Wednesday 29 November 2023

Prohibition 2.0 - ready to go again?


A new IEA briefing from me was published today looking at Sunak's tobacco ban. You can download it here. In it, I look at the justifications set out by the government and the predictable problems that will ensue if it goes ahead.

I've also written about this for the Spectator.

Prohibition has a bad name for a good reason and you don’t need to go back to 1920s America for the evidence. The tiny kingdom of Bhutan banned tobacco sales in 2004 at a time when its smoking rate was very low. Western public health campaigners applauded the move, but a study in 2011 noted that it was accompanied by ‘smuggling and a thriving black market’.

15 years later, 22 per cent of Bhutanese 13-15 year olds were tobacco users. Among this age group, the World Health Organisation reports that ‘prevalence of current cigarette smoking increased continuously from 2009 to 2019’. So much for the ‘smoke-free generation’. The ban was lifted in 2021 because there were so many people smuggling tobacco into Bhutan that the government was worried that they were spreading Covid-19.

The irony is that Sunak announced the prohibition policy at the Conservative party conference during a speech in which he condemned his predecessors for short-term thinking and portrayed himself as the man to make sensible decisions in the nation’s longterm interests. But this policy will only start to bite after 2026 when Mr Sunak is likely to be long gone. Far from being a departure from short-termism, the generational ban is just another unworkable political gimmick designed to garner headlines. Sunak is essentially opening a new front in the war on drugs and leaving future governments to deal with the consequences.

And we have a panel discussion in that London tonight. All welcome.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

Gambling Commission fiddling the problem gambling statistics

The Guardian's resident anti-gambling correspondent got excited about figures which suggested that there are eight times as many problem gamblers than previously believed last week. I had a look at this stat for The Critic. It seems that the Gambling Commission is usually a notoriously weak methodology to inflate the stats.

There are several reasons why the new survey inflates the statistics, but the main issue is selection bias. All surveys try to get a representative sample of the population, but you can’t force someone to participate. If there are systematic biases behind people’s reasons for participating or not participating, the data will be skewed.

And indeed there are. Firstly, online surveys appeal to people who are very online — and that includes a lot of problem gamblers. Older people, who are less likely to be problem gamblers, are under-represented. The Gambling Commission has acknowledged that an “online methodology means that the sample responding to the survey are more likely to be engaged online, thus skewing the data”. 

Secondly, people who gamble a lot are attracted to surveys about gambling. The Health Survey for England asks about a range of health issues, but the new Gambling Survey for Great Britain is just about gambling. The clue is right there in the name and a study published in 2009 found that “gamblers and problem gamblers are intrinsically more interested in “gambling” surveys and therefore participate at a much higher rate than nongamblers”. If a disproportionate number of problem gamblers take the survey, the survey will naturally identify a disproportionately high number of problem gamblers.

The Health Survey for England has a response rate of more than 50 per cent, but the response rate for the Gambling Survey for Great Britain is only around 20 per cent. Four out of five people simply refuse to take the new survey, leaving a relatively small group of self-selecting individuals who differ from the general population in various ways, not least in being more likely to have gambling problems.


Monday 27 November 2023

The BBC's bitter tears over New Zealand

Three days after New Zealand's incoming government decided to repeal the Labour policy of very slowly banning tobacco, the BBC has finally noticed - and it is not happy
Whenever there is a bump in the road towards further state control, the Beeb finds it difficult to disguise its horror, but as it is supposed to be impartial, their journalists have to find ways of editorialising without explicitly taking a side. One way of doing this is to focus on the reaction of the people they agree with and make that the story. In this instance, a neutral headline would be something like 'New Zealand axes tobacco ban'. Instead, the BBC has gone with...
New Zealand smoking ban: Health experts criticise new government's shock reversal
Is it really a "shock" for a centre-right government to oppose a loony left policy? Are Kiwi prohibitionists really "health experts"? Is there no one praising the "reversal"?

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in New Zealand, and the policy had aimed to stop young generations from picking up the habit.

Health experts have strongly criticised the sudden reversal.

"We are appalled and disgusted... this is an incredibly retrograde step on world-leading, absolutely excellent health measures," said Prof Richard Edwards, a tobacco control researcher and public health expert at the University of Otago.

"Most health groups in New Zealand are appalled by what the government's done and are calling on them to backtrack," he told the BBC.

If you enjoy a bit of schadenfreude, I recommend Richard Edwards' Twitter feed. He's been in full meltdown since Friday.

The legislation passed last year had been acclaimed internationally with research models backing the key reforms.

Ooh, a model! Respect the model! It's not as if public health modelling has ever been completely wrong or anything, is it?

While it has been praised as a public health policy, the Smokefree measures drew opposition from some business groups in New Zealand. Owners of newsagents and corner shops criticised the loss of revenue - even with government subsidies.

These are the only opponents of the policy mentioned in the article, thereby consolidating the usual narrative that policy debates about lifestyle regulation can be boiled down to business versus health experts and people versus profits.

Some lawmakers - including the new Prime Minister Chris Luxon - also argued a ban would lead to a black market for tobacco.

It's not even arguable. Obviously prohibition leads to black markets. New Zealand already has a sizeable black market with cigarettes smuggled into the country in large quantities and convenience stores being robbed at gunpoint for their tobacco products.

However his National party, which won 38% of the vote in the 14 October election, hadn't mentioned the Smokefree laws during election campaigning. The announcement by the new finance minister Nicola Willis on Saturday that the government would repeal the laws shocked health experts who believed the policy would be untouched.

Yes, you've already said that. Prohibitionists are upset that prohibition has been cancelled. We get it.

Both minor parties blocked a flagship National policy to open up foreign property ownership - which the party had been relying on to fund tax cuts for middle and higher-income earners. Ms Willis said on Saturday that had led to the party looking elsewhere.

"The suggestion that tax cuts would be paid by people who continue to smoke is absolutely shocking," Emeritus Prof Robert Beaglehole, chair of New Zealand's Action for Smokefree 2025 committee told Pacific Media Network.

Crocodile tears from an anti-smoking zealot pretending to be sad about smokers being taxed. Call for tobacco duty to be cut, Robert.

A national Māori health organisation, Hāpai Te Hauora, called it an "unconscionable blow to the health and wellbeing of all New Zealanders".

Smoking rates, and associated disease and health issues, are highest among New Zealand's indigenous Māori population, for whom experts had said the policy would have the most positive impact.

That's one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that tobacco prohibition would be racist and neo-colonial in a country where the indigenous people are three times more likely to smoke that the white folk. The smoking rate among rich, white New Zealanders is tiny. They would hardly be affected at all. It is the Maori community that would bear the brunt of the crime and corruption that results from prohibition.

"The government is flying in the face of public opinion and obviously in the face of the vast majority of people who work in this field, health professionals, doctors, nurses," said Prof Edwards.

Good. Cry more.

Friday 24 November 2023

New Zealand averts prohibition

When the British government announced plans to stop anyone born after 2008 from ever buying tobacco last month, it was eager to stress that the UK would not be alone in passing such an eccentric law. The Department for Health and Social Care cited the “case study” of New Zealand which in January 2023 “became the first country in the world to introduce a restriction on the sale of tobacco to anyone born after a specified date”. It also mentioned similar legislation recently tabled in Malaysia. 

Incremental prohibition was meant to create a legacy for the ultra-progressive Jacinda Ardern who rode off into the sunset in January, but her Labour Party got battered in last month’s general election and the incoming government has other ideas. A three way coalition has been formed between the centre-right National Party, the “populist” New Zealand First Party and the liberal (in the uncorrupted sense) ACT Party. Having thrashed out an agreement, they have decided to repeal the generational tobacco ban.

Read all about this fantastic news at The Critic. The BBC doesn't seem too interested in reporting it. 

Asked whether the UK would now see sense and abandon this ridiculous idea, a Downing Street spokesperson said

'No, our position remains unchanged.

'We are committed to that. This is an important long-term decision and step to deliver a smoke-free generation which remains critically important.'

It seems that the British Conservative Party has more in common with Jacinda Ardern's loony left Labour Party than with New Zealand's centre-right.


Thursday 23 November 2023

Fun Police

There's a new podcast called Fun Police which I've just subscribed to. I'm also one of the guests in the first episode which is all about prohibition. Check it out here.

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Rolling baccy tax goes through the roof

A little noticed part of today's autumn statement was the inflation plus 12% increase in rolling tobacco tax from 6pm tonight. This is on top of the inflation plus 6% increase last year. In total, duty on rolling baccy has gone up by nearly 40% in just over a year.

Is the government in the pay of international smuggling cartels?

I discuss this in The Critic.

First, it greatly restricted how many cigarettes smokers can legally buy abroad by leaving the European Union. Then it hiked up the price of tobacco way above the rate of inflation. Then it announced a crack down on vaping. And now it is going to literally introduce the prohibition of tobacco, albeit gradually. What’s going on? Did Jeremy Hunt misunderstand the Red Wall MPs when they told him that he needs to do something for white van man?


Monday 20 November 2023

'Health-harming industries'

From the Guardian on Saturday:

Firms are earning £52.7bn a year from UK sales of tobacco, junk food and excessive alcohol, and their consumption is contributing to Britain’s rising tide of illness, a report says.

The report came out today and it only demonstrated that 'public health' types don't understand business or economics. See my Substack for more.

Friday 17 November 2023

Did the sugar tax reduce dental extractions by 12%?

You have probably guessed that the answer is 'no' and you would be right.

The study is therefore making the extraordinary claim that George Osborne’s announcement in March 2016 had an almost immediate effect on rates of tooth decay despite there being little change in the sugar content of soft drinks for the first 18 months and there being no change in the price of sugary drinks for the first two years. Furthermore, the effect was most pronounced among pre-school children who are least likely to consume the drinks in question whereas there was no effect on teenagers who drink more of them than any other age group.

Read the rest at The Critic.

20mph limits and smoking

I was on BBC Politics East the other day talking about 20mph limits and the tobacco ban. I'm against both. If you want to watch it, it's here.

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Say no to Prohibition 2.0

If you're in or around London in the next few weeks, there are not one but two opportunities to hear about why the incremental prohibition of tobacco is probably not a good idea.

Firstly, FOREST are holding an event at the Old Queen Street Cafe next Monday with Claire Fox (aka Baroness Fox of Buckley), Henry Hill (ConservativeHome), Reem Ibrahim (Institute of Economic Affairs) and Ella Whelan (Academy of Ideas). RSVP here.

And on November 29th, the IEA will be discussing Prohibition 2.0 at 2 Lord North Street with me, Madeline Grant (The Telegraph), Paul North (Volteface) and Paul Cheema (Association of Convenience Stores). RSVP here.


The government is keen to rush this through before people think about the consequences so make sure you respond to the consultation by 6 December.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

The Lancet on gambling

It is with a heavy heart that I must inform you that a medical journal has been writing about gambling again. This time it is an anonymous editorial in The Lancet titled “Gambling: a harmful commodity”. Gambling is not actually a commodity. The inspiration for this title was almost certainly the modern temperance textbook “Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity”. Alcohol isn’t a commodity either.

Read the rest at The Critic.

Monday 13 November 2023

Farewell then, Neil O'Brien

Neil O'Brien has stepped down from his role as public health minister to spend more time with his family. He will no longer have to parrot ridiculous claims from the Department of Health, although he could have refused to go along with such nonsense in the first place. After all, he was the elected politician and government minister and he was supposedly to be in charge.
In a way, O'Brien's parliamentary career had been a microcosm of 13 years of nominally Conservative government. He spent years running a centre-right think tank and then had five years as an MP before becoming a minister and all he achieved was introducing a policy nicked from the New Zealand Labour Party before the British Labour Party got the chance to introduce it themselves.
It's the same old story. Every minister, regardless of their intentions, goes native within weeks of being in contact with the Department of Health.
Meanwhile, Steve Barclay, the health minister at the time of writing*, has penned an article for the Express promoting the policy of tobacco prohibition which begins, apparently without irony, with the following sentence.

This Government believes in letting you live your life the way you want to.

How does one explain such absurdities? Is it cognitive dissonance or gaslighting?
Judging by the polls, the public have decided that if they're going to have Labour policies, they might as well have the Labour Party introduce them.
*UPDATE - 3pm
Not any more.

Friday 10 November 2023

WHO tobacco conference cancelled again

 The corrupt and incompetent WHO's anti-nicotine shindig in Panama was suddenly cancelled last night "due to the current security situation". It will now be held in 2024, good luck permitting. 
As CopWatch explained earlier in the week, there are huge protests against the government giving a Canadian company access to the world's biggest copper mine.

The Panamanian public has been outraged at the recent award of a rumoured $400 billion contract with a Canadian mining company to exploit three square miles of Panamanian rainforest to extract copper. Protesters have been on the streets throughout the country chanting and waving banners with slogans such as “Panama is not for sale”. In Panama City itself, crowds of 30,000 protesters have clashed with the Police and Army using tear gas and what the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice page calls “riot control munition”.

According to the Foreign Office...

There are ongoing protests and demonstrations in Panama City and across the country. These can include roadblocks and the suspension of public transport. Protests can be unpredictable and may escalate quickly. Clashes between protestors and security authorities have resulted in injuries. The authorities use tear gas and riot control munition to control protests.

This is yet another example of the misfortune - of, if you prefer, karma - that has plagued this conference for years, as CopWatch notes...

The WHO has had a run of extraordinarily bad luck with COP meetings in recent years. Prior to COP6, there was an Ebola outbreak in Africa and the Russians shot down a passenger plane just before Director General Margaret Chan travelled to Moscow to talk about tobacco with Putin. New Delhi saw the worst smog in living memory which closed 20,000 schools in the week the WHO turned up in the city to talk about the dangers of vaping at COP7. The pandemic wrecked plans for COP9 which had to be delayed by a year and held virtually. Now this for COP10.

Copwatch would like to say we have sympathy for such bad luck but, unlike the WHO, we don’t want to mislead you.

It couldn't happen to a worse bunch of people. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Last Orders live!

The Last Orders podcast was recorded live at the Battle of Ideas at the end of last month with the Telegraph’s Madeline Grant and GB News’s Patrick Christys. It was a good laugh. Listen here.

Tuesday 7 November 2023

Glantz caught out

Stanton Glantz has been caught getting up to his old tricks. 

When Foxon and Shiffman confined their analysis to people who could be reasonably described as smokers, they found the opposite of what Glantz claimed.

See my Substack for more.


Thursday 2 November 2023

Panglossian prohibitionism

A question in the House of Commons last week:

Kevan Jones: To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, what assessment he has made of the potential impact of Government policies on ending cigarette sales to those born on or after 1 January 2009 on the sale of tobacco products in the black market.

Neil O'Brien: No assessment has been made. History shows whenever we introduce new tobacco control legislation and regulations, illicit tobacco has decreased, due to strong enforcement. Consumption of illegal tobacco has gone from 17 billion cigarettes in 2000/1 to three billion cigarettes in 2022/23.

O'Brien's answer, which was doubtless fed to him by Department of Health fools, is highly misleading and it is astonishing that the government has given no thought to what will happen to the illicit trade when tobacco is banned.

I have written about this for The Critic.
It would not be a black swan event if the prohibition of a popular product led to a certain amount of under-the-counter activity. You may have heard about what happened with alcohol in the USA between 1920 and 1933. You may be familiar with the war on drugs. You may even know what happened when Bhutan banned tobacco (it didn’t go well) or when South Africa temporarily banned cigarettes during the pandemic (ditto). Banning the sale of tobacco without assessing the impact on the black market is like giving car keys to a drunk without assessing the impact on pedestrians. 

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Knives out for nicotine pouches

Swedish MEP Charlie Weimars has blown the whistle on the EU's plan to ban nicotine pouches. In a tweet (translated below), he provides a screenshot from a leaked report that crossed his desk.

A secret report I shouldn't have landed on my desk. In the report that will be presented to EU member states this week, there are two notable writings: (1) praise for how successful the snus ban has been and (2) a recommendation that the EU should extend the snus ban to the tobacco-free white snus (nicotine pouches). 

That the EU's snus ban is a success is completely wrong. It is actually snus that makes Sweden the only country in the EU that is on the way to reaching the UN's goal of a smoke-free society (defined as less than 5% smokers), which has saved many lives. A ban on white snus would have been a hard blow to the attempt to eradicate smoking in the EU. Unfortunately, the Swedish exception for tobacco snus does not apply to nicotine pouches. 

If the EU Commission and the member states accept the report's recommendation, white snus will also be banned in Sweden. Men have largely opted out of smoking in favor of snus, while women looking for less dangerous alternatives choose white snus more often. Therefore, such a ban would hit women extra hard. 

The report has been written by consultants who work for DG SANTE (EU health bureaucrats) and the writings probably would not have crept into the report if they did not have the support of the bureaucrats. Most likely this is a test balloon from the bureaucracy. If the proposal falls to the ground at the meeting with the member states, the bureaucrats can blame the consultants and if the proposal does not meet resistance, the bureaucrats can interpret it as a clear support and work on with a sharp proposal. 

This is how you often work in the EU's bureaucracy. The government must therefore already make it clear at the meeting this week that our country opposes a ban on white snus and work to ensure that citizens continue to have the opportunity to choose the least harmful way to use nicotine. Our negotiators are also welcome to raise the issue of the risks to public health of having too many do-gooding bureaucrats in DG SANTE.

The EU just can't help itself. Nicotine pouches contain no tobacco and are surely the safest recreational delivery devices ever invented. The European Commission claims that the "growing popularity of nicotine pouches raises serious public health concerns and represents an increasing challenge for the internal market". This is nonsense. The public health impact of these products is positive and the internal market is irrelevant, as the snus carve out for Sweden shows. 

These people are trying to eradicate nicotine from the world. They are nuts.