Thursday, 23 March 2023

Henry Dimblebly's Ravenous

Henry Dimbleby sent me his new book, Ravenous, last week. He must have known I would hate it and give it a bad review. He was right. Here's my review.

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Salvaging minimum pricing

Cross-posted from my Substack...
In January, I mentioned that minimum unit pricing (MUP) in Scotland has a sunset clause and the SNP was running out of time in its search for evidence that the policy works. I made a prediction…

I wouldn’t be surprised if activist-academics pull a dodgy counterfactual out of their hat at the last minute and claim success, as has just happened with the sugar tax. In fact, I'd put money on it.

That day has come with this study published in the Lancet. The headline claim is that minimum pricing ‘led to’ a 13.4 per cent decline in deaths wholly attributable to alcohol consumption and a 4.1 per cent reduction in hospitalisations for the same, although the latter is not statistically significant.

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Unusually, the media have given a better account of what the study shows than its authors did. The term ‘activist-academics’ might be a bit strong, but several of them have been advocating for minimum pricing for a decade (e.g. here and here). They are the core of the team that has been evaluating minimum pricing for Public Health Scotland for the last few years and have been unable to find much cause for celebration. MUP seems to have had no effect on A & E admissions or crime. There is ‘no clear evidence that MUP led to an overall reduction in alcohol consumption among people drinking at harmful levels. On the contrary, there is evidence that the heaviest drinking men, in particular, are drinking more.

It may or may not a ‘dodgy’ counterfactual, but today’s study is certainly based on a counterfactual. Nobody is claiming that the number of deaths actually fell by 13.4%. The claim is that the number of deaths is 13.4% lower than it would have been, if we assume the trend in Scotland would have been the same as in England.

In the Herald, minimum pricing modeller Petra Meier (who was not involved in this study but is a big fan of the policy) says:

“If changes happen in both countries, they cannot be caused by the policy which only affected Scotland, but Scotland-only changes are highly likely to be caused by Minimum Unit Pricing, given there were no other major alcohol-related changes that occurred in only one of the countries in the meantime.”

This is a huge exaggeration. Trends often go in opposite directions in England and Scotland for reasons that ‘public health’ researchers neither understand nor usually care about. Most notably, the alcohol-specific death rate fell sharply in Scotland between 2006 and 2012 while remaining broadly flat in England (there were no policy changes in Scotland to explain this). In 2017, the year before MUP began, rates fell in Scotland but rose in England. In 2018, they went up in Scotland and down in England. As a control group, England is very unreliable.

Nevertheless, it is clear that in 2019 - the first full year of minimum pricing - the alcohol-specific death rate went down by about 10 per cent in Scotland while it rose slightly in England. As I said when these figures were first published, this is ‘consistent with the view that minimum pricing reduces alcohol-related mortality’. But it is also consistent with normal year-to-year fluctuation. A fall of this magnitude is hardly unprecedented. The rate fell by 10 per cent in both 2007 and in 2009, and by 15 per cent in 2012. Nobody paid much attention to any of these declines because no one was looking for a policy to pin them on.

The authors of the Lancet study are able to give a more detailed view by showing the monthly figures, but the story remains much the same. The death rate was a little lower in 2019 than in the most of the previous few years. Interestingly, there were an unusually high number of alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland in the months leading up to MUP, for reasons unknown. This makes the subsequent decline look a little more dramatic.

Still, it’s not very dramatic, is it? If the authors hadn’t highlighted when MUP began, you would be hard pushed to put your finger on it.

The graphs showing alcohol-related hospital admissions are even less impressive (n.b. the sharp fall in spring 2020 was due to Covid)…

If you took this data to a health minister in another country and told them that this is what they could achieve if they introduced minimum pricing, I can’t imagine them getting too excited.

COVID-19 is considered an exogenous shock which makes evaluating MUP in 2020 and 2021 very difficult. The authors do not look at 2021 at all, saying only that ‘the increase in the rate in Scotland from 2020 to 2021 (4%) was lower than in England (7%).’ This is misleading. In percentage terms there was a slightly larger rise in England during the pandemic, but in absolute terms there were an extra 3.8 alcohol deaths per 100,000 in Scotland in 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic year of 2019 whereas there were only an extra 3.0 alcohol deaths per 100,000 in England.

Since MUP only affects the off-trade, one might expect MUP to have had a greater effect during lockdown when alcohol was only available from the off-trade, but there is no indication of this in the data.

I will leave it to statisticians to decide whether the model is dodgy. But if we accept that there is a temporal association, the question is about causation. To decide whether or not MUP ‘worked’, we need to look at the totality of the evidence. Is it plausible that a decline in alcohol sales of three per cent would lead to a 13 per cent reduction in deaths? (Even the three per cent reduction in sales is based on a counterfactual; the real figure is 1.1 per cent, and that doesn’t include cross-border sales.) Is it plausible that MUP would reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths without reducing the number of alcohol-related A & E admissions? Or the number of alcohol-related crimes, for that matter? The claim in this study doesn’t fit with the rest of the evidence.

We also have evidence from Wales which introduced MUP in March 2020, a few weeks before the first lockdown. Like the rest of the UK, and much of the world, Wales saw a sharp rise in alcohol-related deaths in 2020 and 2021. There is no indication that MUP softened this rise. In fact, the number of alcohol-related deaths in Wales went up at exactly the same rate between 2019 and 2021 as it did England in percentage terms (27 per cent) and by slightly more in absolute terms (an extra 3.2 deaths per 100,000 in Wales versus an extra 3.0 per 100,000 in England).

The authors of the study nevertheless assume causality: 

Our study reports on the final intended outcome and finds that this reduction in sales led to a 13% reduction in deaths and a 4% reduction in hospitalisations. The methods used suggest plausibility that these effects can be causally attributed to MUP.

As Kevin McConway says, the real problem with this quote is the phrase ‘led to’, which clearly assumes causality.
This is where you would be better off getting your information from the media. As the Guardian rightly says…

The research was observational, so cannot prove conclusively that the significant fall in deaths was due to the minimum unit pricing policy.

While the BBC adds the helpful reminder that…

The actual recorded number of alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland has generally been rising since 2012.

The BBC also recognises that the supposed decline in hospitalisations (which actually rose in both 2018 and 2019) is not significant. 

But they didn't quite see a difference in hospital admissions or in deaths partially due to alcohol, like liver cirrhosis.

And so this study is evidence for the effect of MUP, rather than proof.

It will, I suspect, be seen as proof by the SNP. This is the study they have been waiting for. All the evidence suggesting that the policy has been a flop will be disregarded and the minimum unit price will be raised from 50p to 65p. Job done.

Sunday, 19 March 2023

A swift half with Dan Malleck

You may have read that the Canadian government is under pressure to drop the drinking guidelines to two standard drinks per week (yes, week). Dan Malleck, Professor of Health Sciences at Brock University, has been one of the few people calling this out as temperance-driven nonsense. It was a pleasure to talk to him in the latest episode of The Swift Half.

Thursday, 16 March 2023

Sweet Jesus, not plain packaging again!

Oh joy, a new study...

Objective  To examine the association of fully branded and standardized e-cigarette packaging with interest in trying products among youths and adults in Great Britain.


Results  This study included 2469 youths (1286 female youths [52.1%]; mean [SD] age, 15.0 [2.3] years) and 12 046 adults (6412 female [53.2%]; mean [SD] age, 49.9 [17.4] years). Youths had higher odds of reporting no interest among people their age in trying the e-cigarettes packaged in green (292 of 815 [35.8%]; adjusted odds ratio [AOR], 1.37; 95% CI, 1.10-1.71; P = .005) but not white (264 of 826 [32.0%]; AOR, 1.16; 95% CI, 0.93-1.44; P = .20) standardized packaging compared with the fully branded packaging (238 of 828 [28.7%]).


Conclusions and Relevance  The findings of this survey study suggest that standardized packaging measures may reduce the appeal of e-cigarettes among youths without reducing their appeal among adults.


They showed a bunch of people some mocked up e-cigarette packaging, some of which was 'plain'/grotesque, and found that people preferred the normal packaging. Fancy that! 
The people were also less likely to say they would try vaping if the packaging was 'plain'. I suppose they would, wouldn't they?
From this the authors conclude that there would be less underage vaping if e-cigarettes were sold in plain packs.
Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) were straight out of the blocks demanding legislation (without mentioning that two members of their tiny staff had co-authored the study).
Anyone else getting a sense of deja vu? There were literally dozens of survey-based studies like this published before plain packaging for tobacco was introduced. Many of them were authored by the same people who published this new study, including ASH's very own Deborah Arnott. 

They were all wrong! Plain packaging didn't work! 
Has everyone forgotten that already?
It turns out that the stated preferences of people answering leading questions in surveys are a poor predictor of behaviour in real world settings. Who knew?!

Why am I so confident plain packaging didn't work? Partly because I've read the post-implementation review (PIR) that was quietly slipped out last year. The very fact that it was released without fanfare is a bit of a clue that the policy didn't quite live up to expectations.
The authors of the PIR claimed that the plain packaging regulations "had met their original objectives, without producing any significant unintended consequences", but you only had to read it to see that this was outrageous spin. 
The Department of Health commissioned a review from the University of Stirling to explore "the response of consumers, retailers, and tobacco companies to standardised packaging". The lead author was Crawford Moodie, an anti-smoking fanatic who had produced two reviews promoting plain packaging during the course of the campaign for the policy and who wrote many of the studies he was reviewing. 
His PIR review looked at eleven studies, seven of which had been co-authored by Moodie, focusing on issues such as compliance, pricing strategies and self-reported consumer responses. None of them examined smoking trends or cessation.
In a desperate cope, the PIR noted an unusually large decline in smoking prevalence between 2015 and 2016. The authors attribute this to plain packaging despite plain packs not being mandatory in shops until May 2017 and very few tobacco products being sold in plain packaging before January 2017.
The only study mentioned in the PIR that looked at smoking rates is this one which used monthly smoking prevalence data to build a model which found "a statistically significant level decrease in the odds of being a smoker after May 2017 (adjusted OR 0.93; 95% CI: 0.87 to 0.99)". But the decline was even greater when May 2016 was chosen as the start date. Since plain packs were hardly ever sold until 2017, the authors resorted to the laughable speculation that the smoking rate fell because smokers had heard that plain packaging was one its way:
‘the suggestion is that smokers were influenced more by the prospect of standardised packs … than the actual adoption of standardised packaging.’

This is obviously bollocks and since the only study cited in the review that looked at cigarette sales found "no clear deviation in the ongoing downward trend", I'm going to go ahead and say that plain packaging didn't work.

Are we really going to have to gone through this again? Are we going to have to tolerate more years of survey-based junk science being published to promote plain packaging for another product?

Didn't ASH swear on a stack of bibles that this is exactly the kind of thing that wouldn't happen?

Why, yes they did! In 2012, ASH said: 
... the “domino theory” i.e. that once a measure has been applied to tobacco it will be applied to other products is patently false. The same argument was used against the ban on tobacco advertising, but 9 years after the tobacco ban in the UK, alcohol advertising is still permitted with no sign of it being prohibited.
ASH have deleted that webpage now (it's still available thanks to the Wayback Machine), which is just as well seeing as the Scottish government is consulting on banning alcohol advertising and ASH is actively campaigning for plain packaging for be "applied to other products".

The Science Media Centre got some crank from the UCL Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group to comment. I suspect it is a sign of things to come:

“In the UK, plain packaging requirements for cigarettes and hand-rolled tobacco have been in place since 2017 – and data suggest smoking rates have fallen as a result..."

How can they lie like this?

... so there’s precedent for this type of intervention."

A 'slippery slope', if you will, with tobacco being the first domino to fall.

But while cigarettes look very similar across brands (meaning packaging is the main opportunity for branding), e-cigarette devices come in a wide range of shapes and colours which may still appeal to young people once the packaging is removed. So while standardising packaging may go some way towards reduce e-cigarettes’ appeal to youth, it’s likely to only be part of the puzzle.”

So not just standardised packaging then, but standardised e-cigarettes, and all with the backing of the vapers' frenemies at ASH.
It's not the flagrant mendacity. I'm used to flagrant mendacity in 'public health'. It's the tedium and predictability of it all that gets me.

Wednesday, 15 March 2023

Open season on smokers


The tax on a packet of cigarettes will rise by about £1.30 today thanks to the tobacco duty escalator. If recent history is any guide, the Chancellor won't even mention it because smokers don't matter in Britain in 2023. They are second class citizens to be vilified while the state uses them as cash cows. 

With the 'smoke-free 2030' target treated as if it were an eleventh commandment, rather than a feeble attempt by Theresa May to secure a legacy (and wasn't even in the last Tory manifesto), it's open season on smokers. I'll be speaking on a panel about this at the IEA next Thursday. Feel free to come along.

The blurb...

Is the ongoing war on smoking justified? Is there an alternative to creeping prohibition and infringing on an adult’s right to choose? And what are the implications for future generations if the state controls our lifestyle choices, be it smoking, eating or drinking?

Chaired by Simon Clark, director of the smokers’ rights group Forest, panellists are: Henry Hill, deputy editor of ConservativeHome; Reem Ibrahim, a final year student at the London School of Economics and communications officer at the IEA; Kara Kennedy, staff writer at The Spectator World and author of ‘An ode to smoking’; and Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the IEA.

The discussion starts at 19:00 and will be preceded by drinks from 18:15.

Spaces are limited and will be given on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Please RSVP to or call 020 7799 8900

Monday, 13 March 2023

Obesity and personal responsibility

Last week the weight loss drug semaglutide was authorised for prescription from the NHS. It can reduce body weight by around 15 per cent and has been used successfully by various celebrities in the USA. It's not cheap, costly perhaps £1,000 a month but eventually it will be off-patent and could play a significant role in tackling obesity. There is a detailed article about it on Works in Progress.

Meanwhile, in the Observer, Martha Gill makes a good point...

Nesta, the UK’s “innovation agency for social good”, spends a third of its considerable budget on tackling obesity, but treats the jab with suspicion, even though it can cause weight loss of 15%. The risks of “effective weight loss drugs” such as semaglutide, it wrote, was that it “might well deepen the emphasis in the public discourse on a ‘personal responsibility narrative’”, distracting from “the root cause – the food environment”.

This, again, is strange. Let us remember that obesity kills and semaglutide will save lives. Imagine greeting a new treatment for lung cancer with the concern that fewer people coughing their last in hospital might take the pressure off tobacco companies.

That is very easy to imagine. Look at how 'public health' activist groups have tried to shut down vaping in many parts of the world (though not so much in Britain). Look at how neo-temperance groups have responded to the rise of alcohol-free beer. Look at how many food cranks want to get rid not only of sugar but of artificial sweeteners.

The dominant puritanical element in 'public health' doesn't want science to solve problems. They want people to change their behaviour which, in their view, requires changing 'the food environment'.

How much success has Nesta had in 'tackling obesity', despite the millions of taxpayer pounds it has got through over the years? None whatsoever. 
Does Nesta have any policies which would reduce body weight by 15%? No, not even if they were all introduced at the same time. The sugar tax didn't work, the reformulation scheme didn't work (and yet Nesta still supports it) and the food advertising ban won't work either

It is essential for these tax-sponging authoritarians to portray personal responsibility as ineffective. It seems to be like Kryptonite to Nesta...
The arrival of effective weight loss drugs and increasingly personalised nutrition services to the market might well deepen the emphasis in the popular discourse on a ‘personal responsibility’ narrative.
And yet personal responsibility has prevented far more cases of obesity than Nesta or semaglutide have ever done. The reason why the 'personal responsibility narrative' remains popular with the public is that most people are not obese, despite living in a supposedly obesogenic environment, and those who are not obese do not attribute this to sheer luck.
Like nearly everybody, I like chocolate and I could eat it every day if I wanted. The reason I don't is that I don't want to be obese. I like eating cheese and crackers in the evening but I don't do it most days for the same reason. What is that if not taking 'personal responsibility'? And while I don't expect everybody to have the same utility function as me, it's still a choice.

The argument against personal responsibility is sometimes made with reference to the rise in obesity since the 1950s. "Are we to believe that there has been a loss in willpower since 1950?", they ask rhetorically. 

To which the answer is YES! Of course there has! Haven't you seen the state of people these days?! And you're not helping by telling people that they're not responsible for what they eat and that physical activity won't help the lose weight.

Sure, there are genetic factors to take into account and people have different appetites, but the fact that 28% of the adult population is obese does not prove that personal responsibility doesn't work. Personal responsibility is pretty much the only thing that has ever worked.

Last Orders with Matt Ridley

In the new episode of Last Orders, we welcomed back Matt Ridley – co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 – to discuss why the authorities are coming around to the Covid lab-leak theory, what we’ve learned from the Lockdown Files, and the bizarre scandal over tobacco firms donating to charity. 

Listen here

On a different note, I have written about grammar schools for The Critic.

Thursday, 9 March 2023

Scotland's alcohol advertising bluff

I've responded to the Scottish government's public consultation on alcohol advertising (which closes today so if you want to give them a piece of your mind, hurry). 

I found the consultation document to give a very misleading picture of what 'the science' says about alcohol advertising (and advertising in general). Perhaps this is not surprising since it leans heavily on a report from the neo-temperance group Alcohol Focus Scotland.

I've written about this on my Substack, so have a read (and subscribe!)

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

Nicotine Wars event tonight

I'll be speaking at this event this evening. It's at 6pm in the London School of Economics Centre Building on the 2nd floor, in room 2.05.

I don't think you need to be a student to attend and you can sign up here (it's free). We'll be having drinks at the Edgar Wallace afterwards, the pub with the biggest collection of cigarette advertisements in London and quite possibly the world.

Meanwhile, here's a pressure group that lobbies for endless rises in tobacco duty gloating about how much harm they've done.

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

The Transport for London food advertising con


There's a nice article by Duane Mellor and Dan Green in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics (no paywall) looking at how weak scientific findings are exaggerated in press releases and misrepresented by the media.

The age old question is who is to blame when the media reports false claims - journalists, academics or the press office? Increasingly, it seems to me that it is the academics themselves. When press releases are misleading it's usually because the politically motivated academics have provided quotes that go beyond the findings of their research, and the research is often worthless anyway.

Mellor and Green look at a number of case studies, one of which is the execrable study that used an insane model to claim that the Transport for London had led to a patently implausible reduction in calorie consumption. I wrote about it at the time. Mellor and Green pull their punches more than I would, but they get their point across.

The first example of this type of report and accompanying news story relates to the advertising ban on foods high in fat, salt and sugar across the Transport for London estate, which came into effect in 2019. The latest evaluation exploring the effects of this work was a piece of modelling from researchers at the University of Sheffield and London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.62 This work was based heavily on data which explored household food consumption in London (intervention area) against households in urban areas in the north of England.63 

As with other examples discussed in this review, the premise of the work is not being questioned, as when designing public health intervention, evaluation is complex and modelling potential effects is important when making policy decisions. However, when reporting this type of research, inherent differences in food intake and choices between the north of England and London need to be considered as these residual confounders may explain the difference in energy (calorie) intake beyond any influence of advertising restrictions on public transport. 

The assumptions and the low quality of evidence supporting the development of the model used to predict changing prevalence of higher weight are not well explained, especially when translated into press releases.64-66 

What is perhaps of greater concern is that this was then used to predict the number of people living with obesity.62 Then through the institutional press releases,46, 48 these have been translated to actual fewer numbers of cases of people living with obesity and having developed type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This is concerning, as presenting modelled data as actual cases is not only overstating the value of the work, but when explained to the public,67 it can undermine public confidence in health messages. It is therefore recommended that when modelled data are presented, it needs to be clear that the data are modelled and not actually measured cases, therefore not ‘shown’ as one of the institutions involved in this work claimed.68

Since that study was published we've had 'public health' academics trying to pretend the sugar tax worked, despite child obesity rising for three years in a row after it came into effect. Having failed to find any impact among anyone except Year 6 girls, they ignored everything else and generated headlines which any normie would assume meant that child obesity had fallen (and note the use of the word 'know' in the tweet at the top of this post).
Mellor and Green made a reasonable recommendation, but it will fall on deaf ears. Junk modelling will continue to be employed - because it is the only way to pretend that a failed policy has worked - and numbers on a spreadsheet will continue to be portrayed as if they were real people.

Friday, 3 March 2023

Martin McKee: still wrong about vaping after all these years

When a man points at the stars, McKee stares at his finger

The heavily overweight Zero Covid crank Martin McKee had a letter published in The Times yesterday in response to an op-ed from the paper's resident puritan Alice Thomson (whom we have come across before). Thomson has spotted a real problem - the sharp rise in vaping among teenagers, especially those using Elf bars - but characteristically comes up with the wrong solutions: banning flavours, banning colours and getting Public Health England (which she thinks still exists) to "treat vaping in the same way as cigarettes".
This is music to the ears of Fatty McKee who is claiming that his ignorant and dishonest campaign against e-cigarettes has been vindicated.

Sir, Sadly, the massive growth in e-cigarette use among adolescents comes as no surprise to those of us who warned that this would happen (“ ‘Harmless’ vapes are creating teenage addicts”, Mar 1). Unlike public health organisations worldwide, Public Health England (now the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities) has been promoting these products heavily, arguing that restricting the features that make them most attractive to young people, especially flavouring, would deter the adults they wanted to switch from cigarettes. Although no longer using the discredited “95 per cent safer than cigarettes” claim, it at least accepts that e-cigarettes are not risk-free but seem oblivious to the evidence linking their use to heart disease. We always knew that it would be a struggle to counter the efforts of the tobacco industry to get a new generation addicted to nicotine but, sadly, in England, those who should have been protecting these young people did not even try.
Professor Martin McKee

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

What is this "evidence linking their use to heart disease" to which McKee refers? Presumably he isn't referring to this study from last year which said...
We did not find a significant difference in the cardiovascular risk of exclusive e-cigarette use compared with nonuse of cigarettes and e-cigarettes

Nor can he have been referring to this study which found a "positive cardiovascular impact" among vapers who had quit smoking, with e-cigarettes being no worse for the heart than nicotine patches.
I can only assume that he is talking about cross-sectional studies which find that people who have been smoking for many years have a higher risk of heart disease even after they've switched to vaping. Disingenuous activist-academics present such findings as evidence that vaping, rather than prior smoking, increases the risk. Control for past smoking, however, and the association disappears
McKee's anti-vaping wingman Stanton Glantz had a paper retracted after it turned out that the heart attacks among vapers occurred before they started vaping. Perhaps that's the study he's thinking of?
As for the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities no longer using the '95% safer than cigarettes' claim, let's see what they have to say about that: 
We are aware that summarising the relative risks of vaping versus smoking across a range of different products and behaviours and assessed across multiple biomarkers can be simplistic and misinterpreted. Based on the reviewed evidence, we believe that the “at least 95% less harmful” estimate remains broadly accurate, at least over short term and medium term periods. However, it might now be more appropriate and unifying to summarise our findings using our other firm statement: that vaping poses only a small fraction of the risks of smoking. 
This is arguably a better way of putting it, since it is vanishingly unlikely that vaping carries five per cent of the risk of smoking.
John Britton replied today...

Sir, Martin McKee (letter, Mar 2) is right that the recent increase in vaping by young people is a cause for concern but I disagree that this represents a failure of public health policy. Between 2011, when vaping entered the mainstream, and 2021 (the most recent available national data), UK smoking prevalence has fallen from 20.2 per cent to 13.3 per cent — a fall roughly 50 per cent larger than in either of the preceding two decades, and equivalent to about three million smokers. While many of these former smokers are still vaping, the facts that smoking kills half of all long-term smokers and that vaping is unquestionably far less harmful than smoking make this a massive public health gain. We need to ensure that existing laws protecting children from e-cigarette promotion and under-age sale are observed and enforced, but ought not lose sight of the reality that vaping has contributed to a record reduction in the UK’s biggest avoidable cause of premature death and disability.
John Britton

Emeritus professor of epidemiology, Nottingham University

Britton is right about the solution. The law needs to be enforced. Notwithstanding the black market, which is the consequence of nanny state policies, it is generally very difficult for people under the age of 18 to buy cigarettes (and alcohol) these days. There is no reason why it should be any easier for them to buy e-cigarettes. 
There will be more media hysteria about Elf bars this year, I'm sure, but we already have the laws needed to limit underage vaping.

A swift half with Maria Chaplia

In the Swift Half this week, I talk to the Ukrainian libertarian Maria Chaplia about the war with Russia.

If you enjoyed that you'll like the interview I did with Konstantin Kisin last year.

Thursday, 23 February 2023

Israel to ditch the hated sugar tax

The Israeli government is abolishing its sugar tax after barely a year, following the lead of Denmark, Norway, Chicago and other places around the world where the public have seen through this regressive tax grab. Like many such taxes, it wasn't really a sugar tax at all as it also applied to artificially sweetened beverages. It was just a money-grabbing shake-down.

An op-ed in The Lancet offers a chance for us to bathe in nanny statists' tears, so let's turn on the taps.
As members of the World Federation of Public Health Associations Non-Communicable Diseases Prevention & Health Promotion and Policy Working Groups...
Snappy name!
... and other leading scholars of nutrition policy, health sciences, and economics, we would like to convey extreme concern over the Israeli Finance Minister's decision to revoke the sweetened beverage tax as his first act on his first day in office.
Not just concern, but extreme concern! 
This decision, taken without consulting the civil service professionals in the ministries of health or finance, or without conducting any other independent expert review, is a grievous blow to public health. 
Imagine taking a decision based on what you promised in a recent election rather than doing what 'civil service professionals' want you to do. How grievous!
It runs counter to clear guidance from international agencies such as WHO and The World Bank...
Why does the World Bank have a corporate view on sweetened beverage taxes?
... as well as evidence from the Bank of Israel itself, showing that the tax substantially reduced sweetened beverage consumption.
I'm not sure why the Bank of Israel got involved, but we know from many other jurisdictions that a reduction in sugary drink consumption does not typically lead to a reduction in overall sugar consumption, let alone calorie consumption, and that sugar taxes have never been accompanied by a decline in obesity.
Revoking the tax will undoubtedly harm lives and increase the direct and indirect economic costs to Israel's health system and economy, both in the short term and long term.
Codswallop on stilts. Cry more.
More broadly, this act undermines hard won progress made elsewhere around the world. 
Good! This must explain why eight of the nine authors of this tear-stained tract are based in Geneva, Britain or the USA and only one is in Israel itself. It's no surprise to see Barry Popkin's name among them. Popkin has been campaigning for soda taxes longer than anyone and his name appears on a whole bunch of studies spuriously claiming that a soda tax has 'worked' somewhere or other, such as Berkeley, Mexico and Chile, usually in the journal PLoS One which he happens to be on the board of.
It is a serious setback for evidence-based public health policy and will be celebrated by vested interests who promote their products and disregard the need for policies that uphold the public's health and welfare.
It will also be celebrated by consumers in Israel, most of whom did not want the tax in the first place, and by people like me who just enjoy watching 'public health' hucksters throwing their toys out of the pram. 
This decision will be seen as prioritising sectorial political interests over incontrovertible scientific evidence and public health best practice. 
Bloody democracy, eh?
This decision seriously tarnishes Israel's international standing, its medical, scientific, and technological leadership, and reputation as an exemplar of sensible, evidence-based policy.
It really doesn't.
We support our colleagues in the Israeli health professions and society at large in calling on the Government of Israel to reconsider and retract this ill-conceived and hasty decision. Instead, let the revenue from the soda tax be used to combat chronic diseases including obesity, as well as promote nutrition security by increasing economic access to healthy diets, narrowing health disparities, improving the health and welfare of all Israeli citizens, and setting an example for world health leadership.
It's not leadership if you're just copying what lots of other countries have already done, is it? If anything Israel is showing leadership by standing up for the people against grubby 'public health' killjoys.  

If you want more tax revenue for healthcare, there are better ways of getting it. Sugar taxes have never worked anywhere in the world, they weren't going to work in Israel and the sooner other countries get rid of them, the better.

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Pro-death, anti-choice lobby sides with the earthquake

I mentioned earlier how little use 'public health professionals' were during the pandemic.  
Let's not forget that these 'public health' academics spent the only genuine public health crisis of their lifetimes complaining about pubs being used as vaccination centres and whining about businesses donating food to the hungry and medical equipment to hospitals. Rarely has the chasm between public health and 'public health' been illustrated so starkly.

I had barely pressed 'publish' when I saw this story about anti-smoking activists trying to get the Turkish government to turn down a €1.8 million donation from Phillip Morris International for humanitarian aid after the recent earthquake.
Activists fume at tobacco industry for donating to earthquake-hit Turkey

The European anti-tobacco lobby has urged the international community to help earthquake-hit Turkey avoid a €1.8 million donation from Phillip Morris International (PMI) highlighting “hidden” lobbying activities. For its part, PMI rejected the accusations saying it’s money to help people in need.

On 15 February, PMI offered €1.8 million “to support immediate humanitarian aid and long-term recovery assistance” after an earthquake hit Turkey and neighbouring Syria causing thousands of deaths.

However, the move triggered a strong reaction from the anti-tobacco lobby.

What is this lobbying and how does this group know about it if it is hidden? No details are forthcoming in the article. Is it possible that these people are saying the first thing that comes to their head again?

“The tobacco control community in Turkey is concerned about the recent corporate social responsibility launch by Phillip Morris International about extending earthquake aid to Turkey”, Dr Elif Daglu from the Turkish Coalition on Tobacco or Health to the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP) said in a statement.

Yes, that's the real concern in Turkey at the moment, isn't it? The word you're looking for, Dr Elif, is "thank you".
PMI employs a lot of people in Turkey and has a lot of money. It is understandable and commendable that it is helping the relief effort. What, I wonder, is the 'tobacco control community' doing to help?

Such donations from the tobacco industry constitute a breach of Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to which Turkey is a party, he added.

That is just a lie. Why is that people who have made a career out of hating smokers are able to lie with impunity?

Contacted by EURACTIV, ENSP Secretary General Cornel Radu-Loghin said Turkish citizens “asked our organisation and other organisations to do whatever is possible to convince the Turkish government not to accept the tobacco industry money”.

Imagine being such a wretched human being that you spend your time trying to prevent humanitarian relief after an earthquake. It's difficult to think of a way of sinking any lower and yet this - for want of a better word - person is proud of it.

ESNP encourages the public health community to donate to the WHO foundation and the BTF relief fund, managed by the Turkish diaspora.

But they won't, will they? They will expect the government to do it for them, as usual.

ENSP claims that PMI and other tobacco industry organisations are using their social responsibility programmes, including donations, to lobby governments and to “clean their image”.

As with the generosity of the food, alcohol and tobacco industries during the pandemic, the only time we hear about these donations is when moral busybodies go to the media to whine about them. If it's a way of "cleaning their image", it is one that relies on 'public health' bottom-feeders publicising it. If it wasn't for them, no one would ever hear about these acts of charity!

“PMI and others are conducting an intensive campaign to legalise the sales and marketing, as well as probably their manufacturing, of novel tobacco and nicotine products in the Turkish market,” ESNP said.

It is no surprise that these parasitic fanatics are opposed to safer alternatives to smoking. Pro-earthquake and pro-smoking. It's all in a day's work for them.
E-cigarettes and heated tobacco are banned outright in Turkish thanks to these people. Turkey was supposed to be the golden boy of tobacco control. It did everything the WHO wanted and even got a WHO award for tobacco control, but it has all been a miserable failure. And smokers who want to switch to a vastly safer alternative are banned from doing so.

Way to go, guys! Which pro-death policy will you be adopting next?

No fat left to trim? The case of SPECTRUM

Back in 2019, I mentioned SPECTRUM which is, preposterously, meant to be an acronym for Shaping Public hEalth poliCies To Reduce ineqUalities and harM. At the time it was a new organisation that had just received £5.9 million from the unwitting taxpayer...

The Economic and Social Research Council is funded to the tune of £212 million by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. In 2017, it announced the creation of the UK Prevention Research Partnership (UKPRP), a £50 million project aimed at developing ‘robust new knowledge which contributes to demonstrable changes in policy and practice’ by ‘working closely with policy makers'. 
I suggested in Still Hand In Glove? that this had the hallmarks of another slush fund for political pressure groups. Some news yesterday removed all doubt...

We are delighted to announce that UKCTAS has been successful in securing future funding through a multi-funder research initiative; the UK Prevention Research Partnership (UKPRP). UKTCAS academics joined forces with new collaborators and a range of public and private sector organisations to apply to the UKPRP. The new consortium has now been awarded £5.9 million funding over five years and is called SPECTRUM (Shaping Public hEalth poliCies To Reduce ineqUalities and harM).
A few months later, another new 'public health' organisation - called SIPHER - was set up and given £4.9 million of our money. After years of so-called 'austerity', there is was supposed to be no fat left to trim and yet the gravy train rolled on for the nanny state industry.
As I said at the time, SPECTRUM is a shameless slush fund for the worst people in the anti-capitalist, anti-freedom, authoritarian 'public health' racket. 
The list of SPECTRUM's 'co-investigators' features some other familiar faces, including John Britton (director of UKCTAS), Alan Brennan (Sheffield University fantasy modeller), Anna Gilmore (Tobacco Tactics conspiracy theorist) and Mark Petticrew (anti-alcohol crank), plus two senior staff from Public Health England.
I was reminded of them yesterday when they produced a video that they would call 'slick' if one of the many industries they hate had produced it. There is barely any attempt to pretend that they are not political activists.
As you'll see if you have the stomach to watch it, the video makes it clear that all you have to do is make a reference to 'health inequalities' and the government will shower you with cash to further your puritanical agenda. Presumably, we are supposed to be appalled by the behaviour we see in the animation, such as a couple relaxing in a cocktail bar, a man standing outside a bus shelter, in the rain, smoking a cigarette, and two people talking about tobacco and fast food.

Let's not forget that these 'public health' academics spent the only genuine public health crisis of their lifetimes complaining about pubs being used as vaccination centres and whining about businesses donating food to the hungry and medical equipment to hospitals. Rarely has the chasm between public health and 'public health' been illustrated so starkly.
They didn't allow themselves to be distracted by COVID-19. Apart from a few articles spreading doubt about the protective effect of smoking and a long rant about the help provided by 'unhealthy commodity industries', they have spent the last few years watching TV, scouring Twitter and responding to every government consultation they can find.

Since 2020, their published work includes the following indispensable contributions to the scientific literature.
Many of these 'studies' involve the ludicrous Mark Petticrew. That SPECTRUM is helping this buffoon pay his mortgage is reason enough to defund it. 
I am at a loss to see how taking millions of pounds from taxpayers and giving it to these juvenile quackademics can ever be justified. The government is burning our money. In fact, it would be better to literally burn the money that to spend it on this drivel.

Tuesday, 21 February 2023

Accolades for Aseem

Book early to ensure disappointment

Aseem Malhotra has gone all the way down the rabbit hole in the last year and is off the South Africa to spread his anti-vax messsage, having done likewise in India recently. The GMC say they won't investigate him because the vast majority of the British public have already been vaccinated and so the damage he can do to public health is limited. This is surely less convincing as an excuse for inaction when it comes to less vaccinated parts of the world. In any case, Malhotra is deliberately undermining confidence in mRNA technology in general, not just Covid vaccines.

Be that as it may, it is grimly amusing to see the flyer above using adoring quotes from people who fell for his low carb schtick back in the day. I wonder how anti-vaping fanatic Simon Capewell, anti-sugar zealot Robert Lustig and government-loving libertarian Shami Chakrabarti feel about their names being used to promote Malhotra's latest quackery?

It's a shame that there was no room on the flyer to quote Action on Sugar who worked out seven years ago that Malhotra was "completely mad", albeit only in relation to his views on statins and fat. Getting kicked out of Action on Sugar for being mad is like being kicked out of the KKK for being bigoted. But even they could see the signs.  

The signs were there from the very start. People in 'public health' didn't see them for the same reason they didn't spot that David Miller was a wrong 'un - they told them what they wanted to hear and so many cranks and conspiracy theorists work in 'public health' that it is easy for such people to hide in plain sight.

Monday, 20 February 2023

The sugar tax didn't work

The Mail on Sunday published a nice article this weekend looking at the sugar tax. It's refreshing to see a newspaper asking whether current policies are working rather than agitating for the next 'clamp down'.

It follows Israel's decision to repeal its tax on sugary drinks, something that Norway, Denmark and several US states and counties have already done. 'Public health' activist-academics from the World Federation of Public Health Associations Non-Communicable Diseases Prevention & Health Promotion and Policy Working Groups (snappy name!) are naturally appalled, but it seems unlikely that anyone is going to die as a result.

Alongside a number of quotes from my good self, the Mail on Sunday article includes some insights from Tom Sanders, professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London:
Prof Sanders says: ‘The idea behind the tax was right, but I think it’s dishonest to say it works.’

He says that data from the Government’s National Diet And Nutrition Survey showed the number of children who report having sugary drinks was already falling by five per cent annually from 2008 onwards – ten years before the tax. There is ‘no evidence’ the sugar tax has accelerated that.

‘A study looked at the impact of introducing minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Scotland. They thought the policy would have a beneficial effect, but heavy drinkers just spent more money on alcohol.

‘Will a broader tax on food work now, when so much is going up in price? Will people eat less, eat better, or consume fewer calories? I suspect they will just spend more of their disposable income on food, rather than cut back.'

I was also on the Medical Minefield podcast discussing this. Listen here. It features someone from Action on Sugar who pretty much admits the sugar tax hasn't worked but supports it anyway (which is Giles Yeo's view in the article too).


Friday, 17 February 2023

A swift half with Zion Lights

A new Swift Half has dropped and I'm delighted to say that Zion Lights was my guest. Formerly of the Green Party and Extinction Rebellion, Zion had a change of heart after an awkward interview with Andrew Neil in which she was expected to stand by some of XR's wilder claims. She now campaigns for nuclear power. Don't miss this one.

Thursday, 16 February 2023

Supernanny Sturgeon

Farewell then, Nicola Sturgeon. You put Scotland on international 'public health' map, but for all the wrong reasons, as I explain in the Scottish Daily Express today...

At every turn, Sturgeon and her government have preferred eye-catching gestures to effective health policies. Rather than address the root causes of alcoholism, obesity and drug addiction, they have opted for punitive and performative measures designed to set Scotland apart from England.

Sturgeon’s approach to Covid-19 amounted to clinging onto lockdowns and face-masks for longer than was sensible or necessary. Every time Boris Johnson relaxed restrictions, she would make a show of keeping them for a wee while longer.

This was supposed to make it look like Sturgeon cared more about people’s health than the Tories did. In truth, it made no difference to anyone’s health and made Scotland look like a laggard.

Without Sturgeon, the SNP has an opportunity to stop Scotland being a testbed for ill-advised nanny state ideas. There is nothing about the cause for Scottish independence that requires its supporters to be puritanical killjoys. 

One of the advantages of making your country a guinea pig for illiberal nanny state policies is that you are almost guaranteed a well paid job in the 'public health' racket once you leave front line politics. Jane Ellison (remember her?) has been at the WHO ever since she introduced plain packaging in the UK. Gro Harlem Brundtland became director-general of the WHO as a reward for her anti-smoking activism when she was Norway's prime minister.

Sturgeon is already on Mike Bloomberg's Task Force on Fiscal Policy for Health along with former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark. If she does step away from politics, don't bet against her becoming a super-nanny globetrotter for Bloomberg, the WHO or the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance.