Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Junk science + junk reporting = a lie

This is truly atrocious reporting from the Daily Mail...

Smoking among children has plummeted by 35% since cigarettes were banned from till points and almost nine in 10 say smoking seems ‘unacceptable’

This claim is based on a study in the low quality journal Tobacco Control conducted by our old friends Gerard Hastings, Linda Bauld, Crawford Moodie and others. It doesn't look at smoking rates at all. It looks at 'smoking susceptibility' which is defined as 'the absence of a firm decision not to smoke'.

The adolescents in the study were defined as being susceptible to smoking if they failed to answer 'definitely not' when asked if they would (1) be smoking when they are 18, (2) smoke a cigarette at any time during the next year and (3) smoke if one of their friends offered them a cigarette.

The researchers/campaigners surveyed about a thousand kids in 2011 and then in 2014 and then again in 2016 (although they were different kids). The display ban was introduced in supermarkets in 2013 and in all shops in 2015. The relevant date is really 2015 because people got their most 'exposure' to the terrifying sight of cigarette packs in normal shops.

To cut a long story short, 28 per cent of kids were classified as susceptible to smoking in 2011 and this fell to 18 per cent by 2016. Using ad hoc reasoning, the authors put this down to the display ban.

It's weak stuff but that's Tobacco Control for you. What the study certainly doesn't show is that the smoking rate in this age group fell from 28 per cent to 18 per cent, but that's how the Daily Mail's Senior Health Reporter interpreted it...

A study found the number of 11 to 16-year-olds taking up the habit fell by 35 per cent after the ban was phased in across the UK between 2012 and 2015.

.. Results - published in the British Medical Journal's Tobacco Control - revealed the number of the participants who smoked before the ban fell from 28 per cent to 23 per cent midway through its phasing in.

This then decreased again to 18 per cent after the ban was established.

For God's sake. You don't even need to read the study to see that this isn't what it found. The press release clearly states that...

Smoking susceptibility among never smokers decreased from 28 percent pre-ban to 23 percent mid-ban, and 18 percent post-ban.

Did Alexandra Thompson - for that is her name - not find it surprising that 28 per cent of 11-16 year olds were smoking in 2011? At the time, less than five per cent of 11-15 year olds were smokers. Did she not think it odd that the smoking rate among this age group was significantly higher than in the adult population?

Apparently not. She didn't give it any thought, and nor will most of her readers. They will assume that the headline is correct and have their bias confirmed by Kruti Shrotri, tobacco control manager at Cancer Research UK, who is quoted as saying:

'Glitzy displays and glamorous packaging helped the tobacco industry lure the next generation of smokers into taking up a deadly addiction.

'But contrary to 'Big Tobacco's' belief that banning displays would make no difference, this study shows by putting cigarettes out of sight and out of mind far fewer youngsters are taking up the deathly habit.'

And Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, who says: 

'Banning the display of tobacco products at point-of-sale has worked and it's fabulous more young people are now turning their backs on smoking, literally saving thousands of lives.'

But it literally did nothing of the sort. If you look at the statistics for smoking among children, you will see that the rate was steadily ticking down until the display ban came into effect in 2015, after which it rose from 4 per cent to 5 per cent (a rise of 25%, as the Mail might put it). It stayed at 5% in 2017.

I wouldn't suggest that the display ban caused the smoking rate to rise but it does seem to confirm the prior view of 'Big Tobacco' that 'banning displays would make no difference'.

Leaving aside the Daily Mail's pathetic journalism, this is yet another example of 'public health' researchers ignoring the primary outcome in favour of subjective, survey-based data. The display ban was sold on the basis that it would reduce underage smoking. It hasn't and so they look at the meaningless category of 'smoker susceptibility' (we can see that it's meaningless because it doesn't correlate with actual smoking).

Similarly, sugar taxes are sold on the basis that they will reduce childhood obesity. They don't, and so researchers focus instead on the sale of sugary drinks.

Minimum pricing was sold on the basis that it would reduce alcohol-related harm by reducing per capita alcohol consumption. It hasn't reduced alcohol consumption and so activist-academics are having to pivot to a position of saying that it reduced alcohol consumption when compared to a counterfactual.

Plain packaging was supposed to reduce cigarette consumption and lower the smoking rate. It hasn't, and so researchers focus instead on people's opinions about the plain packs.

There is a theme here. Most nanny state policies simply do not do what they are supposed to do. It is almost uncanny how often they achieve the exact opposite of what they are meant to achieve: alcohol consumption up in Scotland in the first year of minimum pricing; cigarette sales up in Australia in the first year of plain packaging.

Even when they don't do the opposite of what they're intended to do, they almost never do what campaigners claim they do: reduce smoking rates, reduce alcohol harm or reduce obesity.

In this instance, we are being told that banning cigarette displays behind shop counters reduced the youth smoking rate and that the ban is 'literally saving thousands of lives'. A glance at the real world data shows this to be untrue, but what happens in the real world is never anything more than a minor inconvenience in the 'public health' racket.

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