Thursday 18 April 2024

Libertarian prohibitionists - you've heard it all now

I wasn't going to write about the tobacco ban again for a while, but the ludicrous spectacle of prohibitionists purporting to be champions of liberty has set me off. 

Their logic is that smoking is so addictive that it restricts freedom. They claim that smokers do not actually want to smoke, but were foolish enough to get hooked in childhood and are now unable to quit. And so, despite the evidence of your eyes and ears, it is the people who keep banning things who are standing up for freedom while libertarians support enslavement. 

This was the message of a slightly Orwellian editorial in The Times yesterday which explicitly described smoking as “enslavement” and described the right to smoke as “a fake freedom”. It was the message of Deborah Arnott, the CEO of the Department of Health’s sockpuppet pressure group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), who said: “Smoking is not a free choice. It is an addiction.” And it was the message of public health minister Andrea Leadsom who told the House of Commons that “this is not about freedom to choose; it is about freedom from addiction.” The words ‘addiction’ and ‘addicted’ were mentioned 83 times in that parliamentary debate.

I have already conceded that giving up nicotine is more difficult than giving up cupcakes (although Chris van Tulleken may disagree). But the rhetoric around addiction this week has reached a different level. We have been told that smoking is not  only a difficult habit for some people to break, but is almost impossible, so much so that smokers “face a lifetime of addiction”, as Bob Blackman MP put it, and that while smokers might say that they want to purchase tobacco, they actually do not.

It is difficult to reconcile this with figures from the Office for National Statistics which show that 69 per cent of all the people in England who have ever smoked are now non-smokers. Andrea Leadsom is one of them. Despite claiming in her speech that people who take up smoking can look forward to “a life of addiction to nicotine”, she also mentioned that she gave up a 40-a-day habit when she was 21. Deborah Arnott is also an ex-smoker. She only gave up after she got the job at ASH. I suppose it wouldn’t have been a good look.

Read the rest at The Critic.
Regarding that Orwellian Times editorial. Let's remember what they say about banning tobacco sales completely for when they inevitably support total prohibition in a few years' time. 
And let's give a shout out to Peter Hitchens who doesn't think nicotine (or anything else) is addictive, but wants to ban smoking anyway because he doesn't like it and he thinks he knows best. At least he's honest about it.


A swift half with Adrian Chiles

You won't want to miss the new episode of The Swift Half in which I talk to broadcaster and Guardian super-columnist Adrian Chiles about drinking.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

The hazards of unopened cigarette packs

Proving that there is no end to 'public health' hysteria, some quackademics in South Korea are warning that unopened cigarette packs put nicotine into the atmosphere and need to be regulated. I wish I was making this up. See my Substack for more. 

Our findings indicate that packaged, unopened, and uncombusted cigarettes in cigarette racks at tobacco retailers emits airborne nicotine, which is a previously unrecognized source of nicotine exposure. This result has implications for policy considerations, such as the potential installation of ventilation systems on cigarette racks or the exploration of alternative packaging methods.

Also, check out the new episode of Last Orders.

Sunak's legacy

Rishi Sunak wants tobacco prohibition it to be his legacy. As I say in Spiked, I hope that's what it becomes.

Today, MPs will vote on the Tobacco and Vapes Bill. The result is a foregone conclusion since Labour has promised to support it and their members will comfortably outnumber the handful of Conservative MPs who didn’t get into politics to ban things. The flagship policy in the bill is a ban on anyone born after 2008 from ever legally buying a tobacco product. This will gradually extend the war on drugs to include tobacco, but nearly everybody in Westminster seems to be relaxed about that. In an insult to the public’s intelligence that diminishes us all, the latest health secretary, Victoria Atkins, has claimed that Winston Churchill would approve of his party banning cigars (Churchill’s grandson disagrees).

After spending 14 years achieving so little, this Tory government is using its last few months in office rushing through a policy borrowed from the New Zealand Labour Party, one which the British Labour Party would otherwise push through parliament when it wins the next election. It all seems perverse. The ban will not have any effect until 2027 so there is no need for haste, but it is in keeping with the Tories’ longstanding approach of owning the lefties by introducing Labour policies before Labour gets the chance to do so itself.



Monday 15 April 2024

Tim Stockwell's relationship with evidence

Tim Stockwell, who has been running a one man crusade against the benefits of moderate drinking for 20 years, has been on a bit of a media tour recently. He got a feature in the New York Times two weeks ago and is currently in Scotland where he is gearing up for a talk at the Royal College of Physicians on Wednesday. The talk has been organised by the state-funded Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) and the anti-alcohol Institute of Alcohol Studies. As the Herald reports...

Prof Stockwell's talk in Edinburgh on Wednesday is also expected to coincide with MSPs voting on a motion to increase Scotland's minimum unit price (MUP) levy from 50 to 65 pence.

How fortuitous! 

Stockwell's longstanding approach has been to clog up the search engines with meta-analyses that either cherry-pick the data or retrospectively adjust it to diminish the benefits of moderate drinking - I wrote about his most recent effort last year. In an interview with the Herald this weekend, he was still banging on about the sick quitter hypothesis which has repeatedly been shown to not explain the alcohol J-Curve

He then turns to minimum pricing, which he keenly supports. You may recall that Stockwell conjured up some evidence for this policy back in the day, claiming that a 10% increase in the minimum price of alcohol in a Canadian province led to a 32% reduction in alcohol-related deaths. This would be a remarkably large effect if true but, as data from his own research group showed, it was not remotely true.

Stockwell's approach to matters related to alcohol is refreshingly simple. If he wants something to be true, he says it is true, regardless of what the evidence says. Since most journalists are not familiar with the evidence and trust anyone who sounds like they might be a doctor (Stockwell's degree was in psychology and philosophy), this is more effective than you might think.

For example, there is good evidence from both the official evaluation and independent research that minimum pricing in Scotland did not make heavy drinkers reduce their alcohol consumption. A study in BMJ Open found that the heaviest drinking 5% of men drank more after minimum pricing was introduced. Even the people at Sheffield University who did the modelling for minimum pricing in the first place had to admit that "the introduction of MUP in Scotland did not lead to a decline in the proportion of adult drinkers consuming alcohol at harmful levels".
Stockwell doesn't believe this therefore he says that it ain't so.

He said he is confident that MUP has made a difference to heavy drinkers, despite some surveys suggesting they had not cut down. 

He said: "If you look at total sales data: 50% of the alcohol sold is consumed by heavy drinkers.

"You don't get population level reductions - a 3% total reduction in consumption compared to England and Wales - unless heavy drinkers are cutting down. It's mathematically impossible."

I don't wish to insult your intelligence, dear reader, but it is definitely not mathematically impossible.  

"All the surveys done, however good they seem, are observational studies - not control studies."

Control studies? Does he mean randomised controlled trials? How could you even design an RCT to measure this? Nearly everything we know about the risks of drinking comes from observational studies. Isn't it funny how Stockwell accepts these when they show risks but not benefits and demands an impossible burden of proof when the results don't suit his agenda.

"So it really has worked, especially in people with heavy alcohol use."

OK, bud.

Friday 12 April 2024

The Tobacco and Vapes Bill

The Impact Assessment for the Tobacco and Vapes Bill is laughable, relying on nonsense figures from ASH and ignoring the impact on the illicit trade. I've written about it for The Critic where I also ask for an ethical justification for stopping informed adults engaging in risky but self-regarding behaviour.

Last week, the Regulatory Policy Committee gave its verdict on the Impact Assessment. It expressed concern about the “over-reliance on evidence from ASH” and spotted the obvious problem that ASH’s productivity estimates “do not control for other factors that may affect a person’s earnings”. It suggested rethinking the assumption that the prohibition was “unlikely to have substantial impacts on tourism” since smokers may be reluctant to visit a country where they can’t even buy cigarette papers, let alone tobacco. And it politely recommended that more consideration be given to “the continued likelihood of some people buying cigarettes illegally for others”, an issue that is given astonishingly little attention in the Impact Assessment. 

Legislating for prohibition without considering the effect on the black market is almost comically negligent, but there is one other aspect of this policy worth mentioning that is ignored in both the Impact Assessment and the RPC’s opinion. A lot of people enjoy smoking and, if this policy works as intended, that enjoyment will be denied them. This is not a popular thing to say and the anti-smoking lobby goes to great lengths to deny it. They claim that people only smoke because they started in childhood and got hooked. The government claims that “most smokers want to quit”. But do they? There is enormous social pressure on smokers to say that they don’t want to smoke, but in the last Public Health England survey, only 20 per cent of smokers expressed a strong desire to quit and even among this minority, most did not intend to quit in the next three months. Moreover, it is no longer true that most smokers start in childhood. The majority of people who start smoking today have their first cigarette between the age of 18 and 24.


Thursday 11 April 2024

Big Tobacco meets Big Food

I've seen a few posts like this recently, claiming that 'Big Tobacco' used its mysterious, fiendish tricks to manipulate food when some of them bought food companies in the 1980s. 


So why say it? Presumably because it advances the goal of applying tobacco-style regulation to the food your eat.