Thursday 30 December 2021

Goodbye, 2021

It's time to bid 2021 a fond good riddance and hope for better days ahead. It feels like it passed quickly, but looking back on the year's blog posts I'm reminded that a lot went on.

COVID-19 obviously dominated events, with the UK in some form of lockdown for most of the first six months. By January, the 'lockdown sceptics' movement had moved on from asking whether lockdowns were worth the trouble to denying that they had any benefit at all. I debated this with Toby Young. The second wave had destroyed most of their claims from 2020, but they carried on regardless, getting crazier and crazier. Within a few months, many of them had gone full anti-vax. Meanwhile, the Covid modellers jumped the shark with some predictions - sorry, projections - that defied belief and the legacy public health establishment told us of their plight during lockdown..

In April, the 2021 Nanny State Index was published, once again edited by my good self.

In Scotland, study after study found that minimum pricing wasn't doing what it said on the tin. The response of the temperance lobby was to demand more minimum pricing.

Dozens of studies found that smokers were about half as likely to get SARS-CoV-2 than nonsmokers. For some reason, people in 'public health' were not very keen on this discovery and did everything they could to ignore and downplay it. The BMJ published a scurrilous, Bloomberg-funded hit piece on some of the scientists who had done research in this area and a dodgy study based on Mendelian Randomisation was given excessive publicity as it was virtually the only piece of research suggesting that the protective effect did not exist.

The WHO continued its horribly misguided war on vaping and the European Commission geared up for another assault on vapers. Thanks largely to the misinformation campaign of Mike Bloomberg and the WHO, public understanding of the relative risks of smoking and vaping have been going backwards.

It continued to be open season on gambling. I wrote a report for the IEA looking at the facts and discussing some of the prohibitions being proposed by the anti-gambling lobby.

For The Critic, I wrote about the fantasy of achieving 'Net Zero' by 2050 and explained why the childhood obesity epidemic only exists on paper

For City AM, I wrote about the slippery slope, status quo bias, the base rate fallacy, and the horribly high price some people have to pay for sin taxes.

In June, ASH published their latest set of anti-smoking demands. They were really scraping the barrel by now. New Zealand went further and announced a form of tobacco prohibition. What could go wrong?

In happier news, Public Health England was disbanded and A.G. Barr completed its reverse ferret by putting the full-sugar Irn-Bru 1901 on the market permanently. I have tried it and I approve.

The government announced that it would revise the UK's alcohol duty system, partly inspired by a proposal I made in an IEA paper several years ago.

Finally, I reviewed the new Beatles film, Get Back, Stanton Glantz got some much-needed critical media coverage, and best of all, I got to interview Ronnie O'Sullivan.

I hope you've had a good Christmas. Thanks for reading and commenting. See you in 2022.

Thursday 16 December 2021

The psychology of the slippery slope

My City AM column today looks at the slippery slope.

'I don’t think this is a big step or a slippery slope', Dominic Raab said on Tuesday when asked about the introduction of Covid-19 passes. This will come as news to the people of Italy, New Zealand and several other countries where normal life is now impossible without proof of two jabs.

In Austria, the government started with vaccine passports and then moved on to a lockdown for the unvaccinated, with plans for mandatory vaccination in a few months.

Slippery slope arguments are often used by people who fear that an unwelcome precedent is being set by a new policy, such as assisted dying or laws banning “hate speech”. Such arguments are generally seen as logical fallacies. If Policy A is implemented, there is nothing inevitable about it leading to Policy B or Policy C. Each policy should be taken on its own merits. 

But while slippery slopes might not be inevitable, setting a precedent can open Pandora’s Box. There are plenty of examples of campaigns increasing in size and scope in a way that was not envisaged by those who started them. Last week, New Zealand’s government announced plans to gradually ban the sale of cigarettes, a policy that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago but is now portrayed as the “next logical step” after indoor smoking bans, plain packaging and the rest. In the UK, advertisements for so-called junk food will soon be banned after campaigners portrayed sugar as “the new tobacco”.

Do read the rest. I argue that there are several reasons why setting a precedent tends to create the circumstances in which regulation becomes a runaway train, regardless of the intentions of those who started it. 

There is a small economics literature about this. In the article I mention this study by Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman. It is essential reading for anyone interested in this area of political economy.
... it is misleading to say that “we” are capable of making correct decisions in the future. The process by which arguments are accepted and decisions made is a social one that derives from the decisions of many individuals. No single decision-maker can control the evolution of the discussion. The person who makes an SSA [slippery slope argument] does not necessarily claim that the listener himself will be the perpetrator of the future bad decision. Rather, he draws attention to the structure of discussion that will shape the decisions of many decision-makers involved in a social process. 
The consequence of this is that you can end up with a package of policies that very few people fully agree with.

It is a well-known fact that if a majority approves of policy A, and a majority also approves policy B, it does not follow that a majority would also approve the union of A and B. The reason is that the majorities supporting the separate policies may not be the same. If 51 percent support A and 51 percent support B, it is possible that as few as 2 percent support both. This fact may not be terribly relevant for our purposes if policies A and B are totally unrelated, but it takes on special significance if the policies are logically or practically related. If that is so, then separate validation of the two policies could result in an overall “coherent” policy outcome that would not itself be validated and could constitute an SSE [slippery slope event]. 

... Separate implementation of the two policies, under the assumptions, leads to an outcome desired only by a small fraction of the public.

I would add that in the field of paternalistic 'public health', there is an element of divide and conquer. Smokers are a minority. Vapers and a minority. Heavy consumers of alcohol and sugary drinks are a minority. Vapers might approve of smoking bans. Consumers of sugary drinks might approve of sin taxes on alcohol. But if their support for such policies leads to vaping bans and sugary drinks taxes, they would probably not approve of the full package.

That's what people need to remember when consider penalising other groups, especially when they are in a minority themselves. The nanny state will come for us all eventually.

Tuesday 14 December 2021

Were 'public health' busybodies the real victims of COVID-19?

In February, we saw the first fruits of the £500,000 of taxpayers money given to Niamh Fitzgerald and her little temperance chums by the Scottish government. The grant was to investigate the impact of the pandemic and the associated restrictions on alcohol consumption and the night time economy. It was always pretty obvious that they would look favourably on anything that restricted people's ability to drink alcohol and the findings of their first study did not come as a surprise.

A team of Scottish researchers examined Covid-19 measures in licensed premises last summer and found some worrying "pinch points" which could see the infection spread.

They say blanket closures, curfews or alcohol sale bans could be more likely to be deemed necessary to control the spread.

Their findings will inform governments, public health experts and policymakers in the UK and overseas as they consider the impact of the pandemic on hospitality and the risks of lifting restrictions.

Fitzgerald et al. returned this week with another study - again based on interviews - which contains moments of inadvertent humour. In particular, it gives an insight into the day-to-day work of local 'public health professionals' who were the real victims of COVID-19 because they were hampered in their ability to interfere with pubs and clubs.

Some public health actors had to withdraw from their work on alcohol licensing to focus on pandemic-related work, halting partnership work with other licensing stakeholders.

How awful for them. Being required to work on an actual public health problem for the first time in their career must have come as a shock.

One public health actor raised concerns on this basis, suggesting that new licensing applications/proposed variations to existing licenses might not be given the same level of scrutiny from a public health perspective.

It doesn't bear thinking about, does it? Imagine if a pub could extend its beer garden without some purse-lipped busbybody from 'public health' raising spurious objections.

Second, several stakeholders expressed concern about relaxation of licensing regulations, which they feared might not fully reversed.

This is what keeps them up at night.

A national decision was taken in England to permit licensed premises forced to close during the lockdown to sell takeaway alcohol, resulting in ‘people wandering around the street with, you know, plastic pint pots, which is what they’re allowed to do now’.

Pray for them.

This was reportedly done without consultation and experienced as ‘pulling the rug out from under’ (undermining) local licensing stakeholders.

The horror. The horror.
We should remember that the context of this 'relaxation of licensing regulations' was the on and off closure of all pubs, bars, restaurants and clubs for over a year, curfews, the rule of six, stupid nonsense about Scotch eggs and a ban on the sale of alcohol indoors (in Scotland for a while). 

It was an extremely difficult time for people in the licensed trade and 'public health' troughers begrudged every attempt they made to stay in business.

As businesses reopened following the first UK lockdown, interviewees reported that multiple licences were granted to permit the sale of alcohol for consumption in areas outside premises.

They were banned from serving alcohol indoors! What else were they supposed to do?
Licensing team members explained that the volume of such applications meant they were unable to visit premises prior to applications being considered as they normally would do.

Did this cause any problems? The study doesn't mention any so perhaps these people are a waste of space.

Another raised concern about expansion in availability through outdoor drinking when premises re-opened because ‘especially just now...everybody’s needing to turn everything in to a beer garden just to keep the business going, you know, with social distancing etc.’.

So what??

The study also interviews people in the ambulance service, one of whom recalls lockdown fondly:

‘It’s so nice to go to work on a Friday night knowing that you don’t have to go into pubs and clubs... it’s made a huge difference.’

How lovely for them!

The authors of the study conclude with some concerns that people might continue drinking outside pubs when the pandemic ends - because that's been the real issue of the last two years, hasn't it? 

It may be difficult to reverse outdoor licences granted during the pandemic, even when physical distancing is no longer required...

Who cares? What's wrong with drinking outside?

A shift towards outdoor drinking renders alcohol consumption (and any related drunkenness) more visible, including to children and people in recovery from alcohol problems who may be passing by.

Think of the children!

However, they don't like people drinking at home either, and for the same reason.

Drinking (or drunkenness) at home is more visible to children than drinking by adults in bars/pubs where children are not permitted.

It's almost as if they don't approve of drinking at all, isn't it?

Overall, it seems likely that the closure of licensed premises led to net reductions in the burden of alcohol-related harm on emergency services, even with a shift to home drinking, but that this was relatively short-lived.

Strangely, the authors omit to mention the massive rise in alcohol-related deaths that took place in 2020 when all these restrictions were in place.

So maybe having pubs and clubs open, with or without beer gardens, isn't quite the public health problem we've been led to believe? 
Nevertheless, they conclude:

It is timely to consider whether economic prosperity in the NTE [night-time economy] must rely on alcohol and whether there is a third way or ‘sweet spot’ approach via policies which transform and build the NTE to prioritise other forms of entertainment, food, music or more family-friendly environments.

No, there isn't. Go away.

Saturday 11 December 2021

A million cases a day by Christmas?

On the day Boris Johnson announced 'Plan B' (8 December), the Telegraph ran this story:

Omicron Covid cases could soon exceed one million a day, says Sajid Javid

Omicron cases could exceed one million a day by the end of this month, on the current trajectory, the Health Secretary has said.

My immediate assumption was that the journalist had misunderstood and that Javid had said that England could have had a million cases of Omicron in total by the end of the month. It seemed impossible that the Health Minister would say something as crazy as one million infections per day.
But when I looked at the full quote from Javid's speech to Parliament, it seemed pretty clear that the Telegraph's interpretation was the right one.

"Although there are only 568 confirmed Omicron cases in the UK we know that the actual number of infections will be significantly higher.

"The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) estimates that the number of infections are approximately 20 times higher than the number of confirmed cases, and so the current number of infections is probably closer to 10,000.

"UKHSA also estimate that at the current observed doubling rate of between two and a half and three days, by the end of this month, infections could exceed 1 million."

This is an insane way to make a projection and it produces a result that defies belief. If there were one million infections per day in the UK, the daily infection rate would be 14,700 per million! To my knowledge, there has never been a disease which spreads this quickly. Certainly, COVID-19 has never spread this quickly. 

If we look at the countries that have had the biggest waves, the peaks were a fraction of this.

Admittedly, these countries brought some of these waves under control with restrictions (although less so with Delta after vaccines became available), but if we look at countries which had major waves without lockdowns, we see that they eventually subsided without reaching a peak of anything like 14,700 per million. It is important to note that Brazil and India were not testing anywhere near as much as European countries so the figures below are major underestimates. The actual peak in India, for example, was almost certainly ten or fifteen times times higher than shown here. Nevertheless, once you make a realistic estimate adjusting for under-counting, these countries all had very high rates of infection of perhaps 2,000-3,000 per million per day, maybe even 4,000 per million, but nothing like the 14,700 per million implicitly predicted by Javid.

Slightly confusingly, Javid talked about one million cases, but he was actually referring to one million infections. In the UK, testing picks up approximately 50 per cent of infections, so if we have 50,000 new cases in a day, we actually have around 100,000 new cases. Assuming testing could keep up with the tsunami of infections projected by Javid (which it wouldn't), we would be reporting 500,000 cases by the end of the month. Whichever way you look at it, the infection rate would be ten times higher than it has ever been in Britain and many times higher than it has ever been anywhere.
In January 2021, case numbers peaked in the UK at 900 per million. In practice, infections peaked at around 1,800 per million. Without vaccines, this was not good, and without the lockdown it would surely have risen further, but evidence from the rest of the world suggests that it would have reached a ceiling long before it got to 14,700 per million. Why? There are various reasons, but partly because the number of susceptible people falls as the number of infected people rises, and partly because people take more of an effort to protect themselves when the virus is rampant. You don't get steep exponential growth for more than a few weeks although you can have high rates for months, as the UK has shown since July.

So how the hell does the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) arrive at a figure of one million infections per month? They published their findings yesterday and they are a joke. First, they estimate that the growth rate of Omicron in the UK was 0.35 (ie. 35%) between 20 November and 5 December. This is a doubling time of two and half days.

Second, they assume that this growth will continue at the same rate until Christmas.
Voila! A million new infections per day by Christmas Eve (not even New Year's Eve!) If anything, Javid downplayed the figures. By the end of the month, this calculation suggests there will be seven million infections per day! (This seems to be a projection for England so the implied daily infection rate would actually be 17,857 per million, not 14,700 per million. Even crazier.)
UKHSA call this modelling. It is not. Modelling requires some realistic assumptions. This is simplistic and pointless mathematics. The UKHSA 'model' explicitly ignores all the factors that would have an impact on the spread of the virus. 
This trajectory does not account for possible changes in behaviour in response to high prevalence of the virus. 

  1. The path of modelled future infections is highly sensitive to the assumed doubling time over the modelled period.

The assumed doubling time is 2.5 days. If you assume that this will be constant, the graph above can be drawn up in a few minutes using mental arithmetic. But there is no reason to think it will.
Firstly, the apparent growth rate of a virus in its early stages tends to be higher than it becomes in the medium to long term. In the first days and weeks, surge testing finds asymptomatic cases who would otherwise be missed. Intensive contact tracing has the same effect. When a virus is brought in from abroad, an infected traveller is likely to encounter more people than average because they are going to a conference, a wedding, a business meeting or whatever. 
Secondly, we can already see from South Africa that the very high growth rate seen in late November and early December is not being maintained. Daily cases are shown below (virtually all of them are Omicron).  

26/11: 2,828
27/11: 3,220
28/11: 2,858
29/11: 2,273
30/11: 4,373
1/12: 8,561 
2/12: 11,535 
3/12: 16,055 
4/12: 16,356 
5/12: 11,125 
6/12: 6,381 
7/12: 13,143
8/12: 19,842
9/12: 22,391
10/12: 19,018
The usual caveats apply to testing and the weekend effect, but it seems that the number of daily cases rose roughly four of five-fold between 28 November and 4 December, a doubling time of about two days. Since then, unless some very big numbers are announced in the next few days, the doubling time has greatly slowed down. 

The UKHSA 'model' is worthless, but what are politicians supposed to do when they are presented with a graph which shows them, in effect, that the UK is heading towards an unprecedented outbreak of disease? If they ignored it, they would be accused of being anti-scientific neanderthals. But it should have been ignored because it is garbage.

Instead, the figure of a million infections by the end of January is cited in the House of Commons and reported by the media as if it were a plausible - nay, likely - outcome unless the government acts immediately. It was, to a large extent, the justification for Plan B.

This is not good enough. Omicron is a worrying variant. It is likely to spread rapidly and become the dominant strain in the next few weeks. Two doses of the vaccines seem to offer little protection against symptomatic disease (although UKHSA note that protection against severe disease and death 'is likely to be substantially higher than the estimates against symptomatic disease' and boosters seem highly effective against the lot).
The situation is concerning enough without idiotic junk science exaggerating the threat.

Thursday 9 December 2021

Tobacco prohibition coming to New Zealand

New Zealand's irritating prime minister Jacinda Ardern has made it very clear that she is running a two-tier country when it comes to Covid vaccinations. Part of her legacy will be to create a two-tier society for smokers too. From 2027, most adults will be allowed to buy cigarettes but younger adults won't. Eventually, old adults will be allowed to buy cigarettes but middle-aged people won't.

As Reuters reports:

New Zealand plans to ban young people from ever buying cigarettes in their lifetime in one of the world's toughest crackdowns on the tobacco industry, arguing that other efforts to extinguish smoking were taking too long.

Note that way that this is framed as a crackdown on the tobacco industry rather than on ordinary men and women who enjoy smoking. It is a conceit has served the anti-smoking lobby well for many years.

People aged 14 and under in 2027 will never be allowed to purchase cigarettes in the Pacific country of five million, part of proposals unveiled on Thursday that will also curb the number of retailers authorised to sell tobacco and cut nicotine levels in all products.

"We want to make sure young people never start smoking so we will make it an offence to sell or supply smoked tobacco products to new cohorts of youth," New Zealand Associate Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall said in a statement.

But its not just cohorts of youth, is it? It's entire generations until eventually full prohibition is achieved.

And let's be honest, it's not going to take 100 years. The government won't wait for the oldest cohort of smokers to die before they ban everybody from smoking. It's "the next logical step", innit? The ultimate "level playing field".

The restrictions would then be rolled out in stages from 2024, beginning with a sharp reduction in the number of authorised sellers, followed by reduced nicotine requirements in 2025 and the creation of the "smoke-free" generation from 2027.

So they're going to take the nicotine out of cigarettes too? A ludicrous harm maximisation approach that will put boosters under the black market that will inevitably emerge. 
You don't need me to tell you that prohibition never ends well. The last government that tried to ban smoking was ISIS. Before that, the only place where the sale of cigarettes was banned was Bhutan, but that prohibition ended in 2020 because tobacco smugglers were bringing Covid-19 into the country.

New Zealand’s proposal is slightly more sophisticated, but it will lead to the same problems of criminality and corruption that always occur when governments try to ban popular products. Its exorbitant tobacco taxes have already resulted in an epidemic of shop robberies and other crime. 

Incidentally, what about tourists - assuming New Zealand ever opens it borders again?

...the Dairy and Business Owners Group, a lobby group for local convenience stores, said while it supported a smoke-free country, the government's plan would destroy many businesses.

"This is all 100 per cent theory and zero per cent substance," the group's chairman, Sunny Kaushal, told "There's going to be a crime wave. Gangs and criminals will fill the gap with ciggie houses alongside tinnie houses."

Well, quite. 

New Zealand has done well in dampening demand for cigarettes by encouraging the use of e-cigarettes. Youth smoking is now at very low levels. The government should continue to focus on demand-side policies and not be diverted by destructive supply-side measures for which there is no economic or ethical justification.

But then it was always about prohibition for the 'public health' lobby. It always was and it always will be. Bear that in mind when you see campaigners borrowing the rhetoric and policies of the anti-smoking lobby when crusading against sugar, meat, alcohol and gambling. 

My thoughts on Plan B

At the Spectator...

Despite consulting the jeremiads at Sage, there was simply not enough evidence to cobble together at short notice to justify the sudden change of gear. Poor old Chris Whitty was wheeled out to do his thing and for the first time in the pandemic found himself calling for tough new restrictions while standing next to graphs showing declining hospitalisations and deaths.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Sajid Javid resorted to ‘Disco Stu’ mathematics to justify his extraordinary claim that the UK was heading towards one million cases of Covid a day by the end of this month. He said that if there were 10,000 cases of Omicron in the country (only 568 have been confirmed) and if the numbers double every two or three days, a million cases per day would be the result. This would be far beyond anything seen in the most Covid-ravaged parts of the world since the pandemic began. Moreover, rates are no longer doubling every two or three days in the Gauteng province of South Africa where Omicorn was first discovered.

In 2020, Covid policy was often based on reasonable worst case scenarios. It now seems to be based on insane nightmare scenarios.

'A European Union for Health'

MEPs are voting on an aspect of the BECA Beating Can Plan later today. It has been described as ‘the first step towards a European Union for Health’. Most of the policy recommendations are fairly sensible but a few nanny state proposals have inevitably wormed their way in. 

I've written about it for Brussels Reports...

Many of the ideas in the draft Beating Cancer Plan, such as scientific collaboration on genomics and diagnostics, have great potential, but others are more troublesome. Proposed restrictions on cross-border shopping for tobacco and alcohol would undermine the integrity of the single market. The proposal for plain packaging of tobacco across the whole EU is baffling given the total lack of evidence that the policy has had any positive impact in countries such as France, Australia and the UK. Restrictions on alcohol advertising and sponsorship in sport would deprive players and teams from the top to the bottom of the sporting pyramid of much needed revenue while achieving nothing for public health. A ban on using e-cigarettes in indoor public places is outside the EU’s remit, but by recommending such a policy the European Parliament would be sending out the wrong signal to Member States and the public.

Monday 6 December 2021

The Beatles in Get Back - a review

I've reviewed the epic new Beatles film, Get Back, for Quillette

If these four men on the rooftop hate each other, they hide it extremely well. They do not look like a band that is about to split up. And yet the fact remains that the Beatles did split up and they all remember the “Get Back” sessions as the moment when a split became inevitable. They strongly suggest on camera that they’ve been miserable for some time. “Ever since Mr Epstein passed away, it’s never been the same,” laments Harrison, who describes the band as being “in the doldrums.” “We’ve been grumpy for the last 18 months,” says the normally indefatigable Starr. “Nothing's going to change my world,” sings Lennon in a reheated version of ‘Across the Universe,’ before adding “I wish it fucking would.”

But comments like these have to be weighed against hours of evidence in Get Back showing the band clearly enjoying each other’s company and being highly creative. So where does the truth lie?

When enough years have passed, a photograph becomes the only thing you remember about the day it was taken. Is it possible that the Let It Be film implanted memories in the Beatles’ heads that dislodged happier recollections? McCartney is beginning to think so. He told the Sunday Times that “I definitely bought into the dark side of the Beatles breaking up and thought ‘God, I’m to blame.’ It’s easy, when the climate is going that way, to think that. But at the back of my mind there was this idea that it wasn’t like that. I just needed to see proof.” Confirmation bias? Perhaps, but Harrison’s recollections of the “Get Back” sessions in the 1995 TV anthology also seem to have been entirely based on scenes from the Let It Be film.

Throughout the sessions, Lindsay-Hogg can be heard asking himself and others what he’s doing there. What is he filming? What is the purpose of it? By the time Let It Be was released in April 1970, the Beatles had broken up and the purpose of the film had become to explain why they had broken up. The answers it hinted at were, in crude terms, that Paul was bossy and Yoko was domineering. Beatles historians have always known that this explanation is overly-simplistic if not flat-out wrong. Get Back makes a strong case for treating the Let It Be version of events with scepticism, but is Get Back the whole truth?

It's free. Have a read. 

Friday 3 December 2021

Last Orders with Simon Evans

It's always a pleasure to talk to TV funnyman Simon Evans. He's our guest in the new episode of Last Orders in which we discuss the new Covid variant, the decline of the USA and whether left-wing journalists have a sense of humour. By the end, the conversation had deteriorated into a moan about the state of modern music and why they don't make 'em like they used to. That was mainly my fault, tbh.

Listen here.

Thursday 2 December 2021

Vaping works in New Zealand

New Zealand legalised the sale of e-cigarettes in 2018 as part of its attempts to be 'tobacco-free' by 2025. The government now actively encourages smokers to switch with messages like this.

If you believe the claims of anti-smoking, anti-vaping, anti-nicotine fanatics, this should have led to a surge in smoking - because of the supposed 'gateway effect' and the supposed 'renormalisation' of smoking.

Instead, figures released yesterday show that it led to a sharp decline in the smoking rate which perfectly mirrors the sharp rise in the vaping rate. 

This is no great surprise to anyone who paid attention to what happened in Britain after 2012 and the USA at around the same time

Unusually large declines in smoking are exactly what happens when vaping is allowed to go mainstream as this recent report explains.

It was only a few ago that Australia had a significantly lower smoking rate than New Zealand. Now New Zealand has the lower rate. Both countries have exorbitant tobacco taxes, plain packaging and draconian smoking bans, but Australia banned the sale of e-cigarettes. You don't need to be Hercule Poirot to work out what's going on here, but the tobacco control cult - including the WHO - will continue to bury their heads in the sand.