Monday, 12 July 2021

Newsnight's bizarre report about infant mortality

Newsnight put out a strange film last week. I'm grateful to a Twitter follower for drawing my attention to it. The title shown above ('UK babies twice as likely to die than in Europe') gives a flavour of what it was about. It began with the following claims:
Our children are dying. 
More of them are dying than they are elsewhere. 
Babies here are more than twice as likely to die than in other parts of Europe.

None of this is true, unless you define 'other parts of Europe' as the two or three best performing countries in Europe. 
The infant mortality rate in England and Wales has hovered around 3.7 per 1,000 live births for several years. The UK's rate is higher than that of most EU countries, but it is not the highest and it is certainly not twice as high as the EU average. 
 And it is below the OECD average. 

Still, the reasons for Britain's relatively high rate of infant mortality are worthy of investigation. I did a bit of research into the reasons why rates vary internationally when I wrote The Spirit Level Delusion. There are a number of factors, not all of which are immediately obvious. When people think of infant mortality, they tend to think of cot death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), but cot deaths only account for 5-10% of infant deaths in developed countries and the causes are not fully understood. There are not enough of them to explain the variance in rates internationally and rates of cot death do not vary much between rich countries anyway. 

Very low birth weights, preterm births and congenital abnormalities play a bigger part and have many causes, including the use of fertility treatments (which lead to more multiple births and more older women having babies), caesarean sections, racial differences (some ethnic groups are more likely to have preterm births and this is independent of socioeconomic factors) and intermarrying between extended families (Britain's Pakistani community has a very high rate of infant mortality and a particularly high rate of congenital abnormalities). 

Newsnight didn't mention any of these factors. Instead, it focused on 'deprivation'. Like most causes of mortality, infant mortality is more common among the poor, but what is it about socio-economic deprivation specifically that increases the risk?

Newsnight thinks it has the answer: smoking. It then proceeded to talk about smoking, and nothing but smoking, for the next ten minutes. No other factor was mentioned. 
Smoking is a well established risk factor for low birth weight. Newsnight embellished this with the more dubious claim that passive smoking is also a risk factor. But it failed to mention the important and obvious point that the UK has one of the lowest smoking rates in Europe and, therefore, its above-average rate of infant mortality cannot be explained by smoking. 

The item focused on the government's arbitrary target of getting the maternal smoking rate below 6% by 2022. It doesn't look like this is going to be met, but the current rate does not seem to be particularly high by European standards

In short, the UK has a remarkably low smoking rate, an unexceptional maternal smoking rate and has had one of the toughest smoking bans in the world since 2007. Nothing in the data suggests that smoking is behind the variance in infant mortality rates internationally and it wouldn't explain the UK having an exceptionally high infant mortality rate, which it doesn't anyway.

You don't have to be in favour of people smoking around babies to wonder what Newsnight is playing at here. A clue was provided when the reporter mentioned that its report was influenced by "an analysis from anti-smoking charity ASH passed to Newsnight". ASH's Deborah Arnott was wheeled out to call for more funding for anti-smoking projects and the plea for more 'public health' funding was echoed by tobacco prohibitionist Greg Fell (who has darkened the doorstep of this blog before). 

Is this what it was all about - an elaborate attempt to help special interests get more money from the taxpayer? Whatever the reason, it is sad to see Newsnight misrepresenting the evidence so egregiously to build a case for a nonsensical hypothesis.

No comments: