Sunday 3 May 2020

Something, something, COVID-19

Over on Twitter I have been curating a list of people using COVID-19 as justification for doing things they have always wanted to do. It's quite a long list.

A particularly tenuous effort appeared in the Sunday Times today:

Covid-19 crisis sparks new call in Scotland for tobacco levy

The 'new call' comes from ASH Scotland, a state-funded pressure group that has been campaigning for a tobacco levy for years.

What is the connection with COVID-19? Alas, they can't really tell us and have to resort to some impressive mental contortions to even imply that there is a connection.

Scotland’s leading anti-smoking charity is backing calls for a minimum unit price (MUP) on tobacco after scientists said “now is the time” to tackle the largest preventable cause of chronic disease.

Is it, though? Wouldn't it be better to direct all our energy towards a genuine public health threat that has killed over 20,000 people in Britain and has consigned us to an economically devastating lockdown? Maybe tinkering with the price of cigarettes - which are already among the most expensive in the world - can wait.

Ash Scotland is supporting a new levy similar to that introduced in Scotland on alcohol products two years ago. It would see the price of cigarettes and tobacco rise with the aim of persuading more smokers to quit.

Minimum pricing for alcohol doesn't seem to have worked and the price of cigarettes does rise every year as a result of regressive sin taxes. Moreover, there is already a minimum price for cigarettes because there is a minimum excise duty.  

Ash Scotland said that in addition to a minimum unit price, it would like to see a price cap at the top end of the market to prevent the tobacco industry from shifting price increases from cheap to premium products.

They want to prevent some cigarettes becoming more expensive? That's a new one.

The charity’s support for MUP is echoed by three leading academics in Scotland.

Wow, three people! No wonder a major newspaper has chosen to cover this story.   

The three academics can be fairly described as the usual suspects.

Professor Mike Lean (University of Glasgow), Richard Simpson (University of Stirling) and Professor Linda Bauld (University of Edinburgh) said wider measures should be considered such as reducing tobacco availability and introducing minimum pricing. “Now is the time to align how we respond to the largest preventable cause of chronic diseases — smoking — with our response to Covid-19.”

It is not at all obvious that 'this is the time', nor is it obvious that making tobacco even more expensive will 'align' anti-smoking policy with the COVID-19 response. Have we been using the price mechanism to reduce coronavirus infections?

In an open letter, the academics described it as “perverse” that tobacco is still being advertised outside convenience stores...

I cannot even guess what they mean by this. Tobacco advertising has been completely banned for the best part of twenty years.

And, once again, what has any of this got to do with COVID-19?

“We do not have good evidence that smokers are at higher risk of contracting Covid-19, but it is safe to say that stopping smoking will help with recovery.”

That's one way of putting it. Another way of putting it is that smokers are at less risk of contracting COVID-19 and are at less risk of being hospitalised with COVID-19. It is not 'safe to say' anything at this point. As the aforementioned Linda Bauld said recently, 'there's something weird going on with smoking and coronavirus'. 

The Sunday Times article alludes to this...  

There is a suggestion, however, that smokers could be less likely to catch coronavirus. In France, an in-depth study conducted by the Pasteur Institute, a leading research centre into the disease, found that four times fewer smokers contracted Covid-19 than non-smokers. Scientists believe nicotine in cigarettes could be behind the surprising results but more research is needed.

The journalist was apparently unable to get a response from the activist-academics to these interesting developments and so moves on to the temperance lobby instead.

On Friday, health professionals marked the second anniversary of minimum unit pricing on all alcohol sold in Scotland with a warning to policy-makers not to let momentum slip post-Covid 19.

In the case of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), another state-funded pressure group, they marked the anniversary by doing what they so often do: lying. This, from the Evening Express...

Shaap chairman Dr Peter Rice said there has been a “substantial fall” in the number of deaths in the 24 months since the policy took effect.

There is no published evidence to suggest this.

SHAAP get a quote in the Sunday Times article too...

“People should be in no doubt about the ferocity and determination of global alcohol producers in seeking to overturn MUP and other policies that affect their profits,” said Dr Eric Carlin, director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems.

Sorry to break it to you, Eric, but forcing companies to charge more than the market price for their products is more likely to increase their profits than reduce them. If the booze companies got together and agreed to do minimum pricing voluntarily, they would be hauled up for price-fixing.

“We will need to build on progress made prior to the pandemic and to regain the momentum with policies, including MUP that reduce alcohol-related harms, which disproportionately affect the poorest communities.”

Yes, it's important to remember the real victims of COVID-19: neo-temperance campaigners who have lost the momentum in fleecing the poor.

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