Monday 31 October 2022

A swift half with Paul North

Paul North is the director of the drug reform group Volteface. I talked to him face to face at home about the various ways in which cannabis is being legalised around the world. Check it out.

Thursday 27 October 2022

What if we ditched the sugar tax?

I'm on the Food Matters Live podcast this week talking about whether the sugar tax worked and if it should be ditched. The other guest is Giles Yeo whom I like but with whom I don't always agree.

Check it out.

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Junk science of the week

New science just dropped...
Labels encouraging responsible drinking struggle to get the message through

People view labels on alcoholic drinks encouraging responsible consumption as a ploy by the industry to be seen as caring and are unlikely to lead to people drinking less.

The lead author is Dr Emma Davies whose previous contributions to the scientific literature include  'Connecting through dance: Understanding conscious clubbing event experiences', 'Acceptability of alcohol-free dance in place of traditional alcohol-focused events' and 'Reflection and connection: UK Psychologists’ views and experiences of blogging'.
Her new research has been published in the British Journal of Health Psychology. It is a 'qualitative study' which basically means that it was a glorified focus group.

The new research asked 20 drinkers aged between 21 and 63 for their views on the effectiveness of these labels, and considered whether it is likely that labelling can contribute to reducing people’s alcohol consumption.

n = 20. Not a lot, is it?
All participants were shown three types of labels, one set promoting responsible drinking, one set with positive health messages (drinking less reduces risk) and one set with negative health messages (drinking more increases risk), and asked about their views on the labels and drinking more widely.

The interviews found that the participants viewed responsible drinking messages as a ploy by the alcohol industry to be seen as caring without taking tangible action, and there was little support for the use of labels.

This strikes me as a strangely politicised take. I don't believe that many drinkers are as obsessed by 'ploys' by 'the industry' as people in public health academia are. 
The study itself reports participants having remarkably similar views to a small clique of 'public health' campaigners.
Perceptions of the alcohol industry seemed to be very strongly linked to perceptions of the tobacco industry.
Participants commonly suggested that pictorial messaging analogous to graphic images on tobacco products would be more effective than the text warnings they were shown in the interviews
Several participants highlighted that the role of the industry in a capitalist neoliberal society is to make money rather than to provide health information, and thus, they felt that labelling was not an appropriate strategy for alcohol harm reduction.
Who among us hasn't highlighted the role of the alcohol industry in a capitalist neoliberal society recently? 
Who were these people?! According to the study...
Participants aged 18 or over were recruited opportunistically via an electronic university research noticeboard and social media from one geographical area in Southern England. 

There seems to have been no attempt to find a group of people who were representative of the general population. Five of them had post-graduate degrees, ten had undergraduate degrees, two were undergraduates at the time of the interview and three had A-levels. None of them were educated below A-level standard. This is hardly surprising given that the opportunity to participate in the focus group was advertised on a university notice board and through the researchers' social media feeds.
How many of them were acquaintances or students of the researchers? Alas, we are not told, but we are told that "many worked at the host institution" and the lead author often uses her Twitter feed to recruit participants for her 'qualitative research'.

Recruiting people in this way is very common in 'public health', but it creates a very obvious risk of sampling bias. Dr Davies has less than 2,000 followers and it is reasonable to assume that the majority of them broadly agree with what she tweets, which is mostly links to anti-alcohol research and gestures of support for various woke causes. If you advertise opportunities to take part in a survey or interview to a self-selecting group of followers, you are bound to end up with an echo chamber. 
What does these people's subjective opinions tell us about labelling, drinking behaviour or the alcohol industry? Absolutely nothing. She might as well have done a Twitter poll.

Monday 24 October 2022

Russia 1985–1999: TraumaZone - a review

I've reviewed Adam Curtis's new documentary Russia 1985–1999: TraumaZone for Quillette.

What we see is a country where people have been degraded by poverty and tyranny for decades, ruled over by an elite whose power is slipping away. Russia is being looted from within and without. Violence and nihilism reign. Everything is decrepit. Nothing works. Nobody knows what they are doing and nobody is coming to their rescue.

Restricted to the occasional caption and subtitle, Curtis refrains from editorialising. This cannot have been easy for him. I can picture him in the studio desperately resisting the urge to add a little sermon, particularly in the last episode. I couldn’t help wondering what he would say if he did. What does he want us to take away from these miles of videotape? Is it that communism and capitalism are as bad as each other? Or that capitalism requires stronger institutions and less corruption than the former Soviet Union could offer? Is he saying that a gangster like Putin has been able to maintain power for so long because Russians are scarred by their experience of freedom? Or has he simply decided that he is, first and foremost, an archivist?


Wednesday 19 October 2022

Last Orders with Rod Liddle

 We've got the perfect Last Orders guest on the show this month. Have a listen.

Monday 17 October 2022

A swift half with Marewa Glover

After a hiatus of a few weeks, the Swift Half with Snowdon is back. I was delighted to chat to Dr Marewa Glover, a harm reduction advocate from New Zealand, who told me how authoritarian her country is becoming. Saint Jacinda is serious about banning cigarettes very soon and makes no secret of the fact that vaping is next.

Scary stuff. Check it out below. 

Wednesday 12 October 2022

The smoke-free 2030 target

More Westminster rumours. 

This time it's reckoned that health secretary Therese Coffey is shelving the unpublished 'smoke-free' plan. Some say that she doesn't even know that the government has a target of making England 'smoke-free' by 2030 because she's been too distracted trying to run the health service.

Is this true? Who knows? But there shouldn't be target for how many people smoke in 2030 because it's none of the government's business. The target was only created by Theresa May to give her some sort of legacy. It wasn't even in the last Conservative manifesto.

I've written about this for the Spectator...

A pack of cigarettes costs £13, you can’t smoke them anywhere except outdoors and in private dwellings, they haven’t been advertised for 20 years, they are hidden behind shutters in shops and have been in beige packaging with gruesome photographs since 2017. 

Everyone has got the message that smoking is bad for you and the government would rather you didn’t do it. Having exhausted every sensible idea to deter people from smoking – and several half-mad ones – we have surely reached the point at which the individual’s right to choose is respected. My body, my choice, as they say.

What is the argument for turning the screw on this beleaguered minority yet again? In a paternalistic editorial, the Times acknowledges there is ‘a balance to strike between individual freedom and public health’ but that ‘smoking reduction has long moved beyond this binary tension’ because there is ‘common consent that reducing smoking is the right thing to do’. In other words, the freedom of individuals no long matters once the rest of society disapproves of them. This is what John Stuart Mill meant when he talked about the tyranny of the majority. If your mind is clouded by a dislike of tobacco smoke, try substituting  ’free speech’ or ‘religious freedom’ to see what an ugly and dangerous sentiment this is.


Tuesday 11 October 2022

How libertarian is the government?

Nick Timothy reckons that the British government is hooked on 'libertarian ideology'. He says this like it's a bad thing. I look at the evidence for this so far at Spiked today...

A libertarian government would have immediately abolished the Online Safety Bill, scrapped the sugar tax, repealed the smoking ban, privatised the NHS and legalised cannabis. None of this has happened and very little of it looks likely to happen. Instead, we have a colossally expensive energy price cap and rumours that random drug testing could be introduced in offices.


Friday 7 October 2022

What is gambling-related harm?

In the ongoing process of turning gambling into a 'public health' issue, it is necessary to identify some harms to be addressed. This is not as easy as it sounds since gambling per se does not cause any harm to health. On the contrary, it can improve wellbeing, as Public Health England acknowledged in its evidence review:

‘The highest levels of gambling participation are reported by people who have better general psychological health and higher life satisfaction. And people who have poorer psychological health are less likely to report gambling participation.’

Moreover, whilst pathological gambling is a mental health problem by definition, it does not directly harm health. 
This week, the Gambling Commission drew up a list of 27 gambling-related harms. Some of them are relatively severe impacts associated with problem gambling, albeit indirectly, such as:
  • loss of sleep
  • feelings of stress and anxiety
  • incidence of self-harm 
  • needed assistance from mental health services or help with your physical health
  • had thoughts of taking your life or made an attempt to take your life.
  • divorce, ending or loss of a relationship
  • experiencing social isolation
  • experiencing violence or abuse (including physical, emotional and financial abuse)

Some of them are pretty trivial...
  • feeling like a failure
  • increased consumption of alcohol and tobacco 
And some of them are ridiculous. For example...
  • reduction or loss of spending on recreational expenses such as eating out, going to the cinema or other entertainment
What?! This 'harm' comes about when you spend your money on literally anything. If you go to the cinema, you will suffer a 'reduction or loss of spending on recreational expenses such as eating out'. In a world of finite resources any expenditure on X means less expenditure on Y. The question is whether you'd rather spend money on X than Y. 
The same principle applies to the following alleged 'harm'... 

  • spending less time with the people you care about
I suppose that if you go to the casino on your own, you are using time that could be spent with your children, but maybe you don't want to spend all your time with your children. The school system means parents spend less time with their children but no one would describe that as a harm (if anything, it's a benefit).

The implicit message here is that gambling - not just problem gambling, but gambling in general - is a waste of time and money. If we're going to start redefining opportunity costs as harms there will be no end to the 'public health' campaign against gambling. 'No safe level' here we come...

Wednesday 5 October 2022

Smoking and drugs at the Tory conference

I was in Birmingham earlier this week for the Conservative Party conference. I was on two panels, one about drugs and the other about smoking. You can watch them below.