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.

Thursday 25 November 2021

It's a sin

In my column for City AM, I wrote about a shocking statistic about sin taxes...

According to an economic study published last month, 90 per cent of all “sin taxes” on tobacco, alcohol and soft drinks in the US are paid by just 20 per cent of households. Eighty per cent of the taxes are paid by just ten per cent of households. This tax burden tends to fall disproportionately on low income households.

Tuesday 23 November 2021

Boris Johnson's corona victory?

Another article from me for the Telegraph about the Covid situation which is worsening at a bad time in Europe. France and Germany (to name but two) are making a mockery of the idea that face masks and vaccine passports can keep the virus under control and Boris Johnson's decision to 'let it rip' in summer is looking increasingly sound.

We shouldn’t count our chickens yet, but as restrictions come back into force across Europe, it is becoming increasingly obvious that delaying “freedom day” would have made a winter lockdown more likely, not less. While many countries are facing their first major wave of the delta variant against a backdrop of waning immunity and cold weather, England built up a wall of resistance to Covid in the mild summer and autumn months, which has now been fortified by twelve million booster shots.

This was always the plan, a fact some Government critics conveniently seem to have forgotten. Back in July, the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, said: "There is quite a strong view by many people, including myself actually, that going in the summer has some advantages, all other things being equal, to opening up into the autumn when schools are going back and when we’re heading into the winter period when the NHS tends to be under greatest pressure."

In the first year of the pandemic, those who favoured more restrictions could usually rely on Whitty and most epidemiologists to support them. But not any more. “We are not behind Europe in this wave, they are behind us,” Professor Paul Hunter told the Guardian earlier this month. “We are not currently seeing a surge of the same magnitude as Europe at present largely because of the high case numbers over recent months, which most of Europe missed out on.”

The “slight gamble” of opening up in July – as Professor Neil Ferguson put it – seems to be paying off. Although the number of Covid cases has been rising for the last two weeks, rates have continued to fall among the over-60s, and the number of people in hospital with Covid has dropped by a fifth since the start of November. In France and Germany, the number of cases reported each day has doubled in a fortnight. In England, cases have fluctuated at a relatively high level but have not doubled since early July, and there have been periods of sustained decline.

In short, the virus is finding it harder and harder to find susceptible individuals to infect. Those who have had their booster shot have strong immunity against symptomatic infection, while those who are unvaccinated have mostly been infected by now and have a similar level of protection.

What’s more, anyone who wants to enjoy a normal life has been able to do so for the last four months. This was a major benefit of “freedom day” that is rarely acknowledged by critics of the Government.

Paywalled but do read it if you can.

Thursday 18 November 2021

A swift half with Henry Dimbleby

A new episode of The Swift Half has dropped. This week's guest is Henry Dimbleby, founder of the Leon restaurant chain and author of the National Food Strategy. Regular readers will know that we don't agree on everything.

Friday 12 November 2021

Corona-centrism is the only game in town

AstraZeneca has said it will start making a profit on its Covid vaccine. The company said that they would sell it as cost during the pandemic but that the pandemic is now over. I quite agree, as I say in Spiked today...

In the six months between October 2020 and March 2021, there were 3.8million recorded cases of Covid in the UK and 85,000 deaths. In the following six months, during which restrictions were reduced to nothing, there were 4.8million recorded cases and 14,000 deaths. Based on these figures, the case fatality rate fell from 2.2 per cent to 0.3 per cent. Since around half of all infections are not recorded, the infection fatality rate is now around 0.15 per cent, not much different to seasonal influenza. And remember that these statistics include a large number of deaths among the unvaccinated. For fully vaccinated people, the risk of dying if you catch Covid is lower still.

A glance at the Covid mortality figures shows us that we are more or less where we expected to be. After two surges of the epidemic – in spring 2020 and winter 2020-21 – we have reached endemicity. A graph of hospital occupancy looks very similar. The numbers go up a little, they go down a little, but it is nothing a half-decent healthcare system couldn’t handle. Covid will remain a health issue for many years – possibly forever – but it is no longer a civil-liberties issue. Arguably, it should only be a minor news story from now on.


Wednesday 10 November 2021

NHS England's ignoble lie

The head of the NHS claimed that there are 14 times as many people in hospital with Covid than there were this time last year. Many people on social media knew immediately that this was not true but several news outlets apparently did not realise.

The health lobby is not averse to the 'noble lie', as regular readers know, but this was in a different league. I wrote about it for Cap-X and spoke to Tom Harwood about it yesterday.

Tuesday 9 November 2021

The Bloomberg Health Organisation


The International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations (INNCO) has published an excellent document about the WHO, vaping and the malign influence of evil billionaire Mike Bloomberg. It gives a good overview of how the WHO and its COP meetings on tobacco are subverted by anti-nicotine prohibitionists and looks at the dodgy dealings of Bloomberg's myriad front groups. It also collects a lot of handy quotes and sources in one place.

I strongly recommend reading it all, but for now here are its eight recommendations for reform.

1. All recipients of funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies (NGOs and journalists) should disclose their funding as a potential conflict of interest, because the funding is from a known anti-vaper and opponent of tobacco harm reduction

2. We endorse the creation of an FCTC Tobacco Harm Reduction Working Group, in line with Article 1 (d) of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which defines tobacco control as 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”.

As the APPG for Vaping in the UK has proposed, such a group needs to look at all the science and evidence for new and emerging products. It should comprise both independent experts and informed consumers, including scientists and academics from countries leading the way in the use of, and research on, electronic nicotine delivery systems and other safer nicotine alternatives. It should also include former smokers who use safer nicotine. These individuals should not be affiliated with organisations with a vested interest (e.g., vaping or tobacco firms, Bloomberg or the WHO).

3. All member states of the FCTC Treaty should, in an open letter to the WHO, collectively question this UN agency’s prohibitionist approach to safer nicotine alternatives, challenging the evidence-base and demanding a more open mind to the possibilities of new nicotine alternatives.

In its recent report, the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction says that parties to the FCTC have largely been content to follow the direction of travel set out by the WHO on tobacco and nicotine policy pointing out that this is not the same with other significant global issues such as trade and climate, where national governments fight strongly for national positions and leadership.

If nothing changes at COP9 and WHO remains steadfast in its position on such low risk products and continues its hardline stance on vaping and other ENDS (Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems) products, despite the mounting evidence and growing recognition of the positive impact of ENDS to public health across the world, we propose the strongest action possible to ensure the message gets through and puts the organisation in a very isolated and difficult position, namely:

• those countries funding its existence should look to withdraw its financial support as British politicians have called for;

• that the Parties to the Convention (the 181 countries that have signed and ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the international agreement response to the international nature of the public health crisis caused by tobacco use and smoking) seriously consider boycotting future COPs until WHO demonstrates a much more open minded stance on vaping and other ENDS products.

This might come across as too heavy-handed and disrespectful to the World Health Organisation, but every government across the world has a duty of care to its people, and shutting the door on new nicotine products that have the potential to change the lives of so many who currently smoke, would be akin to neglecting that duty.

As Christopher Snowden [sic] concludes in the Institute of Economic Affairs report on COP9: “The FCTC Secretariat should be put on notice. COP9 is its last chance to mend its ways and operate as a transparent and evidence-based organisation. If it cannot be reformed, it should be disbanded.”

4. An agreement needs to be put in place with WHO and Bloomberg Philanthropies that they are transparent in relation to their collaborations on tobacco control and implement the recommendations proposed by Wellcome Open Research as highlighted earlier in this document.

5. The Parties to the Convention need to force future COP meetings to be far more transparent and inclusive so that they are truly representative and take on board wide ranging perspectives from different stakeholders. In both the UK and USA, policy decisions that affect people living with HIV/AIDS are made with representatives from that community at the table. This should be no different.

Meetings should be open to all those that can provide vital perspectives on tobacco control including the role of ENDS products, such as leading independent scientists and academics, health protection bodies and adult former smokers who have quit their habits by switching to an ENDS product.

6. A full international review, involving an independent body with no vested interests, needs to look at the reported influence that Bloomberg Philanthropies has on low to middle-income countries (LMICs) in the wake of related allegations in the Philippines.

7. The WHO must immediately review its Q and A on vaping, which is seriously misleading and inaccurate and doing a disservice for the 1.1bn smokers worldwide who may be thinking about quitting their habit through using ENDS devices. The Q and A should be based on the wide ranging evidence that has been provided by some of the most respected healthcare protection bodies, academic institutions and scientists in the field of harm reduction. This could, for example, be done in consultation with past-Presidents of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco.

8. More responsible and balanced reporting in the media - whilst some high profile media outlets have questioned and challenged the anti- vaping stance by WHO, most notably The Times (Anti-Vaping Advice by WHO “Risks Lives Of Millions”), Forbes (The War on E-Cigarettes is Profoundly Wrong) and the Spectator (WHO’s bizarre war on E-Cigarettes), many are content on running sensationalist, clickbait-led reports on vaping that have very little, if any, foundation.

There are many occasions that the media has turned a blind eye to pro-vaping reports such as the peer-reviewed publication from 15 past-Presidents of the world’s top professional society in the field of tobacco control, the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco (SRNT). It is by far the most important publication in the field of tobacco harm reduction since the 2015 report from the UK’s Royal College of Physicians. Yet not one major media outlet has covered it. A more responsible media should investigate evidence fully, consult independent experts who favour tobacco harm reduction (not just opponents), and give equal air to research findings and claims from academic researchers, vape firms, the tobacco industry, and all Bloomberg grantees including the WHO.

Download it and read the whole thing. Also, read this by Clive Bates.

Monday 8 November 2021

The secret tobacco conference starts today

The WHO's secretive international tobacco conference COP9 starts today, online only and with the public barred from watching, let alone participating. COPWATCH will be doing its utmost to find out what's going on. Keep an eye on it.

In the meantime, I'd like to share an excellent article I recently came across in the Fordham International Law Journal called Administering the Mark of Cain: Secrecy and Exclusion in the FCTC Implementation Process. The author, Gregory F. Jacob, looks at the issue from the perspective of democratic accountability and fair representation. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here are some of the more important passages.

On exclusion...

The FCTC’s stated objective is to progressively reduce tobacco consumption “by providing a framework for tobacco control measures to be implemented by the Parties at the national, regional, and international levels.” That goal has significant economic implications that impact groups ranging from tobacco farmers to wholesalers to importers - yet blanket bans on public and media access have wholly excluded impacted groups from having any voice in, or even the ability to monitor, ongoing deliberations. In a clear and unabashed exercise of viewpoint discrimination, only favored NGOs that uniformly espouse swift and universal eradication of all tobacco products without regard to economic consequences have been exempted and allowed to participate in implementation proceedings. Even more extraordinarily, the FCTC’s “Conference of the Parties” (“COP”)—the international lawmaking body charged with elaborating and implementing the FCTC2—has advocated increasingly strident measures designed to render tobacco interests, and all who associate with them, international pariahs who are not merely excluded from deliberations but also incapable of speaking: to international negotiators, to domestic lawmakers, or even to the consumers of their products.

On secrecy...

.. You might be thinking that if all this has really been happening, surely you would have heard of it before. But the truth is that the aforementioned public and media bans have proven very effective at discouraging mainstream media coverage of FCTC proceedings. What news organization has the cash to spare to send a reporter overseas to cover an event into which the reporter will not be admitted, to write a story that is virtually guaranteed to be limited by a near-total lack of access, concerning a treaty that few among the reading public even know about? 

While meetings of the General Assembly are, on rare occasion, closed to public observation for security reasons, the UN has demonstrated its commitment to transparency in recent years by using modern technology to stream nearly all General Assembly meetings on the Internet.

Nor is the UN the only relevant example; openness and transparency have also proven effective for implementing multilateral framework conventions. COP21 of the Climate Change Framework, for example, has been lauded as an immense success, in no small part because it employed a process that valued inclusion, debate and diversity of opinion. Proceedings were entirely open to journalists and accredited intergovernmental bodies,100 and the COP allowed thousands of organizations to be accredited, including industry groups representing a wide variety of viewpoints. In addition, a large space called the Climate Generations Area was set up at COP21 so that civil society could openly share opinions, debate, and even (gasp!) attempt to influence the Parties who were actively involved in the negotiations. 

On the dubious need for an international treaty on tobacco...

.. as my I argued in my previous article on the subject, the FCTC is peculiar among multilateral treaties in that it “has remarkably little to do with international relations, and primarily covers matters pertaining purely to domestic law. Virtually every provision of the treaty could be enacted into law by willing countries, even in the treaty’s absence.” The individual work of the sovereign parties to the Convention at the national level is thus necessarily the primary driver of treaty implementation.

.. As it turns out—and as Putnam might have predicted— this collection of public health ministers has shown a marked proclivity to use the treaty-making and implementation process to achieve domestic policy goals that they have previously proved unable to convince their home governments to adopt through domestic lawmaking processes. Some delegations have even expressly stated this intention, arguing that various treaty provisions should be tightened or strengthened so that their home governments could not interpret their way out of them. These delegations, in other words, are (at least occasionally) using the COP implementation process to impose international law obligations on the nations they represent that their home governments would on balance prefer not to have.

.. Like the COP delegations, the Secretariat and the NGOs are dominated by public health advocates. These advocates have extensive scientific knowledge concerning the medical and sociological consequences of tobacco use and the relative effectiveness of various cessation strategies, but they have little or no training in or knowledge of regulatory law, trade policy, intellectual property, job creation, or other economic impacts of tobacco control measures. Those, of course, are precisely the competing interests that domestic governments typically must grapple with, analyze, and balance in developing workable tobacco policy. From the perspective of the Secretariat and the NGOs, the COP thus represents a unique opportunity to sidestep the turbulent cut and thrust of domestic lawmaking, and to instead make their case to an international supra-legislature composed primarily of public health ministers that fundamentally agree with them on all core issues.

On the silencing of opposing views...

.. In light of this tripartite, homogenous, coalition of the willing— health minister delegates, partisan Secretariat, and aligned NGOs— the one thing that might threaten to disrupt a steadfast march toward adoption of their preferred policy agenda would be a reintroduction of the voices of those economically impacted interests that have historically provided a policy counterbalance in domestic politics. Like many embattled interest groups before them, the anti-tobacco coalition determined at the outset of the FCTC implementation process that one of the easiest ways to ensure achievement of their policy goals would be to simply ban all of the groups they perceive to be “the opposition”—ban them from participating, ban them from watching, ban their domestic governments from talking to them, ban the public (which just might after all have been infiltrated by the forces of the opposition!), and ban the media from covering the vast majority of FCTC proceedings.

.. Perhaps most troubling of all, Article 5.3 of the FCTC, which received scant attention during the drafting of the Convention, has been weaponized and transformed into something it was never intended to be: a mandate that anyone who dares even to associate with tobacco interests be treated as pariahs who must be completely excluded from participating in international and domestic lawmaking processes relating to tobacco control. Even Interpol (yes, Interpol!) has been prohibited from providing input to the COP on combating illicit trade in tobacco products, for the sole reason that it has the temerity to work with the tobacco industry to track tobacco shipments.

..At COP5, however, the proceedings of virtually all subsidiary body meetings were conducted in a manner that did not conform to these authorized formats. Without amending the governing Rules of Procedure, the COP implemented a new and unauthorized meeting format that excluded the public and the media, but permitted favored observers and NGOs to attend and participate. The justification given for this departure from the rules was that the tobacco industry might otherwise send observers to watch (yes, watch!) the proceedings. Exclusion of the public and the media was thus the only way to ensure that the tobacco industry could reliably be kept out.

.. Dr. Vera da Costa e Silva, Head of the Convention Secretariat, made this approach plain in her opening speech to COP7:

There is another observer here too, although its representatives may not always wear badges. The tobacco industry takes a very keen interest in COP meetings and makes every effort to insinuate itself into delegations and proceedings. If anyone doubts the importance of what we do here, always remember the industry’s malevolent presence and the strong need for transparency.

(Transparency for tobacco interests, that is—not for the Secretariat, the NGOs, or the COP.) The Framework Convention Alliance echoed a similar sentiment in its closing words for COP7, lamenting “delegates who are faced with tobacco industry interference in their home countries”—“interference” being the term that the Alliance regularly use to describe any expression of opposing viewpoints.

On the use and misuse of Article 5.3. of the treaty (which says health policy should be protected from the 'vested interests of the tobacco industry')...

.. In recent years, Article 5.3 of the FCTC has emerged as the primary international law weapon of those seeking to gag and exclude tobacco interests. As one NGO put it, “the FCTC includes a critical provision—Article 5.3—that recognizes the tobacco industry’s irreconcilable conflict of interest with public health. The article is the backbone of the treaty; the treaty cannot succeed if industry interference is not rooted out.” Not expressly stated, but implicit in these strategies, is the knowledge that it is far easier to win a policy debate if there is no opposing interest—for example, no poor tobacco farmer whose livelihood is at risk of being lost if policy changes are implemented without due regard for transitional needs—to express economic, due process, free speech, liberty, or other similar concerns.

.. No delegation participating in the INBs ever suggested that Article 5.3 should be read to mandate a general ban on all tobacco industry participation in (or even passive observation of!) international and domestic policymaking relating to tobacco control. Such a provision could never have been adopted, and the final text says nothing of the sort. The final language of Article 5.3 is, however, not a model of clarity, and advocates (led by the Secretariat and the NGOs) have stepped into the interpretive void and twisted the nebulous provision’s meaning beyond recognition to serve their own ends.

.. Economic interests should of course always be transparently disclosed so that conflicts of interest can be identified and considered when crafting policy, but it is senseless for policymakers to cut themselves off entirely from useful sources of data and information. And while advocates such as Dr. da Costa e Silva and the Convention Secretariat are of course free to label tobacco farmers a “malevolent” force if they wish, even such disfavored groups have civil rights of participation and association that are guaranteed by (among other treaties and conventions), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These fundamental international law guarantees have been given next to no weight in COP proceedings, however; when a group of tobacco farmers showed up outside of the COP7 meetings in Delhi to peaceably protest their continuing exclusion from deliberations, the Convention Secretariat called upon security to round them up and bus them miles away, to a location where COP delegates could neither hear nor see them.

And so, in conclusion...

.. While I am sympathetic to the core public health goals being pursued by the anti-tobacco coalition, this article sounds a clarion call of warning for those who care about the process by which international law is made. Dislike of the tobacco industry should not blind us to the deeply problematic means increasingly being employed by the dominant FCTC interest groups to warp international and domestic lawmaking processes in ways they believe will help them achieve their short-term policy goals. 

.. After years of observable practice, it is now also clear that the radical campaign of secrecy and exclusion that the Convention Secretariat and like-minded NGOs have been pursuing is, at times, producing decidedly perverse policy outcomes. When efforts to end child labor and to provide employment to refugees are sacrificed at the altar of isolating and stigmatizing tobacco interests, when Interpol is banned from participating in discussions about ending illicit trade because of its perceived taint from innocuous collaboration with tobacco companies on tracking their products, and when a resolution urging that governmental regulations of e-cigarettes and vaping devices should be supported by evidence-based science is voted down out of concern that science would not support the desired regulatory outcomes, a re-examination of the implementation process that is currently being employed is clearly called for. Indeed, it is demanded.

Friday 5 November 2021

A swift half with Madeline Grant

I recorded a new episode of the Swift Half with Snowdon this week. My guest was the fantastic Madeline Grant, sketch writer at the Telegraph. We talked about the COP26 snoozefest, James Bond, Mastermind and more. Check it out.

Thursday 4 November 2021

COVID statistics and the incompetent media

I was on GB News this morning with Tom Harwood to discuss some particularly useless TV coverage of the COVID-19 statistics. Have at it.


The UK's alcohol tax shake up

Rishi Sunak announced plans to shake up the alcohol duty system in his budget last week. I've written for CapX about what he wants to do, where it falls short and what it means for you, the hard-drinking British worker.

It was a pleasant surprise to be quoted by the Chancellor when he presented his Budget last week. In 2017, I wrote a short paper for the IEA titled A Rational Approach to Alcohol Taxation in which I said that the way we tax booze in Britain ‘defies common sense’. Rishi Sunak quoted these words, along with the view of the Institute of Fiscal Studies that the alcohol tax system is ‘a mess’.

And so it is. My argument in 2017 was that if we must tax alcohol, we should tax units of alcohol rather than taxing arbitrary volumes of fluid. I wrote:

‘A unit of alcohol is taxed at 27.7p if it happens to be in a glass of whisky but at just 7.8p if it is in a pint of cider. If the cider is strong, the tax is less than 7.8p, but if it is strong and fizzy the tax is 33.6p. Similarly, the tax on a unit of alcohol in a glass of wine amounts to 19.8p unless the wine is sparkling, in which case it is 25.4p.’

These peculiarities have arisen over several centuries thanks to special pleading from various interest groups and, in more recent decades, EU legislation. The alternative I suggested was a straightforward Pigouvian tax. You work out the cost of alcohol’s negative externalities (i.e. the cost imposed on people other than the drinker) and tax each unit of alcohol at a rate that adds up to that cost. At current rates of consumption, I estimated this to be 9p per unit, significantly less than the average rate of tax on alcohol but more than the lowest rate.

The Government intends to move things in this direction. The tax system will be simplified. Alcohol will effectively be taxed by the unit, although the rate will vary between beer, wine, cider and spirits. The tax rate will be the same across each category except for very strong or very weak versions of the drink. The rate will also be slightly lower in pubs.

Read on...

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Covid Horseshoe Theory

I've written a piece for the New Statesman about the people threatening us with lockdown if we don't accept 'modest' restrictions. These restrictions are, in fact, more draconian than anything enforced since the war with the sole exceptions of lockdowns themselves. Moreover, a scenario in which another lockdown is necessary is highly unlikely. 

Devi Sridhar, the doyenne of Zero Covid, told the New Statesman last October: “The longer we delay the decision to go into lockdown, the longer it is going to last.” Now she is saying that if the government doesn’t introduce vaccine passports and mandatory mask-wearing, “we will be pushed into a Plan C this winter that will look a lot like lockdown.” To be clear, Sridhar says in her most recent New Statesman interview that “lockdown happens when the NHS is basically collapsing”, so it looks like she believes the NHS is going to collapse despite all the vaccinations and booster shots. “Waiting and watching just doesn’t work with Covid,” she says, “as we have learned repeatedly over the past 22 months.” But are the last ten months really comparable with the 12 before them? Cases are falling in England and this is the fifth time they have been on a downward trajectory since “Freedom Day” in July. This didn’t happen without lockdowns last year. Moreover, the number of new cases is lower than it was on Freedom Day. If the government didn’t go to Plan B in July, why should it go there now?

One answer is hospital capacity, but while the number of people with Covid in English hospitals has risen from around 5,000 at the end of July to 7,000 today, it is a far cry from the 14,000 last November, let alone the peak of 34,000 recorded in January. A quarter of these people are not even being primarily treated for Covid-19 and there are fewer people with Covid in mechanical ventilation beds than there were at the end of August. It is almost certain that the NHS will be in crisis this winter, as it is every year, but it will not be the public’s fault. We cannot make a habit of staying home to protect the NHS.

It is true that if the recent rise in hospitalisations continues throughout the winter, Covid will put the NHS under intolerable pressure. But there is no reason to think it will. Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, is fond of saying that epidemics are either doubling or halving. Since July, Covid in the UK has done neither. Rates have gone up and down in defiance of Sage’s projections, for reasons that nobody fully understands. The logical conclusion to be drawn from Whitty’s motto is that we no longer have an epidemic – rather, we have an endemic virus that everybody will catch sooner or later, possibly more than once. If the summer and autumn surges help to “flatten the curve” over winter, we may look back on them as a blessing in disguise.

It's free so do read it all.


Tuesday 2 November 2021

The other COP

I'll be speaking at this tonight at 7pm (UK time)...

COP9 and the Future of Harm Reduction

When: November 2, 2021

Time: 2 pm (EDT) / 7 pm (London time)

Please register with the RSVP link:

Property Rights Alliance with the Institute of Economic Affairs and New Zealand Taxpayers Union will host a timely discussion on harm reduction, consumer choice, and freedom. Featuring:

Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics, Institute of Economic Affairs; Louis Houlbrooke, Campaigns Manager, New Zealand Taxpayers Union; Tim Andrews, Director of Consumer Issues, Americans for Tax Reform; and moderated by Lorenzo Montanari.

COP9 starts next Monday, will be held online only and nobody will be able to watch it apart from a select group of true believers. The WHO has released its list of groups that have applied to attend. The International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations (INNCO) and the New Nicotine Alliance (NNA) have both been denied access. ASH Finland have also been blacklisted. God knows what they've done to annoy the WHO.

While you're here, read the letter from 100 public health experts telling the WHO to drop its prohibitionist stance on safer nicotine products.

You can watch the discussion below live or later.

Monday 1 November 2021

Last Orders with Charlie Peters

There's a new episode of Last Orders and it's another cracker. Our guest is journalist Charlie Peters. So good to be recording these in person again.

Listen here or subscribe.

Sunday 31 October 2021

Contemptible misinformation about vaping in the Daily Mail

After the government announced the possibility of e-cigarettes being available on prescription (which has always been an option anyway), journalists went looking for anti-vaping voices to give an alternative viewpoint. As usual, the 'public health' dinosaurs Martin McKee and Simon Capewell were invited to spout their nonsense. Both feature heavily in this Sunday Times article

Capewell got an entire op-ed to himself in the Daily Mail. Almost every word of it is untrue. 

Sajid Javid's announcement that the Department of Health is paving the way for e-cigarettes to be prescribed on the NHS in England is deeply worrying.

Yes, there are still 6.1million smokers in England, and while smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death we must redouble our efforts to tackle this problem.

But as a scientist who has spent 30 years in public health research, particularly in regard to heart disease, smoking and diet, I can assure the Health Secretary that e-cigarettes are not the answer.

Worse, they will generate a raft of other health problems.

No evidence for this 'raft of other health problems' is given. He doesn't even say what he reckons they are.

When vaping first took off seven years ago, I was open to the idea that it might help reduce smoking.

They took off earlier than 2014, although that was when alleged experts like Capewell and McKee finally started paying attention to one of the biggest public health innovations of the century. Anybody who remembers their interventions at the time will find it very hard to believe that Capewell was open to any ideas other than banning them.

But with mounting evidence of the harms vaping can cause, I have become increasingly worried by the unquestioning enthusiasm on the part of some public health bodies whose first duty is to protect us.

Where is this 'mounting evidence'? Alas, he doesn't say because it doesn't exist.

Following a 2016 report by the World Health Organisation about the health risks e-cigarettes pose, countries including China and India banned or severely restricted their sale.

Two countries that happen to have state-owned tobacco monopolies. Fancy that!

England is out on a dangerous limb. Officials here have fallen for the exaggerated claims of the pro-vaping lobby, and are ignoring the health risks. The main claim, that e-cigarettes are a major aid to quitting, is wrong.

Randomised controlled trialobservational studies and ecological studies have consistently found vaping to be more effective than cold turkey, placebos and nicotine replacement therapy. A striking finding is that vaping is effective even when smokers do not intend to quit.

If that were true, why would the multi-national tobacco corporations be pushing vaping so hard? 

Because they sell e-cigarettes, obviously.

'E-cigs' are a means of attracting new cigarette smokers, as I will explain.

But he doesn't explain. Instead he says...

E-cigarettes are in fact one of the least effective quitting tools, accounting for only about 10 per cent of long-term quitters in the UK.

Most people who quit did so before e-cigarettes were on the market. It's not complicated. 

Many of those who try to quit smoking via vaping continue to use both e-cigarettes and lit cigarettes. This is a big win-win for tobacco firms. Most of the UK's 3million vapers who still smoke have no plans to quit.

There aren't three million vapers who still smoke. There are three million vapers. Two thirds of them are ex-smokers.

Next let's address the industry claim that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent less harmful than lit cigarettes, a figure based on no solid evidence whatsoever as far as I am aware. Yet this spurious figure was picked up by PHE. 

It's not an 'industry claim'. This is a scurrilous lie propagated by Capewell and McKee. The 95% figure was independently arrived at by both Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians as the most conservative estimate of harm. It should be updated to 99.5% or whatever the science suggests is most plausible.   

More robust evidence estimates that, at best, e-cigarettes are 50 per cent less harmful. 

Complete nonsense. I've never heard this figure mentioned even by anti-vaping lunatics in the USA. As ever, no reference is provided for it. If e-cigs were 50% as harmful as smoking, they would be killing tens of thousands of people every year. In fact, they have never been credibly implicated as the cause of death of a single person in the UK, to my knowledge.

Champions of e-cigarettes say there is 'no evidence' of long-term harm. In fact, there is plenty of evidence.

They don't say that. They say that e-cigarettes are much, much safer than smoking. Cranks like Capewell respond by saying that we don't know the longterm effects, which is trivially true since they haven't been around for long enough. Now Capewell is saying that we do have evidence on the longterm effects. How? What are they?

Alas, Capewell once again fails to elaborate.

Nicotine is highly addictive while the superheating of the 100-plus flavourings used in e-cigs to disguise the taste of nicotine and produce vapour can generate harmful chemicals, many of which are found in lit-cigarette smoke.

As a user of unflavoured vape juice, I can assure you that nicotine doesn't really taste of anything. I don't know what 'superheating' is supposed to mean, but the 'chemicals' are heated at a much lower temperature than tobacco in cigarettes and - crucially - there is no combustion and therefore no smoke. There is plenty of toxicological evidence that strongly suggests that this makes the risks orders of magnitude lower than those of smoking, all of which Capewell ignores and has probably never bothered to read.

Research shows that e-cigarettes can be even more addictive than lit cigarettes which is why the use of youth-focused flavourings such as bubblegum is so appalling.

Nicotine poses a particular risk for the young because it disrupts the development of crucial brain connections.

People have been using nicotine for centuries without this brain damage being observed. It was never raised an issue with smoking among young people or older people. Insofar as nicotine 'disrupts' 'brain connections' it doesn't seem to do so in a way that causes any problems.

Personally I doubt very much that e-cig manufacturers will be submitting their products any time soon for UK medical approval. 

That is probably true. It took the whole length of an article for Capewell to say something that isn't a lie, but he got there in the end. A stopped clock and all that.

I know this is an opinion piece in a newspaper, not a journal article, but shouldn't it have been subject to some fact-checking before it was published?