Friday 29 January 2021

Policing the COPs

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Vaping is holding an inquiry into the Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings held by the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. If you hurry, you can send a submission (it closes on 1 February).

The meetings are notoriously secretive and undemocratic. The photo above shows me as close as I've ever got to one. I have written before about the shenanigans at COP6 (in Moscow), COP7 (in Delhi) and COP8 (in Geneva)

This is what I sent to the inquiry...

I welcome the APPG’s inquiry and I hope it will be able to shine some light on this murky issue. In my view, the FCTC Secretariat and the COP meetings are not fit for purpose and have become a threat to global health. In their relentless opposition to vaping and other reduced risk products, they are failing to practise tobacco control by their own definition (Article 1(d) of the FCTC says ‘“tobacco control” means a range of supply, demand and harm reduction strategies that aim to improve the health of a population by eliminating or reducing their consumption of tobacco products and exposure to tobacco smoke’).  

The approach of the WHO/FCTC/COP towards e-cigarettes is almost diametrically opposed to that of the UK. The British government provides a vastly disproportionate amount of funding to the FCTC and gets nothing useful in return. The COP meetings are used by the WHO to encourage damaging regulation and prohibition which has the effect of discouraging smokers from quitting. The UK should send a delegation of strong supporters of evidence-based policy and harm reduction to COP9 and should withdraw funding from the FCTC if the WHO continues to discourage this form of smoking cessation.

I am sure you will receive many submissions from individuals and organisations complaining about the WHO’s approach to tobacco harm reduction and offering solutions. I would like to draw the APPG’s attention to another aspect of the issue. The FCTC Conference of the Party meetings are notoriously secretive and non-transparent. The public and the press are routinely excluded from the conference at an early stage without a vote being taken from delegates. But there is also a covert element to the UK’s approach to the COP meetings that I would like to focus on in this submission.

The government has never disclosed the names of its delegates to COP8 (or any other COP, to my knowledge). We know that four people attended last time, one of whom was Deborah Arnott from the pressure group Action on Smoking and Health. Thanks to a Freedom of Information request, we know that one of the other delegates was based in Geneva. It is possible that this was Andrew Black, formerly of the Department of Health and now of the WHO. We know that Mr Black attended COP7 in Delhi with Deborah Arnott.

This is only speculation, however. Thanks to a Freedom of Information request I submitted last year (which I can share with the APPG if it would be useful), we know that one of the delegates was Dr Tim Baxter, Deputy Director of Healthy Behaviours at the Department of Health. The names of the other three delegates have been ‘withheld under Section 40(2) of the FOIA, which provides for the protection of personal information’.

Why the secrecy? Why can’t the public be told of the identity of the people who are representing them, at the taxpayers’ expense, at an international conference? Why is the Chief Executive of an ostensibly independent pressure group (ASH) part of a government delegation? What is the nomination process, what are the criteria for attending, how does one put one’s name forward and who decides who gets the golden ticket?

I hope the APPG can get to the bottom of these questions. The process of selecting delegates should be transparent and open to anyone who wishes to attend. The names of delegates should be made public from the outset and an account of what they did at the conference - including what they objected to and voted on - should be made public. This is the least we should expect from those who are representing us at our expense.

Thursday 28 January 2021

New Last Orders episode

There's a new episode of Last Orders with Timandra Harkness back as our guest. We discussed Big Tech, internet censorship, lockdowns, vaccines and sin taxes. Listen here.

Speaking of sin taxes, I'll be on a panel for the Austrian Economics Center tonight at 5pm (UK time) talking about the war on sugar, salt and fat. It'll be on Zoom and you can join it here.

Friday 22 January 2021

Prohibition still doesn't work

I see that Australia's policy of charging the thick end of £20 for a pack of cigarettes is going as well as ever...

The founder of Border Force's illegal tobacco squad says one in five cigarettes smoked in Australia is illegal and demand has spawned a smuggling trade worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year, with a recent record-breaking case in Western Australia.

This week two cousins, Omar and Khaled Hussein, were jailed for four years and 10 months each, with parole, by a Perth District Court after trying to smuggle $8.5 million worth of illegal cigarettes into Fremantle Port on October 31, 2018.

This is the biggest consignment of illicit tobacco Australian authorities have ever intercepted. So far.
The Australian Border Force only seizes a fraction of the tobacco being illegal imported and grown in the country, but they still seize a lot...

The ABF seized more than 177 tonnes of loose-leaf tobacco and 422 million cigarettes in the 2019/20 financial year, with the duty evaded totalling some $611 million.

Mr Pike said increased cigarette prices had also generated a corresponding increase in criminals stealing cigarettes, which have become "as expensive as silver", to sell on the booming black market.

A series of robberies across Victorian service stations in recent months have targeted cigarettes, which are likely sold on the black market, with Mr Pike saying more robberies will happen as cigarettes rise in price.

He said halting the rise in cigarette prices was "one of the obvious measures" the government could take to curb the black market and slow thefts.

Obvious, yes, but the government won't do it because they're bewitched by 'public health' lobbyists who deny any connection between neo-prohibitionist policies and neo-prohibitionist outcomes.
The sentencing of these men follows a bust of an illegal tobacco farm in New South Wales last week...
Australian Border Force raided a property in Bulga yesterday, seizing 50.3 tonnes of illegal tobacco, worth $9.9 million dollars and arresting a 33 year old man from Sydney.

The tobacco was being grown over two hectares, with almost another hectare of seedlings, all of which was seized and destroyed.

Things aren't much better in New Zealand where a pack of tabs is nearly as expensive.

Tax increases on tobacco products have been a key plank in the Government’s efforts to make the country smoke-free, resulting in New Zealanders paying some of the heftiest cigarette prices in the world.

The inflated cost of smokes hasn’t gone unnoticed by overseas crime groups as Customs officers make record tobacco seizures at the border.

“New Zealand pays a really high price for drugs [and] it pays a really high price for tobacco,” Customs investigations manager Bruce Berry​ said.

“We’ve seen a dramatic move from organised crime ... into moving of tobacco products.

“We predicted that this would be coming because of the prices that we’re paying.”

In July, Customs intercepted 2.2 million cigarettes hidden inside stacks of metal frames exported from Malaysia. At the time it was the largest tobacco seizure in a single shipment.

That amount, however, was surpassed in early August when 2.39 million cigarettes were intercepted, hidden inside construction materials. A third shipment of 2.31 cigarettes was intercepted by Customs officers in late August.

This compares to only 585,917 cigarettes and cigars being intercepted at New Zealand’s borders in 2016.

Still, it's all worth it if it makes smokers poorer, eh?

Meanwhile, the world of 'tobacco control' was very excited to see South Africa temporarily ban the sale of tobacco (and e-cigarettes - and alcohol) last year. A study in Tobacco Control was published this week looking at the consequences. Based on an online survey, which seems to be the primary methodology in pretend 'public health' these days, it found that prohibition doesn't work. Who knew? 

About 9% of prelockdown smokers in the sample successfully quit smoking. 93% of continuing smokers purchased cigarettes despite the sales ban. The average price of cigarettes increased by 250% relative to prelockdown prices. Most respondents purchased cigarettes through informal channels.

These results do not deter the authors from supporting 'endgame strategies' (a euphemism for prohibition). Like Marxists retrospectively concluding that Russia wasn't ready for communism, they argue that South Africa wasn't ready for prohibition because the 'demand-side preconditions for an effective sales ban were not in place'. In other words, there were too many smokers. 
They also say that there were problems on the supply side, ie. there was a large black market.
But apart from that, prohibition is a great idea! So long as you can stop people wanting to buy the product and stop other people selling the product, there's no problem.

Tuesday 19 January 2021

Lockdown science, social science and anti-science

I've written a little something for the Spectator about happiness research and the effect of COVID-19 and lockdowns on wellbeing. Have a read. 

I've also written something longer about the crackpots on the fringes of the lockdown debate who have decided that it's better to pretend that there is no problem than to handle painful trade offs. At Quillette here.

Thursday 14 January 2021

The World Health Organisation gets tough... on alcohol

There might be pandemic but that's not going to stop the World Health Organisation getting down to what it sees as the real business of lifestyle regulation. 

Late last year, the WHO launched a public consultation on its draft Global Alcohol Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol. It is not obvious that the WHO needs to have an alcohol strategy at all, let alone that it should be focusing on one in the middle of a pandemic. National governments are quite capable of deciding how alcoholic drinks are taxed and regulated without pressure from a UN agency. Some countries allow you to buy a beer at any time day or night. Others have total prohibition. The enormous differences in the way governments around the world treat alcohol make it an unlikely candidate for global regulation, but the World Health Organisation wants to have a go anyway.

The WHO has had a Global Alcohol Strategy since 2010. This is the updated version and there is a striking change in tone that reveals a shift towards a temperance mentality. Although the strategy is supposed to be about reducing alcohol-related harm, the approach is more about reducing alcohol consumption per se, with total abstinence portrayed as the ideal.

This should concern the world’s drinkers. The WHO has no regulatory power as such, but its alcohol strategy will eventually be formally endorsed by member states and anti-alcohol activists will use it to pressure governments into honouring their ‘commitments’.

Unlike the current Global Strategy, the working document makes very few references to informal and illicit alcohol, and there is little acknowledgement of the dangers of excessive taxation and regulation in fostering their production. By the WHO’s own estimate, 25 per cent of the world’s alcohol is sourced illicitly or informally. In countries such as Mexico and Russia, more than a third of all alcohol consumed is illicit, and the proportion exceeds 50 per cent in many African countries. This is a major source of criminality and tax evasion, as well as being hazardous to health. Unregulated ‘moonshine’ and surrogate alcohol causes many preventable deaths each year. In Iran, over 700 people died after drinking methanol between February and April 2020. In Punjab, India, 86 people died in July after drinking bootleg alcohol from illegal distilleries. Spates of alcohol poisonings are now commonplace, particularly in India.

By any measure, global consumption of contraband and counterfeit alcohol is unacceptably high. A key aim of policy should be to bring it down to the trivial levels seen in many western countries. Although the WHO claims that there is an ‘inherent contradiction between the interests of alcohol producers and public health’, many parts of the world would benefit from having greater access to regulated alcohol products. Rather than treating the legitimate drinks industry as the enemy, the WHO should want it to increase its market share at the expense of unregulated producers.

The key drivers of illicit alcohol consumption are state corruption, lack of availability (including prohibition) and lack of affordability (typically driven by taxation). Black markets tend to be more common in poorer countries. Supply side measures aimed at raising prices, banning advertising and restricting availability can, by their nature, only hope to deter consumption of legal, regulated alcohol which, in turn, stimulates demand for illegal substitutes.

It is therefore unfortunate that the WHO document contains the crude recommendation that member states ‘raise prices on alcohol through excise taxes and other pricing policies’. Differentials in price between licit and illicit products are among the key drivers of black market activity, and governments will be understandably reluctant to introduce taxes which lose them revenue. Taxes on alcohol should reflect the external costs associated with consumption and no more.

The working paper even raises the spectre of a global alcohol tax, saying: ‘Consideration should be given to an intergovernmental commitment to a global tax on alcohol to support this effort, with the use of the money raised to be governed internationally.’ It is difficult to imagine an inter-governmental organisation being better placed to spend alcohol duty revenues than member states. Alcohol taxes are raised, in part, to meet costs to public services created by excess alcohol consumption. Healthcare, prevention, rehabilitation and other such public services can only be provided at the local or national level. An inter-governmental body would not have the reach or infrastructure to spend tax revenues on the appropriate services.

Blurring the distinction between use and harmful use, the WHO complains that ‘no tangible progress was made in reducing total global alcohol consumption per capita’ between 2010 and 2018, as if that were the relevant metric. The draft strategy includes a target of reducing per capita alcohol consumption by a certain percentage (yet to be decided) by 2025 and 2030. Tellingly, there is no such target for alcohol-related deaths and disease, nor for heavy episodic drinking.

Per capita consumption is irrelevant if harm declines and there is no reason to assume that a reduction in per capita consumption will necessarily lead to a reduction in alcohol-related harm. The WHO should recognise that alcohol can be consumed safely and that moderate consumption has health benefits. The focus should be on alcohol-related harm, not alcohol consumption per se.

Implicit in the suggestion of launching a ‘World No Alcohol Day’ is the idea that zero alcohol consumption is the ideal. The similarity to World No Tobacco Day is probably no coincidence and is one of several examples of the working document conflating the risks of smoking with the risks of drinking. Elsewhere, it raises the prospect of ‘a global normative law on alcohol at the intergovernmental level, modelled on the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control’. The next draft of the document should make it clear that alcohol is not tobacco and the two should not be regulated in the same way. The WHO has got enough on its plate without becoming a cheerleader for prohibition.

Cross-posted from the Epicenter blog.

Monday 11 January 2021

It's time to go Israeli on the virus

I wrote for the Sunday Telegraph about how to roll out the vaccine and end the nightmare.

We cannot afford for the sclerotic NHS and the hopeless Public Health England (PHE) to screw up again. We give 15 million people a flu jab every year. Israel has already vaccinated 60 per cent of its priority groups, despite administering its first jab 11 days after we did. We are not talking about the D-Day landings here, but we should treat it as a military operation none the less.

This is an all-hands-to-the-pump logistical challenge that requires innovative thinking, agility and rapid decision-making, none of which is second nature to the NHS. Army personnel have been brought in by Matt Hancock to assist with the roll‑out. He should go further and involve the Royal Logistics Corps in setting up large, drive-through vaccination centres, as the Israelis have done. While he’s at it he should get the Royal Army Medical Corps to run some of them and the regular infantry to give injections.

Red tape is already being cut, but it needs to be slashed further. It is absurd that retired medics are being turned away for having too few A-levels. Teaching some of the millions of people on furlough how to give an injection would also be a good idea. There is no excuse for understaffing when so many people are being paid to do nothing.

If companies such as Brewdog want to turn their pubs into vaccination centres, the Government should bite their hand off, especially since they have large refrigerators ready for use. There can be no repeat of last spring when PHE reputedly refused to return calls from the private sector.


Friday 8 January 2021

Looking forward to 2021?

Light blogging this week as things are quiet on the nanny state front. That's unusual as early January is normally when they go hell for leather. Be thankful for small mercies.

For now, I'll leave you with a discussion between a few of us at the IEA about what 2021 holds. As always, I am the ray of sunshine.


Monday 4 January 2021

'Public health' group sides with the virus

Brewdog recently announced that it would be allowing some of its bars to be turned into vaccination centres for free. A pretty helpful gesture during a public health crisis, I'm sure you'll agree. More than a gesture, in fact. A tangible and useful action.

However, state-funded legacy 'public health' groups disagree...

They could have left it at the first two sentences or simply not commented at all, but they couldn't resist. They had to remind us that neo-puritans masquerading as public health experts are not only irrelevant to public health but are actively opposed to public health.

This will not come as news to regular readers, but it's nice of them to get the message out to a wider audience. 

I can't really improve on this response...

See here for some information about SPECTRUM and its £5.9 million budget, and click here for further examples of them criticising businesses for helping to fight COVID-19 while they do diddly squat.

Saturday 2 January 2021

Remember the economy?

Happy new year!

I've written an article for the Spectator about the dreadful state of the economy in 2021 and what the government can do to avert total catastrophe.

Check it out.