaming didn’t increase activity in these dopaminergic pathways, we would have to conclude that video gaming is no fun. The only way to avoid producing this kind of effect on the brain would be to avoid everything that is pleasurable.

As gaming researchers Patrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson (2017) point out in a recent book, video gaming raises dopamine levels in the brain to about the same degree that eating a slice of peperoni pizza or dish of ice cream does (without the calories).  That is, it raises dopamine to roughly double it’s normal resting level, whereas drugs like heroin, cocaine, or amphetamine raise dopamine by roughly ten times that much.

Back to the Guardian...

“The range of what people are getting addicted to has increased,” confirms Michael Lynskey, a professor of addiction at King’s College London. “For my parents’ generation, the only options were tobacco and alcohol. Now there are more drugs, including synthetics, along with commercialisation and ways – especially online – of encouraging prolonged use of different things.”

This is the first of many bald assertions that do not stand up against the facts. Did previous generations only have alcohol and tobacco to get 'addicted' to? No. Many of the activities that are now being medicalised, from gambling and shopping to sugar and sex have been around for a very long time.

Gambling is the longest established behavioural addiction, having been medically recognised since 2013.

Wow, all the way back in 2013. The olden days.

“I see gambling students who drop out of university because they can’t stop,” says Henrietta Bowden-Jones, the consultant psychiatrist behind the forthcoming NHS internet-addiction clinic. “I see people with shopping compulsions who are in so much debt because they couldn’t stop themselves from buying three dresses in different sizes, that in the end their businesses and families suffer.”

Sometimes, she says, compulsions flit between different vices – for example, a young man seeking refuge from family problems might toggle between gaming and porn. “I saw [a gaming disorder patient] yesterday,” she adds, “who then went on to spending money on objects and clothes. You can somehow shift the behaviour but it’s an illness we don’t yet know enough about.”

If it is an 'illness' for young men to be playing video games, looking at porn and spending money on 'objects and clothes', we're going to have to build a lot of hospitals. But I guess that would suit someone who is about to open an NHS-funded 'internet-addiction clinic'.

Not everyone agrees with defining these new disorders as addictions – after all, you can’t overdose on them. Gambling and gaming are the only ones to have made it on to the WHO list of addictions. However, a paradigm shift in understanding addiction is in motion.

It certainly is.

Take sex addiction. Seeking treatment for this controversial condition has, in cases such as that of the golfer Tiger Woods, been criticised as a cynical shortcut to redemption for philanderers.

That's exactly what it is and everybody knows it.

On the other hand, neuroscientists who have been able to study the brains of people with debilitatingly compulsive obsessions with sex witness similar responses to those they have observed in drug addiction cases.

But the article the Guardian links to says in the first paragraph that 'the researchers caution that this does not necessarily mean that pornography itself is addictive'.

The first factor is that our modern environment is stuffed with craving-inducing stimuli. “People don’t appreciate the power of cues that have been associated with rewards, be it a drug or sex or food, in generating motivational states.” In fact, addicts can start liking the cues more than the end goal, such as the rigmarole of scoring drugs and so on. “The amount of cues associated with highly palatable foods are everywhere now,” he says. “Drugs, sex and gambling as well, and that has changed quite a bit over the years and could be leading to more problematic use.”

This is difficult to square with the decline in drug use and - apparently - sex among millennials. Drugs and sex are not advertised so I'm not sure which 'cues' are being referred to, but since gambling advertising was legalised in 2005, there has been no rise in problem gambling or gambling participation in the UK.

Lynskey agrees, adding “some of the marketing and design of gambling machines is a step ahead of all of us academics in devising ways to attract users and boost dopamine and retain them”. The “like” button, quantifying approval and igniting a compulsion to check social media, is a similar example.

I don't buy this brain-hijacking, dopamine-boosting, hidden persuaders bullshit. When you break it down, all it means is that companies make products and services that people enjoy instead of things that they don't. If Twitter wants to hijack my brain by having a feature that lets me know when someone likes my tweet, that is absolutely fine. It's a social network, after all and there is nothing remotely sinister about it. Get a grip.

There is an underlying puritanism at work here. Anything that produces pleasure (and therefore dopamine) is immediately regarded as suspect. The implication is that companies should make their products and services less enjoyable so people stop using them and do something more spiritually uplifting or economically productive. This is an incredibly dangerous attitude and 'killjoys' is exactly the right term for those who promote it. 

Robinson’s second consideration is dosage. Our liking of sweet tastes suited us when we were hunter-gatherers, helping us choose ripe energy sources. Now, we have high-fructose corn syrup, which blows our minds with unnatural levels of glucose.

As a general rule, you can ignore any journalist who claims that British people are hooked on high-fructose corn syrup. EU quotas mean that HFCS is a negligible part of the British diet. Moreover, HFCS doesn't have high levels of glucose. It has (relatively) high levels of fructose. Normal sugar is 50% fructose, 50% glucose. HFCS is 55% fructose, 45% glucose. The clue is in the name, for goodness sake.

In any case, there's no reason to think that this marginal difference in fructose content 'blows our minds' any more than regular sugar.

His final factor is simply access. “Food, sex, gambling and drugs – availability these days is much greater than it was in the past.” (Sex addiction can include consuming porn, sexting, compulsive masturbation, exhibitionism and chemsex.)

Notice how similar these three factors are to what the 'public health' lobby calls the Three As: advertising, affordability and availability.

Let's face it, if you're complaining about something being affordable, advertised and available, you are really complaining about it existing. You don't think people should be engaging in a certain activity and so you blame the industry that facilitates it.

It's a way of being judgemental without appearing overtly judgemental, as I argued in Killjoys...

By switching attention from the buyer to the seller, they portray the individual as victim and the industry as aggressor. And since society tolerates a higher degree of regulation for companies than it does for individuals, legislation that is paternalistic in intent can be presented as protecting consumers from injuries inflicted by companies.

To take a typical example, an Australian professor of public health has written about the ‘ubiquitous availability, accessibility, advertising and promotion of junk foods that exploit people’s vulnerabilities’. Given this supposedly predatory behaviour by big business, she argues that it is ‘important not to blame victims for responding as expected to unhealthy food environments’ (Lee 2016).

Since advertising and promotion are much the same thing, and accessibility is the same as availability, it appears that the crimes of the food industry in this instance amount to putting products on the shelves and telling people about them. To suggest that people are ‘victims’ because they have been given options and information is undiluted paternalism; it treats adults like children. 

Back to the Guardian again...
Major risk factors for addiction, such as deprivation and childhood trauma, are still important predictors for how easily your dopamine system can be hijacked, says Robinson...

Now we're getting near the truth; I refer you to my first proposition at the start of this post. But is it really the case that unhappiness makes the dopamine system easier to 'hijack' or could it be, as Gary Becker argues, a more rational process in which the unhappiness changes the costs and benefits? Doesn't the very fact that these 'disorders' are strongly influenced by personal circumstance - and often disappear when the circumstances change - suggest that they are not really diseases at all?

 ....“but you have laden on top of that ubiquitous cues, more potent formulations and increased availability”.

Well, maybe, but that is a theory that could be tested empirically. If strong empirical evidence exists to support it, it is not cited in this article.

Despite the increase in the range of addictions, says Lynskey, there are still probably fewer addicted people than there were 30 years ago because the level of nicotine dependency – the most deadly one – has dropped from 50% to less than 20% in the UK. 

This is likely true, but it rather undermines the rest of the article. We are, supposedly, surrounded by addictive products which are more available than ever before, not least via our ubiquitous mobile phones, and yet overall rates of addiction have fallen because just one of them - nicotine in cigarettes - has become less popular. At the very least, this suggests that the other activities mentioned in the article are much less addictive than cigarettes.  

However, updates to diagnosis guidelines mean that people who sit lower on the addictive spectrum can now be seen as having problematic dependencies.

As an admission that the goalposts are in the process of being moved to medicalise a whole bunch of normal, everyday activities, this is as candid as it gets.

“There is a spectrum,” he says, “whether it’s alcohol or drug dependence or shopping addiction and people have become a bit happier with placing the point at which behaviour becomes problematic at a lower level of use.”

No kidding.

“There are fantastic blocks to put in place that can stop you from watching porn, gambling and indeed anything to do with the behaviour you have an issue with, except for gaming,” says Bowden-Jones. 

You only need to think about this for a few seconds to realise that it is not true. Smoking? Drinking? Sex? Eating? Drugs? Are there even blocks you can put in place to stop you watching porn? Maybe there are, but self-exclusion from gambling is the only one I've heard of.

“We need to get to a position where, in the cold reality of your day, you can say: ‘I don’t need to spend more than two hours a day doing this, so I will block myself after two hours [of play].’” 

It's called self-control.

This responsibility, she says, lies with the gaming industry.

Of course it does. If there's one thing we've learned from the cod science of neo-addiction, it's that there's no such thing as personal responsibility.

Monday 7 January 2019

Inconvenient facts about the sugar panic

I had a piece in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday about childhood obesity and sugar. You can read it here if you're a subscriber.

In it, I mention five facts that go against the prevailing narrative that there is spiralling childhood obesity as a result of spiralling sugar consumption. For the record, my sources are as follows:

"We currently consume less than 35 kilograms per year. We are eating less sugar than we did in the late nineteenth century, let alone the late twentieth century."

Various sources, including Sidney Mintz's book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, some of which are discussed here

"Since 1992, total sugar intake has fallen by 20 per cent, and added sugar intake has dropped by 28 per cent."

From the Family Food datasets (UK - household and eating out nutrient intakes (ODS, 92.2KB))

"This evidence is corroborated by the National Diet and Nutrition Survey which shows that 4 to 10-year-olds are consuming 29 per cent less sugar than they did twenty years ago and 11 to 18 year olds are consuming 18 per cent less. Sugar consumption among adults has fallen by ten per cent since the start of this century."

The figures from 2008/09 are available here. I have a saved copy of the figures from 1997 and 2000 but the website has been changed so I'm not sure if they're online anymore.

"The new 30 gram [daily sugar] target is ludicrously unrealistic (it is less than the sugar ration during the Second World War)"

The weekly sugar ration was eight ounces in both world wars. 8oz = 227g. 227g/7= 32g.

"In 2014, when the sugar tax was still a glint in George Osborne’s eye, sugar-sweetened soft drink sales had fallen by 46 per cent in the past decade."

Kantor data. Not available online for free.

"According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of 12-year-olds in England who exhibited clear signs of tooth decay fell from 81 per cent in 1983 to 28 per cent in 2013."

ONS figures are here.

"A study published in 2005 concluded that the dental health of children in Britain has ‘improved dramatically since the early 1970s’ and that ‘levels of dental decay in UK children at five and 12 years are among the lowest in the world.’"

This is the study.

"After rising in the 1990s, childhood obesity peaked at 19 per cent in 2004 and has since settled at around 16 per cent."

Health Survey for England 2017. Adult and child overweight and obesity tables.

"People are more likely to become obese as they get older and yet there are far more ‘obese’ 11 to 15-year olds than there are obese 16 to 24-year-olds. Why? Because we use a reasonably sensible benchmark for measuring adult obesity whereas we lower the threshold significantly when it comes to children."

I written about this here, here and here. Links to the studies by Cole et al. are in the articles.

Saturday 5 January 2019

What are the chances?

The first truly daft study of the year has been published, as the Mail reports...

Bookmakers are sending gamblers into debt by advertising only their most addictive products, academics claim

Bookmakers are sending gamblers into debt by advertising only their most addictive products, academics have claimed.

Gambling companies lure football fans into losing big by pushing no-hope bets with enticing odds on adverts, they said.

Research by the Universities of Warwick and Bath said customers are drawn in by the high odds, unaware that these bets will result in huge losses in the long run.

.. Co-author Dr Philip Newall, from the University of Warwick, has proposed a ‘risks warning’ system, similar to the alcohol-by-volume percentage on drinks bottles.

The claim that betting on the correct score in football matches is especially addictive is an invention of the Mail as far as I can see. The authors don't say that in their study. Betting on the correct score is classic recreational betting, usually for small stakes, but it is widely advertised on television so it tends to attract criticism from people who don't like gambling.

The authors' claim is that people are especially likely to lose money on these bets. This is trivially true in the short term as they are longshots by definition (the clue is in the odds), but the authors, who have an article on The Conversation, suggest that they are also a particularly bad bet in the long run and that people should be warned...

You can make a reasonable judgement about responsible drinking by using the percentage alcohol by volume (ABV) information on the label of whichever bottle has been opened. But how can we determine the strength of a football bet?

Gee, I don't know. If only there were some way of crowdsourcing the probability of an event occurring, based on the views of people who have skin in the game. If only this data could be summarised in a simple mathematical form. We could call - I dunno - 'the odds' or something.

The authors have other ideas, however...

In fact, “gambling harm” can also be approximated by a percentage. The “gamblers’ losses” percentage is a measure of the money bet that a gambler will lose in the long term.

Spending money on entertainment is not "harm", but never mind. It is true that we know what the average, long run losses are in the case of fixed-odds games, as the authors point out in their study. Gambling machines generally show the average payout and the house edge on roulette is precisely 2.7%.

This is not possible on skill-based games such as football betting because every player is different, but that's not going to stop the authors trying.  

They went through several seasons of Premiership football to see what would happen if people bet on final scores. Three strategies were modelled using machine learning: least-skilled, most-skilled, and random.

The “least-skilled” strategy chose what might be thought of as the worst case scenario for each match.

In other words, the least likely outcome, eg. Manchester City getting drubbed 4-0 every week.

This mirrors the returns of someone who is not merely unlucky, but is unskilled (and who may benefit from more help and advice).

It doesn't really though, does it? It mirrors a person who is anti-skilled; a person who almost certainly does not exist. The losses of this hypothetical person don't tell us anything about the losses faced by real bettors. Nor does the random scenario, for that matter.

We found that that just randomly selecting correct score bets would hit you with a strong average loss of 34.3%. But the worse case scenario was a whopping average loss of 58.9%, which came when the least skilled strategy picked very high correct scores (such as the away team winning by four goals to nil).

So what?

We believe that the very high differences in product risk across football bets should at least be communicated in some way to consumers. While further research should investigate how best to educate football fans about these different risks, reminders to just “gamble responsibly” won’t cut it.

Consumers need to be told about the risks of football bets with high odds.

Hang on a minute. What about the most-skilled bettors? How did they get on?

You won't find out by reading The Conversation article, nor by reading any of the press coverage, but if you read the study you'll see that they did pretty well.

Betting performance was in each case negative, because betting odds reflect an implied house edge (Cortis 2015). However, in each bet type, it can be seen that the most-skilled prediction performed best, the least-skill strategy performed worst, and Random was in the middle.

Therefore, in each bet type, (positive) betting skill improved performance, while (negative) betting skill worsened performance. Prediction skill mattered most in with correct score bets. With correct score bets, the least-skilled strategy returned -58.9% on average, Random -34.3%, and the most-skilled strategy -3.3%.

3.3% is about as good as it gets in gambling. It certainly beats the National Lottery and bingo, but the authors aren't demanding warnings for those. Instead, it wants to have warnings like this...

Clear as mud, aren't they? Nice skull and crossbones though! Straight out of the anti-smoking playbook. And notice how the most-skilled strategy is curiously absent once again.

Nobody bets randomly and nobody bets on what they believe to be the least likely outcome so these numbers are meaningless. Moreover, since gamblers know that they are going to bet neither randomly nor on what they see as the least likely outcome, they will ignore the warnings.

And rightly so. The odds are a far better guide to probability and risk than the figures generated by this peculiar study.

Thursday 3 January 2019

Fancy that!

Could there be a bit of motivated reasoning at work there?

In any case, the answer is neither. Obesity is a condition - not a disease - which results from lifestyle choices.

Wednesday 2 January 2019

Public Health England is only carrying out Conservative Party policy

It's peak season for nanny statists this month. As is traditional, Public Health England and Action on Sugar have been first out of the blocks...

Public Health England calls for ‘pudding tax’ after children found to eat 18 years’ worth of sugar by age 10

This is just another way of saying that children are eating twice as much sugar as the government reckons they should. But, as I explained to the Daily Mail, there is an obvious reason for that:

Chris Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said sugar consumption had already been drastically slashed. 'The only reason children are eating twice as much sugar as the Government recommends is that the Government arbitrarily halved the sugar guidelines,' he said.

'These unrealistic and unscientific new guidelines opened the door to government interference in the food supply on a vast scale. The reality is that sugar consumption in Britain is significantly lower than it was in the 1970s.'

Like every 'public health' press release about sugar, the agenda is to soften us for the colossal experiment in state control of the food supply that will go into overdrive in the spring when Public Health England's calorie caps are officially announced. PHE's Alison Tedstone wants the government to start taxing food if the chefs and food manufacturers don't yield to her deranged demands.

This has not gone down well with many Conservative MPs. For the second time in a week, they are up in arms about what they see as PHE's overreach.

As encouraging as it is to see politicians speak out against this nonsense, they are the ones who are 'in authority'. PHE is only there to carry out government policy and, make no mistake, all of this - the reformulation, the calorie caps, the threat of food taxes - is government policy.

I've written about this for The Telegraph today:

The Childhood Obesity Plan, published in August 2016, promised a "broad, structured sugar reduction programme" and "calorie caps for specific single serving products."

It also promised that, from 2017, it would be "setting targets to reduce total calories in a wider range of products... including the out of home sector." The second chapter of the Childhood Obesity Plan, published last June, explicitly warned that the government "will not shy away from further action, including mandatory and fiscal levers, if industry is failing to face up to the scale of the problem through voluntary reduction programmes."

This has been stated policy for several years. It's great that MPs are complaining about it now, but it's a bit late. 

When the government promised food reformulation backed up with the threat of "mandatory and fiscal levers" in 2016, it seemed like a good way of getting Jamie Oliver off its back. Targets were set and the can was kicked down the road. It is only now that MPs are waking up to the reality that the Department of Health considers a calorie to be an unhealthy ingredient and that the phrase "fiscal levers" refers to regressive food taxes.

.. Conservative MPs are right to be concerned about the ramifications of wholesale state interference in the food supply, the like of which no democratic country has introduced in peacetime. No doubt the fanatics at PHE are relishing the challenge, but rather than complain about the quango, politicians should change the policy.

The article's paywalled I'm afraid, but if you've got a subscription do read it.