Friday 29 November 2019

Bad predictions as political weapons

When Iain Duncan Smith’s office was vandalised this week, certain apologists from the far-left argued that the crime was partially, if not wholly, mitigated by the Tories’ alleged murder of 120,000 people. The murder weapon was ‘austerity’ and the evidence is in a paper from BMJ Open in 2017. The idea that austerity took 120,000 lives has become a proven fact in some quarters. The evidence itself is less compelling. The authors of the BMJ Open study note that improvements in life expectancy slowed between 2012 and 2014, at a time when increases in healthcare spending also slowed. The estimate of 120,000 lives comes from their extrapolation of how many fewer deaths there would have been between 2010 and 2017 had mortality continued to decline at the earlier rate, and assumes that the slowing of life expectancy (which was observed in many other countries at the same time) was due to spending constraints rather than other factors.   

As various fact checking experts have concluded, this is speculative stuff. The claim that austerity has killed 120,000 people strikes me as a classic example of a political factoid. It falls somewhere between the truth and a lie. It cannot be called a lie because it is impossible to disprove, but it would be a lie to call it a fact because it cannot be proven.

Remainers rightly complain about the £350 million a week for the NHS that was famously promoted on the side of a bus during the referendum. For them, it is the flagship example of a political lie. Leavers, meanwhile, complain about the government’s prediction of an immediate recession and 800,000 people out of work in the event of a vote to depart the EU. The former is considered a lie because it could not mathematically be true. The latter also turned out to be untrue but is not considered to be a lie because while the prediction may not have been made in good faith, a deliberate attempt to deceive cannot be proven.

I suspect that the Treasury’s forecast of imminent recession had more impact on voters than the bus (which could have used the more defensible figure of £280 million and had the same effect). Bad predictions might be more honest than premeditated lies, but they are no less misleading.

The last decade has seen an epidemic of terrible economic predictions. The Resolution Foundation (RF) is perhaps the worst offender. Relentlessly pessimistic about incomes, wages, poverty and inequality, they have spent a decade making Eeyore-ish predictions which grab headlines but never come true. In 2012, it claimed that ‘even on optimistic growth assumptions’, poorer households would have incomes 15 per cent lower than in 2008. In reality, the income of the bottom fifth never fell below 2008 levels and was 15 per cent higher within five years of the RF prediction.

Last July, the think tank’s CEO said that ‘child poverty is likely to have increased last year’. Office for National Statistics data show that it didn’t. In February, RF produced a ‘nowcast’ claiming that there had been ‘zero growth’ in the incomes of working people between 2017/18 and 2018/19. Official data published a few months later showed that there had been income growth of 1.3 per cent - £400 a year - with the Office for National Statistics noting that this was the sixth annual increase in a row.

Child poverty is a particular favourite. Usually measured in relative terms, a child is considered in poverty if they live in a household which has an income below 60 per cent of the average after housing costs are paid. The rate was 31 per cent before the financial crisis, fell during the recession as average incomes declined, and has been at 30 per cent for the last three years.

According to RF, child poverty is always on the brink of spiralling. In February, they projected it to rise to a record 37 per cent by 2023/24. Today, with an election approaching, they have made the front page of Guardian with the claim that child poverty will hit a '60-year high under Tories’. Their estimate for 2023/24 is now 34.5 per cent, lower than the previous figure but nobody at the newspaper seems to have asked why. A record high is a record high, I guess, and even 37 per cent looks rosy compared with the 41 per cent projected by 2021/22 in a report for the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

It is too early to say definitively that these forecasts are wrong. Suffice to say that current trends in child poverty are better news for children than they are for forecasters. And we know for a fact that predictions of spiralling poverty and inequality made by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation towards the start of this decade were way off.

Predicting the future is difficult and projections are almost bound to be wrong to a greater or lesser extent. The telling aspect of the forecasts above - and I could cite many more like them - is that they are all wrong in the same direction. Put simply, they all predict that things will get worse.

Obesity forecasts are no different. Obesity rates have been rising in Britain for the last twenty years, but far more gradually than ‘public health’ experts predicted. In 2007, when the male obesity rate was 24 per cent, we were confidently told by leading experts that 36 per cent of men would be obese by 2015. The current figure is 27 per cent. In 2010, we were told that 80 per cent of men would be overweight by 2020. The rate was 68 per cent at the time. It is currently 67 per cent.

Rates of obesity are high and the economy has had a terrible decade, so why the need for further exaggeration? The suspicion is that predictions of this kind are not designed to guide us to the future but to shape the present. The pressure groups and academics who produce forecasts of spiralling obesity, poverty and other evils do not present their forecasts as inevitable, but rather as what will happen if the government does not change its policies. Whether it’s welfare reform or sugar taxes, the underlying message is political. At it happens, the government generally doesn’t change its policies and the scary outcomes still fail to materialise, but everybody has forgotten about the predictions by then, not least because a new set of predictions - accompanied by political demands - has taken their place.

What should we call such factoids? ‘Fake news’ seems too harsh since the forecaster cannot know for sure that their forecast is wrong, and there is always a chance that they are making an honest effort to read the runes. If we are going to borrow a phrase from the Trump universe, ‘alternative facts’ is a better description. Wild estimates become a substitute for official statistics, with the former getting acres of news coverage while the latter are barely reported at all. ‘Falsehood flies,’ wrote Jonathan Swift, ‘and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect.’Vanishingly little has changed since then, except that falsehood flies even faster today.

[Previously published on the Telegraph website]

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Norway's sugar tax flop

Imagine the government raising the cost of living so much that it's cheaper to go shopping in Sweden. That's the situation Norwegians find themselves in...

Norwegian sugar tax sends sweet-lovers over border to Sweden

It seems unfair to call it a sweet shop. In the shopping centre north of Charlottenberg in south-western Sweden, barely four miles from Norway and less than 90 minutes’ drive from Oslo, is a candy superstore.

Arrayed across 3,500 sq metres of floor space – half a football pitch – are aisle upon aisle of sugary treats, more than 4,000 products in all, from sour strawberries, liquorice laces and fruity gumballs to red rockets, Lion bars, M&Ms, Milky Ways and Oreos.

One of maybe 30 similar confectionery and soft drink stores lining the Swedish side of the border from south to far north, it is, said Matts Idbratt, operations manager for Gottebiten – which runs half of them – “the biggest sweet shop in the world. We think”.

Between them, those stores turn over about SEK2bn (£160m) a year – and they exist solely because the price tags on the pick’n’mix bags, snack bars, chocolate boxes and soft drinks they sell are, on average, less than half those in neighbouring Norway.

“It’s crazy,” said Eirik Bergland, a 39-year-old laboratory technician from the Oslo suburb of Bjerke. With three children under 12, he has made three cross-border shopping trips this year – although not just for sweets, he stressed.

“A lot of products are cheaper in Sweden than in Norway,” Bergland said. “Alcohol, tobacco, plenty of stuff. Cross-border shopping has happened for decades. But candy and soft drinks are a lot cheaper. A whole, whole lot cheaper.”

Norway has had a tax on sugary products since 1922. The Guardian says it was introduced 'to raise revenue for the state, rather than improve the health of the nation' as if this makes it any different from modern sugar taxes.

In January last year, the tax on chocolate and confectionery went up by 83% to the equivalent of £3.12 per kilo. The tax on fizzy drinks - including zero-sugar drinks - works out at about 43p a litre.

The result was predictable...

The tax increase had “quite an impact on our sales”, said Idbratt, whose giant sweet emporium is part of a booming cross-border trade that earned Swedish businesses – some owned by Norwegian investors – SEK16.6bn (£1.3bn) last year, 10% more than in 2017.

Idbratt said Gottebiten, founded by three entrepreneurial brothers in 1997, had “seen more customers, and existing customers are buying more”. Norwegian shoppers made 9.2m trips across the border last year, according to Statistics Norway.

It's all very reminiscent of Denmark's fat tax fiasco.

Still, there is no doubt that Norwegians have cut down on sugar, as another Guardian article reported last week:

Norwegians are eating less sugar than at any time in the last 44 years, the health directorate in Oslo has said, announcing that annual consumption per person had fallen by more than 1kg a year since 2000.

.. The directorate’s annual report on the Norwegian diet said that average annual consumption of sugar had plummeted from 43kg to 24kg per person between 2000 and 2018 – including a 27% reduction in the past decade – to a level lower than that recorded in 1975.

It's not clear if these figures take account of cross-border shopping, but it is a remarkable drop either way. And so, naturally, rates of obesity have fallen commensurately, right?

Wrong. According to the WHO, Norway has an obesity rate of 23.1 per cent, higher than Sweden's 20.6 per cent and - for that matter - higher than Finland's 22.2 per cent and Denmark's 19.7 per cent.

Moreover, the record shows that Norway's obesity rate has increased at a remarkably steady rate for many years, unaffected by changes in taxes or sugar consumption.

The picture is similar in Britain where sugar consumption has fallen by around a fifth since the 1960s - although campaigners are reluctant to admit this - while obesity has risen.

Maybe - just maybe - sugar isn't the culprit and crude 'public health' policies based on dogma rather than facts don't work?

Still, good news for Sweden's border town confectionery industry.

Cross-posted at the IEA blog

Monday 25 November 2019

2019 manifestos - where do the parties stand on the nanny state?

With an election looming, I have been through all the party manifestos looking for nanny statism. As has become traditional, the lowlights and rankings are below.

The Green Party

The Greens name 'ending the war on drugs' as one of their priorities. They say they will...

Repeal the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016


Replace the current system of prohibition with an evidence-based, legalised, regulated system of drug control. The production, import and supply of all drugs will be regulated according to the specific risks that they pose to the individual, to society and to the environment

Pretty cool. However, they can't resist a bit of counterproductive nanny state meddling...

Cannabis will be sold subject to minimum unit pricing and plain packaging.

They falsely claim that minimum pricing 'has been shown to reduce harmful drinking in Scotland', and they intend to...

Prohibit commercial advertising of alcohol (and all other drugs)...

And then things get really mad. They say they will...

Support the transition to plant-based diets by phasing in a tax on meat and dairy products over the next ten years, to reduce the 5% of the UK’s carbon emissions that come from the methane produced by livestock.

They don't mention sugary drinks, gambling, e-cigarettes or tobacco, although they do say that they will...

Reduce VAT on food and drink served in pubs, bars and restaurants...

Alas, I don't think they're including alcohol as a drink.

Personal liberty ranking: **

Liberal Democrats

Traditionally the least liberal party when it comes to having fun, the Lib Dems show no sign of changing under Jo Swinson - around whom they are bizarrely trying to form a personality cult. In Jo's Plan for the Future (!), they set out their plans to...

Introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol, taking note of the impact of the policy in Scotland.

If they took note of the impact of the policy in Scotland, they wouldn't introduce it.

Reduce smoking rates by introducing a new levy on tobacco companies to contribute to the costs of health care and smoking cessation services.

This amounts to yet another tax rise for smokers, as various economists and the government have confirmed.

Require labelling for food products, in a readable font size, and publication of information on calorie, fat, sugar and salt content in restaurants and takeaways.

A nice idea in principle but unworkable for small businesses in practice, unless the government is prepared to accept very rough estimates.

Develop a strategy to tackle childhood obesity including restricting the marketing of junk food to children, and closing loopholes in the Soft Drinks Industry Levy. We will extend it to include juice- and milk-based drinks that are high in added sugar.

Juice-based drinks that are high in added sugar are already covered by the sugar tax. Presumably they mean that they will extend it to fruit juices that are high in intrinsic sugar.

Restrict how products high in fat, salt and sugar are marketed and advertised by multiple retailers.

I have no idea what 'multiple retailers' means in this context, nor how it differs from 'restricting the marketing of junk food to children' in the previous sentence, but the proposal sounds very similar to what Theresa May put in the childhood 'obesity' plan.

They also want to 'restrict gambling advertising'.

But it is not all bad news...

Help to break the grip of the criminal gangs by introducing a legal, regulated market for cannabis. We will introduce limits on the potency levels and permit cannabis to be sold through licensed outlets to adults over the age of 18.

And that is enough to help 'Jo Swinson's Liberal Democrats' avoid getting one star.

Personal liberty ranking: **


The Tories have taken a 'safety first' approach this year and have been careful to avoid anything as controversial as the 'dementia tax'. They must have judged - correctly - the nanny state policies are unpopular with millions of people, because there aren't any in their manifesto. They say...

We will invest in preventing disease as well as curing it. We will tackle the underlying causes of increases in NHS demand, for example via a long-term strategy for empowering people with lifestyle-related conditions such as obesity to live healthier lives, as well as tackling childhood obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

But they don't say how. They have already published two childhood 'obesity' plans, of course, but these don't get a mention either. 

We will continue to take action to tackle gambling addiction.

Again, they don't give specific policies, although they say that they will review the Gambling Act 'with a particular focus on tackling issues around loot boxes and credit card misuse'.

Smoking doesn't get a mention apart from a promise to 'crack down on illicit tobacco packaging'. Nor does vaping. And the only mention of alcohol gives some cause for hope...

Alcohol Duty Review: Scotch whisky is a national export that supports 42,000 jobs across the UK. Yet the tax on each bottle of Scotch sold in this country represents almost three quarters of its price. That is why over the past two years we have frozen the duty on spirits, cutting the price of a bottle of Scotch by 30p. Now, we want to do more, which is why we will review alcohol duty to ensure that our tax system is supporting British drink producers

They also say that they will cut business rates for pubs.

Personal liberty ranking: ***

Plaid Cymru

The Party of Wales reminds us how awful they have been and how awful they will be in the future if given the chance.

Plaid Cymru has already led the way on public health measures in Wales, campaigning successfully for a ban on smoking in public places and minimum alcohol pricing. Until recently we were ridiculed for suggesting a sugary drinks tax, but now this is policy across the UK. We will further explore how the tax system can be used to promote public health, for example through introducing a minimum price per unit of alcohol, and through imposing additional taxation on other potentially harmful products.

They suggest that they might support drug decriminalisation, but don't say anything else.

Personal liberty ranking: *


Corbyn and co. say they will 'invest more than £1 billion in public health', but they don't give a clear idea of how this will be spent/squandered. They also say they will...

...tackle childhood obesity and extend the sugar tax to milk drinks. We will ban fast-food restaurants near schools and enforce stricter rules around the advertising of junk food and levels of salt in food.

Smoking is dismissed in a vague twelve word statement::

We will implement a Tobacco Control Plan and fund smoking cessation services.

They say they want to 'address alcohol-related health problems and the adverse impacts of gambling as matters of public health' but the only specific policies mentioned are...

A Labour government will curb gambling advertising in sports and introduce a new Gambling Act fit for the digital age, establishing gambling limits, a levy for problem gambling funding and mechanisms for consumer compensations.


Alcoholic drinks will be labelled with clear health warnings. 

Not unless you leave the EU, they won't.

We will review the evidence on minimum pricing.  

Bring it on.

Personal liberty ranking: **

There's nothing about lifestyle regulation in the Brexit Party's slim manifesto, and I can't find the SNP's.

Happy voting!

Thursday 21 November 2019

Is the USA coming to its senses on e-cigarettes (and cigarettes)?

After an insane few months, there are signs that the USA is coming to its senses...

President Donald Trump has reversed plans to ban flavoured e-cigarettes amid a national youth vaping crisis, US media report.

He announced plans for a ban in September, but reportedly decided not to enact it this month because of possible job losses and voter pushback.

Vapers have done a great job of getting on the street and letting Trump know that they will not be voting for anyone who takes away their e-cigarettes.

Thousands of lung injuries have been attributed to vaping this year.

The injuries were due to people using THC cartridges that were contaminated with Vitamin E acetate, as I and many others pointed out at the time, and as the CDC belatedly acknowledged this month.

Shamefully, the BBC article doesn't mention THC or Vitamin E at all. If you want some real journalism, read this excellent article which tells the full story of how a thickening agent got into black market THC vapes.

Nothing can be taken for granted, but it seems that Trump is stepping back from taking the most extreme and damaging actions. Unfortunately, individual states are now lining up to ban e-cigarette flavours.

Meanwhile, the FDA is stepping back from its harm maximisation approach to combustible cigarettes.

U.S. regulators are hitting the brakes on plans to force tobacco companies to drastically reduce addictive nicotine in cigarettes, retreating on an ambitious public-health initiative that comes amid increasing worry about nicotine use among young people. 

The Department of Health and Human Services has dropped a proposal unveiled two years ago to cut the nicotine in cigarettes to nonaddictive levels, according to a regulatory document published Wednesday.

No one knows what a 'nonaddictive' level is. It is probably zero. The FDA cannot legally remove all the nicotine from cigarettes, but it can reduce it to almost zero. Doing so would be prohibition in all but name (you could buy 0.5% beer under Prohibition but nobody pretended that beer hadn't been prohibited). People would smoke more cigarettes or, more likely, buy them from the black market.

It's a dumb, illiberal idea that surfaces in tobacco control every few years and is shelved once regulators think through the consequences. This is as close as it has ever got to happening. 

Finally, let's remind ourselves that the backdrop to this year's hysteria about vaping is record low cigarette sales and a record low smoking rate among both adults and minors.

Cigarette smoking among U.S. adults reached an all-time low in 2018 at nearly 14%, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Thursday, a decline of roughly 66% over the last 50 years.

That is lower than any European country excepty Sweden 'despite' a supposedly unregulated e-cigarette market and relatively few supposedly evidence-based anti-smoking measures, such as comprehensive advertising bans, graphic warnings, plain packaging, display bans, snus bans, etc.

American consumers are not out of the woods yet. Whatever happens, the events of the last few months have been a reminder that lying prohibitionists will stop at nothing.

Friday 15 November 2019

Charity begins at home for nanny state academics

Last year, I wrote about a peculiar piece of junk science which claimed that a modest change to Chile's sugar tax had a dramatic effect on the amount of sugary drinks consumed. The authors claimed that consumption fell by 22 per cent after the tax rose, despite presenting evidence that quite clearly showed it made no difference whatsoever. Modelling, innit?

In my original blog post I made a throwaway remark about the study being produced by English academics rather than Chilean ones...

For some reason, the tax has been evaluated by some academics at York University...

That little mystery was solved when I read the first draft of Nanny State on Tour, a new report from the IEA written by Mark Tovey, and discovered that the study had been funded out of the UK's foreign aid budget. Moreover, it cost £348,108!

Chile is the richest country in South America. Crackpot modelling of nanny state policies doesn't fit many people's ideas of 'aid'. So what the hell is going on?

Well, it appears that various special interests have got their hands on bits of our massive £14 billion a year foreign budget. The money is supposed to be spent on poverty reduction. Instead, as Mark shows, millions have been captured by the likes of Graham MacGregor (Action on Sugar) to pursue their pet projects.

Highlights include:

  • £6.8 million spent on a ‘research unit’ to reduce the amount of salt housewives add while cooking in China 
  • £130,605 spent researching the ‘acceptability and feasibility’ of taxing sugary drinks in India
  • £1 million spent tightening tobacco control laws in Colombia
  • £800,000 spent training Imans in Bangladesh to preach about secondhand smoke 
  • £207,567 spent on a literature review that found literally nothing

In some respects, this is the old story of UK taxpayers' money being wasted on stupid project overseas, but it's actually worse than that. In many case, nothing is happening overseas. The money and personnel never leave the UK. Well-to-do academics at British universities are pocketing six figure sums for doing one-sided research about issues which have nothing to do with poverty reduction and precious little to do with the pressing health issues of the developing world.

It is yet another gravy train and it has come about, in part, because the government has allowed departments other than DfID to distribute foreign aid cash. The Department of Health, in particular, has turned this into a slush fund for the benefit of the usual suspects (not the only one, as we saw yesterday).

Mark summarised his research for the Sun yesterday and Nick Booth has written a nice little op-ed about it here.

But you really need to read the whole thing so download Nanny State On Tour now.

Thursday 14 November 2019

The bottomless 'public health' money pit

The IEA has a new report out about money being squandered overseas on 'public health' nonsense. I'll discuss it tomorrow, but today let's concentrate on the millions that are being spaffed up the wall in the UK.

In May, I discussed the ludicrously named Shaping Public hEalth poliCies To Reduce ineqUalities and harM (SPECTRUM) funded to the tune of £5.9 million courtesy of the taxpayer via the UK Prevention Research Partnership. The usual snouts were in the trough...

The list of SPECTRUM's 'co-investigators' features some other familiar faces, including John Britton (director of UKCTAS), Alan Brennan (Sheffield University fantasy modeller), Anna Gilmore (Tobacco Tactics conspiracy theorist) and Mark Petticrew (anti-alcohol crank), plus two senior staff from Public Health England.

The organisation has a 'principal focus on tobacco and alcohol' and its 'partners' include Ian Gilmore's Alcohol Health Alliance and Deborah Arnott's Smokefree Coalition, so expect the usual policy-based evidence, risible computer modelling, confirmation bias, junk economics, conspiracy theories and 'desk bound research' (ie. trawling Twitter for imaginary bots).

The UK Prevention Research Partnership has over £50 million of our money to spend and the elite of the 'public health' racket haven't wasted any time getting their hands on it. Yesterday saw the launch of a very similar organisation with a vaguely sinister name, also funded by the UKPRP, called Systems science In Public Health and health Economics Research (SIPHER).

SIPHER will be run by Petra Meier, who is part of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group best known for shoddy minimum pricing modelling and fiddling the figures to revise the alcohol guidelines. No bad deed goes unrewarded in this racket and so, rather than being shunned by government and the academy, SARG is now rolling in money, including a wedge of cash for turning their silly model towards tobacco taxation.

Everything has gone to plan for Meier, who had 'no clue whatsoever about alcohol policy' when she started working in the field and openly admits that she was just following the money:

My foray into the alcohol world started with taking up a lectureship at the University of Sheffield. Not that anyone there was doing alcohol research at the time, but I was suddenly in a very research-active environment, and there was an expectation that we would identify a niche and quickly bring in grants. My previous research had focused on illicit drug use, but it seemed there were far more opportunities in alcohol research.

My new department was full of systematic reviewers and health economists, so we tried our luck and got funding for a project reviewing and modelling alcohol pricing and promotion policies.

Having literally no clue whatsoever about alcohol policy in the United Kingdom, or elsewhere, I remember how a colleague and I, desperate for some expert input, trawled the web and kept finding the names ‘Robin Room’ and ‘Tim Stockwell’. We fired off a couple of emails and a day later both Robin and Tim had agreed to help, sent copious amounts of relevant reading material, and invited me to come to the next Kettil Bruun Society conference due to start a few weeks later. Once there, Robin and Tim made a real effort to introduce me to all the lovely folk in the field, and with it being such a friendly and supportive scientific community I decided to make it my ‘home’ and build up alcohol research at Sheffield.

Now she has landed £4.9 million for SIPHER. What will SIPHER do? Its website doesn't go into specifics but it mentions 'health inequalities' quite a bit, which seems to be the key to unlocking taxpayers' money. Meier says that it 'our research will aim to create the evidence base to underpin health in all policies efforts by local, regional and national governments.' 

Fortunately, they already know which policies they want the government to introduce so that should make the job easier, and she has pulled together a familiar set of faces to 'create the evidence'. The team includes:

Petra Meier (SARG)
Robin Purhouse (SARG)
Lucy Gavens (ex-SARG)
John Brazier (Sheffield University)
Alan Brennan (SARG)
Liddy Goyder (Sheffield University)
John Holmes (SARG)
Visakan Kadirkamanathan (Sheffield University)
Suzy Paisley (Sheffield University)
Mark Strong (Sheffield University)
Liz Such (Sheffield University)
Aki Tsuchiya (Sheffield University)
Craig Watkins (Sheffield University)
Cheryl Stirr (Sheffield University)

To be fair, not everybody is from Sheffield University. There is also Greg Fell, Sheffield's low IQ Director of Public Health, a few people from government, three from Leeds University and one each from the universities of Manchester, Edinburgh, Strathclyde and Newcastle.

I think the phrase I'm looking for is 'drain the swamp'.

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Minimum pricing set for March 2020 in Wales

Last month in the Welsh Assembly, Dai Llyod said of minimum pricing...

You will all recall that we passed this legislation in the Senedd last year. Similar legislation has been operational in Scotland for over a year, and a recent survey, which was published over the past few days, suggests that the policy has been a sweeping success in reducing the amount of alcohol that people in Scotland, even, drink.

This is a lie. There is no evidence that minimum pricing had any effect on the amount of alcohol consumed in Scotland, but it is this kind of garbage that has persuaded Welsh politicians to go ahead with the same regressive measure.

It was announced today that minimum pricing (at 50p per unit) will begin in Wales on March 2nd. Welsh drinkers should therefore stock up at the end of February, but most of the population will not be too far away from alcohol sold at the market price in any case. And the Severn Bridge toll was helpfully abolished last year.

As always those helpful folk at the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group have given some specific predictions of what will happen in the first year of minimum pricing. They include:

  • A 3.6 per cent fall in per capita alcohol consumption
  • 22 fewer units consumed per capita per annum, rising to 69 units for the poorest drinkers
  • 591 fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions
  • 31 fewer alcohol-related deaths
  • 2,093 fewer alcohol-related crimes

Let's sit back, wait, and see if any of that happens, shall we?

Monday 11 November 2019

Hey buddy, have you got your eating licence?

Pearl Street Mall, a no smoking zone

Smoking was banned across Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado in 2013...

Where is the smoke-free zone?

The ordinance bans all smoking between 11th and 15th streets on the Pearl Street Mall, and on the lawn of the Boulder County Courthouse.

Are there designated smoking areas around the mall?

When considering a place to smoke, there are no specifically designated smoking areas. It's important to know that smoking is not allowed on the Pearl Street Mall, from 11th and 15th street, or on the Boulder County Courthouse property. The Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act and City of Boulder code also require people to be more than 15 feet away from entryways when smoking 

There was even a party to celebrate this progressive victory...

Kick-off Celebration Event

A celebration event will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Friday, April 12, on the 1300 block of the Pearl Street Mall, where county, city and Downtown Boulder Inc. (DBI) staff will be available to answer questions about the smoking ban, hand out mints and information, and provide free resources available for smoking cessation programs.

Those who campaigned for the ban did so in the name of 'public health' and cited the claim that heart attacks fell by 41 per cent in Pueblo, Colorado after the town banned smoking indoors in 2003. That claim is a lie and, in any case, has no relevance to Pearl Street Mall which is an outdoor space.

Quite a large outdoor space, in fact. The ban extends from 11th to 15th and covers about ten streets.

As the risks from secondhand smoke outdoors are nonexistent, the real intention of the ordinance was probably to 'change norms', 'send a message' and make it more difficult for people to smoke. I doubt that those who lobbied for it expected there to be many arrests. Indeed, when the ban was introduced, Molly Winter of the city's 'Department of Community Vitality' (!) insisted that 'Boulder is not taking a hard line in terms of enforcement.'

But if you make petty offences out of victimless crimes, you can expect the boys in blue to take them seriously. The woman in the video below was arrested for not only smoking but having a dog off the leash and littering (dropping a cigarette butt, perhaps?). Faced with such a dangerous criminal, the police weren't going to take any chances, so they tied her to a chair, stuck a bag over her head, tasered her while she was defenceless and locked her in solitary.

As a chaser, watch this video from the even more progressive State of California where it is illegal to eat food on a train platform for some reason. The gentleman below, who is a more demographically typical victim of police harassment, committed his heinous crime at 8 o'clock in the morning while on his way to work.

“You’re eating.” 
“So what?” 
“It’s against the law.” 

Dame Sally would be proud.

If you create stupid, unnecessary laws to police every aspect of people's lives, don't be surprised when the police start throwing their weight around. Many of the replies to the two tweets above express sentiments along the lines of 'rules are rules, if they hadn't disrespected the law they would have been OK'. I find that almost as troubling as the incidents themselves.

Here's an idea. Maybe eating and smoking in the open air shouldn't be a crime? Instead of giving uniformed thugs endless excuses to victimise the public, how about we make laws that are worthy of respect?

Friday 8 November 2019

Last Orders with Toby Young

The new Last Orders podcast was recorded during a break at the Battle of Ideas with Toby Young. We discuss the miraculous appearance of the original Irn-Bru recipe, Dame Sally Davies' refusal to leave the stage and the Scottish government's exploitation of children.

Have a listen and don't forget to subscribe via the device of your choice.

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Did Prohibition work?

Like most Times columnists, David Aaronovitch has a penchant for draconian government action that he can only hide behind his liberal facade for so long. It is most likely to surface when he is looking down his nose at other people's lifestyles, or feeling guilty about his own (see also Nick Cohen).

In a particularly bizarre column three years ago, he demanded a ban on the sale of sweets to children, amongst other things...

Ban fast-food outlets from stations and airports. Ban the sale of confectionery and sugary drinks to the under-16s. Ban the sale of over-sugared products in supermarkets (as measured by a ratio of sugar to other nutrients). Ban the bringing into schools of unhealthy foods. Ban the presence in offices (like our own here at The Times) of vending machines that seem to sell mainly crisps and chocolate. Specify a weight-to-height ratio limit on air passengers wishing to avoid a surcharge.

This all seems outlandish and dictatorial at the moment. So too, back in the late 1980s, did the idea that you wouldn’t be allowed to smoke on planes.

No slippery slope, etc.

Last week he was back with an article that attempted, in all seriousness, to portray Prohibition as a success. It's a rarely heard point of view but not wholly unprecedented. People in 'public health' occasionally try to rewrite the history of 1920-33 to justify their own lurch towards prohibition, whether it be with tobacco, vaping or alcohol itself.

The basic argument is that alcohol consumption fell between 1920 and 1933. Well, duh. That is not contested. The reason that the 18th Amendment is the only one to have gone through the difficult process of repeal (requiring the consent of two-thirds of US states) is that there are more important things than per capita alcohol consumption. Murder, for one. Organised crime for another. Thousands of people being blinded, crippled, poisoned and killed for another. I addressed the silly, galaxy brain argument that 'prohibition worked, actually' in The Art of Suppression.

Aaronovitch doesn't bring anything new to the table and seems to have done very little research into the arguments he has microwaved, but let us quickly run through them.

Prohibition showed bans can be good for us

Outlawing alcohol 100 years ago led to a boom in bootlegging but it also had a striking effect on public health

.. Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to all kinds of adverse health conditions. The most obvious is alcoholic cirrhosis (or scarring) of the liver. In 1911 the death rate for cirrhosis among American men was nearly 30 per 100,000. By 1929 that had been reduced by more than 30 per cent. 

There was certainly a steep fall in the mortality rate from liver cirrhosis in the early twentieth century, but the bulk of it took place before Prohibition began in 1920. At no point was the rate 'nearly 30 per 100,000'.

What caused this precipitous decline? Plenty of states had gone dry by the time the US imposed national Prohibition so we can't discount the firm hand of government entirely, but the most likely candidate is the First World War. The same thing happened in Canada, France, Britain and, I dare say, a few other European countries too.

Forgive the mad y-axis, but you get the picture.

You can, if you are inclined, use these graphs as evidence that making alcohol hard to come by reduces alcohol-related mortality, but note that the UK saw liver cirrhosis deaths fall from 9 per 100,000 to 5 per 100,000 before the war began. You don't need rationing, let alone Prohibition, for outcomes to improve.

Registered admissions to mental hospitals for psychosis linked to alcohol more than halved. 

I'm not sure where he got this statistic, if anywhere. The US Census Bureau didn’t start collecting statistics on admissions to mental hospitals until 1923, so we can't compare with the pre-Prohibition era.

One historian has suggested that short-term stays in mental institutions in New York fell prior to prohibition, and then rose after it...

'In 1904, 27.8 percent of the nation's total patient population had been institutionalized for twelve months or less. This percentage fell to 12.7 by 1910, rising to 17.4 in 1923.'

 I don't think the evidence exists to support or debunk Aaronovitch's claim.

Even by 1933, when Volstead was revoked, alcohol consumption had gone down by a third since pre-prohibition. 

Yes. The best guess is that consumption went down by two-thirds when Prohibition began and then rose until it was only a third lower than it had been when alcohol was legal. Not too impressive, really.

The point shouldn't need underlining, but the fact that Prohibition was flouted by scofflaws (a word invented in the 1920s) on such a grand scale is evidence that Prohibition was not wanted. 

Whatever Mark Twain may have written, prohibition saved many, many lives.

Mark Twain died in 1910. Perhaps Aaronovitch is confusing him with one of the tens of millions of Americans who thought that Prohibition was a disaster.

But what about the extra crime and the corruption it caused? In fact there was no big increase in homicide or violent crime in the era of prohibition.

Er, yes there was. The homicide rate rose throughout the era of Prohibition and fell sharply as soon as it was repealed. The increase in crime and violence was well recognised at the time and was one of the main reasons Prohibition was repealed.

Incidentally, the suicide rate - which, unlike the homicide rate, had been falling before 1920 - also rose throughout Prohibition and fell afterwards.
He continues...

True, mobsters — who existed long before the ban — pitched into liquor smuggling, but when prohibition was over they just moved on to other things.

And how lucky they were that the USA had launched the war on drugs in the meantime, thanks to many of the same characters who had given it the war on alcohol. The more opportunities you give organised criminals, the more organised crime you're going to get.

In the meantime arrests for public disorderliness due to drink fell by half, as did recorded complaints of domestic abuse (almost invariably violence by a drunken man against his partner or family).

Domestic abuse (or ‘wife beating’) was made illegal in 1920 in all US states. Ramsey says that...

'.. the likelihood that a wife beater would be incarcerated at least briefly seems to have been high in the 1920s'. 

This doesn’t directly contradict Aaronovitch’s claim, but I can't find support for it in this detailed history of American domestic violence which is surprising if it is true – a halving of domestic violence rates in 10 years would be remarkable.

His factoid about drunk and disorderly arrests also seems dodgy:

'The Volstead Act, passed to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, had an immediate impact on crime. According to a study of 30 major U.S. cities, the number of crimes increased 24 percent between 1920 and 1921. The study revealed that during that period more money was spent on police (11.4+ percent) and more people were arrested for violating Prohibition laws (102+ percent). But increased law enforcement efforts did not appear to reduce drinking: arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct increased 41 percent, and arrests of drunken drivers increased 81 percent.' 

He then notes, correctly, that Prohibition had some positive lasting effects. It changed saloon culture beyond recognition and normalised female drinking in bars, for instance.

Finally, though prohibition was abolished and the renascent drinks manufacturers blitzed the public with booze ads and the film-makers with glitzy party scenes, it has lingered on in reduced consumption, state bans and — as I discovered aged 60, ordering a cocktail in the Lower East Side — stringent age checks.

Maybe, but as Lisa McGirr shows in her book The War on Alcohol, it also revived the Ku Klux Klan, normalised police raids on private property, created the template for the FBI and led to the creation of the modern, heavy-handed American penal state. So, swings and roundabouts.

Aaoronvitch's motive for resurrecting the failed experiment of Prohibition is, as you might have guessed, to push some lesser restrictions on drinkers. He cites Public Health England's amateurish, error-strewn report on alcohol policy that was published at the fag end of 2016.

Although there has been a slight decline in alcohol consumption in England and Wales in the last decade, that followed an increase of more than 40 per cent between 1980 and 2008.

Per capita alcohol consumption is almost exactly where it was in 1980.

In June 2012 the Scottish government began to legislate for minimum alcohol pricing aimed at reducing consumption through incentives. Last year a BMJ study concluded that the effects of a 50p per unit minimum cost had reduced consumption by 1.2 units per week, and two units among the heaviest drinkers.

It wasn't last year. It was six weeks ago and the claims in the study bear no resemblance to the sales figures.

But enough of this. Prohibition didn't work 100 years ago and it won't work next time.

Monday 4 November 2019

Economic illiteracy in The Economist

The Economist published an article about alcohol two weeks ago...

A sober brawl  

Alcohol firms promote moderate drinking, but it would ruin them

The subheading is nonsense, based as it is on a risible study produced by the Sheffield alcohol team and the UK Temperance Alliance t/a the Institute of Alcohol Studies.

In Britain more than 100 producers and retailers have signed a “responsibility deal” and promised to “help people to drink within guidelines”, mostly by buying ads promoting moderation. However, if these campaigns were effective, they would ruin their sponsors’ finances. According to researchers from the Institute of Alcohol Studies, a think-tank, and the University of Sheffield, some two-fifths of alcohol consumed in Britain is in excess of the recommended weekly maximum of 14 units (about one glass of wine per day). Industry executives say they want the public to “drink less, but drink better”, meaning fewer, fancier tipples. But people would need to pay 22-98% more per drink to make up for the revenue loss that such a steep drop in consumption would cause.

The print edition makes things worse with this graphic...

I have written about this study before - see here and here. The authors show such a basic misunderstanding of economics that it should disqualify from from commenting on the alcohol business ever again.

In short, they assume that alcohol revenues would decline by 38 per cent (£13 billion) if everyone drank within the government's evidence-free guidelines. They then assume that the industry would have to raise £13 billion from somewhere to keep its head above water. The figures in the graphic above show what they reckon drinks would cost if the industry were to pass that £13 billion on to customers.

The whole premise of the study is ridiculous. If the industry sold less alcohol, it would have fewer costs. Unless it has very high fixed costs, most industries could withstand a 38 per cent decline in sales (look at the tobacco industry in Britain in recent years, for example). It might become less profitable, depending on whether consumers switched from low margin drinks to high margin drinks, but it would not be not 'ruin them'.

People in Britain drank half as much alcohol in the 1950s than they did fifty years earlier. Did this ruin the booze industry? No. Of course it didn't. Why would it?

It's disappointing to see The Economist falls for this obvious rubbish. I wrote a letter to the editor about it...

Your article about alcohol (October 19th, p. 93) suggested that the price of beer, wine and spirits would have to rise dramatically ‘to make up for revenue loss’ if everybody drank within the government’s guidelines. Revenue is irrelevant. Only a fraction of the amount spent on alcohol goes to the producers as profit. A third goes straight to the government in the form of alcohol duty and VAT, and a significant proportion goes to retailers. Much of the rest is spent on the product itself.

If fewer products were sold, the cost of production would fall. There is no reason to assume, as the study you cite does, that the industry would have to raise prices by £13 billion to compensate for sales falling by £13 billion. The viability of a business depends on profit, not revenue.

It wasn't published.

Friday 1 November 2019

Britain's low rate of problem gambling

Last month I tweeted something based on an article in the Economist...

The statistics for Finland were challenged by one or two people, so I did my own research and found that the 3.3% figure comes from this study in the BMJ published last year...

In 2015, the overall prevalence of past-year problem gambling was 3.3%.

However, the latest official figures from Finland give a figure that is half of that...

When the severity of problem gambling was measured using the Problem and Pathological Gambling Measure (PPGM), 1.6 per cent were classified as having a gambling problem...

This is still considerably higher than in Britain where the rate of problem gambling has been hovering around 0.7% ever since it first started to be measured in 1999. In the most recent dataset, it was exactly 0.7%. The figure for Sweden, which until very recently also had a state monopoly on gambling, is reported to be 1.5%.

But there are different ways of measuring it. While the DSM and PGSI systems produce similar results in Britain, I am not familiar with the PPGM measure used in Finland.

Fortunately, I was able to find directly comparable figures in this thorough piece of work. It was published in 2012, so some of the figures will have changed somewhat in the meantime (indeed, the figure used for Britain is higher than it is now), but it is nonetheless illuminating. Using the same methodology for every jurisdiction, the authors found that...

Depending on the specific country and the survey year, the standardized past year rate of problem gambling ranges from 0.5% to 7.6%,with the average rate across all countries being 2.3%. In general, the lowest standardized prevalence rates of problem gambling tend to occur in Europe, with intermediate rates in North America and Australia, and the highest rates in Asia. More specifically, the lowest standardized prevalence rates occur in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany. Lower than average rates are seen in Great Britain, South Korea, Iceland, Hungary, Norway, France, and New Zealand. Average rates occur in Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, United States, Estonia, Finland, and Italy. Above average rates occur in Belgium and Northern Ireland. The highest rates are observed in Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, and South Africa.

I'd be interested to see more up-to-date statistics, if they exist, but all of the above seems to point to the same conclusion: the rate of problem gambling is below the international average in the UK and is higher in countries like Finland, Sweden, the USA and Hong Kong where there is far more state control.

Despite the emergence of online gambling, fixed odds betting terminals and the relaxation of some laws under the 2005 Gambling Act, the rise in problem gambling that was predicted by many never materialised.

Whether you look at Britain in the last twenty years or compare countries, it is difficult to see any correlation between regulation and problem gambling.

To many foreigner visitors, the UK may seem like a bit of a free-for-all, with bookies on every high street (albeit not for long), fruit machines in most pubs, legal casinos, several lotteries, gambling advertising on television after 9pm, bingo halls, arcades and a lively online sector.

So what is the secret of Britain's low rate of problem gambling? My own theory is that it's because we are relaxed about letting children gamble for low stakes. This takes away the 'forbidden fruit' element and there's nothing like playing the blatantly rigged penny waterfalls as a child to teach you that the house always wins, it's just a bit of fun, and you shouldn't expect to make a living out of it.