Friday 29 September 2023

In defence of disposable vapes

I've written a short briefing paper with Reem Ibrahim about the risks of banning disposable vapes for the IEA. A few stats:
  • 35 per cent of adult vapers use disposables and a ban could result in some returning to smoking cigarettes.

  • 7.6 per cent of 11-17 year olds are current e-cigarette users, while four in five have never used an e-cigarette.

  • Cigarette use among people aged between 11 and 15 has dropped from four per cent to just one per cent since 2012.

  • 11–15-year-olds are twice as likely to drink alcohol regularly than they are to vape regularly.

As I say in the press release...

“Banning a product because it is sometimes consumed by people who are already banned from buying it is a poor basis for legislation,” write report authors IEA Head of Lifestyle Economics Christopher Snowdon and Communications Officer Reem Ibrahim. “We do not ban cider just because some teenagers drink it. We do not ban 18 certificate films because some teenagers watch them. We do not even ban cigarettes because some teenagers smoke them.”


Wednesday 27 September 2023

First, tell the truth

Dr Mike McKean, vice-president for policy at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has hit out against the well publicised fact that vaping is at least 95% safer than smoking. 

In an exclusive interview with the BBC, Dr McKean said: "Vaping is not for children and young people. In fact it could be very bad for you," although he stresses that it is not making lots of children very sick, and serious complications are rare.

"Vaping is only a tool for adults who are addicted to cigarettes."

He says the 95% safe messaging was "a very unwise thing to have done and it's opened the door to significant chaos".

The "chaos" is, presumably, the youth vaping "epidemic". It is very easy to exaggerate the scale of underage vaping in Britain - 80% of 11-17 year olds have never tried a vape and only 3.7% of them use an e-cigarette more than once a week - but there has undoubtedly been an increase in recent years, with most teenager vapers using disposables.

There are several problems with McKean's argument. 
Firstly, it implies that public health agencies shouldn't tell people the truth. There is no way of discussing the relative risks of vaping and smoking honestly without admitting that vaping is much, much less hazardous to health. Morally bankrupt organisations like the WHO and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids lie by omission by only focusing on the potential unproven harms. 

Secondly, as Carl Phillips explains at length in this study, consumers weigh up costs and benefits before deciding what to do. Health risks constitute part of the costs. If the health risks fall sharply, as with vaping as compared to smoking, while the benefits remain similar, you would expect consumption to increase. To counter that pull factor among children, the state introduces push factors such as banning people under the age of 18 from buying e-cigarettes, but the only way the state could mask the underlying change in the risk-benefit calculus would be by lying to the public.
One could draw a parallel with safe sex campaigns. Fear of sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy discourages sexual activity to some extent. If teenagers have access to condoms, there will presumably be more teenage sex. This is bad news if you're against teenagers having sex but good news if you're against unwanted pregnancies and the clap. Only a fanatic would respond by calling for condoms to be banned.

Thirdly, there is no evidence that the rise in youth vaping in the last three years has been due to teenagers knowing that vaping is at least 95% safer than smoking. On the contrary, like every other age group, teenagers have become more and more ignorant about the risks thanks to unscrupulous journalists and dishonest academics. Only a third of 11-17 year olds understand that vaping is less dangerous than smoking at all, let alone at least 95% less dangerous. Public understanding is at an all time low.

It should also be said that the USA and Australia had their own teen vaping 'epidemics' before the UK did, despite their public health agencies systematically lying to the public and, in the case of Australia, despite banning e-cigarettes.

Tuesday 26 September 2023

How big is the black market in tobacco?

I came across an empty pack of Manchester cigarettes at the weekend and it got me thinking about the black market in tobacco which has supposedly shrunk in the last 20 years. Maybe it has, but it would be nice if we tried to measure it properly, as I explain in this article for The Critic.

I first heard about Manchester cigarettes when Australia introduced plain packaging and Manchester became the country’s biggest selling illicit brand. It’s still doing well there. Last December, a man was jailed for smuggling three million of them into Melbourne. The interesting thing about these cigarettes is there are not counterfeits. The big tobacco companies have often borrowed English place names — Pall Mall, Mayfair, Richmond, Marlborough (they later shortened that one) and even Chesterfield — but they have never made a cigarette called Manchester.

When plain packaging was introduced, the worry was that counterfeiters would find it easier to counterfeit the plain packs. Instead, the black marketeers swung in the opposite direction, apparently deciding that if smokers did not like plain packs then they would appreciate an old school pack. Australia was suddenly deluged with “illicit whites” made in China and the Middle East that are principally, if not wholly, produced for illegal sale.

Finding a pack of Manchester cigarettes on a British pavement is a firm sign of industrial scale tobacco smuggling. I haven’t smoked for over a decade so my firsthand knowledge of the black market is limited to what other people smoke and which packs are left on the street, but I have noticed that a lot of them fall under the umbrella of what HMRC calls “non-duty paid”.

There's still time to scrap HS2

Paul Johnson from the IFS was on Times Radio yesterday talking about HS2. 

“This whole thing just makes me want to weep. It makes me despair. I mean, the original sin, as it were, was agreeing to do it in the first place. It was obviously going to be hugely expensive, with relatively little gain from it relative to pretty much anything else you could have done with the railway or transport system, whether that’s making rail connections across the North vastly better or actually building a bunch of bypasses and improving the roundabouts in the road network. 

“And we knew that, that this was not the best way you could spend that amount of money. We also know how difficult we find it to build these projects. 

“So the original sin was doing it in the first place. Now the question is, once we have started and we’ve already spent many billions on it, what’s the best way forward from here? And there you just need to take a view as to how much additional benefit you get from taking it into Euston or taking it beyond Birmingham to Manchester. 

“And actually, that’s where I don’t know whether they’re making the right decision, because the question is, once you’ve got the bit from Acton to Birmingham, how much extra value do you get from the connection to Euston? And I suspect relative to the cost of the total project, probably quite a lot. And the same, I suspect, goes from the bit from Birmingham to Manchester. 

“So it rather looks like we’re going to totally waste the money on this in producing a rail at the cost of tens of billions, which will get you from Birmingham to central London less quickly than you can do at the moment.”

I have to concur. In fact, I said something similar on GB News over the weekend. The best time to scrap HS2 was 13 years ago. The next best time is now.

Monday 25 September 2023

Last Orders with Anthony Warner

 The new Last Orders is out, with Anthony 'Angry Chef' Warner. It's good. Have a listen.

Saturday 23 September 2023

The snus saga summarised

I've got a short article about snus in this week's Spectator. John Dalli's trial is still going on, 11 years after the alleged crime. His alleged accomplice died last year. The journalist who kept the closest eye on him died several years ago. Snus is still illegal in the EU.

Events took a dramatic turn in 2012 when the EU health commissioner John Dalli resigned after being accused by the European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf) of knowing about a €60 million bribe from the snus manufacturer Swedish Match to overturn the ban via his aide, the Maltese restaurateur Silvio Zammit. A much-delayed criminal trial against Dalli, who is also from Malta, finally got underway in February last year, with Dalli pleading not guilty to bribery and trading in influence. Zammit died a week later, aged 57, nearly a decade after he had first been charged, but with his own trial still unresolved. 


Wednesday 20 September 2023

Last Orders live

I hope you're coming to this year's Battle of Ideas. If you do, come along to the first ever Last Orders Live where me and Tom will be talking to some special guests about the stories of the day.

If you don't, you can always listen to the podcast later, but you won't have as much fun.

Tickets here. There's an early bird offer until next Monday.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

Ignore the public

I've written something on my Substack about why politicians need to make decisions when the public want things that are directly contradictory. You can't have it all and it seems to me that, in practice, people want jobs and money rather than the luxury policies that too many politicians focus on.

It is time for the public to understand what the trade-offs are. They need to be told that yes, you can have all the stuff you say you want - nutrient neutrality, silent city centres, triple lock pensions, net zero, protectionism, bans on everything you don’t like, 20mph speed limits, high speed rail, state-run healthcare, more borrowing, more regulation, more tzars, more badgers, more wolves or whatever - but you are going to be poor.

Nobody wants to hear that and nobody is going to hear that, because politicians won’t level with the electorate. And so politicians will have to make the decision for them. They will have to be - I know this sounds crazy but hear me out - leaders.

It should be taken as read that local residents will oppose any development that they don’t directly profit from, that single issue pressure groups will oppose everything, and that opinion polls will always show support for luxury, high status policies unless the consequences are spelt out. But it seems fairly clear from opinion polls on voting intention in the last two years that lower prices, higher incomes and economic growth are the real priorities of the British public and that these should therefore be the priorities of the British government even though public opinion will be against the engines of economic growth in the short-term.

Have a read and do subscribe if you haven't already. It is free.

Monday 18 September 2023

Looking back on the Enstrom-Kabat controversy

Geoffrey Kabat has reflected on the huge controversy over the secondhand smoke study he published with James Enstrom 20 years ago. It's well worth a read.

In the early 1990s, I had been a member of the EPA panel charged with evaluating the evidence for an association of passive smoking with lung cancer. It was clear that the leadership of the committee was intent on declaring that passive smoking caused lung cancer in non-smokers. I was the sole member of the 15-person panel to emphasize the limitations of the published studies—limitations that stemmed from the rudimentary questions used to characterize exposure. Many members of the committee voiced support for my comments, but in the end, the committee endorsed what was clearly a predetermined conclusion that exposure to secondhand smoke caused approximately 3,000 lung cancers per year among never-smokers in the United States.

... After several years of work, our paper was published by the BMJ on May 17th, 2003, addressing the same question Takeshi Hirayama had posed 22 years earlier in the same journal: whether living with a spouse who smokes increases the mortality risk of a spouse who never smoked. Based on our analysis of the American Cancer Society’s data on over 100,000 California residents, we concluded that non-smokers who lived with a smoker did not have elevated mortality and, therefore, the data did “not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality.”

The publication caused an immediate outpouring of vitriol and indignation, even before it was available online. Some critics targeted us with ad hominem attacks, as we disclosed that we received partial funding from the tobacco industry. Others claimed that there were serious flaws in our study. But few critics actually engaged with the detailed data contained in the paper’s 3,000 words and 10 tables. The focus was overwhelmingly on our conclusion—not on the data we analyzed and the methods we used. Neither of us had never experienced anything like the response to this paper. It appeared that simply raising doubts about passive smoking was beyond the bounds of acceptable inquiry.

As Kabat says, none of his critics was able to point to substantive flaws in the study. They just hated the conclusion and resorted to ad hominem attacks. Looking back, the remarkable thing isn't so much the backlash as the fact that the British Medical Journal published it at all. It is almost unthinkable that one of the big medical journals would publish anything that challenges the 'public health' lobby today.  

Incidentally, you can read the journal's referee comments from 2003 here.

Wednesday 13 September 2023

Well, that's the end of very low nicotine cigarettes

The company that was supposed to prove that cigarettes with hardly any nicotine in them are commercially viable has fallen on hard times. I discuss it in The Critic.

Beneath the corporate jargon is an admission that the company’s ultra-low nicotine cigarettes are not selling as well as expected. Some analysts think it is a prelude to a federal bankruptcy filing. The company’s share price peaked at $77 in 2021 and is currently trading at $1.25.

It is not long since XXII was a darling of public health groups and the media. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did everything it could to help the company. It banned the vast majority of e-cigarettes and threatened to introduce nicotine limits in cigarettes that only XXII could comply with. It officially classified two of XXII’s very low nicotine cigarette brands — VLN King and VLN Menthol King — as “modified risk tobacco products”, thereby giving the company the unique privilege of being able to market their cigarettes with health claims. The FDA also bought 28 million of their cigarettes to use in research.

Monday 11 September 2023

Tobacco exceptionalism?

Is tobacco a unique product or not? Let's ask comedy professor Anna Gilmore.

Anna Gilmore, 2007:

'The International Monetary Fund encourages privatization of state-owned industries, including tobacco industries, to help address macroeconomic problems and promote economic growth; however, it fails to consider the unique nature of an industry whose product kills.'

Anna Gilmore, 2019:

'Tobacco is a unique product in that it kills half of its consumers. It is the only consumer product that is subject of a global treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), with over 180 Parties including all but one OECD member. The FCTC is now embedded in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, enshrining the tenet that good governance in public health involves treating tobacco companies differently from the rest of industry.'

Seems like a clear 'yes'. And yet at a neo-temperance meeting recently, she was humming a different tune:

“For NCDs we should be able to move forward, we need to get beyond tobacco exceptionalism,” said Professor Anna Gilmore, Professor of Public Health and Director of the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath

This is our old friend the slippery slope again, isn't it? Not surprising from someone who turned the UK Centre for Tobacco Studies into the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies. It surely can't be long before it becomes the UK Centre for Tobacco, Alcohol, Gambling and Ultra-Processed Food Studies.

Last Orders with Marc Glendening

New episode with my IEA colleague Marc. We discuss the implications of the trans ideology on free speech, plus a wolf update, Ted Cruz and craft beer.

Saturday 9 September 2023

Blessed be the artisan cheese-makers

Yet another company has been caught out by Transport for London's ban on 'junk food' advertising. An advert for a play was banned in July because it depicted a wedding cake and regular readers will fondly recall the Farmdrop episode
This time it's something called Cheese Geek, as City AM reports...

TfL said the cheese ads – which were to be part of a campaign run by Workspace, the office provider and consultancy – could not go on the network because TfL uses “the Food Standards Agency’s model to define foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.”

Seemingly unaware that cheese is high in salt and very high in fat, Cheese Geek are nonplussed.

The founder of Cheese Geek, Edward Hancock, said the ban was “crazy” and said he couldn’t understand why fizzy drink ads were allowed on the network but not artisan cheeses.

Fizzy drink adverts are not allowed if the drink is high in sugar. A cheese advert would be allowed if it wasn't high in salt and fat. Them's the rules, chief. If we must have such rules - and we shouldn't - they have to be based on nutritional thresholds. You can't exempt food just because posh people eat it, as much as that seems to pain former health secretary Edwina Currie.

(The City AM report includes a quote from yours truly.)

The unintended consequences of the ‘junk food’ advertising ban

(First publisher in Spectator Health in March 2019) 


It’s only been a week since Sadiq Khan’s ill-conceived ban on ‘junk food’ advertising across London’s public transport network came into effect, but the unintended consequences are already coming to light.

As I explained last June, ‘junk food’ has no legal definition. Those who want to restrict food advertising clearly have American fast food chains in mind, but the government is not so arbitrary and capricious that it is going to put McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC on a blacklist. That would not only be illegal, it would also make the thinly veiled snobbery behind the anti-obesity crusade awkwardly explicit.

Junk food doesn’t exist and categorising food as ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ is a fool’s errand, but if a ban on unhealthy food advertising is to have any scientific or legal credibility, it must be based on quantifiable nutritional information. That is where the Nutrient Profiling Model comes in. It is a system for working out whether a food or drink product is High in Fat, Salt or Sugar (HFSS). It’s somewhat arbitrary and subjective, but it has the modest virtue of being consistent. Alas, it is also so puritanical that it classifies hundreds of ordinary food and drink products as being HFSS. As I said last year:

The model was devised by our old friend Mike Rayner who literally believes that God told him to bring about a sugar tax in Britain. All the obvious stuff gets a black mark under Rayner’s model: pizza, crisps, biscuits, confectionery, milkshakes and sugary drinks. It also rules out lots of products that are not typically considered to be ‘junk’ but which can be expected to get caught up in a system that focuses on sugar, salt and fat: ice cream, clotted cream, jam, marmalade, honey, bacon, pretzels, salted peanuts, sweetened fruit juice, smoothies and most sausages.

But then there are the foods that hardly anyone would consider ‘junk’ but which still fail the test: cheese (including half-fat cheese), raisins, sultanas, soy sauce, mustard, most tinned fruit, most yoghurts, most breakfast cereals (including high fibre varieties), peanut butter, Marmite, mayonnaise (light and regular), tomato soup, most cereal bars, many pasta sauces, all butter, fat spreads and olive oil.

It is HFSS food that has been banished from Transport for London’s advertising space. If you didn’t realise this, it is probably because campaign groups, the media and – shamefully – polling companies routinely use the term ‘junk food’ when talking about policy. But it is not ‘junk food’ advertising that has been banned on the tube, nor is it ‘junk food’ advertising that will be banned on television before 9pm if the government gets it way. It would be more accurate to say that it is a ban on food advertising with exemptions for raw ingredients and health food.

Having spent much of the last year warning of the unintended consequences of half-baked anti-obesity policies, I welcomed the jolt of schadenfraude I got from reading about Farmdrop’s battle with TfL. Farmdrop is the woke mirror image of the stereotypical fast food company. It bills itself as an ‘ethical grocer delivering delicious food direct from local farmers’ and specialises in organic produce.

If it is organic, it must be ‘healthy’, right? Not according to the Nutrient Profiling Model. Farmdrop’s wholesome advertisement showing a family admiring their latest delivery was rejected by TfL because it shows butter and bacon. Butter is high in saturated fat and calories. Bacon is high in saturated fat, calories and salt. Ergo, they are what disingenuous health campaigners describe as ‘junk food’.

If you think this is ludicrous, I don’t disagree, but rules is rules. I would have more sympathy for the people at Farmdrop if they hadn’t been enthusiasts for the ban right up until the moment they realised that it wasn’t just their competitors who were going to be clobbered.

In fact, they still support the ban. Like the party member screaming loyalty to Comrade Stalin as he is dragged off to the gulag, they assume that there must have been some mistake. In a charmingly bewildered blog post, Farmdrop say that ‘the ban is coming from the right place’ but that the ‘handling has been clumsy’. They ‘fully support the Mayor of London’s decision to prohibit junk food advertising on the transport network’ but are ‘concerned about how it’s being applied’.

Alas, they are not victims of an administrative error by an over-zealous jobsworth. The law is being applied as it was written, with HFSS food forbidden and non-HFSS food allowed. What is the alternative? There has been talk of TfL offering exemptions from the ban if the food in question is “not generally consumed by children” or if there are “exceptional grounds”. Neither seems to apply in this case, and if the authorities started making ad hoc exceptions on the basis of common sense, the whole house of cards would soon fall apart.

Farmdrop have their own definition of junk food, describing it as ‘calorific foods with little or no nutritional value’, but this only underlines how difficult it is to come to an objective judgement. If a food has no nutritional value, it is not food. Tellingly, they add: ‘We all know which foods we mean here.’ And so we do. We mean burgers that don’t come in a Rye Burger Bun topped with seeds (£1.75 for two). We mean mass-produced chocolate bars from Nestlé, not Belgian Dark Chocolate Tiffin (£3.50). What a shock it must be to discover that the authorities think that Organic Wyfe of Bath Cheese is just as fattening as the cheese on a Domino’s pizza and that Organic Dry Cured Streaky Bacon clogs the arteries just as much as the bacon served in a bap in a greasy spoon caff.

I said months ago that the public has been sold a pig in a poke by campaigners who talk about banning junk food advertising. The fact that a company like Farmdrop, which is in the food industry and regularly advertises on the tube, had no idea about the true scope of the law shows how far the wool has been pulled over our eyes. If a bland advertisement for ordinary food by a self-consciously virtuous business can fall foul of the law, anything can.

The chickens are coming home to roost. In the meantime, Londoners should reflect on the fact that they now live in a city where a photos of butter, raisins and ham are considered dangerous.

Friday 8 September 2023

The futility of the war on obesity

I've written an article for the new website Unfiltered about why the government is wasting its time and our money trying to tackle obesity by messing around with the food supply.

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. The “public health” lobby is constantly undermined by the public. Generally speaking, people know what they want and they are going to get it, even if they have to spend slightly more money or walk around a supermarket a bit more.

You might be able to suppress the sales of a new variety of Magnum by banning adverts for it, but you won’t suppress the demand for ice cream. You could, I suppose, tax “unhealthy” food at the level at which cigarettes are taxed. That would no doubt have an effect, but no party is going to propose it because the public would hate it.

Any reasonably affluent and free society is going to have a lot of fat people in it. The government can’t make people exercise more and the tools it has to intervene in the food supply are, in practice, too trivial to make any difference. It will take many years of failure and huge sums of wasted money before politicians admit that this is one problem they cannot do much about.

Do read the rest. No paywall.


Saturday 2 September 2023

Talking gambling

TalkTV did a whole hour on gambling this week. It was presented by Jeremy Kyle, who used to have a gambling problem (he bet on the horses, I believe). I only got a minute or so to make my point and by the time I went on there had been so much nonsense talked it was difficult to know where to start.

I was on with someone from Jolyon Maugham's Good Law Project. God knows why they're sticking their oar in. Perhaps they're sick of losing lawsuits and want to join a battle they can win for once.

The clip below should start where I begin.

Friday 1 September 2023

Another Last Orders with Simon Evans

It was a joy to welcome back Simon Evans to the Last Orders podcast. We talked about the witch-hunting of Graham Linehan, the ridiculous regulation of takeaway pints, and the mad plan to reintroduce wolves to the English countryside.

Listen to the episode (and catch up  on any you've missed) here.