Tuesday 31 May 2022

The imaginary government U-turn on gambling

In the dishonest campaign against fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs), the final trick played by anti-gambling activists was to pretend that there had been a 'delay' and a 'U-turn'.
In May 2018, when the government announced that it would be cutting the maximum stake on these machines from £100 to £2, as campaigners had demanded, no date was given. Three months later, it was reported that the government intended to enforce the change from April 2020. That may or may not have been true, but when the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, formally announced the policy in the October Budget Statement, it clearly stated that it would begin in October 2019.
If the earlier reports were true, the government had brought the date forward by six months. As Huw Merrimen MP (who supported the stake reduction) wrote at the time... 

When the changes were first announced earlier this year, there was no clear date set as to when they would come into effect. Some MP’s wanted to wait until April 2020, but a cross-party group argued that this would be too late. That is why the government agreed on a compromise and Philip Hammond announced that the stake would be reduced in October 2019.

The one thing that the government had not done was push the date back. And yet that is what the anti-gambling lobby pretended had happened. Tracey Crouch, the fanatical sports minister, resigned over this supposed 'delay', claiming that "implementation of these changes are now being delayed until October 2019 due to commitments made by others to those with registered interests."
The media went along with this conceit, portraying the switch to October 2019 as a 'six-month postponement' (the Guardian) and a 'U-turn' (New Statesman) rather than the six month acceleration that it was.  

The business of pressure groups is pressure, not evidence, and nothing piles on pressure in contemporary politics like talk of a U-turn.

The government is currently reading through thousands of responses to its public consultation on gambling regulation and the anti-gambling lobby are at it again.
From the Sunday Times...

Ministers are expected to water down plans for a crackdown on betting giants after opposition from the gambling industry.

The Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) will next month publish a review of 17-year-old gambling legislation that was expected to include the introduction of a “polluter pays” mandatory levy on betting firms to fund addiction and research.

Expected by whom? The government has announced no plans and the consultation document does not even hint at a levy. It doesn't mention any specific policies. It is a general call for evidence.  

Premier League clubs were also expected to be forced to remove gambling sponsors from the front of football shirts as part of the biggest shake-up of advertising since tobacco promotion was outlawed.

Again, expected by whom? The government has not said, or even implied, that it is going to ban gambling sponsorship in football. There have been rumours from unnamed sources, but nothing more than that. 

These policies are on the wishlist of the likes of Derek Webb and the All Party Parliamentary Group for Gambling-Related Harm. There is no evidence that they have ever been on the government's agenda.

However, both proposals are understood to have been watered down as the government prepares to publish its white paper.

According to sources familiar with the discussions, No 10 is likely to block the introduction of a compulsory levy in favour of greater voluntary contributions amid fears of imposing further taxes on the industry.

Anonymous briefings happen, of course, but "sources familiar with the discussions" is an unusually vague phrase. "Downing Street insiders" or "sources close to government" would be the more typical way of describing someone involved in the decision-making. "Sources familiar with the discussions" could be anyone.

The only people named in the article are Carolyn Harris and Iain Duncan Smith, both from the APPG on Gambling-Related Harm (of which Derek Webb is the sole funder now that the likes of Bacta and the Hippodrome casino have dropped out). They are outraged, natch, and will be delighted with the free publicity.

 The Daily Mail has cribbed from the Sunday Times and is also screaming 'U-Turn'...

A crackdown on betting giants is to be diluted by ministers - to the fury of anti-gambling campaigners.

Plans to be published next month had been expected to introduce a ‘polluter pays’ levy on gambling firms to fund research into addiction.

They were also expected to propose a ban on the names of gambling sponsors appearing on the front of Premier League football shirts.

But officials at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) are said to have retreated from both proposals following opposition from the industry.
On Twitter, one of the Mail's reporters upgraded an expectation to a "promise":
There has been no such promise. The government has remained tight-lipped throughout. It cannot U-turn on something it has never announced and never publicly supported. 
You can see what the tactic is here. When the government publishes the white paper and it doesn't include every extremist policy demanded by the anti-gambling cranks, the cranks will claim that it has been "watered down" by the government at the behest of the all-powerful gambling lobby - and the docile media will go along with it as usual.

Monday 30 May 2022

Alcohol policy - theory versus facts

In 2018, Finland relaxed some of its alcohol laws. Notably, it allowed grocery shops to sell alcohol of up to 5.5% ABV. Previously, it had been limited to 4.7% ABV, with stronger beers only available from the state-owned off licences.

This might seem a minor change but it allowed commercial shops to sell standard Finnish beer, which has an average alcohol content of 5.2%.

According to 'public health' ideology, this would be the start of Finns going to hell in a handcart: 

Due to fierce price competition between grocery stores, medium-strength beer has been available for much lower prices in them than in the state stores, while stronger beer only available in state stores has been minimally affected by price competition. Therefore, the reform was not only expected to affect consumption through greater physical availability but also through lowering prices.

It was widely expected in the public health field that the legislative change would increase the demand for strong beer, cider and premixed alcoholic beverages and raise their average alcohol content. 

The policy was subject some intense public debate and a number of MPs were strongly opposed to it, citing expert opinion.

Twenty-eight Members of the Finnish Parliament, including 15 members of the Centre Party, have issued a joint statement calling for amendments to the bill to reform the alcohol legislation of Finland.

... The signatories to the joint statement are demanding that additional emphasis be placed on the views of experts who have expressed their opposition to the reform bill.

“Not one of the expert organisations (18), and not one of the social and health care providers and organisations preventing the adverse effects of alcohol use that issued a statement (11) is supportive of the draft bill,” they point out.

According to Movendi, a gospel temperance group formerly known as the International Order of Good Templars which is bizarrely funded by the Finnish lottery...

The reform is set to have unfortunate consequences for public health in Finland, a country where alcohol consumption is already higher than elsewhere in Scandinavia.

Four years on and we can see what actually happened. According to a new study, the answer is not much at all.
Results: There was no overall change in the total alcohol (0.04 [95% CI −0.03, 0.11] litres/year) or beer purchases (0.05 [95% CI −0.02, 0.11] litres/year). Purchases of ready-to-drink beverages increased by 0.10 [95% CI 0.09, 0.11] litres/year (+ 84%). Total alcohol purchases increased in the three highest income groups, whereas they decreased in the two lowest groups (p for the interaction < 0.0001). 
Conclusions: The increased purchases of alcohol as ready-to-drink beverages were, on the average, compensated for by a decrease in purchases of other alcoholic beverages.

Disaster averted again! 

Meanwhile, evidence that the ridiculous single distribution theory is wrong continues to mount. A study of drinking in Australia in the 2010s has found that everybody in society does not act like a single organism. Who knew?


Throughout the whole population, alcohol consumption had declined in all percentile groups, with the largest proportional declines evident for light and moderate drinkers [e.g. drinkers in the 25th percentile declined by 32.7%; 95% confidence interval (CI) = -41.6, -22.3% per wave]. Broadly collective declines were also found for younger men and women with significant declines in every percentile group, but older groups showed some evidence of polarization. For example, women aged 45–64 years significantly increased their consumption (2.9% per wave, 95% CI = 0.3–5.5%), while consumption for those in the 25th percentile fell significantly (-16.7%, 95% CI = –27.6, -4.2%).


The declines in Australian drinking since 2010 have included important deviations from the collectivity predicted by Skog's influential theory of collectivity of drinking, with markedly different patterns evident among different demographic groups.

How much longer will the temperance/'public health' lobby cling to their daft theories?

Last Orders with Patrick Flynn

There's a new episode of Last Orders out in which we discuss J**** O*****, partygate and Ricky Gervais. Enjoy!

Friday 27 May 2022

A swift half with Julian Jessop

There's a new episode of the Swift Half online. This week I talk to economist Julian Jessop about inflation.

Thursday 26 May 2022

The European Commission wants to hear from you

The European Commission is asking for feedback on its Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). The call for evidence closes on 17 June 2022 and is intended to "assess to what extent the framework has fulfilled its goals and whether it is able to support a ‘Tobacco-Free Generation’ by 2040". A new TPD is likely to be proposed and brought into law in the next few years.

Anti-vaping lobbyists will be pushing for a ban on e-cigarette flavours, many of them with the help of Mike Bloomberg's $160 million slush fund. These backdoor prohibitionists see it as the best way to wreck the market because politicians don't understand how important flavours are ('tobacco' flavour, which apparently doesn't count as a flavour, is horrible in my opinion and isn't used by most vapers). The TPD exempts e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products (HTPs) from the ban on 'characterising flavours' unless the Commission can demonstrate that there has been "a substantial change of circumstances".

You can interpret that as you like - and the Commission probably will - but a Commission review published last year concluded that there has not been a substantial change of circumstances with regards to e-cigarettes, although the race is closer when it comes to heated tobacco.

The TPD sets out criteria for a ‘substantial change of circumstances’ and calls for the Commission to withdraw certain regulatory exemptions once those conditions are met (a flavour ban for product categories other than cigarettes and RYO tobacco, labelling exemptions). The Commission followed the market shares closely and no product category reached the threshold that would mandate the Commission to trigger this clause in the reporting period. The closest to the threshold are HTPs. Therefore, assessing the current criteria should be considered.

All the feedback is online to read. It's good to see that most of it is calling on the EU to leave vapers alone. For example:

Emerging products are key to decrease smoking prevalence in the EU. E-cigarettes are a significant harm reduction tool within the mix of emerging products. I used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and thanks to the e-cigarette, I have been tobacco free for the past 3 years. I do not think that my freedom of choice should be further restricted if the e-cigarette prevents me from smoking. I also think that flavours play a very important role to switch. I am mostly using fruit flavours and try to avoid tobacco or menthol flavours which reminds me of the time when I smoked combustible cigarettes. 

To me it is quite simple - I don't smoke cigarettes when I have access to my vape. A lot of people are already addicted to nicotine, vaping is a safer alternative and legislations against it hurt millions of people who already vape. Legislations against vape juice also open up the already huge black market for potential risky vape juice.

Well I will put it plain simple. After 25 years of heavy smoking's and hundred's of attempt's to quit. I discovered electronic cigarettes and I never touched a cigarette again and that was 6 years ago. That's all I have to say, it works, worked for me and for many around me. If you want to solve the tobacco problem you will have to listen to the smokers and ex smokers, is that simple, listen to us instead of those "doctors" radicals, proibitionists etc In case you come up with more regulations and proibition, well I will find my stuff on the black market, inside or outside my country. My body my rules.

Feel free to add your two cents. The call for evidence is here. You have to register but it's easy enough. Only an email address is required. You're limited to 4,000 characters (about 700 words) and can add one attachment. Be polite.

Wednesday 25 May 2022

Vaping is an "environmental disaster", say anti-vaping nuts

The Lancet has published a letter from three French academics arguing for a clampdown on e-cigarettes on environmental grounds. The authors give the game away early on by saying the quiet part out loud...

With the vape market mainly owned by the tobacco industry, it is legitimate to question whether vaping is more eco-friendly than smoking... [my emphasis]
Leaving aside the question of whether the vape market is mainly owned by the tobacco industry in reality (it isn't in the UK), the implication is that it would be illegitimate to "question whether vaping is more eco-friendly than smoking" if it was owned by someone else. Why? An environmental issue is an environmental issue, regardless of who makes the product.

Or could it be that the authors are not particularly interested in whether e-cigarettes are eco-friendly, they are just opposed to everything the tobacco industry does?

Fortunately, vape waste is a preventable environmental disaster, but for this disaster to be averted, disposable e-cigarettes must be better regulated. 
'Disaster' is a bit of a strong word for vape pens going into landfill, isn't it? Still, what's the solution?
In 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned flavours other than tobacco and menthol for pod or cartridge-based e-cigarettes. Unfortunately, the FDA's policy does not include disposable e-cigarettes.
Flavour bans! Of course! The very policy anti-vaping fanatics have been calling for ever since Mike Bloomberg handed out $160 million to NGOs to "fight flavoured cigarettes". What a happy coincidence that this policy will somehow make e-cigarettes more eco-friendly!
For the environmental consequences alone, this position should be re-examined.

Yeah, the environmental consequences. Sure. That's what you're bothered about.

The same people wrote a letter to the Lancet in 2018 warning about people using e-cigarettes to consume cannabis. Guys, stop going round the houses and just admit that you don't like vaping.

Tuesday 24 May 2022

E-cigarette use costs $15 billion a year?!?

Anti-vaping quackademics from California's Bay Area are at it again...
E-Cigarette use costs US $15 billion per year, reports UCSF in first study of its kind 

Use of electronic cigarettes costs the United States $15 billion annually in health care expenditures — more than $2,000 per person a year — according to a study by researchers at the UC San Francisco School of Nursing

The study, published on May 23, 2022 in Tobacco Control, is the first to look at the health care costs of e-cigarette use among adults 18 and older.

UCSF plus Tobacco Control is the perfect recipe for crank activism and this study is everything you might expect.

“We weren’t able to look at e-cigarette use among youth under 18 in this study,” Max said. “However, if more young people continue to take up vaping and keep on using this product when they become adults, the negative impacts on health care costs are likely to increase over time.” 

The authors called for continuing efforts to control tobacco use among youth in order to reduce illness and health care costs associated with e-cigarette use. 

Of course they did. That was the whole purpose of writing the study. That is the whole purpose of any study about vaping that is produced by Californian 'public health' researchers.

The study itself leaves a lot to the imagination. The authors seem to have compared the healthcare use of e-cigarette users to that of lifelong non-smokers, although their methodology is far from clear. The glaring problem with this comparison is that the obvious confounding factor is prior smoking. The overwhelming majority of vapers who are old enough to consume a non-trivial amount of healthcare will be ex-smokers or dual users who have a long history of smoking. 
Only 0.2 per cent of their study sample were exclusive e-cigarette users. The proportion that would have been exclusive e-cigarette users and lifelong nonsmokers would have been virtually zero. (It also means, if these researchers' calculations were correct, that if every adult in America used e-cigarettes, the associated healthcare costs would be $7.5 trillion, which is a third of the country's GDP.)

Failing to control for past smoking is a common flaw in studies which try to make vaping look like a major health threat. The authors of this study don't even mention it. They just assume that e-cigarettes are unhealthy.
...our model assumed that e-cigarette use has impacts on healthcare utilisation through health effects, that is, e-cigarette use causes poorer health, which in turn causes more healthcare utilisation
If that's what you assume, that's what you're going to find.


The Science Media Centre have found a couple of experts to comment on this trash. Worth a read. 

Prof Peter Hajek, Director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), said:

“This is a baffling piece of work. The authors report that people who use e-cigarettes have poorer health and incur higher health costs than non-smokers, but it is not clear why they assume that the excess health expenditure incurred by smokers who are trying to limit their smoking by using e-cigarettes (often because of acute health problems) is caused by their recent vaping rather than by their lifetime smoking. This is like claiming that the extra health expenditure incurred by people with broken legs is caused by using crutches.”

Monday 23 May 2022

A swift half with Johnny Kitson

There's an episode of The Swift Half that I forgot to mention on here at the time. It's with Johnny Kitson who is a superforecaster and an interesting man! Check it out.

Friday 20 May 2022

Jamie Oliver addresses a small gathering in London

Contemptible multi-millionaire Jamie Oliver turned up to speak to the staff of his front group Biteback and a handful of journalists in Westminster today in a protest against affordable food. Waving a high-sugar, high-fat, high-calorie luxury dessert, the failed restaurateur demanded the government ban multibuy deals such as '3 for 2' and '50% extra free' on food that contains modest quantities of fat, sugar and salt. The government is doing this anyway, just a year later than over-the-hill chef would like.
I wrote about this issue for Spiked in the week, so I will leave Tom Harwood to summarise the day's events. I particularly enjoyed the last 15 seconds of this.

Wednesday 18 May 2022

Do nanny state policies work at all?

Carl Phillips and Marewa Glover have produced a very interesting study assessing the efficacy of anti-smoking policies in the USA. With the exception of tax rises, they find very little evidence that any of them have made any measurable difference to smoking rates and that most, if not all, in the fall in smoking rates would have happened without any legislation. 
Why, then, have smoking rates been declining for decades? Their theory is that it began with the "information shock" of public health authorities, such as the Surgeon General, declaring smoking to be a major health risk in the 1960s. This led to an immediate decline in smoking rates which has echoed down the years through inter-generational effects. As they note, the most robust predictor of individual smoking initiation is parental smoking. When parents quit or never start smoking, their offspring are less likely to smoke.  

And so, by their calculations...

Results: About one-third of the observed prevalence decline through 2010 can be attributed solely to fewer parents smoking after the initial education shock. Combining peer-group cessation contagion explains well over one-half of the total historical prevalence reduction. Plausible additional echo effects could explain the entire historical reduction in smoking prevalence. 

Conclusions: Ongoing anti-smoking interventions are credited with ongoing reductions in smoking, but most, or perhaps all that credit really belongs to the initial education and its continuing echoes. Ensuring that people understand the health risks of smoking causes large and ongoing reductions. The effect of all other interventions (other than introducing appealing substitutes) is clearly modest, and quite possibly, approximately zero, after accounting for the echo effects.

I recommend reading the whole study, but the following section should give you the gist of what they mean by echo effects:

We know that choosing to smoke is socially contagious – the more people around someone who smokes, particularly their parents, the more likely they are to start smoking.1 Parental smoking is the most consistent strong predictor of whether a teenager (of a particular age, in a particular population) will start smoking. Smoking prevalence among siblings, peer groups, and the wider community affects uptake via overt and subconscious social signaling. All of these are taken as fact in the scientific literature and in Phillips et al tobacco control politics, where they are cited as motivation or points of leverage for interventions. But one important implication – that a downward shock or trend in smoking prevalence will, by itself, cause further downward trending for more than a generation – is generally ignored. 

Similarly, smoking cessation is a contagious behavior. This is particularly clear for switching to a lower-risk alternative, wherein the person quitting smoking demonstrates to their social contacts that the choice is appealing and educates them about the alternative. However, even if the choice of cessation method is not affected by social-contact education, the demonstration effect of quitting itself is still powerful. Seeing a friend quit smoking takes it from being an abstract possibility to a concrete example of success. In addition, simply having fewer people who smoke in one’s social circles encourages quitting. Each of these, and all of them together, creates a positive feed-forward effect from any smoking reduction. 

Thus, a one-time permanent downward shock in the popularity of smoking – like that caused by initial education about the harms from smoking – causes a long tail of transition to a new lower equilibrium, echoes of the initial shock. If many people quit smoking, then many more who would have started smoking had they come of age earlier will not do so and others will be motivated to quit over time. The subsequent cohorts coming of age not only will experience the effect of the downward shock, but also be subject to less social contagion. There will be a new equilibrium, but it will only be reached slowly, with a substantial portion of the effect taking more than a generation. This will happen with or without any further efforts to discourage smoking. Subsequent interventions could still have effects beyond the secular trend toward a new equilibrium, of course, but it makes no sense to try to quantify those effects without trying to estimate the background effects of the echoes alone.

Phillips and Glover stress that it cannot be proved either way whether the bulk of anti-smoking regulation has made a difference to smoking rates. They present a hypothesis and a series of models. But it is an intriguing hypothesis and I have often wondered to what extent the tobacco control lobby has been dining out on a decline in smoking rates that would have happened without them (and for many years did happen without them). 

That would certainly help explain why tobacco-style regulation fails to work when applied to other activities. These policies tend to focus on the Three As - affordability, advertising and availability - but whilst it is Econ 101 to note that higher prices tend to lead to lower consumption, albeit at the expense of consumers, the evidence for the other two As is remarkably thin on the ground. 

Take alcohol. A 2019 systematic review titled 'Do alcohol control policies work?' and written by two members of the South African Medical Research Council concluded that ‘[r]obust and well-reported research synthesis is deficient in the alcohol control field despite the availability of clear methodological guidance.’ The policies examined included restricting alcohol advertising and restricting on- and off-premise outlet density.

With regards to advertising, a Cochrane Review, which is usually considered definitive, found 'a lack of robust evidence for or against recommending the implementation of alcohol advertising restrictions'. 

Even the authors of Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity, the bible of the secular temperance movement, were only able to make a limp case for advertising bans.

‘Imposing total or partial bans on advertising produce, at best, small effects in the short term on overall consumption in a population, in part because producers and sellers can simply transfer their promotional spending into allowed marketing approaches. The more comprehensive restrictions on exposure (e.g. in France) have not been evaluated… The extent to which effective restrictions would reduce consumption and related harm in younger age groups remains an open question.’

A systematic review published in 2012 tried very hard to find evidence to support orthodox, supply-side anti-alcohol policies. It was written by dyed-in-the-wool 'public health' activists, including Mark Petticrew and Martin McKee, but they really struggled to find what they wanted. 

On advertising, they found seven studies which 'provided inconclusive results for the influence of advertising on alcohol use'. 

There wasn't much evidence and a lot of it was of poor quality, but...

A study rated as ‘strong’ in the quality assessment found no significant association between exterior advertising in areas near schools and adolescent drinking.

The authors nevertheless concluded that...

In general, the findings of this review are consistent with reviews on wider alcohol availability (Popova et al., 2009), which have found that availability has a strong influence on alcohol use.

But this is mere editorialising. The evidence they discuss in the paper doesn't show that at all.

In general, the results of this review are similar to those found in previous reviews (Babor et al., 2003)—studies show mixed results but strongly indicate that greater exposure to advertising is associated with higher levels of alcohol use.

How can mixed results strongly show anything?

They also looked at availability - including licensing hours and outlet density - and again struggled to find evidence to support their priors. They found '21 studies on the influence of availability of alcohol from commercial sources on alcohol use', but, alas...

Overall the findings provided inconclusive results for the influence of availability on alcohol use, although some studies indicated that higher outlet density in a community may be associated with an increase in alcohol use.

With regards outlet density specifically:

For off-premise outlets (such as shops), eight studies found no significant association but there is some indication that a higher density of off-premise outlets may be associated with an increased likelihood of heavy drinking. For on-premise outlets (such as bars and restaurants), results were also mixed but there is some indication that a higher density of on-premise outlets may be associated with an increase in the likelihood of drinking and heavy drinking. 

'Some indication' and 'may be associated' are not phrases to fill policy-makers with confidence and are a far cry from the bald assertions of efficacy you hear from the likes of Alcohol Focus Scotland when they appear on television.

As for local changes to licensing regulations...

Four studies (with four effect estimates) looked at the influence of local licensing changes on alcohol use, which included banning alcohol sales and making changes to the hours, days and volumes of alcohol sales that were licensed. They indicate that licensing restrictions may reduce alcohol use, but the evidence is not very robust.

This, remember, is from a group of people who are absolutely committed to clamping down on the advertising and availability of alcohol, and who are putting the best possible spin on the evidence.

The story is much the same when you look at food/obesity. You don't see many randomised controlled trials in the nanny state wing of public health but we have one for the policy of food reformulation. And guess what? It doesn't work. 
Consumption of sugar-reduced products, as part of a blinded dietary exchange for an 8-week period, resulted in a significant reduction in sugar intake. Body weight did not change significantly, which we propose was due to energy compensation.

We also have a RCT for intensive anti-obesity interventions with children over a period of years and they don't seem to work either.

It is often claimed that limiting the number of fast food outlets will reduce obesity, but dozens of studies have looked at the association between proximity to fast food outlets and obesity. The vast majority suggest that there isn't one.

This week saw the publication of a systematic review of food advertising. Again, it was written by fervent interventionists and its lead author is the activist-academic Emma Boyland who is responsible for a fair chunk of the literature herself. She is now not only a professor but also an advisor to thee World Health Organisation.


You won't be surprised that she concludes that governments should restrict food advertising, but it is difficult much of a justification for this in her study.

Evidence on diet and product change was very limited. The certainty of evidence was very low for four outcomes (exposure, power, dietary intake, and product change) and low for two (purchasing and unintended consequences).

Shown in a graphic, the evidence can most charitably be described as 'mixed'.
Even the press release had to come clean:

Their research, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that food marketing was associated with significant increases in food intake, choice, preference, and purchase requests. However, there was no clear evidence of relationships with purchasing, and little evidence on dental health or body weight outcomes.

If food marketing doesn't have an effect on 'body weight outcomes', there is, of course, no point in restricting it. Obesity and dental health are the only outcomes we're interested in.

None of the studies mentioned above are libertarian hit jobs or industry debunkings. On the contrary, they are written by teammates marking each others homework. The ideological bias and statistical chicanery of many 'public health' researchers will be well known to readers of this blog. If they can't produce persuasive evidence that their policies work, even when reviewed by like-minded friends, we must seriously consider the possibility that none of this stuff does what it is supposed to.

Trying to find common ground on food policy

Sky News have a show presented by Trevor Phillips which tries to find common ground between people who disagree. It is called, reasonably enough, Common Ground and I like the format. It's half an hour long so there is time to get deeper into issues than you get in a standard TV interview. 

Yesterday I was on the show with Thomasina Miers, a restaurateur and food campaigner, to discuss the BOGOF ban and obesity policy in general. She is not a fanatic like Graham 'Mad Dog' MacGregor nor is she a grifter like Aseem Malhotra. She's mostly interested in improving the nutritional quality of school meals, but she also supports things like the BOGOF ban, so we naturally disagreed.

I'm not sure how much common ground we found. Watch it and decide for yourself.

Tuesday 17 May 2022

Bog off forever

The ban on volume price discounts, such as '3 for 2' deals, for HFSS food has been delayed by a year and will now come into force in October 2023. The advertising ban has also been delayed by a year and will come into force in January 2024. 

Both of them should be ditched for good, as I argue in Spiked today...

The scoundrels of ‘public health’ have persistently claimed that the ban only applies to ‘junk food’. Most of the media have gone along with this conceit, but ‘junk food’ is in the eye of the beholder and has no legal definition. In Britain, the category of HFSS (high in fat, sugar or salt) is used as its nearest equivalent, but this covers far more products than you might expect, including olive oil, raisins and walnuts. 

The absurdity of this came to light when Transport for London introduced a ban on ‘junk food’ advertising and ended up penalising an achingly ethical food-delivery company for showing butter in an advertisement. TfL even had to change its own maps of London to remove offending images of strawberries and cream (Wimbledon) and curries (Brick Lane).

In an effort to avoid a similar embarrassment, the government has decided to define ‘less healthy food’ however the hell it likes. Butter and bacon are no longer on the list, despite both being very high in fat and bacon being high in salt. Forced to name every category of HFSS food that will be covered by the ban individually, the Department of Health has revealed how far-reaching and arbitrary the law will be.

As you might expect, the list includes crisps, pizza and chocolate, but it also includes ‘products made from potato, other vegetables, grain or pulses’; ‘bagged savoury crackers, rice cakes or biscuits’; ‘pitta bread-based snacks, pretzels, poppadoms, salted popcorn, prawn crackers’; ‘ready-to-eat cereals, granola, muesli, porridge oats and other oat-based cereals, bars based on one or more of nuts, seeds or cereal’; ‘croissants, pains au chocolat and similar pastries, crumpets, pancakes, buns, teacakes, scones, waffles, Danish pastries and fruit loaves’; ‘roast potatoes, hash browns, crispy potato slices, potato croquettes’; and ‘fish fingers and fish cakes’.

It also includes shop-bought meal deals of the kind that are popular with millions of people every lunchtime. If any component of the meal deal is deemed to be HFSS – a bit of mayonnaise in the sandwich, some sugar in the drink or a pack of crisps on the side – you will have to buy the items separately at an inflated cost. 

The government’s Impact Assessment expects to see a ‘loss in consumer surplus for consumers who currently make extensive use of price promotions’. That’s one way of putting it. The BOGOF ban should never have made it past the ideas stage and should now be put out of its misery for good.


Sunday 15 May 2022

Gambling as a 'public health' issue

Martin McKee and Mark Petticrew, two of the most inept 'public health' blowhards in Britain, have bumbled into the gambling debate with a letter in Lancet Psychiatry. McKee has form for talking rubbish about gambling, having been an opponent of the National Lottery way back in 1995. Neither he nor Petticrew have conducted any research into problem gambling, but they recognise that efforts to redefine gambling as a 'public health' issue offers them a new dragon to slay and new opportunities to write opinion pieces about industry websites masquerading as research (which is Petticrew's speciality).

The letter is a bit of a blancmange and it becomes clear straight away that they are out of their depth.

Gambling harms have traditionally been viewed through the lens of psychiatry, psychology, and the neurosciences, with a focus on the individual gambler. This approach reflects an international research agenda that originated with the gambling industry and organisations that it has supported for almost 40 years. The ways in which this literature serves to pathologise people identified as so-called problem gamblers...

The clinical term for 'so-called' problem gambling is pathological gambling. The clue's in the name. It is a psychological problem which can be successfully treated. One of Britain's most prominent anti-gambling campaigners was cured of his compulsive gambling through the use of cognitive behavioural therapy and medication. These things work. 

The approach of the modern, morally bankrupt 'public health' movement is to not get your hands dirty working with individuals but to treat everything as a power struggle with the world of business, and lobby for useless legislation. One of the current fads is for levies on industry which amount to self-serving shakedowns. That's what the anti-smokers want and it is what some anti-gamblers want too. 
The thing is that the gambling industry already provides a lot of money for treatment and prevention, and is prepared to offer more. Such is the moral righteousness of the anti-gambling mob that they would rather tax the general public than accept money from industry. I reported such a case involving the mental health director of the NHS back in February. Some of them seem to have convinced themselves that money from industry is somehow laundered if it comes via a levy instead.

McKee and Petticrew are even opposed to a levy because it would supposedly create a 'conflict of interest'.

Bowden-Jones and colleagues propose a 1% levy on industry earnings to fund independent research. Although this funding would be a clear improvement on the current unsatisfactory system, in which voluntary contributions from the industry are channelled through GambleAware (a charity that both raises industry-derived funds and commissions research), the suggested levy is not a panacea. Linking the available funding to the earnings of the industry would create an obvious conflict of interest, because those involved might hesitate if their actions were to curb profits. We do not understand why public funding for gambling research should not be from government revenues, as is the case with any other threat to health.

This doesn't make much sense. Firstly, a levy would contribute to government revenues. Secondly, by the logic of 'public health' at least, if the industry makes less money (and therefore pays less via the levy) then there must be less gambling-related harm. Thirdly, are they seriously suggesting that researchers will refrain from offering effective solutions because the money will dry up somewhat? That would take a pretty unscrupulous and immoral academic. I believe this is known in psychology as projection.

So what do they propose instead? Insofar as they have a plan, it involves leaving problem gamblers to their fate while 'public health' grandees make pompous speeches about the 'commercial determinants of health' which is code for nutty anti-capitalist activism.

We call for a transformational change in how we conceptualise gambling harms, based on a public health framework that moves away from the current individualistic focus on so-called problem gamblers, takes seriously the upstream drivers of harm (eg, harmful business practices, products, and policies), and prioritises prevention of all forms of gambling harms, with funding mechanisms that are consistent with these goals.

It would be bad news for everybody if these ideologues get their way, but they seem to have some support, such as this chap...

Nothing much to worry about there, you might think. Just some bloke on Twitter who wrongly believes that treatment doesn't work. 

But the bloke who thinks treatment doesn't work is the Clinical Lead & Consultant Psychologist for the NHS Northern Gambling Service. Presumably he'll be handing in his resignation in the morning.

Friday 6 May 2022

Prohibition doesn't work - South African edition

Mark Petticrew and a few of his headbanging colleagues have written a little diatribe for the BMJ. The gist of it is that arguments and evidence they don't like are a form of 'pollution' and should be controlled as such. Or something like that. I don't recommend reading it as it is largely gibberish, but I was amused by this sentence...

Public health research and advocates were also framed as “nanny staters” or “prohibitionists”6 engaging in “class warfare.”7
The citation for the supposedly unfair claim that 'public health advocates' are prohibitionists is this article from Tobacco Control which literally calls for a total ban on the sale of cigarettes (the authors argue that if they call it 'abolition' rather than prohibition, they will throw the public off the scent).

Being prohibitionists, a number of people in the 'public health' racket got rather excited about the ban on tobacco and alcohol sales in South Africa during the 2020-21 lockdowns. They obviously saw it as a test case for their long term goals. 

The consequences of alcohol prohibition in South Africa were exactly what you might expect. Tobacco prohibition worked out in much the same way, as a new study has found:

South Africa temporarily banned the sale of tobacco as part of its COVID-19 response. Despite the ban, the sale of cigarettes did not cease; rather, it caused major disruption to the cigarette market. The ban inadvertently benefited manufacturers who were previously disproportionately involved in illicit activities; these manufacturers increased their market share even after the ban was lifted. The ban may have further entrenched South Africa's already large illicit market. Our results show that there are unintended consequences associated with a temporary ban on the sale of cigarettes.
You don't say!

Thursday 5 May 2022

World Health Organisation admits its anti-obesity policies don't work

From The Times...

Britain is on track to be the fattest nation in Europe in a decade, with the rise in obesity driven by takeaway services such as Deliveroo and sedentary lifestyles, a World Health Organisation expert has warned.

By the early 2030s, 37 per cent of British men and women are expected to be obese, a report from global health chiefs says. The present figure is 28 per cent.

Regular readers will be aware that obesity predictions from the likes of the WHO are worthless. As I wrote in 2015... 
In 2006, a Department of Health report predicted that 28 per cent of women and 33 per cent of men would be obese by 2010. Although a prediction for just four years in advance sounds a modest task, 2010 came and went with obesity rates of 26 per cent for both sexes.

In 2007, the well-regarded Foresight report predicted that 'by 2015, 36% of males and 28% of females will be obese'. Figures for 2015 have not yet been published but the most recent data for England show rates of 26 per cent and 24 per cent respectively.

Undeterred by these failed efforts at clairvoyance, The Lancet published a report in 2011 which predicted that nearly half of all British men and 43 per cent of British women would be obese by 2030. It would take an extraordinary surge in prevalence for this to come to pass. Current rates are below The Lancet's lowest confidence interval and appear unlikely to catch up.

Leaving the WHO's prognostication skills to one side, the claim that UK obesity rates will rise from 28% to 37% in the next decade does not say much for the WHO's anti-obesity policies. By 2030, the tax on sugary drinks - which the WHO portrays as one of the 'best buys' for tackling obesity - will have been in place for 12 years. The food reformulation scheme - which is apparently so effective that it is being rolled across Europe by the WHO - will have been in place for 14 years. Heavy restrictions on the promotion and sale of so-called junk food will have been in place for 8 years. Mandatory calorie labelling will also have been in place for 8 years. A ban on advertising food that is deemed high in fat, sugar or salt on TV before 9pm and online any time will have been in place for 7 years.

The WHO would doubtless say that the government should do even more, but this not nothing, is it? Once the last of these policies is rolled out next year, Britain will have the most far-reaching anti-obesity legislation anywhere in the world. If this stuff worked, you would expect obesity rates to fall by at least a few percentage points. Instead, the WHO reckons they will rise by a third and Britain will overtake Turkey and Malta to become the fattest country in the WHO Europe region.

Hardly a glowing endorsement of their own policies, is it?

The impact of minimum pricing

I've summarised the results of my recent research into minimum pricing for Cap-X...

From an economist’s perspective, the unusual natural experiment of minimum pricing offers a chance to see how human beings respond to floor prices. The sale of wine stayed more or less unchanged, but the sale of fortified wine rose by 25%. Much of this came from a surge in the sale of the notorious tonic wine Buckfast which was never sold below 50p per unit to begin with. 

Spirits sales fell overall, but the sale of whisky rose by 11%. The Scotch Whisky Association, who delayed the introduction of minimum pricing through a series of legal challenges, must be wondering why they bothered.

Another interesting finding from our research is that consumers often shifted to significantly more expensive drinks after minimum pricing began. Perhaps this is not so surprising. Minimum pricing effectively wiped out the bottom end of the market and pushed consumers towards the mid-range. It encouraged many consumers to experiment with mainstream brands that they might not otherwise have bought, such as Famous Grouse whisky or Gordon’s gin. If you’re going to spend more money on alcohol, why not buy a brand you recognise? Mid-range brands have never competed purely on price and do not cluster around the 50p per unit price point. 

On a different note, I've written about Ronnie O'Sullivan for Spiked.

Wednesday 4 May 2022

A swift half with Martin Durkin

The latest Swift Half with Snowdon features the excellent Martin Durkin. He makes all the best documentaries. Check it out.

Tuesday 3 May 2022

The cost of minimum pricing


When minimum unit pricing was introduced in Scotland in May 2018 it became illegal to sell alcohol for less than 50p per unit. One of the SNP’s flagship policies, it aimed to reduce alcohol-related harms, including death and crime, by raising the price of the cheap, off-trade alcohol that is often associated with harmful drinking. Lacking the power to raise alcohol duty itself, the Scottish government turned to minimum pricing as a way of using the price mechanism to reduce consumption. It was assumed that reducing consumption would lead to a decline in the associated harms.

Even if it worked, this would clearly come at a cost to many drinkers. How much it would cost was contested, with advocates of the policy insistent that moderate drinkers would barely be affected. Although Public Health Scotland is currently evaluating minimum pricing, the financial impact on consumers has not yet been investigated. 

And so, in a study published by the Institute of Economic Affairs over the weekend, John Duffy, Mark Tovey and myself used off-trade sales figures to estimate the cost of minimum pricing to Scottish consumers in the four years since it was implemented. We believe it exceeds a quarter of a billion pounds. Our midpoint estimate is £270 million. That works out at £59.39 per adult or £71.12 per drinker.

Minimum pricing is currently being evaluated by MESAS for Public Health Scotland. So far, they have struggled to find any benefits from the policy. Looking at the data from the past four years, we were also unable to find any discernible impact on crime, absenteeism, unemployment, hospitalisations or deaths, all of which were projected to improve after the policy was implemented. Admittedly, some of the projected benefits were so small that they would be difficult to identify in aggregate data, but all of the key indicators have remained unchanged or worsened since minimum pricing began.

Read the full report here.