Friday 31 July 2020

E-cigarette regulation - money talks

An interesting article in the Economist tells us a lot about e-cigarettes. In China, the world's biggest cigarette market, smokers are increasingly switching to e-cigarettes. The state-owned tobacco monopoly is not happy about it.

Investor optimism derives in large part from the prospect of rapid growth in China, where just 10m people were regular users of e-cigarettes at the end of last year. But dig a little deeper and the outlook darkens. A powerful state-owned cigarette monopoly, China Tobacco, will not cede ground to a rival product without a fight.

Regulators have already intervened on behalf of China Tobacco, which paid 1.2trn yuan in taxes last year, accounting for 6% of government revenues. In November the authorities banned online sales of e-cigarettes (ostensibly to prevent minors from buying them). Now they can be bought only at physical outlets like convenience stores and karaoke bars. In recent months editorials in state-owned newspapers have claimed (falsely) that vaping is more harmful than conventional cigarettes. A spokesman for the Electronic Cigarette Industry Committee of China, a trade body, blames the online ban for a wave of bankruptcies among smaller firms.

It is obvious what China Tobacco's motivation is. They fear missing out on cigarette sales if people switch to vaping. The Chinese government, insofar as it can be distinguished from the tobacco monopoly, doesn't want to miss out on tax revenue. More vapers means fewer smokers, hence the online sales ban and scare stories.

Does this sound familiar? The United States has been awash with scare stories about e-cigarettes for several years, culminating in the 'EVALI' panic last year. A ban on online sales (disingenuously titled the Preventing Online Sales of E-Cigarettes to Children Act) passed the Senate earlier this month and will be voted on in the House any day now.

The only difference is that China Tobacco doesn't have the 'public health' lobby cheering it on.

American 'public health' campaigners argue that e-cigarettes don't help smokers quit and act as a gateway to tobacco for young people. China Tobacco obviously doesn't agree.

Who is most likely to be right - a bunch of moral entrepreneurs who have never seen a ban they didn't like, or some hard-nosed businessman who have skin the game?

Americans are smoking more during the coronavirus pandemic because they are spending less on travel and entertainment and have more opportunities to light up. They are also switching back to traditional cigarettes from vaping devices in the wake of federal restrictions on e-cigarette flavors.

Malice, corruption or unbelievable incompetence? You decide.

Thursday 30 July 2020

Life and liberty webinar tonight at 6pm

I'm chairing an online panel discussion today at 6pm to discuss risk, wellbeing, health and wealth. The trade-off between life and liberty has been brought into stark relief by the pandemic. What lessons have we learned?

We have a great line up of speakers, so join us on YouTube at 6pm.

Julian Jessop, IEA Fellow and former IEA Chief Economist

Timandra Harkness, Broadcaster, Mathematician and Author

Professor Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University

Otto Brøns-Petersen, Head of Analysis at the Danish Free Market Think Tank, Centre of Political Studies (CEPOS).

Wednesday 29 July 2020

Whatever happened to plain packaging?

With the government set to introduce all the Theresa May (previously David Cameron) nanny state policies on food, no one in government seems able to predict what success looks like. How much will obesity fall back as a result of these costly interventions? Will the government repeal the laws if obesity hasn't dropped by 2025?

You won't get any answers from MPs or 'public health'. They know and we know that the policies won't make any difference and there will be no desire to seriously evaluate them in the future. As I have said many times, 'public health' is not a results-driven business.

Take plain packaging, for example. The battle for this stupid policy involved years of screeching and millions of pounds of taxpayers money spent on self-lobbying. What happened? Where is the audit?

Australia has had plain packaging since December 2012. Anti-smoking clown Simon Chapman said it was "almost like finding a vaccine that works very well against lung cancer." But what really happened?

National smoking figures are only published every three years Down Under and this month saw the latest set of figures. Over three years, the smoking rate had fallen by just one percentage point. Since 2012, the smoking rate has fallen at half the longterm average, as Jo Furnival explains:

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) released the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) this week. This survey has become a vital indicator of the performance of government health policies, including tobacco control. Previous surveys were carried out in 2010 before plain packaging for tobacco products was introduced, in 2013, the year following its introduction (along with other measures, including tax increases), and again in 2016.

The data shows that, prior to 2012, the per centage of daily smokers in Australia was in long-term, steady decline (a rate of 0.46 per cent annually for 20+ years). After plain packaging was introduced, this annual rate of decline slowed by almost a half to just 0.26 per cent between 2013 and 2019.

Moreover, the proportion of smokers planning to quit has not changed since plain packaging was introduced. Three in 10 smokers have no interest in quitting, the same percentage (30 per cent) as in 2010. Rather than this costly eight-year experiment, the Australian government would have been better off doing nothing at all.

Trebles all round! And it gets better...

The proportion of smokers using illicit, unbranded loose tobacco has increased by 37 per cent (10.5 per cent in 2010 to 14.4 per cent in 2019). Meanwhile, overall consumption of illegal tobacco products (including unbranded loose tobacco, along with contraband and counterfeit items) has risen by a whopping 80 per cent (from 11.5 per cent in 2012 to 20.7 per cent in 2019) and is now at a record level, according to a recent KPMG study.

Tremendous work, and all as predicted by those who opposed the policy.

Australia shows what happens when nanny state fanatics run the show. Ban e-cigarettes, introduce plain packaging and set taxes so high that buying from the black market is almost a moral duty. What could go wrong?

Friday 24 July 2020

A no deal Brexit is no good for smokers

An interesting piece at 1828 by Dan Pryor about an issue I had missed.

The UK is facing a tobacco tariff timebomb. Britain’s black market in cigarettes is set to boom if trade talks with the European Union fail to bear fruit by the end of the year.

The damage can be easily avoided easily if the department of international trade makes some minor changes to its post-transition period tariff regime. But so far, there is no sign that politicians are aware of the problem.

The issue stems from the UK Global Tariff – our post-Brexit replacement for the EU’s Common External Tariff. In the absence of a trade agreement, the UKGT will apply to all imported goods from 1 January 2021. At present, cigarettes imported from the EU for sale in the UK (which make up the overwhelming majority of our market) are liable for tobacco duty and VAT but are not subject to any tariff.

Presumably, though, in an unfortunate oversight (since there’s virtually no domestic tobacco industry to “protect”) the UKGT in its current form will slap an eye-watering 50 per cent tariff on cigarettes and a 70 per cent tariff on roll-your-own tobacco. That’s on top of existing charges. Even with an EU-UK trade deal, if we get our rules of origin requirements wrong, the tariff could still end up applying.

The government could adjust tobacco duty downwards so that prices remain unchanged (it would get the same amount of revenue), but the anti-smokers would doubtless scream blue murder.

Or it could get a trade deal with the EU, which it should do anyway.

Boris Johnson - is new boss same as the old boss?

Rumours abound that Boris Johnson will be making an announcement about the government's obesity strategy on Monday and that it's going to be a case of 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss'.

I tried to take a positive view of things in this article for the Spectator...

Despite my libertarian disposition, I take a perverse satisfaction in some of this. The television companies that spent years hyping the childhood obesity ‘epidemic’ and demanding tough action from government are now set to lose £200 million a year in advertising fees. Channel 4 might finally reflect on the wisdom of employing Jamie Oliver to make one-sided agitprop.

Similarly, the food industry might finally realise that the 'public health' lobby is serious in its rhetoric about ‘Big Food’ being the new Big Tobacco. Food companies went along with Public Health England’s ludicrous reformulation scheme because of the thinly veiled threat of more draconian laws if they didn’t comply. Now that the government is going to pass the laws anyway, they might awake from their slumber and stand up for themselves. Anti-smoking legislation started with a ban on television commercials before 9 p.m. – they must see which way the wind is blowing.

There is also a strange comfort in being able to abandon hope in Boris Johnson so soon into his premiership. It saves time in the long run. To be honest, his libertarianism was already in doubt when he put us all under house arrest for three months but, to be fair, that was under exceptional circumstances. However, if a Conservative government with an 80 seat majority, a liberal leader and an anti-establishment chief advisor is going to impose the kind of purse-lipped, micro-managing, finger-wagging, lemon-sucking, nanny-knows-best, censorious, anti-business, killjoy policies that even Gordon Brown never seriously entertained, then we have to conclude that nothing short of revolution is going to put the paternalistic political class out of its stride. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, Public Health England always gets in.

No paywall. read it all.

I've also written about it for the Telegraph. In this article, I argue that an advertising ban will set a runaway train of prohibitions in motion, just as it did with tobacco.

The advertising ban won’t work. How do we know? Partly because the economic evidence consistently shows that advertising affects brand preference, not aggregate demand. In other words, a Colgate advert might make people buy more Colgate toothpaste, but it doesn’t make them buy more toothpaste.

But we also have real world evidence from Britain showing that it doesn’t work. In 2008, the Labour government banned HFSS adverts during programmes which had a large proportion of viewers under 16 years old. This, along with the fact that children watch less live television than they used to, led to children’s "exposure" to HFSS ads falling by 70 per cent. The rate of childhood obesity, however, remained the same. 

Paradoxically, the failure of such policies makes further restrictions inevitable. When the watershed ban fails to reduce obesity, there will be demands for a total advertising ban. Practitioners of "public health", unlike practitioners of medicine, can get away with carrying out useless and harmful interventions ad infinitum.

It is time to demand results. When Johnson announces the latest set of bans next week, he should tell us how much rates of obesity are going to fall by and over what period of time. There should be a sunset clause. If the anti-obesity policies haven’t reduced obesity after, say, five years, they should be repealed. This is a modest request to ask of policies that claim to be evidence-based, but it will never happen because everybody involved knows, deep down, that they are nothing of the sort.

It's behind a paywall (I think), but read it if you can.

Sunday 19 July 2020

The Observer's ignorant view of obesity

Some dog-bites-man news from Britain's least liberal Sunday newspaper, the Observer...
‘Junk food is the new tobacco’: experts call for restrictions to tackle obesity 
Ministers should regulate processed food as heavily as tobacco to tackle the “massive national challenge” of the UK’s obesity crisis, health experts have warned.

They have urged severe restrictions on supermarket promotions of processed foods, and bans on fast food outlets near schools, and TV adverts for pizzas, burgers and similar foods before 9pm. One campaign group even urged the government to consider plain packaging for processed food.
No slippery slope there then, eh?
The paper also carries an editorial calling for more heavy regulation from government.

The government is expected to set out a new strategy this week, aimed at reducing obesity levels both in the next few months – ahead of a possible second wave of infections – and the longer term.
Anyone who thinks a government strategy released next week is going to reduce obesity levels in three months is away with the fairies. 
There is robust evidence about what is needed to cut obesity and in recent years report after report, including from Public Health England and the former chief medical officer, have called for urgent action.
There is no credible evidence to support any of the proposals in the Childhood Obesity Strategy. The impact assessment is based on nothing but guesswork. The claims about the efficacy of banning so-called 'junk food' advertisements are based on extremely weak evidence. There is essentially no evidence for the idea of banning retailers from displaying certain food in certain parts of their shop. And the evidence on calorie labelling and restricting fast food outlets suggests that neither policy has any impact.
Yet these calls were ignored by Conservative ministers who have seemingly prioritised the food and drink industry’s financial interests over the health of the nation.
This is not only a false dichotomy, it is untrue. It was a Conservative government that gave us the sugar tax and a Conservative government that put forward all the proposals that the Observer supports. A public consultation on them was held last year, although a genuine public health crisis has understandably taken priority since then.

The continuing failure to act is consigning a generation of children to a lifetime of health problems. One in three leaves primary school overweight or obese, putting them at significantly greater risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes later in life.

Poor diet has overtaken smoking and drinking to become the nation’s biggest premature killer...
The link provided by the Observer refers to the world, not the nation, and it is based on a basic misunderstanding of statistics.  
That is 3.6% of the NHS budget and you need to look at the net costs to overall spending, which are lower, rather than the gross costs. obesity-related hospital admissions continue to rise.
To 700,000 a year, according to the Observer's source. Which amounts to 3.4% of all admissions.

Increasing obesity levels are not the result of the nation becoming more wilfully irresponsible about its nutrition choices or parents deliberately choosing to load their children’s diets with unhealthy foods. They are primarily the result of an industry that stands to gain from packing processed foods with increasing amounts of cheap and addictive fat, sugar and salt, in a way that has reduced consumer choice by conditioning our palates to crave more over time.
This is an evidence-free assertion. Per capita consumption of sugar, fat and salt have all declined since the 1970s. None of them are addictive.
Its efforts are working: children are consuming, on average, more than twice the recommended amount of sugar each year and tooth decay is the most common reason for those aged five to nine to be admitted to hospital.

The one area where the government has taken proper action has been the introduction of a sugar levy on fizzy drinks, eventually brought in in 2018 after years of delay. This has been highly successful on its own terms – the amount of sugar in fizzy drinks has fallen by almost 30% without a corresponding fall in soft drink sales – but it is far too limited in scope to make a big enough difference on obesity. 
It hasn't made any difference to obesity, so it hasn't been a success, has it? 

Apart from this, the government has relied on asking for voluntary action from the food industry, which has completely failed to deliver. A more interventionist approach is required. 
Before 2010, the UK was a leader in nutrition policy and was the first country to successfully reduce population-level salt intakes by forcing manufacturers to gradually reduce salt levels in food, an approach that has been copied around the world with other countries applying it to sugar and fat as well as salt with great success.
This is incorrect. The salt reduction scheme was voluntary.
However, Conservative governments have ripped up this approach.
Quite the reverse. Via Public Health England, Conservative governments have presided over a massive expansion of the reformulation programme which now encompasses sugar, fat and calories. Why can't the Observer get these basic facts straight?

We need to see the compulsory reformulation of processed and convenience foods to reduce sugar and fat as well as salt levels...
 Really? I'd love to see how that legislation would be worded. 
...and, as the King’s Fund argues in today’s Observer, we need a comprehensive ban on junk food advertising, regulation to eliminate unhealthy food being sold as a loss leader by supermarkets and beefed-up powers to enable local authorities to maintain the area around schools as fast food-free zones.
The King's Fund is a pressure group whose main focus is on pressing the government to give the NHS more and more money. They have no expertise in this area. 'Unhealthy food' is not used as a 'loss leader' (on the contrary, it is quite profitable, as the Observer article seems to acknowledge a few sentences earlier). There is no legal definition of junk food and a ban on HFSS food advertising would hit advertisements for foods that Observer readers think are wholesome. A ban on fast food outlets near schools would not only be a de facto ban on fast food outlets nearly everywhere, but the evidence strongly suggests that it would have no impact on obesity.
So far, government briefings suggest that the new strategy, like the ones that went before, will be focused on weak measures such as public education campaigns and “nudges” such as the repositioning of unhealthy food in different parts of supermarket aisles.

A ban on positioning 'unhealthy food' at the entrance and exit of shops would not be a 'nudge' (bans are not nudges). 'Public health' campaigners have spent years screeching about the horrors of chocolate bars at the check out. They are the ones who have been demanding a ban.  

The real test for an overweight prime minister said to be shaken by his own experience of Covid is whether he is prepared to take on an industry seemingly determined to extract as much profit as it can, regardless of the cost in premature deaths.

Is the industry selling at a loss or extracting as much profit as it can? On this, as with so much else, the Observer seems confused. It doesn't even have a superficial understanding of the facts. It mentions industry no fewer than seven times, but never mentions physical activity. From a misdiagnosis of the problem, it comes up with the wrong prescription.

The Observer is always going to take a nanny state line on such issues. It is a paternalistic newspaper read by a small number of people who take a dim view of the public. The question for Boris Johnson is whether he is going to capitulate to the left-wing press, as Cameron and May did, or chart a different path.

Saturday 18 July 2020

The staggering incompetence of Public Health England

The list of charges against Public Health England since the pandemic began is long. I am sure I have forgotten some, but off the top of my head, there is...

Rejecting the South Korean model of mass testing

Ending contact tracing in early March

Rejecting private sector laboratories and keeping diagnostic testing within the NHS's limited capacity

Assuring us that care homes were safe from COVID-19 and that staff shouldn't wear face masks in them

Making unscientific claims about the risks of smoking and COVID-19

Discouraging the public from wearing masks and advising the Advertising Standards Authority to ban adverts for them

Failing to share infection data with local authorities

The most recent PHE cock up to be revealed is not going to kill as many people, but it is perhaps the most remarkable in its cretinous stupidity.

As Yoon K Loke and Carl Heneghan (from the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine) explained in a blog post on Thursday, PHE collects information on who tests positive for COVID-19, but they do not keep a record of who recovers. When that person dies - of any cause - it is automatically counted as a COVID-19 death.

By this PHE definition, no one with COVID in England is allowed to ever recover from their illness. A patient who has tested positive, but successfully treated and discharged from hospital, will still be counted as a COVID death even if they had a heart attack or were run over by a bus three months later.

... In summary, PHE’s definition of the daily death figures means that everyone who has ever had COVID at any time must die with COVID too. So, the COVID death toll in Britain up to July 2020 will eventually exceed 290k, if the follow-up of every test-positive patient is of long enough duration.

This helps explain why deaths from COVID-19 in hospital have been falling so much faster than overall COVID-19 deaths. It also helps explain why COVID-19 deaths in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been petering out so much quicker than they have in England. The rest of the UK counts these deaths in a sane and reasonable way.

Here's how PHE's figures differ from the Office for National Statistics. Notice to long tail on the right.


Under PHE's methodology, COVID-19 could be wiped out next week but people would still be dying from it decades from now. It's such a rudimentary error that it destroys whatever faith you may still have in the agency's competence.

The day after Loke and Heneghan published their blog post, the government announced that it will be conducting an investigation into how COVID-19 deaths are counted in England. Public Health England tweeted a pathetic half-apology...

In other words: 'Sorry, but this is as new to us as it is to you. You live and learn.'

The fact that COVID-19 is a 'new and emerging infection' is neither here nor there. From PHE's statement, you would think that keeping count of patients who recover was a radical new idea. Note also how they conflate miscounting and over-counting with having 'complete' data.

I have said many times over the years that these people are clowns, but I honestly didn't think they were this incompetent. In his Friday message, PHE boss Duncan Selbie sounded like a beaten man. Reading between the lines, it looks like he is expecting the chop.

The world will never be the same again following the COVID-19 pandemic but this now presents a genuine opportunity to achieve a better balance between risk and investment in the public’s health. PHE is rightly recognised for its science capability, public health expertise and national to local connectivity [no it isn't - CJS] , but resilience also requires flexibility and ability to adapt to a changing context. No public health agency has entered this pandemic thinking it will look the same afterwards. The public’s health is what matters most and whatever future decisions are to follow, the organising principle will be how we as a nation more effectively close the health gap between the rich and the poor and be better ready in capability and at scale for a future pandemic. Meantime we remain fully focused on fighting the virus.

It's telling that Selbie mentions reducing health inequalities ahead of protecting people from infectious disease as PHE's 'organising principle'. The health inequalities agenda is fundamentally political and largely amounts to trying to force everybody to adopt the lifestyles of the upper-middle class.

And on that, there was a sliver of good news for Public Health England yesterday...

Cadbury to shrink all multipack chocolate bars by 2021 - but prices will stay the same

One of the world's biggest chocolate manufacturers has announced plans to shrink all of its products to cut back on calories - but prices will stay the same when the changes come into effect.

Cadbury is shrinking the size of Double Decker and Wispa Gold bars sold in multipacks so they contain less than 200 calories in an attempt to help tackle obesity, but the smaller bars will cost the same.

This is Public Health England's so-called reformulation scheme in action. This is the stuff that Public Health England is really interested in. This is what it was doing when it should have been preparing for a pandemic. Never forget that.

Friday 17 July 2020

The lost boys

I've got an article in the Spectator this week about working class white males and why they are falling behind in school.

...nearly half the children eligible for free school meals in inner London go on to higher education, but in the country outside London as a whole it is just 26 per cent.

Black African British children outperform white children, whereas black Caribbean children tend to do worse. Poor Chinese girls (that is to say, those who qualify for free school meals) do better than rich white children. But, interestingly, the ethnic group least likely to get into university are whites. With the sole exception of Gypsy/Roma, every ethnic group attends university at a higher rate than the white British and, of the white British who do attend, most are middle class and 57 per cent are female.  The least likely group to go on to higher education are poor white boys. Just 13 per cent of them go on to higher education, less than any black or Asian group.

This is a trend that can also be seen in the GCSE data; only 17 per cent of white British pupils eligible for free school meals achieve a strong pass in English and maths. Students categorised as Bangladeshi, Black African and Indian are more than twice as likely to do so. In 2007, the state sector saw 23 per cent of black students go on to higher education; this was true for 22 per cent of whites. So about the same. But at the last count, in 2018, the gap had widened to 11 points (41 per cent for black students, 30 per cent for whites). The children of the white working class are falling away from their peers, in danger of becoming lost. 

Have a read. I'm also one the Spectator podcast with former UCAS head Mary Curnock Cook talking about the same issue.

Wednesday 15 July 2020

ASH claims that over a million people have quit smoking

The clowns at ASH have upped the ante. In May, they claimed that 300,000 people quit smoking because of COVID-19 fears. That was based on wild extrapolations from tiny survey figures.

They have now raised that to over a million. Do they think we were born yesterday?

The BBC fell for it, naturally. As I explain in the thread below, there is no credible evidence for it whatsoever. Will there be a comeuppance for ASH when the figure is comprehensively debunked in time? Almost certainly not.

ASH have had the begging bowl out since the pandemic began, hoping to get £350,000 from the Department of Health for their lame Quit for Covid campaign. They seem to have got it.

Ash is launching a stop-smoking campaign funded by the Department of Health and Social Care, targeting people in areas of the country with the highest rates of smoking. 

I guess the government doesn't have anything better to spend the health budget on at the moment.

Monday 13 July 2020

Did plain packaging work?

We haven't heard much about plain packaging for a while. I assumed that ASH et al. were happy to let everybody forget about this damp squib while they moved onto the next thing. A study published John Britton and his team of anti-smoking zealots in 2018 had to concede that the policy hadn't had the promised effect on tobacco sales:

The implementation of standardized packaging legislation in the United Kingdom, which included minimum pack sizes of 20, was associated with significant increases overall in the price of manufactured cigarettes, but no clear deviation in the ongoing downward trend in total volume of cigarette sales.

That must have stuck in the craw, but it could hardly be denied. HMRC's tobacco bulletin keeps track of tobacco sales. It shows a steep decline in (legal) cigarette sales until 2016/17, no doubt largely thanks to the emergence of e-cigarettes, after which the downward trend slowed appreciably.

For roll-you-own tobacco, sales bottomed out in 2016/17 and have since risen by 20 per cent.


It's nigh on impossible for a credible academic to turn this pig's ear into a silk purse. And so the job was left to Anna Gilmore of Bath University's Tobacco Control Research Group, which is now awash with Bloomberg cash. You may remember Gilmore as the activist-academic who claimed, falsely, that the smoking ban led to a 10 per cent fall in heart attacks.

In a study published in the risible Tobacco Control journal, she once again claims that black is white. Rob Davies at the Guardian is one of the journalists to have fallen for it.

UK tobacco sales fell faster after plain packaging rules came into force 

Cigarette sales have decreased by about 20m a month after plain packaging rules and tougher taxes were introduced three years ago, researchers have found.

Prof Anna Gilmore, director of the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG), said: “The underlying rate of decline in tobacco sales almost doubled after these policies were implemented.”
It then says:
Monthly sales were almost 3.29bn individual cigarettes in May 2015, but fell to 3.16bn in April 2018.
That is nowhere near a decline of 20 million a month. Why is May 2015 being used as the starting point anyway? Plain packs weren't in circulation until early 2017 and were not mandatory until May 2017.
The study itself claims that....

Postimplementation, the average monthly decline in stick sales was 6.4 million (95%CI 0.1million to 12.7 million) sticks faster than prelegislation, almost doubling the speed of decline.

None of this bears any relation to the truth, but the truth is whatever the 'public health' lobby wants it to be. That the study can be debunked in five minutes by anybody who is familiar with the data is besides the point. It has generated a few headlines in Britain and can be cited as evidence by campaigners abroad. And that's all that matters.

Even in a plague year, the idiots are winning

When the COVID-19 outbreak began, I expressed cautious optimism that a genuine public health epidemic would put the nanny state crusade that masquerades as a 'public health' movement back in its box for a while.

That seems less and less likely. In Britain, the government has been only too happy to blame obesity for the relatively high death toll and its preparation for the second wave amounts to telling people to lose weight. The Childhood Obesity Strategy has been dusted down for laws to make us do this.

In South Africa, tobacco and alcohol were banned at the start of lockdown in March. Alcohol was eventually relegalised, but tobacco never was. Unsurprisingly, tobacco prohibition is not an effective anti-Covid measure and South Africa has now had a resurgence of cases. The government's response? Banning alcohol again.

And there are now plans to ban smoking outside. This has always been ASH's dream, but they've never quite found the right excuse. Moves are now afoot in the House of Lords to do this under cover of coronavirus. Baroness Northover says:

“As a result of the pandemic, more and more people are spending time with friends, family and loved ones outside. We must ensure these new pavement areas can be enjoyed by all.”

Unless you smoke.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that Northover is a 'Liberal' Democrat, nor that she has been getting assistance from ASH.

Deborah Arnott, the chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said: “Making smoke-free status a condition for all pavement licences sets a level playing field for business and the public, and has strong public support, which will make it easy to enforce.”

Ah, the old 'level playing field' argument that levelled the pub industry last time it was used. I swear there are some politicians who won't be happy until the last pub closes.

PS. On the South African prohibitions, it's worth watching this interview with Willie Aucamp, a South African MP.

Thursday 9 July 2020

The Moral Maze, gambling and The Rediscovery of Tobacco

I was on The Moral Maze last night talking about gambling. It wasn't a bad discussion. I was on at round 24 minutes in.

I've also written a review of Jacob Grier's book The Rediscovery of Tobacco for Spiked.

Jacob Grier doesn’t like cigarettes. He doesn’t smoke cigarettes. He advises people against smoking cigarettes. And yet he believes that adults should be allowed to smoke cigarettes without being harassed, demonised, over-taxed and thrown out of every building in America, including, in some cases, their own home. This view, which was once so uncontroversial as to go without saying, makes him virtually a libertarian provocateur today. In The Rediscovery of Tobacco, Grier explains how this cultural revolution happened.

Check it out. And buy the book.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

The NHS is not the envy of the world

Brits were encouraged to clap for the NHS on Sunday in what the government hopes will become an annual show of devotion to a below-par health system. I hope it doesn't become a Thing. It would be embarrassing if foreigners found out about it, as I explain in The Critic today...

As the years roll on, it is possible that somebody might notice that the British are paying more than average for a below-average health service, but it is more likely that new excuses and scapegoats will be found. The public are already being primed to blame themselves for the NHS’s failings. If only we weren’t so fat and lazy, goes the message, the system would work. This is the logical conclusion to the thinking – made explicit during lockdown – that it is the public’s duty to protect the NHS rather than the other way round.

In the meantime, we will continue to applaud the idea of the NHS, worshipping a caterpillar that, for some reason, never quite became a butterfly. We will continue to view basic healthcare as a miracle of this island race, as if being born in a hospital or having one’s life saved by medicine could only happen when the state owns the infrastructure. We will continue to accept waiting four hours for emergency treatment and six months for an operation as if it would be unreasonable to expect anything better. After all, it’s free!

To the rest of the world, Britain’s infatuation with its own healthcare system is a baffling eccentricity, like those Pacific Islanders who worship the Duke of Edinburgh. But we don’t care. When it comes to healthcare, we are used to ignoring the rest of the world (except the USA). The NHS makes self-described internationalists become peculiarly parochial and narrow-minded, almost jingoistic. Insofar as we give other countries’ health systems a thought, we assume that they have either copied the NHS (may peace be upon It) or have no healthcare at all.

Do read it all. No paywall.

24 hour liberty people

The Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance & Australian Libertarian Society have put together a wonderfully ambitious 24 hour digital liberty conference which will be held this weekend.

I'll be on a panel at 11 am (UK time) and there are plenty of other speakers you will have heard of. They include Dave Rubin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bryan Caplan, Dan Hannan, Eric Crampton, Kate Andrews, Nick Gillespie, Eamonn Butler and Brendan O'Neill.

Check out the schedule and sign up here. For twenty Australian dollars, it's a bargain.


There's an access code that gives you the conference for free! Use FRIEDMANFREE

Saturday 4 July 2020

Who is John Stuart Mill?

As you might have guessed if you've read Killjoys, one of my heroes is John Stuart Mill. In the IEA's School of Thought series, I talked to Syed Kamal about why his philosophy is important and urgently needs to be revived.

Friday 3 July 2020

Boris, obesity and the nanny state

I've written about Boris Johnson's alleged death bed conversion to nanny statism for Spiked, with some background about the 'anti-obesity' policies that have been hanging around Whitehall for five years.

According to the Telegraph, Johnson has a range of measures in mind, including ‘wider use of bariatric surgery’ and ‘increasing access to exercise and healthy eating schemes’. More worryingly, there is talk of ‘banning price promotions such as “buy one, get one free” offers’. Advertising could be restricted and there is talk of a new law to ‘force restaurants, cafés and takeaways to label the calorie content of their food’.

If some of these ideas seem familiar, it’s because they have been hanging around Whitehall like a bad smell for years. In his efforts to tackle the non-existent childhood obesity epidemic, David Cameron approved a raft of nanny-state measures in 2016, including a ban on so-called ‘junk food’ advertising on television before 9pm, but he left office before a public consultation could be launched.

Most of his proposals were ditched under Theresa May, reputedly at the insistence of her adviser Fiona Hill. When a slimmed down ‘Childhood Obesity Plan’ was published in the summer of 2016, the likes of Action on Sugar screamed blue murder about the lack of bans, taxes and regulations. Cameron’s original draft was soon leaked to Channel 4, whose Dispatches programme described it as ‘the secret plan to save fat Britain’.

In the wake of the disastrous General Election campaign of 2017, Fiona Hill left government and Theresa May capitulated to the ‘public health’ lobby by resurrecting the Cameron policies in Chapter Two of the Childhood Obesity Plan, published in June 2018. A long public consultation was announced and the whole thing was forgotten about while the government grappled with Brexit. It became Boris Johnson’s problem when he replaced Theresa May in July 2019 and it has been lingering in the in-tray ever since, like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

There is a good reason why these policies have been passed from pillar to post for five years. They are terrible. It is not so much that they will annoy the Tory party’s negligible libertarian wing, but that they are ill-conceived, costly, largely unworkable and will almost certainly be ineffective. Chapter Two of the Childhood Obesity Plan is a wish-list of bone-headed ideas devised by ‘public health’ mid-wits who know nothing about business and next-to-nothing about food. They see added costs and inconvenience to consumers as a feature rather than a bug, and regard disruption to the food supply as a sign of success.

Do read the rest.

Thursday 2 July 2020

The truth about tobacco taxes from a surprising source

Thanks to exorbitant taxes, a pack of twenty cigarettes costs around $35 (£18) in New Zealand. Not quite as ludicrously expensive as in Australia, but enough to have caused an epidemic of robberies from shops.

A PhD student at New Zealand's University of Canterbury, Ben Wamamili, has proposed hiking the price to $50. I assume he has his heart set on getting into the 'public health' racket and thought this would be a good way of making his mark. 

Student smokers would be more likely to quit the habit if the price for a pack topped $50, a study has shown.

His research, such as it is, involved asking students whether they would give up smoking if cigarettes cost a certain amount. Stated preferences of this sort as worthless (my grandmother insisted that she would quit when cigarettes cost £1 a pack but never did). Apparently, 39 per cent of them said they would stop smoking if the price was hiked by another $15.

Nothing surprising about any of this. Demanding higher taxes is what anti-smoking campaigners do. The surprising thing is that New Zealand's premier anti-smoking group is against it.

Deborah Hart, director of smoke-free action group ASH NZ, said she welcomed the research but New Zealand already has the world’s highest priced cigarettes, in relation to income. 

“The people we are most interested in getting to be smoke-free are people who have the highest rates of smoking, and they tend to be in a low-socioeconomic group," she said.

"Putting up the price any further for people who are already in poverty and have a real dependence on smoking is counterproductive.

"If price was going to be the only thing that worked for that group of people, it would have worked already.”

All true, of course, but this has to be a first, no?

Wednesday 1 July 2020

Let's get back to something approaching normal

By the time the pubs reopen on July 4th, Britain will have been under various forms of lockdown for fifteen weeks. In his address to the nation on March 23rd - now more than three months ago - Boris Johnson’s sole justification for locking down was to ‘protect the NHS’. There can be no doubt that this has been achieved, albeit at enormous cost to our economy, children and sanity.

Covid-related deaths in English hospitals have fallen from a peak of over 800 a day on 8th April to less than sixty a day in recent weeks. A third of English hospitals reported no Covid-related deaths last week. The number of ‘excess deaths’ in England and Wales is now below average for this time of year.

The rest of the UK is doing even better. On Sunday, there were no deaths from COVID-19 in Northern Ireland for the first time in months. Scotland went six days without a death from COVID-19 recently, and its Covid-related hospital admissions are now in the single figures.

The documents from the SAGE meetings make it clear that the idea of a full lockdown came very late in the day. One of SAGE’s objections to banning mass gatherings was that people would simply congregate in pubs instead. It seems obvious now that this would only be a problem if the pubs were open, but the idea of the government shutting them was unthinkable, even to SAGE, until the eleventh hour.

We have done more than was reasonably expected of us for longer than we could have imagined. The original objective of the lockdown was achieved many moons ago. The NHS was never overwhelmed. The five tests that were introduced in April to justify the extension of the lockdown have now been met, including the worryingly subjective requirement that the government be ‘confident that any adjustments will not risk a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS’. Social distancing has become normalised. Scientists have discovered that Dexamethasone significantly reduces mortality. Parts of the country have achieved a measure of herd immunity. Diagnostic testing has been successfully ramped up. Fewer patients require ventilators than was originally thought. Medics have the necessary PPE. At the risk of leaving a massive hostage to fortune, there is no reason to expect a second wave to overwhelm the health service.

But that does not mean a second wave will not occur. From the outset, scientists warned that a second wave was bound to take place in the autumn and winter. Moreover, they always said that the more that is done to suppress the first wave, the greater the second wave will be. Neil Ferguson, the darling of lockdown aficionados, made this clear in his infamous report for Imperial College in mid-March, saying:

‘Introducing such interventions too early risks allowing transmission to return once they are lifted (if insufficient herd immunity has developed); it is therefore necessary to balance the timing of introduction with the scale of disruption imposed and the likely period over which the interventions can be maintained. In this scenario, interventions can limit transmission to the extent that little herd immunity is acquired – leading to the possibility that a second wave of infection is seen once interventions are lifted.’    

In light of Ferguson’s subsequent reputation as a maverick scientist speaking truth to power, it is worth noting how similar this message is to curve-flattening, sombrero-squashing rhetoric of the government at the time. Six months after COVID-19 reached our shores, we appear to be a long way from achieving herd immunity. The chances of a vaccine being developed this year are extremely remote. If the scientists are correct, we must learn to live with COVID-19. We must expect a second wave.

But we must also return to some kind of normality. Staying at home until a vaccine is developed - which may never happen - is not an option. The lockdown has already done catastrophic damage. We are likely to see four or five million people unemployed once the furlough scheme is lifted. Countless businesses will never recover. Children are having their education interrupted for six months, with those from low income households most vulnerable to being left behind.

Flattening the curve to allow the NHS to give every COVID-19 patient the care they need if one thing. Suppressing the curve indefinitely in a futile attempt to prevent anyone dying from a disease that kills people, on average, at the age of 85, is quite another.

Those who predict that the July 4th relaxations will lead to a second wave are unlikely to see their reputations tarnished. If they are right, they will look like (independent) sages. If they are wrong, nobody will remember. The people who wrongly prophesied that a second wave would result from the VE Day celebrations, or the Dominic Cummings affair, or the Black Lives Matter protests, or people going to the beach, or the partial reopening of primary schools, have not been held accountable by the media. Insofar as we remember these predictions at all, we are simply relieved, and rather encouraged, that they were wrong.

Independent SAGE, Sir David King’s assortment of political malcontents, seem to oppose every relaxation of lockdown on principle. Like Groucho Marx, whatever it is, they’re against it. They were against the full reopening of primary schools and got their way. Many health professionals, not to mention parents, now recognise that keeping schools closed until September, when almost every other country has reopened theirs, was an historic error.

Independent SAGE now opposes relaxing the two metre rule, despite most countries - and the World Health Organisation - endorsing a shorter and more practical distance. We must be thankful that the government has not capitulated on this occasion. The cultural life of the nation depends on it being dropped.

The latest excuse for putting our lives on hold is that that the UK’s system of tracking and tracing has not been perfected. It is true that the mobile phone app has been a classic government IT fiasco, but we have 25,000 people by the phone ready to do contact tracing (many of them are stood idle because there are, thankfully, not enough infections to track).

Local public health directors have repeatedly claimed that contact tracing is the job they were born to do. You may lack faith in Public Health England and their local representatives, and I can hardly blame you, but they have had years to get their pandemic planning in place and have had months to calibrate them for this disease. If they are not ready now, they never will be. If we’re going to stay locked down while we wait for these people to attain a minimum level of competence, we’ll be waiting a very long time. Frankly, we might as well wait for a vaccine.

And, to repeat, waiting for a vaccine is not an option. Doing nothing is not a plan. Being cautious with the virus is being reckless with our education, jobs and mental health. Our existence since mid-March has not been life. COVID-19 is not going away. Wash your hands, keep your distance and don’t do anything stupid. Life is returning.

[This article appeared on the Telegraph website last week]

The shamelessly corrupt W.H.O.

From the Herald...

WHO praises Scotland's 'promising' minimum alcohol pricing

The World Health Organisation has praised "robust evidence" for minimum unit pricing on alcohol, but said it must be tied to inflation for the benefits to last. 

In a report analysing the links between alcohol pricing and health, the agency said MUP is reduces health inequalities because it "effectively targets the cheap, high-strength products that drive these inequalities"

Nice of the WHO to take time out flattering the Chinese Communist Party to evaluate minimum pricing.

Except it isn't really the WHO.

Dr Peter Rice, chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) and a contributor to the WHO report, said: "We were satisfied with 50 pence as a starting point...."

SHAAP is a government-funded temperance sockpuppet that has been campaigning for minimum pricing since 2007. Why was such an obviously partisan organisation involved with an evaluation?

The WHO often doesn't name the authors of its policy-based literature, but on this occasion it has. And guess who got the gig to write this one...

The WHO Regional Office for Europe would like to thank Mr Colin Angus, who prepared this report with the assistance of Ms Naomi Gibbs, both of the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom. The WHO Regional Office for Europe would also like to thank Mr Aveek Bhattacharya, Senior Policy Analyst at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, United Kingdom, for his specific contributions and very helpful comments on the report.

Regular readers will be familiar with Colin Angus and the Sheffield University team that has been pushing minimum pricing since 2009. Angus, in particular, is a passionate proponent of the policy, although he has been known to appear in the media without his activist hat on. The whole Sheffield team is deeply invested in minimum pricing. Having produced so many models predicting that it will work, their reputation depends on it being seen to be a success. It is impossible to think of someone less impartial than Angus.

He was assisted by Aveek Bhattacharya of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, previously known as the UK Temperance Alliance, which has been the primary lobbyist for minimum pricing in England. Several other career temperance campaigners are thanked in the acknowledgements.

It goes without saying that a report authored by such people will be pro-tax and pro-minimum pricing. Sure enough, it concludes that...

There is a robust evidence base supporting its effectiveness at reducing alcohol consumption and harm, particularly in the heaviest drinkers.

This is simply untrue, and Angus has to resort to citing his own modelling studies to claim otherwise. But true or not, it is what the Dutch government - which is under illiberal new management - wants to hear. It paid for the report.

The headline from the Herald should really have said...

Minimum alcohol pricing campaigner praises Scotland's 'promising' minimum alcohol pricing

The WHO were always going to support minimum pricing and higher alcohol taxes. They have done so before. It is the sheer audacity of employing one of the most obviously biased and well known advocates of these policies to write a report about them that should worry those who think the WHO can be reformed.

There are plenty of clean skin academics who would have held their nose and written the report if the WHO had offered them enough cash. Getting "Mr Angus" to do it shows that the WHO can't even bothered to pretend. We know the WHO is corrupt and the WHO knows that we know. They just don't care.

As we have seen with the sugar tax, marking your own homework is what 'public health' does. It is a racket that has become increasingly shameless and the WHO is at the very top of it.