Friday 30 June 2023

On my Substack this week...

... I scoffed at some Australian quackademics who were flown in to Scotland to tell us to copy their disastrous anti-vaping policies.

Now, I never took the course to call myself a ‘public health professional’ but you’d think it would be best practice to copy the countries where smoking is going down and underage smoking is going down rapidly rather than the country where smoking is not going down and underage smoking is going up. But what do I know?

Notice that one defining characteristic is the pursuit of profit. Companies who make ultra-processed food want to maximise their profits, whereas other food companies feed us out of the goodness of their hearts. Adam Smith famously praised the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer and the baker!


It's all free so have a read and - if you haven't already - subscribe.

Wednesday 28 June 2023

Nanny state chat

I sat down recently with my Tufton Street pals at the Taxpayers Alliance to talk about the Nanny State Index and the state of public health paternalism in Britain. Check it out.

Tuesday 27 June 2023

On minimum pricing

Public Health Scotland have said that minimum pricing 'works'. Not a great surprise coming from a government public health agency when the government needs something to get one of its flagship policies through the sunset clause, but not consistent with PHS's own evaluation.

I've written about this for The Critic...

It was perhaps inevitable that a government-funded public health agency would find in minimum pricing’s favour. Minimum pricing is a flagship policy for the Scottish Government and the public health lobby is keen for it to be rolled out to other countries (Wales already has it, and it didn’t work there either). But it is a shabby end to an evaluation process that has cost a great deal of money and has been impressive in its breadth and depth. Taken together, the reports give a good impression of what has happened in Scotland under minimum pricing. Most of it is rigorous and impartial. Much of it supports the common sense criticisms of the policy made by sceptics before it was introduced. To make the case for minimum pricing, you would have to pretend that most of it doesn’t exist, and so that’s what Public Health Scotland have done.

I was on BBC Scotland this morning from 9am. It was an interesting hour of radio as it slowly dawned on the presenter that in the world of 'public health' doublethink, minimum pricing can reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths by 13% but the number of alcohol-related deaths can be at an 11 year high.  

Thursday 22 June 2023

Learning from Australia??

The Health Secretary Steve Barclay is reported to be interested in learning from Australia’s experience with e-cigarette regulation. Quoted in The Times this week, he said: I met a leading Australian figure this morning in terms of some of the lessons around the vaping industry in Australia, and how we can look at what has been done there and are there any lessons that we can share with each other.”

Britain does indeed have much to learn from Australia’s approach to vaping, in the same way as air crash investigators have much to learn from a black box. They say that every air crash makes air travel safer so long as the authorities understand what went wrong. On that basis, the world can benefit from studying the smouldering crater of Australia’s tobacco control policies.

Read the rest at The Critic.

Last Orders with Claire Fox

The Online Safety Bill, ultra-processed food and a monkeypox update are all in the latest episode of Last Orders.

Wednesday 21 June 2023

Corporate rent-seeking

A food and soft drink company wants more regulation of ultra-processed food. They have received a surprising amount of praise for this blatant rent-seeking, as I discuss in The Critic.  

According to the Observer, it once owned “popular biscuits brands, including Lu biscuits, but sold its biscuit and cereal snack unit to Kraft Food in 2007”. It now boasts that “90 per cent of its UK portfolio of products by sales volume is not high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS)”. The key phrase here is “by sales volume”. As the owner of two of the UK’s top selling mineral water brands, this is less impressive than it sounds.

The good people at Danone UK & Ireland may be sincere in their belief that Britain has “reached a point where meaningful intervention from the government is a necessary course of action.” But nobbling your competitors with taxes and bans looks rather like regulatory capture and corporate rent-seeking.


Wednesday 14 June 2023

Minimum pricing failed in Wales too

Wales introduced minimum pricing for alcohol in March 2020 but you don’t hear much about it. There has been an evaluation but it has tended to use surveys rather than empirical data. The evaluation team have done their best to paint minimum pricing in the best light, but you don’t need to read between the lines too much to see that the policy has hugely underperformed.

The proportion of people in Wales classified as increasing or higher risk drinkers rose from 33% in 2018 to 40% in 2020 to 45% in 2022.  

People in Wales are drinking more frequently and fewer people are abstaining.
More people are binge-drinking, and twice as many people are binge-drinking every day than they did before minimum pricing.
Obviously there is the confounding factor of the pandemic and lockdowns which polarised drinking patterns and led to more heavy drinking across the UK. We don't have comparable figures for England, which does not have minimum pricing, but we do know that alcohol-specific mortality trends have been very similar in both countries since Wales introduced minimum pricing. 
As the graph below shows, alcohol-specific deaths rose by 3.2 per 100,000 in Wales after 2019 (27%) and by 3.0 per 100,000 in England (27%). (In Scotland, they rose by 3.8 per 100,000, or 20%.)

 Great success! 'Public health' just can't stop winning.     

Monday 12 June 2023

Panorama does ultra-processed food

Last Monday saw Panorama broadcast an outrageously one-sided and ill informed documentary about ultra-processed foods. Jumping on the bandwagon, it spent most of its time reviving old scare stories about aspartame and BPAs.

I wrote about it for the Telegraph.

The best that can be said of last night’s Panorama is that it tried to narrow down the list of suspects to find the killer ingredient (sorry, “chemical”). It was the most irresponsible piece of television I have seen in years. At one point, the BBC walked into a nursery and effectively told the parents that their children are going to get cancer if they keep buying shop-bought cakes. A maverick academic was wheeled out to challenge the scientific consensus that aspartame is safe. Emulsifiers were described as “basically a glue” and we were told, on the basis of unpublished research, that they might cause breast cancer and heart disease. The maverick academic then reappeared to warn of the dangers of Bisphenol A (BPA) leaching out from plastic food packaging. The presenter explained that high levels of BPA have been linked to cancer and infertility. She did not explain that public health agencies in every major country in the world, as well as the WHO, has concluded that normal exposure is not associated with any risk. The programme then degenerated into what appeared to be a borderline libellous conspiracy theory about the UK’s Committee on Toxicity which it asserted had “downplayed the risks of BPA” because its chairman is an unpaid board member of an organisation that receives money from “Big Food”.

This way can only lead to madness. There is nothing healthy about this level of paranoia. Food fads come and go. For the sanity of the nation, we must hope that this one goes away more quickly than most.

Thursday 8 June 2023

The W.H.O. is beyond help

I've got an article in this week's Spectator about the corrupt and incompetent WHO.

Since declaring Covid-19 to be ‘over as a global health emergency’ early last month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has made it very clear that it has no intention of reforming. At its World Health Assembly two weeks ago, North Korea was among ten nations elected to sit on the WHO’s Executive Board, thereby giving Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian state the power to appoint WHO regional directors and potentially vote for the next director-general. The World Health Assembly did not censure North Korea for its countless human rights abuses, which include starving its own people. Instead it singled out Israel for criticism.

A few days later, as Russian bombs fell on Ukrainian families, the WHO’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, met Putin’s deputy health minister to discuss what Dr Tedros described in an ill-advised tweet as Russia’s ‘work to advance maternal and child health’. Dr Tedros also found time to meet the president of Fifa, perhaps the only international organisation that has faced more allegations of corruption and incompetence, to sign a four-year extension of its Memorandum of Understanding.

With Covid-19 fading as a health threat, the WHO is keen to get back to talking about its real priorities. In April, it published ‘Reporting about alcohol: a guide for journalists’, an alleged ‘fact sheet’ largely written by neo-temperance campaigners which falsely claims that ‘there is no evidence for the common belief that drinking alcohol in moderate amounts can help people live longer by decreasing their risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke or other conditions’. There is, in fact, a mountain of such evidence built up over decades.

Last month, the WHO published a report claiming that artificial sweeteners do not help people lose weight and may cause cancer. Last week, Dr Tedros declared that switching from smoking to vaping should not be seen as harm reduction and that e-cigarettes are ‘a trap’.


Tuesday 6 June 2023

W.H.O. boss lies about vaping

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, once of the Tigray People's Liberation Front and now Director-General of the World Health Organisation, held a press conference on Friday in which he shamelessly lied about e-cigarettes.

“When the tobacco industry introduced electronic cigarettes and vaping, one narrative they tried to really sell is, is that this is part of harm reduction. It is not true. It actually is a trap.”

“Kids are being recruited at early age, 10, 11, 12 to do vaping and e-cigarettes because they think that it is cool because it comes in different colours, different flavours and so on. Then they get hooked for life. And most actually move into regular cigarette smoking.”

There are quite a few lies to unpack here. Firstly, the tobacco industry didn't 'introduce' e-cigarettes. It only moved into the market in 2013, 12 years after they had been invented. By the time the first vaping company was snapped up by a tobacco company, I'd already been using e-cigarettes for several years and had stopped smoking.

Nor is vaping 'a trap'. This is a ludicrous bit of scaremongering. The latest Cochrane Review concluded that there is 'high certainty evidence that nicotine e-cigarettes are more effective than traditional nicotine-replacement therapy (NRT) in helping people quit smoking'. This is in contrast to the 'very low certainty' evidence that the WHO has been citing recently to scare people off artificial sweeteners.

Finally, it is a flagrant lie that most children who vape 'move into regular smoking'. On the contrary, e-cigarettes have a prophylactic effect which is why smoking is extremely rare in schools despite - or rather because - vaping has become more popular. The evidence from the UK, USA and many other countries is clear to see. (Australia may be the exception but there is no accounting for the stupidity of the government.)

Wouldn't it be nice to have a World Health Organisation that doesn't lie to our faces? Is that too much to ask?

Monday 5 June 2023

The surprising survival of the temperance lobby

I was on Consumer Choice radio last week having a good chat with Yael Ossowski and David Clement about (mostly) alcohol policy. 

Have a listen.

Friday 2 June 2023

Australia: a special kind of stupid

More bad news from the supposed world leader in tobacco control. Official figures show that teen smoking rates rose sixfold between 2018 and 2023, from 2% to 12.8%.

It's been over a decade since Australia introduced plain packaging, a policy that the Southern hemisphere's wrongest man, Simon Chapman, likened to a vaccine for lung cancer. Australia has had the highest cigarette taxes in the world for ages, the sale of nicotine e-cigarettes has always been illegal, and all they have to show for it is an insanely big black market for both tobacco and e-cigarettes, more children smoking and a whole bunch of people using unregulated vapes. The wowsers just can't stop winning, can they?

Naturally, this has led to much soul searching among the tobacco control elite who are having to reassess their assumptions in the face of this overwhelming evidence of policy failure.

I'm joking, of course. They are doubling down again.

If you spoke to someone from the reality-based community, they would tell you that children find it easier to access a product when the market is in the hands of illicit traders because illicit traders don't care who they sell to. They might also point out that the Australian government has gone out of its way to portray vaping as being at least as bad as smoking. School children in Australia are taught that vaping causes brain damage. Public health agencies produce websites that purport to tell people the facts about vaping but actually tell them lies and misleading half-truths.


Alas, Australia's 'public health' industry is about as far from reality as it is possible to get. Their narrative is that youth smoking rates have risen in tandem with youth vaping rates and that this is proof of the legendary 'gateway effect'. In their view, it's not a failure of policy, it's the fault of the people who have been "promoting vaping".

The problem with this theory - aside from the fact that there are only about three people in Australia who have been promoting vaping - is that it hasn't been happening anywhere else. In England, where vaping actually is promoted, the proportion of 11-15 year olds who smoke regularly has fallen to 1% and the proportion who smoke at all has dropped from 5% to 3% since 2018.

Smokers aged 11-15

Regular smokers aged 11-15

Smoking among 18-24 year olds has halved since vaping took off, from 26% in 2011 to 13% in 2021.

It's a similar story in the USA where smoking among high school students has plummeted from 16% in 2011 to 2% in 2022.

Across the ditch in New Zealand, smoking rates nose-dived as soon as e-cigarettes were legalised in late 2020.

It takes a special kind of stupid to engineer a situation in which you have high rates of both smoking and vaping among teenagers, but Australia has somehow managed it. They handed much of the tobacco market and all of the vape market to illicit traders, thereby removing all regulation and ensuring people of any age have access to cheap products, and then created such a moral panic about the least harmful option that doctors give their own children cigarettes to stop them vaping.

Way to go, guys!

Thursday 1 June 2023

It's a wide world

I've written something for The Critic about how parochial you have to be to think that nanny state policies are essential. 

Policies that are assumed to be indispensable for protecting public health in some countries are regarded as almost preposterous in others. Freedoms that are so mundane as to go unnoticed in some parts of Europe would be portrayed as recklessly anarchic if they were proposed in others. Remember the outrage when it was rumoured that Liz Truss would repeal the sugar tax? People reacted as if it would turn the United Kingdom into some sort of pariah state. In fact, it would have brought us in line with Sweden, Italy, Denmark and countless other countries that function perfectly well without such paternalistic interventions. Norway had repealed its own sugar tax without any fanfare the previous year. 

Imagine if the UK repealed plain packaging for tobacco, relaxed its smoking ban, got rid of its marketing restrictions on so-called junk food and halved its taxes on alcohol. Would it become a Hogarthian nightmare, or would it simply be a bit more like Germany and Luxembourg where none of these restrictions are in force?