Thursday 31 March 2022

Last Orders with Brendan O'Neill

The latest Last Orders is with Spiked's Brendan O'Neill. We talked about Will Smith, the cost of living and a few other things. Quite a depressing episode but a good one. Check it out.

There will be a new Swift Half going online today at 5pm with Johann Norberg.

Saturday 26 March 2022

NGOs want 'junk food' promotion ban extended to all meat and fish

UK inflation is already above 6% and the Office for Budget Responsibility expects it to hit 8.7% in the autumn. Awkwardly for the government, and very awkwardly for hard-pressed consumers, the ban on multi-buy food promotions is due to come into force in October. 

Once the ban comes into effect, the government's own modelling suggests that consumers will have to spend an extra £634 per household if they want to keep buying the same basket of goods. The intention of the policy is that people will buy a slightly different basket of goods, of course. Nevertheless, the extra cost is likely to run into several hundred pounds which would not be welcome at any time and especially not when inflation is at a 40 year high. 

There are rumours that the government might back off and at least postpone this misguided initiative. Meanwhile, displaying a staggering inability to read the room, a bunch of NGOs want it to go further.

From the Guardian (where else?)...
UK supermarkets accused of ‘bombarding’ shoppers with cheap meat
Britain’s biggest supermarkets stand accused of “bombarding” shoppers with offers of cheap meat, despite pledging to promote more meat-free diets to improve health and tackle global heating.
The word 'bombarding' is here used in the 'public health' sense, meaning 'to make available at a reasonable price'. 
Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons are each offering scores of deals every week on meat products such as burgers and sausages to drive sales and boost their profits, according to a report from the charity Eating Better.
Because cutting prices is the obvious way to boost profits, isn't it? It's not as if they're in a fiercely competitive industry or anything?

The report also discloses that only 1% of the many hundreds of multi-buy offers for meat products examined by researchers will be banned when the government’s crackdown on the promotion of foodstuffs that are high in fat, salt or sugar – to tackle childhood obesity – begins in October. 
Newspapers usually refer to this as a ban on promotions for 'junk food'. Tellingly, that phrase is not used here because most people, quite rightly, do not consider meat to be junk food. That is why the government has excluded meat from its list of HFSS food despite meat sometimes being high in fat. It has to make exemptions because the full list of what activist-academics consider to be junk food is preposterous.

“Supermarkets are bombarding us with Bogof [buy one, get one free] burgers, sausages and cheap chicken of unknown origin, putting profit before population health and that of the planet,” said Simon Billing, Eating Better’s executive director.

“The Big Four are contradicting their own commitments by encouraging customers to buy more meat than they would have if it hadn’t been on promotion.

“The impact of this is that we’re eating more meat than we need, or is good for us. Pushing cheap meat into our baskets also supports intensive animal farming, which is wrecking the planet, emitting a huge amount of greenhouse gas and requiring massive amounts of our precious resources, such as land and water.”

Tough. The legislation was supposed to be about childhood obesity, remember? 

Once the government capitulated to one bunch of fanatics, it was inevitable that wowsers of every stripe would line up with their agendas. The demands of the Eating Better coalition are even more extreme than the Guardian suggests. If you look at their report, their recommendation to policy-makers is...

Include all meat and fish products in scope of the Food (Promotion and Placement) Regulation, since increasing their consumption is undesirable from both an environmental and a health perspective

The legislation hasn't even come into effect and yet the usual arrogant, largely state-funded NGOs want a ban that was supposed to discourage children eating too many crisps to be extended to fish.

In the current climate, I don't see them getting very far with these demands, but it will no doubt be seen as "the next logical step" and we know that the ratchet of paternalism only turns in one direction.

Friday 25 March 2022

Nothing to see here, just some normal academics doing academic research

Some news from Australia that I came across on Twitter yesterday...
I've blocked out the name because it's not the person I'm interested but the role.

We’re championing 3 inspired minds who will take on the title of ‘Harmful Industries Fellows’. These roles will fuel fresh, bold research Victorians can use to put our people’s health before industry profit.

New postdoctoral research fellowship program puts Victorians before profit

These 3 early-career research fellows will look at brands, companies or organisations who profit from products that are harmful to health and wellbeing including:

  • alcohol
  • gambling
  • unhealthy food and sugary drinks
They will gather new insights that help us better understand the biggest factors influencing our health.

The main goal? Positive, healthy changes for the people of Victoria.

Call me old-fashioned, but I thought the main goal of postdoctoral research was to contribute to the academic literature and expand the field of human knowledge. Increasingly, however, it seems to be blatant, one-sided political activism. 

Judging by the amazing graphic that accompanied this announcement, 'Harmful Industries Fellows' are going to be very busy. Not only do they have to tackle Big Alcohol, Big Tech and Big Pharma, they also have to take on the Military Industrial Complex, the Gig Economy, Not-For-Profits and Philanthropies.

If they have some spare time at the end of the week, they can also get their teeth into Neoliberalism, Privatisation, Capitalism and Multistakeholderism. Three people hardly seems enough, even if they do have 'inspired minds'.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that this radical activism masquerading as academia is being funded by the government. VicHealth AKA the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation was formed in 1987 as a result of Australia's Tobacco Act. It has been syphoning off money from cigarette taxes ever since and last year received $41 million from the government. Not bad for an organisation that is opposed to 'profit'. 
It was originally set up as an anti-smoking group, but before you could say 'mission creep', things had snowballed. It seems a strange use of taxpayers' money but, as I say, perhaps I'm very old-fashioned.

Wednesday 23 March 2022

The return of dodgy minimum pricing modelling

The MESAS evaluation of minimum pricing (MUP) in Scotland has produced a report which uses the IRI sales data. This differs from the Nielsen sales data in various ways. Neither system is perfect (they both have to guesstimate how much alcohol is sold in Aldi and Lidl, for example), but it is useful to see how they compare. 

I had a glimpse of the IRI data in 2019 so I was able to report at the time that off-trade alcohol sales actually rose in Scotland in the first ten months of MUP, although by the end of the first full year there had been a slight decline. 

The IRI figures published this week suggest that very little changed between 2017 and 2019. Remember that MUP was introduced in May 2018 and that the figures for 2020 don't tell us much because the on-trade was closed for much of the year. 

According to the IRI data, there was slightly more alcohol sold in the off-trade in the first full year of MUP (2019) than in the first full year before MUP was introduced (2017). There was also very little change in England and Wales.

The exact figures are as follows: 

Off trade (IRI) England and Wales (litres per adult):

2017: 6.61
2018: 6.71
2019: 6.63
2020: 7.81

Off trade (IRI) Scotland (litres per adult):

2017: 7.67
2018: 7.78
2019: 7.71
2020: 9.04

Off-trade sales in Scotland were 0.04 litres higher in 2019 than in 2017. In England and Wales, they were 0.02 litres higher. By any reasonable standard, there was practically no change. You certainly wouldn't guess that a "world-leading" anti-alcohol intervention had taken place. The Scots bought slightly more off-trade alcohol in 2018 and 2019 than they had in the last full year before MUP was introduced.

The picture is very similar when we look at total alcohol (off-trade plus on-trade). The main difference is that consumption fell in 2020, despite the large rise in off-trade sales.

Here are the figures:

Total alcohol sales (IRI) England and Wales:

2017: 9.29
2018: 9.36
2019: 9.23
2020: 8.88

Total alcohol sales (IRI) Scotland:

2017: 10.51
2018: 10.52
2019: 10.44
2020: 10.01

Here we see less alcohol being bought in Scotland in 2019 than in 2017, but that is entirely down to sales in pubs, restaurants and clubs - which were not affected by MUP - and the same thing happened in England and Wales. Overall, there were 0.06 fewer litres per adult sold in England and Wales in 2019 than in 2017 and 0.06 fewer litres per adult sold in Scotland. Exactly the same.

This shows that you can get different results if you use different data sets. With the Nielsen figures, you can just about see a decline in 2019 that could plausibly be due to MUP. It's not much of a decline and there have been larger ones in some previous years, but it is at least consistent with the idea that MUP reduces consumption.

But with the IRI figures, you don't even get that. Sales barely changed at all between 2017 and 2019, not in the off-trade and not overall either. In fact, alcohol sales in Scotland were lower in the off-trade in 2017 than in any subsequent year - and it is only in the off-trade that MUP has an effect on prices.

And so I was baffled to see the MESAS authors come to this conclusion...

In unadjusted analysis using Nielsen data, the introduction of MUP was associated with a 3.7% (95% confidence interval (CI): 1.8% to 5.5%) reduction in the total volume of pure alcohol sold per adult in Scotland. Using IRI data, a 4.3% (2.1% to 6.5%) reduction was observed.


In the unadjusted and controlled model that used Nielsen data, MUP was associated with a 6.6% (5.2% to 8.0%) reduction in per-adult off-trade alcohol sales in Scotland while the same model using IRI data resulted in a 4.2% (2.9% to 5.6%) reduction.

Eh?!? What were the inputs of this model?

In the fully adjusted and controlled model using Nielsen data, a 6.6% (5.1% to 8.0%) reduction was observed compared to a 4.0% (2.7% to 5.3%) reduction when using IRI data.

None of this seems to make sense. Clearly there was not actually a 4% reduction in sales. The model seems to be comparing sales in Scotland with sales in England and Wales. That's fair enough. However, there would have to be a big rise in England and Wales for a model to suggest even a relative decline in Scotland - and there wasn't.

The MESAS authors have access to more data than they have published. The key to understanding their claim is that it refers only to the first year of MUP, i.e. May 2018 to April 2019. Their model ignores what happened afterwards and they only provide figures for calendar years.

It would be interesting to see the full data and it is odd that they haven't published it. It is possible that there was more of a spike in sales in England and Wales between May 2018 to April 2019 than there was in Scotland. All we can say for sure is that if there was any effect from MUP, it was very short-lived because more off-trade alcohol was being sold in Scotland in 2019 than in 2017.  

I'm not saying the IRI figures are necessarily more accurate than the Nielsen figures. I really don't know. But I challenge anyone to look at the graphs and figures above and tell me they can see an effect from minimum pricing.  

It was dodgy modelling that got Scotland into minimum pricing in the first place and it looks like dodgy modelling is going to be used to justify it in retrospect.

Tuesday 22 March 2022

Fixed odds betting terminals: the house didn't always win

The government is in the process of conducting a gambling review. As usual with governments, it is very unlikely to lead to any liberalisation but it is unclear which forms of illiberalisation it has in mind.

I found this podcast a useful guide to what's going on from some people who understand the business, including Philip Davies (Conservative MP), Jon Bryan (poker player and gambling writer) and Emmet Kennedy (presenter on The Final Furlong Podcast). They talk about the prospect of the government limiting how much money people can spend on gambling each month, an idea so ludicrous that I see it as a red herring. More likely are advertising bans and heavy restrictions on online gambling.

As I have said before, this all started with the agitation against fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs). Once the anti-gambling coalition won that battle, it was open season. 

I discovered something interesting about FOBTs recently. The government's rationale for reducing the maximum stake to £2 was that no one had lost more than £1,000 in a session playing at that level in 2015/16 whereas 170,670 sessions at higher stakes had ended with people losing more than £1,000. 
Preventing people from losing £1,000 had never been a principle of UK gambling regulation before and the government's own figures showed that losses of this kind occasionally took place on other gambling machines (and happen all the time with retail betting). The reality was that the government was under pressure to reduce the stake to £2 and needed to find a justification for it.

But if you look at the data the government used to make this decision - which was based on 128 million sessions between July 2015 and June 2016 - you'll notice something interesting. Yes, there were 170,760 sessions ending with a loss of over £1,000, but there 209,464 sessions ending with wins of over £1,000. There were 543 sessions ending in losses of over £5,000, but 592 sessions ending in wins of over £5,000.

There were more big payouts than big losses. This holds true at the £500-£1,000 level too. There were 626,897 sessions ending with losses between £500 and £1,000, but 700,063 sessions ended wins of between £500 and £1,000.

At every point below this, the bookies won. There were 3,008,317 sessions ending with losses of between £200 and £500, for example, whereas only 2,628,258 sessions ended with wins of this amount. The most common loss was between 1p and £5. There were 28.4 million of these, but only 6.5 million winnings of up to £5.
But when it came to big wins and losses (i.e. over £500), the players won more times than the bookies. None of the people who won more than £5,000 staked less than £20 a spin and most of them staked more than £50. None of the people who won more than £1,000 staked £2 or less and most of them staked at least £40.

It's not immediately obvious what explains this phenomenon, but it isn't a fluke result. You can see exactly the same thing happening in 2014/15. The nature of the machine's fixed odds is that they produce a reliable profit over time (the house margin is around 3%). The only explanation I can come up with is that players exploited the only advantage they have over a machine: they can walk away when they're winning.

Or is there some other reason that I've missed?

Monday 21 March 2022

Australia's anti-vaping fiasco

Once again, it's time to laugh at Australia's misguided 'public health' policies. 
From The Age... 
Australia needs greater regulation on vaping
You can't regulate something that's illegal. 
First, they banned the sale of all nicotine-containing vape juice. Then they banned the importation of all nicotine-containing vape juice (unless you have a prescription!). So what the hell are they going to do next?
Vaping is growing in popularity...
Prohibition working well, then?

...particularly among young people, towards whom many of these products appear to be marketed.
E-cigarette marketing is also banned in Australia.
Decades of government interventions to stop people smoking tobacco – advertising bans, plain-packaging, a hefty tobacco excise and public health campaigns – have clearly made a difference in Australia. These days, only 11 per cent of Australians aged 14 or over smoke daily, compared to 24 per cent in 1991. But those gains are under threat.
The daily smoking rate of people aged 14 or over flatters Australia, but even using this measure there has been only a small decline since 2013 when the figure was 12.8%. 
In the UK, where the government actively encourages smokers to switch to vaping, there has been a much greater proportional decline in the current (not necessarily daily) smoking rate of people aged 16 or over, from 20.4% in 2012 to 14.5% in 2020. The latest figures for people aged 18 or over suggest it could be as low as 12%.
Between 2016 and 2019, the percentage of Australians aged 18-24 who had tried an e-cigarette jumped from about 19 per cent to 26 per cent...
The figures for 2020/21 were published today and they show that 21.7% of 18-24 year olds have ever tried an e-cigarette, so either vaping causes amnesia or something funny is going on in the survey. Either way, we can all agree that it's a large number of users for a product that is illegal (4.8% of 18-24 year olds are current users).
....and experts are concerned vaping acts as a gateway into smoking for some e-cigarette users.

Australia's idea of an expert is someone like Simon Chapman or Mike Daube who make Ivor Cummins look like Isaac Newton. As this article shows, they've done a comprehensive job of hypnotising the Aussie media with their anti-scientific nonsense and turning the country into a laughing stock as far as harm reduction goes. Where is the evidence for this "gateway" in Australia? If you look at the official prevalence data for this supposedly at-risk group, you'll find that...

  • People aged 18-24 years were more likely to have never smoked (83.3%) than any other age group.
There are more people of this age who have tried vaping than have tried smoking, so when does the gateway kick in? Could it be - whisper it - that people who vape are actually less likely to start smoking?
But back to the article... 

The government’s import ban on nicotine vaping products was delayed because of libertarian concerns among some members of parliament. 


Individual freedoms are important but...

There is always a "but" when people don't really think individual freedoms are important.

...when it comes to public health, they must always be weighed against broader social concerns. These include the cost to society of providing medical care for associated health problems, and the duty to protect more vulnerable Australians, like children and young people.

There aren't really any medical costs associated with vaping and insofar as 'vulnerable Australians' need protecting from e-cigarettes, prohibition clearly isn't the answer.
The evidence to suggest e-cigarettes can help smokers quit is also not strong...

Allowing vaping to continue without greater regulation is a risk Australia cannot afford to take.

What regulation do you want? You've already banned it!

Alas, the author of the editorial doesn't tell us. That is the last line of the article, so let's instead turn to the Sydney Morning Herald which has its knickers in a similar twist.

Australian doctors are calling for the ban of non-nicotine vaping products they say are designed to appeal to children and cause unknown long-term health consequences, while creating confusion that allows a black market to thrive.

The only doctor quoted in the article is a chap called Chris Moy and all he can manage is a squeal of confused outrage.

“Why are they even a thing?” he said. “They are the pinnacle of aggressive, scary, malicious marketing to children”.

If this is what passes for comment on matters scientific in Australia, it is no wonder they've ended up trying to ban things that are already banned.
Nevertheless, at least we know what the plan is now. They want to extend to the ban to e-cigarette products which don't contain nicotine. The logic must be that people are buying their devices in Australia and then buying their e-cigarette fluid on the black market.
The flaw in this scheme is that people can also buy the devices on the black market - and that is exactly what they will do. After everything Australia has gone through in the last decade, first with tobacco and now with e-cigarettes, what kind of fool still thinks that prohibition prohibits?

Meanwhile, The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age can reveal a law prohibiting the importation of nicotine e-cigarettes without a prescription has barely made a dent in Australia’s black market supply.

Well, slap my thigh! You don't say?

Since the ban came into force on October 1, Border Force has intercepted 248 shipments of nicotine vaping products at the border. This contained 144,724 nicotine vaping products, including 107,019 e-cigarettes and pods, 5823 refillable vape devices and 31,882 individual units. The records show at least 462.9 litres of liquid nicotine, and another 24,000 products did not list the quantity.

Great success! And the winning doesn't end there...

The Sun-Herald previously revealed schools across NSW are locking toilets outside break times to clamp down on students vaping.

This last story is almost unbelievable. I urge you to click on the link and read all about it, but here's a sample... 

The Herald has spoken to at least two parents whose teenage girls experienced visible menstrual bleeding at school last week as a result of not being able to quickly access a toilet. Other parents say it is causing anxiety and potential health issues for their children who suffer conditions such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome and type-one diabetes.

Way to go, Australia! And all to prevent smokers having access to a product that could save their lives. You little beauties!

Friday 18 March 2022

A swift half with Geoff Norcott

I had a good chat with the comedian and author Geoff Norcott this week. Check it out.


Fun fact. The last time I was in London before the first lockdown was March 8th when I co-hosted a show with Geoff in a pub for Radio 4. I remember there being a lot of hand sanitiser around, but that was about it for Covid controls. 


The show was about the nanny state but sadly it is no longer online

Thursday 17 March 2022

Prohibitionists, then and now

I've reviewed a new book about Prohibition for the Critic. It's called Smashing the Liquor Machine and the twist is that the author sides with the prohibitionists. It's a good work of history in many respects but I disagree strongly with some of its central claims.

Central to his thesis is the claim that prohibitionists were not illiberal because they never sought to stop people drinking; they merely wished to destroy the “exploitative liquor traffic” and, above all, the saloon. For Schrad, this is a crucial distinction because, he argues, restricting commercial activity was not viewed through the prism of liberty at the time and should not be viewed as such today. The crusade was not against drinking but against “predatory capitalism, of which the liquor traffic was the most insidious example”.

Why should we judge prohibitionists by their words when we can judge them by their actions? If, as Schrad argues, Prohibition was really about “regulating capitalist excesses” and “opposing exploitation and profit”, why was home-brewing banned? If the Anti-Saloon League was only concerned with saloons, why didn’t the 18th Amendment simply ban saloons and allow alcohol to be sold in shops and restaurants? If prohibitionists did not object to people drinking in the privacy of their own home, why did they fight so hard for the Webb-Kenyon Act which banned the interstate sale of alcohol by mail order? Schrad insists that the latter was not “some nefarious attempt to erode individual liberty to drink” but that is exactly what it was.

When asked why he robbed banks, the Prohibition-era criminal Willie Sutton is reputed to have said “because that’s where the money is”. Prohibitionists went after the saloons because that’s where the alcohol was. They went after the booze industry because it made booze. The whole point of “smashing the liquor machine” was to stop people drinking liquor. Enforced sobriety was not an unfortunate side effect of Prohibition. It was the whole point.

Prohibitionist broadsides against the liquor traffic were not purely rhetorical. The Drys genuinely hated the drinks industry and you did not need to be a teetotaller to deplore the way some saloons operated. But the rhetoric served another purpose. If left-wingers believed, as Schrad does, that “the actual battle lines of prohibition weren’t between religion and drink, but capitalist profits versus the common good”, it was obvious whose side they should be on. In the same way that modern public health activists shout about “Big Tobacco” and “Big Soda” when campaigning for lifestyle regulation, fury at the liquor barons helped obscure the reality that it was their fellow citizens who were the quarry. The campaign for Prohibition showed how easy it is to get people to sacrifice liberty if they believe that faceless corporations will suffer more.

Do read it all. Perhaps I'll write a book called The Smashing Liquor Machine?
The cancer of prohibitionism is alive and well, as this news from Denmark reminded us this week...
Denmark considers ban on cigarette sales to anyone born after 2010

Denmark has unveiled plans to ensure that future generations are tobacco-free, and is considering banning the sale of cigarettes and other nicotine products to anyone born after 2010.

“Our hope is that all people born in 2010 and later will never start smoking or using nicotine-based products”, health minister Magnus Heunicke told reporters.

“If necessary, we are ready to ban the sale (of these products) to this generation by progressively raising the age limit,” he said.

Note that e-cigarettes, nicotine pouches and every other nicotine product are slated to be included in the ban. It's a reminder that anti-smoking fanatics will only tolerate vaping as a stopgap on the way towards a nicotine-free world. Many of them won't even tolerate it as that. 
Needless to say, there is no moral or economic argument for prohibiting adults from using nicotine. In the case of vaping and nicotine pouches, such coercion cannot even be described as paternalistic. It is just pigheaded, fanatical bullying.  

Speaking of fanatics, the corrupt and incompetent World Health Organisation is "very likely" to refuse to authorise the only effective Covid vaccine to have been developed in Canada. Why? Because it is derived from the tobacco plant and Philip Morris has a minority shareholding in the company that developed it. Have you noticed that 'public health' is not really about health yet?

Finally, the UK House of Lords is trying its old trick of crowbarring one of ASH's pet policies into an unrelated Bill. This time it's the 'tobacco levy' on 'Big Tobacco', an unworkable idea because the UK can't impose a windfall tax on companies that are not based in the UK so it will end up being yet another sales tax on cigarettes (as HMRC explained years ago)
Apparently, peers voted 213 to 154 for the government to consult on this scheme, so thank goodness for people like Claire Fox:

Wednesday 16 March 2022

The further decline of Aseem Malhotra

"I'm with stupid"

This blog is proud to be the first place where the dubious claims of Aseem Malhotra were picked apart. It is nearly a decade since I wrote a post with the prescient title Dr Aseem Malhotra doesn't know what he's talking about. Back then the Croydon cardiologist was all about 'demonising' junk food (his word) and he was already displaying a relaxed attitude towards facts.

He then transformed into an anti-sugar campaigner before being kicked out of Action on Sugar (where a former colleague described him as "completely mad"). His next move was to jump aboard the low carb gravy train where he was involved in a hostile takeover of the National Obesity Forum which soon led to the organisation's destruction

Meanwhile, he became a regular at Retraction Watch after filing a series of dodgy articles to academic journals. Editors had their hands full retrospectively correcting his errors and slurs. 
He has written several books, including the execrable Pioppi Diet and the hastily written 21 Day Immunity Plan to cash in on COVID-19 in 2020 ("a cheap, shoddily produced work, written by a cheap, shoddy man" - Anthony Warner). In 2017, the British Dietetic Association named his Pioppi Diet as one of the 'Top 5 Celeb Diets to Avoid in 2018'.
Malhotra does not take criticism well. He denounced the British Dietetic Association as Big Food puppets after they dissed his diet book. He then added the British Heart Foundation and the American Heart Association to his list. He claimed that Public Health England was in the pocket of the food industry.
As far I can tell, he no longer practises in the NHS, although he seems to do a bit of work for private healthcare companies and, inevitably, he now has a Patreon. Frankly, it's a wonder he's allowed to practise anywhere. His main contribution to the field of cardiology has been to tell people that exercise won't help them lose weight, they shouldn't take statins and they should eat more saturated fat (he was described as "irresponsible" by Public Health England for the latter advice.)
I have often asked what it would take for Malhotra to get struck off. That question has become more urgent in the last six months as he has become the Pied Piper of the anti-vaxxers. In November he went on GB News to misrepresent the findings of unpublished study abstract, pandering to those who think the Covid vaccines have created an epidemic of heart attacks. 
It is at this point that Malhotra stopped being a grifting buffoon and became a dangerous grifting buffoon. His Twitter account has become a sewer of anti-vax dogwhistles and yesterday he appeared on GB News to give his worthless opinion about the death of the great Shane Warne.
Being an arrogant sociopath, he couldn't resist starting his answer with a reference to what a great cricketer he was in his youth and how he could have played at the same level as Warne if he hadn't been attracted by the glamour of being a cardiologist in Croydon hospital. He goes on say, with zero evidence, that "the [Covid] vaccine may well have played a part" in Warne's death.

Shane Warne died in Thailand of a heart attack at the age of 52. His love of junk food and his yo-yo dieting were legendary. His obituary in the Economist begins as follows... 

If someone invited him to a fancy restaurant, Shane Warne could tell them there wasn’t much point. A white-bread cheese sandwich or a bag of chips was just as good for him. Spaghetti bolognese was as far as he went in the gourmet department. And there wasn’t much to beat those warm pies you could buy at stalls, the ones he could demolish in about 30 seconds, with that sauce that inevitably ran down his chin and dribbled all over his jacket.

He drank, too. Not only Castlemaine, Foster’s and other patriotic brews, but the pints he downed in England in his winter seasons, when he discovered pubs. Those really put the weight on. He smoked like a chimney, lighting up a fag as soon as the dawn broke. His credo was “Eat. Go. Party!”, and there were plenty of high jinks to keep the tabloids happy. “Two drinks and two girls later,” began a sentence in his autobiography, and it could have started dozens.

Warne was a prolific smoker and had suffered from COVID-19 twice, being seriously ill on the first occasion. At the time of his death, he was on an extreme two week liquid diet.

I'm not going to speculate on what, exactly, caused his heart attack, but there is no doubt that if Malhotra had been talking about this two years ago, he would have blamed his diet. Malhotra even blamed his own mother's death on "her regular consumption of starchy carbohydrates and ultra-processed snack foods of biscuits, crisps and chocolate" (everything is a media opportunity for him).

This is a guy who, in that article which first grabbed my attention ten years ago, claimed (falsely) that "diet-related diseases are responsible for 35 million deaths worldwide". A guy who made himself a laughing stock early in the pandemic with his infamous attack on doughnuts.

But when it comes to Shane Warne, all the lifestyle factors go out the window because he's found a new grift. "He had no risk factors," he says. And so - wink, wink - it may have been the vaccine.


Some details on Malhotra's school cricketing career.

Friday 11 March 2022

Bad takes and snooker

I'm on the Great Unravelling podcast this week talking about the idiotic opinions of people on Twitter and snooker, amongst other things. It was fun. Check it out here.

Thursday 10 March 2022

The gateway effect myth that will never die

Vaping probably isn’t a gateway to smoking 
You mean people don't take up vaping and then suddenly decide to do something that is ten times more expensive and a thousand times more dangerous? Who'd a thunk it?

Young people who try vaping are more likely to later start smoking – but a new analysis of trends in nicotine use in England suggests that the so-called gateway theory of vaping isn’t the explanation.

The real reason for the link could be that teens who start vaping are the same ones who are likely to try smoking, regardless of whether they ever have an e-cigarette.

Indeed. This is the common liability theory. People with a propensity for risk-taking tend to take more risks than people who are risk-averse. This has always been the obvious explanation for the statistical correlation, such as it is, between vaping and smoking. 
Equally obvious is the fact that the rise of vaping has not led to a rise in smoking - quite the reverse. If a nonsmoking vaper is four times as likely to become a smoker - as one oft-cited study claimed - then the USA, in particular, should have seen a dramatic rise in teen smoking. Instead, it has seen a dramatic decline. 

So whilst it is perfectly possible that somebody somewhere started on e-cigarettes and then switched to tobacco, there are far more people who would have smoked but vape instead. 
And while it is impossible to prove there is no gateway effect, it is easy to show that any such effect is not worth worrying about. The authors of this new study looked at 16-24 year olds in the UK and found no association between vaping prevalence and smoking prevalence. 

For some reason, the New Scientist felt the need to ask an obese flat-earther what he thought about the study.

The findings may not convince all critics of e-cigarettes. “I don’t see this study as refuting the extensive evidence that already exists for a gateway effect,” says Martin McKee at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “Following up individuals is the most appropriate way to answer this question.”

Isn't public health supposed to be all about populations?

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, lots of vapers have been switching to cigarettes thanks to a ban on e-cigarettes. 

In response, 231 vapers – nearly 40 percent -- said they switched or increased use of other products as a result of the ban.  Since there is minimal smokeless tobacco use in Massachusetts, it is likely that the “other products” were cigarettes. 

Converting 40 percent of smoke-free product users to smokers is an important and unfortunate result, for which ban architects must be held partially responsible. This was predictable and predicted. When will tobacco control activists ever own the foreseeable harmful consequences of their actions?

They won't.

Tuesday 8 March 2022

Minimum pricing and cross-border shopping

Scotland's minimum pricing evaluation continues. The latest chapter looks at cross-border booze shopping and the headline claim is that it has been "minimal".

Cross-border alcohol purchasing ‘minimal’, research finds

Public Health Scotland report shows very few Scots travelling across the border to buy cheaper alcohol. 
.. The report, released on Tuesday, found that just 3% of the more than 1000 people asked said they had travelled to another part of the UK solely to buy alcohol.

The 3% figure comes from a relatively small survey and relies on people self-reporting, but let's go with it. Is it a small number? It's about 130,000 people. That is actually quite a lot of people travelling to England solely to buy alcohol. Aside from a relatively small number of people living on the borders, it's a 100 mile round trip at a minimum. As the study says...

Analysis shows that substantial bulk purchasing would be needed for individuals to make significant savings whether purchasing in-person or online, once travel and delivery costs are taken into account.

Well, quite. It therefore seems likely that "substantial bulk purchasing" is exactly what they are doing, whether for personal use or private sale. Moreover, the survey found that a further 13% of Scots said they brought back alcohol from England when travelling there for other purposes.

Analysis of off-trade alcohol sales data in the combined areas of North East and North West England in the 12 months following implementation of MUP showed a small increase (1.14%).

But it is not really "small", is it? There are a lot more people in the North of England than in the whole of Scotland - and a lot more alcohol sold there too. If "only" three percent of Scots were travelling South to buy alcohol, they must have been buying a fair quantity to have a measurable impact on overall alcohol sales in the North of England. 

The 1.14% figure was calculated by looking at sales in the North of England and adjusting for sales in the rest of England and Wales. In the North East, in particular, there are some telltale signs that the increase was driven by minimum pricing...

When examining changes in alcohol sales in north-east England in the 12 months following the implementation of MUP, controlled for sales in the rest of England and Wales, we observed a small statistically significant increase in total alcohol sales (1.46%, 95% CI 0.31%, 2.62%, p=0.01). For individual drink types, larger increases in sales of cider (4.51%) and RTDs (5.85%) were observed, and these were statistically significant

Cider and RTDs ("ready to drink" AKA alcopops) were heavily affected by minimum pricing. Sales of perry rose even more, by 6.96%. If I was minded to drive a white van from Edinburgh to Berwick, these are the kind of drinks I'd be buying.
If you think that these are small numbers, remember that advocates of MUP are clinging to the claim that alcohol consumption in Scotland fell by 3.5% in 2019. This is the closest thing they have to a "success" since there has been no decline in crime, no decline in A & E attendances, no decline in alcohol-related hospital admissions and alcohol-related deaths are at a ten year high.
The report doesn't attempt to calculate what effect the cross-border shopping had on that 3.5%, but it cannot have been trivial. Furthermore, there are people buying alcohol by mail order from England, but the researchers couldn't find any data on that so it is essentially ignored.

The authors downplay the significance of their findings at every turn. For example...

The majority (86%) of respondents did not report purchasing alcohol from across the border with England in person.

But 14% of them did and that is a lot of people! And if 1.14% of all the booze sold in the North of England was taken to Scotland, that is a lot of booze and it means that the drop in consumption attributed to MUP in 2019 was even smaller than we thought.

Not going very well, is it? 

Finally, let's take a moment to hear from Scotland's public health minister:

“Reducing alcohol-related harm is a key priority for the Scottish Government and the 3.5% decrease in alcohol sales we have seen following the introduction of minimum unit pricing in May 2018 reinforces why Scotland was right to take this innovative step.

Given the clear and proven link between consumption and harm, minimum unit pricing is the most effective way to tackle cheap, high-strength alcohol that causes so much damage to so many families.

Contrast the highlighted section with the last paragraph of the article:

According to figures released last year, alcohol sales in Scotland dropped to the lowest point in 26 years in 2020, but during the same year, deaths linked solely to alcohol increased by 9% to 1190.

When will the penny drop?

Monday 7 March 2022

A swift half with Jason Miller

There's a new episode of the Swift Half out in which I speak to Jason Miller, the CEO of Gettr and former communications advisor to Donald Trump. Check it out...

Thursday 3 March 2022

The Tobacco Control Research Group say the quiet part out loud

As reported in a handful of regional newspapers...
Introduce price cap on cigarettes to reduce smoking – study

A maximum price cap for cigarettes sold in the UK would help cut smoking rates, according to a study.

A price cap set by a tobacco regulator would allow for only a minimal profit for firms, researchers from the University of Bath said.

Yes, it's our old fiends at Anna Gilmore's Bloomberg-funded Tobacco Control Research Group at Bath Uni.

Currently, tobacco companies have generally been able to cushion smokers from the full impact of regular tax increases on cigarettes by keeping prices on some products low and offsetting costs with increases on their other, higher-end products, the study found.

This means there is currently a wide variation in cigarette prices in the UK – a difference of up to £5 from the cheapest to most expensive brands from around £9.75 at the lowest end to £14.65.

As consumer goods go, that isn't actually a very wide variation.

A price cap, by comparison, would effectively mean there was a standardised cost for cigarettes, helping to make future tax rises “much more effective”.

A price cap on cigarettes sounds like a pretty cool idea if you're a smoker, but it's not obvious what the appeal is to the prohibitionist fanatics at Bath University.

Like regulation for utilities industries, a wholesale price cap on cigarettes would be imposed by government or a regulatory agency. Excise duty, sales taxes, retailer mark-ups and any other legitimate costs would be added to that price to produce a shop price.

A cap on wholesale energy prices is designed to keep prices low. That is the whole point of a price cap.

There is an effective minimum price on cigarettes because of the massive tax rate, currently £5.25 a pack plus an ad valorem tax of 16.5% of the retail price, plus VAT. If you had a maximum price as well, the government could effectively control the price of cigarettes. This doubtless appeals to the pocket dictators at Bath Uni, but it would only bring prices at the top end down. That would clearly not 'help cut smoking rates'. Indeed, it might make smokers of premium brands smoke more.

A price cap would get rid of the premium end and leave only the cheapest cigarettes available. This is the exact opposite of what people in 'public health' are trying to do with alcohol through minimum pricing.

At first glance, it doesn't make any sense. So what is the point? To understand, we need to go back to the second line...

A price cap set by a tobacco regulator would allow for only a minimal profit for firms, researchers from the University of Bath said.

They're saying the quiet bit out loud here, aren't they? For a large number of 'public health' activist-academics, the campaign against smoking ended a long time ago. It is a campaign against business and capitalism now. That's why Anna Gilmore teamed up with the far-left crank David Miller. That's why they're against vaping. A lot of the paradoxes in 'public health' can be explained by the fact that they are not primarily concerned with health.

Wednesday 2 March 2022

Scottish consultation on e-cigarette advertising

The Scottish government is running a public consultation on banning e-cigarette advertising. It's exactly the kind of thing the SNP would do. Devolution doesn't give them many levers of power to pull so they tend to pull them all. And since they don't have much ability (or inclination) to liberalise anything, it's a one-way ratchet of illiberalism. 

Obviously, they shouldn't do it, but let's look at their reasoning...

Reducing exposure to the advertising and promotion of vape products is the best way to protect non-smokers, young people and children from being enticed to experiment with these products.

They don't give a citation for this claim and I doubt any evidence exists for it. 

Early indications from studies have shown a potential link between use of e-cigarettes containing nicotine and the development of lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

They do give a citation for this claim. The study's participants were mice. 

The clinical impacts of long-term use could take decades to manifest. In addition, there are mixed views among academics, health professionals and scientists about the amount of harm these products could pose to human health. However, evidence does exist to suggest that the long-term use of these products could cause potentially life-threatening illnesses such as COPD.

A citation is also given for the claim about COPD. It is the same experiment carried out on mice as above. The Scottish government seems to find this study strangely compelling.

In July 2020, the UK Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment published a paper on the potential toxicological risks from e-cigarettes. It found no immediate risks to health from exposure to the glycerol and propylene glycol used in vape liquid. However, it did emphasise that “the long-term effects from repeated exposures are unknown.”

E-cigarettes were invented twenty years ago and have been widely used for more than ten. As we have failed to find evidence of harm among people who have been vaping daily for over a decade, can we not extrapolate from the absence of short-term and medium-term harm? Surely that makes more sense more sense than extrapolating from studies on rodents.

"But cigarettes take decades to kill!", I hear you say. True, but you can see the biological markers for harm long before that. If cigarettes were invented today, we would be able to tell very quickly that they are potentially lethal. 

The Royal College of Physicians believes that “the hazard to health arising from long-term vapour inhalation from the e-cigarettes available today is unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from smoking tobacco.” Whilst the College promotes the use of e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to smoked tobacco, we do not consider that degree of harm acceptable to young people or adult non-smokers.

What degree of harm? Leaving aside the fact that non-smokers can decide what level of risk they find acceptable, "unlikely to exceed 5%" includes the possibility of zero per cent. It is very clear from epidemiological and toxicological evidence that the true figure is well below 5% and is almost certainly a small fraction of one per cent, with zero per cent being a realistic possibility. 

It is crucial to remember that these are all the risks relative to smoking. The relevant question is what impact, if any, a ban on advertisements for an alternative to smoking will have on smoking and on overall harm. That question is never really addressed in the consultation document.

As it is currently understood that using vape products is less harmful than smoking tobacco, we recognise the benefits in these products as a cessation tool. We would like to ensure that smokers are able to access a range of accessible and understandable information about vapes to inform them about the potential benefits of these products as an aid to stopping smoking. This will help counter significant levels of misinformation and misunderstanding about the respective risks of smoking and vaping.

This is a bit more like it. There is a vast amount of misinformation about vaping which has led to public understanding about the relative risks going backwards in recent years
‘Perceptions of the harm caused by vaping compared with smoking are increasingly out of line with the evidence’.
The proportion of adult smokers in England who think vaping is as dangerous or more dangerous than smoking rose from 36 per cent to 53 per cent between 2014 and 2020. If this is how misinformed people are in a country where health agencies have been broadly supportive of tobacco harm reduction, it is easy to see why vaping is facing a backlash in other places.
With a growing number of people believing that vaping is as dangerous as smoking, allowing e-cigarette advertisements is a good way of signalling that they are not.
The proposed restrictions already apply to tobacco products.

Exactly. Surely you want to differentiate them?
There is limited evidence on the impact on e-cigarette advertising, but two studies have looked at the issue in relation to smoking cessation. The first found that "e-cigarette advertising reduces demand for traditional cigarettes" and the second found that e-cigarette advertising on television - which is now banned in the EU - reduces the number of smokers.

The Scottish government says it is inviting responses to the consultation until March 31 but, rather confusingly, says that responses must be submitted by April 28. To be on the safe side, get your response in by the earlier of these two dates. If you want some tips on what to say, see this from the New Nicotine Alliance.