Wednesday 31 May 2023

Nanny State Index 2023


The new edition of the biennial Nanny State Index has just been published. Edited by yours truly, it sees new entry Turkey take the top spot with Lithuania, Norway, Finland, Hungary and Ireland in the chasing pack. The UK is up one place to 11th and is only prevented from a podium finish by its relatively sensible approach to vaping.

You can view the results on the website or download the PDF. You can read some of the media coverage here, here and here.

My comment in the press release:  

"With the UK introducing some of the world's most nannying policies on food, it's no surprise to see it rising up the league table against stiff competition. The UK scores poorly in every category except e-cigarettes where it is the best in show.

Scotland and Wales drag down the overall score by having minimum pricing for alcohol, and the UK as a whole is the worst place in Europe to be a smoker.

With alcohol taxes rising sharply this year and more food regulation to come, things will only get worse.

The big picture is one of a constantly expanding nanny state raising prices and trampling freedom.

'The blame for this lies mainly with domestic governments, although the European Union is always keen to interfere and has banned flavoured heated tobacco products since the last edition was published (with an exemption for menthol)."

And I've written about it for the Spectator...

It has been a pathetic sight to watch politicians pleading with the supermarkets to lower food prices. Inflation has yet again proven to be more persistent than the government expected and it will do almost anything to bring it down. The Chancellor has even said that a recession would be a price worth paying to get the cost of living under control. But while the government resorts to ‘voluntary price caps’ on food, it still plans to ban most buy-one-get-one-free food offers in October. A double-digit hike in alcohol duty will come into effect in August. Smokers of rolling tobacco have already endured a tax rise of inflation plus 6 per cent this year.

Clearly the government’s commitment to tackling high prices only goes so far. When it’s a choice between addressing the cost of living and appeasing the ‘public health’ lobby, there is only ever one winner.

Thursday 25 May 2023

Ireland's alcohol health warnings

I wrote a bit about the pros and cons of alcohol health warnings in Killjoys and have written something about them for The Critic now that they are likely to be a reality in Ireland in a few years.

The exact wording has not been finalised but two warnings have been proposed: “Drinking alcohol causes liver disease” and “There is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers”. Both of these statements are scientifically defensible and yet they are misleading because they omit important information. By ignoring any mention of excessive consumption, they imply that any amount of drinking causes these diseases. That is simply untrue of liver disease, which requires sustained consumption at quite high levels, and is debatable in the case of cancer. Although temperance campaigners are insistent that there is “no safe level” when it comes to drinking and cancer, the evidence for this is weak. 

Moreover, there is no mention of which cancers are associated with alcohol consumption. According to Cancer Research UK, there are seven alcohol-related cancers. Five of them are so rare that they are unlikely to give drinkers sleepless nights. Of the two more common types, colorectal cancer is only associated with alcohol consumption among heavy drinkers. This leaves breast cancer as the only common cancer associated with moderate drinking, although the magnitude of the risk is small — similar to that associated with taking the contraceptive pill — and the survival rate is high.

Given the countless risks that life throws at us, I suspect that nearly every drinker who was made aware of these facts would conclude that they are quite happy to take their chances and carry on drinking as they did before. But the Irish warning labels are not making drinkers aware of these facts. They are telling people that “there is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancer”. While this is not a lie, the signalling effect is likely to make consumers over-estimate the health risk and worry more than they should.

Wednesday 17 May 2023

Temperance academics get triggered

Has Mark Petticrew finally been driven completely mad by the existence of the alcohol industry? He and his fellow clowns at LSHTM have written countless articles about the booze industry and the organisations it funds, always looking for the worst interpretation and often cherry-picking relentlessly to get the conclusion they want (see various old posts for examples).

Their latest, published in Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology is the weirdest yet. It is based on a short statement from the (industry-funded) Portman Group in response to the news that alcohol-specific deaths rose again in 2021, following a sharp rise in the first year of COVID-19. The full statement reads as follows:

In response to the release of the Alcohol-specific deaths in the UK ONS report for 2021, Matt Lambert, CEO of the Portman Group – the alcohol social responsibility body and marketing regulator said:

“Today’s figures show an increase in alcohol-specific deaths on top of last year’s increase, every death is a tragedy for the people concerned and their family and friends. The longer-term impact of pandemic drinking for a small group of drinkers continues and there is increasing evidence that targeted, health focused action is needed for those drinking at the highest harm level.”

That's it. That's all they said. I don't know what it was about this bland, 61 word quote that triggered Petticrew and his colleagues but boy did it trigger them. Their article can only be described as a rant. Having quoted the offending press release, they give it the Cathy Newman treatment ('so what you're saying is...').
In other words, a large and increasingly globally consolidated industry, which expends a substantial amount on marketing, and whose existence depends on its ability to sell alcohol, is telling a good news story about wider declines in alcohol consumption it claims partial responsibility for...
In what universe is the Portman Group statement "telling a good news story"?? 
...and implying that its heaviest consumers, whose consumption is increasing, are doing so because they are irresponsible and need targeted, medical help.

Perhaps I don't have the antennae for subliminal messaging that Petticrew has, but I don't infer anything about irresponsibility in that statement. The only thing that vaguely resembles his characterisation is the fact that the Portman Group said "health focused action is needed for those drinking at the highest harm level". 
It is widely acknowledged that a lack of face-to-face treatment was a factor in alcohol-related deaths rising during the lockdowns. The British Liver Trust said that: "Stress, loneliness and the lack of access to alcohol support services have resulted in many people drinking more alcohol and putting their livers at risk." If too few people are getting what Petticrew rightly describes as "targeted, medical help", the obvious solution is for more people to get it.
Being 'public health' academics rather than medics, Petticrew et al. aren't interested in treatment at all. They're only interested in ineffective, willy-waving, population-level policies.
The evidence suggests this narrative masks two crucial realities: the industry's long-standing obstruction of evidence-based means to reduce alcohol harm, and its disproportionate reliance on the heaviest consumers for a large proportion of overall revenue.

They then blether on about minimum pricing (which didn't work) and alcohol advertising bans (which don't work). They conclude...

A different account of the recent alcohol trends can therefore be told. The industry lauds a responsible majority for decreasing consumption, and seeks to claim a role in this decline.
It hasn't, has it? Why would anyone try to take credit for decreasing alcohol consumption during the pandemic when we know it was accompanied by a rise in alcohol-specific deaths? The question the 'public health' lobby have to answer is why that decline in consumption didn't lead to a decline in deaths.
These claims ignore the inconvenient fact that it is disproportionately reliant on the heaviest consumers.
Name me an industry that isn't. This is basically a tautology.
These record alcohol deaths are a reflection of greater alcohol sales among individuals at the greatest risk, facilitated by the obstruction of evidence-based policy.
As I have explained elsewhere, the rise in deaths occurred at a time when there was far less alcohol advertising than usual, when most alcohol outlets were closed and - in Scotland and Wales - where minimum pricing was in effect. For months on end, the temperance lobby got most of what it wanted. The results were... not great. Since the marketing and retail environment moved in the direction 'public health' ideologues have always desired, it might be worth them asking what went wrong.
Through these efforts in pursuit of profit at any cost, the industry has played an outsized part in shaping our current reality, in which the UK faces record increases in alcohol-related liver disease and a health system in crisis.
Really? You wouldn't say it was the pandemic and lockdowns that caused the number of deaths to shoot up after being more or less flat for a decade? You don't think there might have been psychological factors at work that undermine your child-like view of the issue?

 Nah, let's blame the pursuit of profit.

We can choose between accepting the industry's own reports of its motivations and good works, or acknowledging its pursuit of profits and reliance on the heaviest consumers and consumers at high risk. The UK is in need of a new alcohol policy to reduce alcohol-specific and alcohol-related mortality. For it to be effective and equitable, the industry and the organisations it funds can have no part in writing it. The UK public deserve nothing less.
There endeth the lesson.

Remember that this diatribe was inspired by a two-sentence comment from the Portman Group saying that it was sad so many people were drinking themselves to death and pointing out that treatment works. Is this how academic publishing works in 'public health'? Is any head-banging fanatic who gets triggered by a statement from an industry-linked body that doesn't say "It's all our fault, we're going to disband" allowed to vent spleen in a peer-reviewed journal? Does Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology always print communiques from the green ink brigade or does it sometimes publish stuff about gastroenterology and hepatology? 
It just bizarre.

As a chaser, Petticrew and friends also mention several industry-funded initiatives to reduce harmful drinking and dismisses them all in a sciency way.

...corporate social responsibility initiatives like the UK Responsibility Deal (which an independent evaluation found to not be effective), funding DrinkAware (which independent research has shown communicates misinformation on alcohol-related harms); and supporting community alcohol partnerships (for which there is little evidence of effectiveness).

Reference 5 is one of Petticrew's studies. Reference 6 is one of Petticrew's studies. And reference 7 is - you guessed it! - one of Petticrew's studies. How very independent!
According to an independent evaluation (i.e. me), these people are fruitcakes.

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Ultra-processed articles

A lot of the articles I see about ultra-processed food feel like they've been written by Chat GPT, but I suppose that's what you get when everybody starts parroting the same tropes at the same time. 

I have written about a typical example of the genre for The Critic.

I buy many of these items all the time. Until recently, I didn’t think it was a problem. To be honest, I’m still not convinced it is a problem. The claim that they cause cancer comes from a rather sketchy preliminary study and the claim that they cause weight gain seems to be due to over-consumption rather than any inherent dangers in curry paste and “shop-bought hummus”.

In any case, I shouldn’t feel ashamed because I am not responsible for what I put in my grocery basket:

But the problem isn’t with us. The problem is structural. Arranging society so that people don’t feel they have enough time or money to make themselves a meal is a dystopian nightmare.

She is talking here about making a meal from scratch. That, after all, is the only logical solution to the conundrum posed by the UPF threat.

I don’t really cook anything from scratch. The closest I get to making a meal from scratch is when I have a fry up and a Sunday roast, both of which involve UPFs (sausages, bacon, horseradish sauce, stock cubes, etc.). I might have a boiled egg from time to time but even that involves toast and therefore UPFs.

The reason I don’t cook meals from scratch is very simple: I don’t want to. It’s not because I’m tired or stressed. It isn’t because I’m lazy. It hasn’t got anything to do with advertising. It is for the same reason I don’t brew my own beer or cut my own hair. I have better things to do with my time and I wouldn’t do a good job of it if I tried. I am therefore eternally grateful to “Big Food” for making it possible for me to go through life without every having to bake my own bread or make my own peanut butter.


Monday 15 May 2023

Tobacco prohibition with Labour?

Judging by Labour’s lead over the Conservatives in the polls, Keir Starmer’s strategy of having no opinion about anything is working a treat. He knows that if he comes up with an unpopular policy, his ratings will drop. And if he comes up with a popular policy, the Tories will nick it. So, quite rationally, he has settled on the maxim ‘if in doubt, say nowt’. 

Sir Keir keeps his party on a tight leash. Wayward MPs have been cast into the wilderness and Labour successfully fought this month’s local elections with the apparently novel strategy of ‘No more piss-poor candidates’. The intervention last week from Labour MP Rachael Maskell, who called for a 10mph speed limit on residential roads, shows that Starmer still has work to do to tame the loony left. But no one questions his desire to present a moderate front in an attempt to win back working-class voters.

It is therefore curious that one of the few policies he has allowed to be flown up the flagpole is the total prohibition of cigarettes. More curious still is that this highly controversial idea is being proposed by Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, whom Corbynistas consider to be to the right of Ann Widdecombe.
Read the rest at Spiked.

Friday 12 May 2023

A swift half with Dan Waugh

In the new episode of The Swift Half I talk to gambling expert Dan Waugh about the new gambling white paper. We talk about what lurks in the white paper and how the field of gambling research is being taken over by 'public health' fanatics who know nothing about it (something I mentioned in this article).

Wednesday 10 May 2023

The ultra-processed food fad

The Times published an article about ultra-processed food today which only serves to highlight how ridiculous to whole fad is. I have written about it for The Critic.

This week, The Times told its readers how to avoid putting ultra-processed food in their shopping baskets. With the help of a nutritionist who thinks that “we should put warning signs on UPFs so that people know they’re not good for your health”, they rejected Hellmann’s mayonnaise because it contains “modified maize starch, sugar and natural flavouring”. Cholula Hot Sauce was rejected because it contains “the stabiliser xanthan gum”. Baked beans were rejected because they contain modified cornflour. Warburton’s crumpets were rejected because they contain “three e-numbers and a preservative”. A brand of Pesto was rejected because it contains “maize fibre, whey powder and flavourings”.

At no point were readers of The Times told how these ingredients were going to do them harm. What exactly is wrong with eating whey powder or modified cornflour? Xanthan gum is actually rather good for you. So is maize fibre. Preservatives stop food going off too quickly. Isn’t that a good thing?


Monday 8 May 2023

Last Orders with Nick Cater

In the latest episode of Last Orders, Tom and I talk to Australian journalist Nick Cater about ultra-processed food, George Osborne’s tobacco prohibitionism and Australia’s plan for an Indigenous ‘Voice to Parliament’.

Listen and subscribe.

Friday 5 May 2023

The grifters' tax

The gambling white paper came out last week. It contains three headline reforms which I discuss in this article for The Critic. In the long term, the most significant of them will be the gambling leby because I strongly suspect that it will become a slush fund for activists.

The statutory levy will create an avalanche of cash for activist-academics at a time when gambling is being repositioned as a public health issue. Gambling research has always been a small academic niche. The only people itching to get into it are left-wing social scientists who cut their teeth in the wars on tobacco, alcohol and food and are looking for new dragons to slay. They don’t know anything about gambling and have little desire to learn. They will simply repurpose old anti-smoking regulation and temperance legislation and create the policy-based evidence to justify them.


Thursday 4 May 2023

George Osborne is a prohibitionist

Former Chancellor George Osborne says that he thinks smoking should be banned and orange juice should be taxed. I wrote about this for Spiked.

Eager to stress that he has been a health zealot all along, Osborne yesterday called for smoking to be banned outright and for taxes to be levied on orange juice. These are potentially unpopular policies in the country at large, but not at the Times Health Commission, to whom he addressed his remarks. Its members include Henry Dimbleby, who wants to tax all sugar and salt, Lord Darzi, who wants to ban smoking outdoors, and Matthew Taylor of the NHS Confederation, who wants the government to reintroduce nationwide mask mandates every time someone sneezes.

The twist is that Osborne is himself a smoker, or at least he was when the Daily Mail photographed him in 2021 ‘drawing heavily on a cigarette’ and looking ‘pensive’. Is he one of those smokers who requires the whole world to change because he lacks the willpower to stop? Or has he become one of those grumpy ex-smokers, living a life of irritable nicotine deprivation?


Wednesday 3 May 2023

The WHO versus personal responsibility

The Daily Mail has picked up on the WHO's dishonest guide to journalists that I wrote about last month. It probably isn't the kind of coverage they were after.

Now you can't even say 'responsible drinking'! Fury as woke WHO advisers claim phrase unfairly 'shames' drunken thugs 

The World Health Organization has come under fire for claiming the phrase 'responsible drinking' stigmatises drunks.

... The document says the 'risk to health starts from the first drop of any alcoholic beverage' and it is therefore 'not possible to consume safely – no matter how responsibly the drinker behaves'.

However, some studies have found potential links between moderate consumption and health benefits - a point recognised by the UK's own alcohol guidelines.

The controversial WHO guide says: 'Across the population, any level of alcohol consumption, regardless of the amount, is associated with a greater risk of loss of healthy life.

'The vague notion of "responsible drinking" that is actively promoted by alcohol producers and marketers, does not define when to stop drinking or suggest the option of not drinking.

'It does, however, create a mistaken impression that the alcohol industry is part of the solution to harms from drinking rather than a driver of the problem.'

The article includes a quote from yours truly...

Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: There is a growing tendency among nanny state activists to erase the concept of free will and personal responsibility.

'We see this not only with regards to alcohol, but with food and gambling.

'Their aim is to pin all the blame on the people who sell products rather than on the people who misuse products.

'This gives them the excuse for endless restrictions on individual liberty masquerading as controls on industry.'

He added: 'It beggars belief that the WHO is commissioning temperance activists to write reports about alcohol.

'This report is strewn with factual errors and scaremongering, which its authors presumably hope journalists will repeat.

'It explicitly recommends total abstinence from alcohol and pushes draconian nanny state policies.

'Member states need to tell the WHO to stay in its lane, distance itself from fanatical pressure groups and focus on its day job.'



Tuesday 2 May 2023

Australia versus e-cigarettes: ban them again!

It's difficult to keep up with all of Australia's bans on e-cigarettes. Readers might correct me in the comments, but if my memory is correct, vapes containing nicotine have always been banned from sale. 

Smokers still stubbornly sought them out to help them quit smoking, so naturally the government banned the importation of vapes that contain nicotine. They could only be obtained with a prescription from a doctor, but since doctors are so ignorant about vaping that one of them gave his child cigarettes to get him off vapes, not many prescriptions were written.

Not unpredictably, prohibition created a big black market and didn't work. Hilariously, more teenagers have tried vaping in Australia, where e-cigarettes have always been banned and the media is in a constant state of hysteria about them, than they have in Britain where they are advertised, given away by the government to smokers for free and legal (though not for children).

Today, the government doubled down once more, banning (non-nicotine) disposable vapes completely and introducing plain packaging for e-cigarettes that are permitted with a prescription. There will also be a ban on flavours and colours of the medically approved products.

The Public Health Association of Australia’s CEO, Terry Slevin, described vaping as a “public health disaster”. He said the reforms would see Australia re-establish itself as a world leader in tobacco and vaping control.

Australia is not a leader in tobacco or vaping control. It is an international laughing stock that has created a massive unforced error and is too proud - or too stupid - to back down.  

“The ubiquitous and aggressive marketing of vaping products, particularly to children, is a worldwide scourge,” he said.

Vaping products are not marketed in Australia, aggressively or otherwise, and they never have been. The government can't control the black market, but it can control the media. This guy is in a world of his own.
The government is now going to spend $234 million to fund its "tobacco and vaping reforms", including $63 million on "an evidence-based public health information campaign" (stop laughing at the back). The health minister Mark Butler sounds like a particularly dopey individual. In a speech today, he said: 

"Just like they did with smoking, Big Tobacco has taken another addictive product, wrapped it in shiny packaging and added flavours to create a new generation of nicotine addicts."

My sympathy goes out to my Australian friends, but there really is no hope for you when your politicians live in a parallel universe, cosplaying the 1950s. Needless to say, 'Big Tobacco' is not selling illegal vapes in Australia.

Oh, and he's also going to increase the tax on cigarettes by 5% every year for the next three years just in case the black market for tobacco needs a helping hand. After all, the Australian Border Force only detected 879 tons of loose-leaf tobacco and 713 million cigarettes in 2021, and their biggest seizure last month was worth a mere $48 million.

Way to guy, fellas! This is totally normal...

A swift half with Brian Monteith

It was great to chat to the journalist and occasional politician Brian Monteith for the new episode of The Swift Half. We discussed the SNP and the Scottish nanny state, including minimum pricing. Have a listen/watch.