Friday, 4 September 2015

Minimum pricing - what next?

It seems likelier than ever that the European Union will prevent Scotland and Ireland introducing minimum pricing for alcohol. The issue remains tied up in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for a few months yet, but yesterday’s statement from the Advocate General suggests that the writing is on the wall.

As in many lawsuits, the issues are complex, but the main points are as these. The SNP wants to make it illegal to sell a unit of alcohol for less than 50p. Sections of the drinks industry and several national governments believe that this would violate the EU’s common market, specifically Article 34 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). For example, if a Portuguese wine company’s unique selling proposition is very low prices, it will effectively be prevented from trading in Scotland.  

The Scotch Whiskey Association, who brought the case to the ECJ, has legal precedent on its side. The EU has previously ruled that minimum pricing is illegal when applied to tobacco and fuel and there is no obvious reason for alcohol to be treated differently (as some of us have been saying for years). The European Commission has explicitly told the Scottish government that the case law is ‘unequivocal to the effect that national legislation imposing minimum pricing in respect of particular products falls within the ambit of the Article 34 TFEU (prohibition on measures having the equivalent effect of impeding imports of products)’.

Despite these warnings, the Scottish government has persisted because it has been persuaded by minimum pricing lobbyists that the EU will make an exemption under Article 36 of the TFEU. This clause creates an exemption for policies that are essential for improving public health. Crucially, however, an exemption will only be made if there is no other way of achieving the government’s health objectives. The European Commission has already said that it believes that increasing the rate of alcohol duty would have the same effect as minimum pricing without interfering with cross-border trade. The SNP disagrees, saying that minimum pricing is uniquely effective in reducing the sale of cheap alcohol.

The outcome of the case therefore hinges on whether the ECJ will prioritise the goals of ‘public health’ groups over the principles of the common market. The ECJ is due to make its ruling later this year. Before it does, it is customary for the Advocate General to give his view. Typically, though not necessarily, his or her view will also be the view of the ECJ, hence the interest in yesterday’s announcement.

The Advocate General’s report has been reported as being the death knell for minimum pricing. I’ve now read it in full and it is more equivocal than that. Nevertheless, it is clear that he is not siding with the SNP. In a characteristically verbose passage, he writes:

‘Articles 34 TFEU and 36 TFEU must be interpreted as meaning that they preclude a Member State, for the purpose of pursuing the objective of combating alcohol abuse, which forms part of the objective of the protection of public health, from choosing rules that impose a minimum retail price of alcoholic beverages that restricts trade within the European Union and distorts competition, rather than increased taxation of those products, unless that Member State shows that the measure chosen has additional advantages or fewer disadvantages than the alternative measure.’

In other words, the Scottish government needs to prove that there’s no other way of ‘combating alcohol abuse’ other than introducing a price floor. And his next sentence was rather interesting…

‘The fact that the alternative measure of increased taxation is capable of procuring additional advantages by contributing to the general objective of combating alcohol abuse does not justify rejecting that measure in favour of the measure imposing a minimum price.’

On the face of it, this is a strange thing to say. Why would any government reject a policy if it had ‘additional advantages’? Why does the Advocate General feel to need to warn against rejecting alcohol tax hikes on this basis?

What I think he is doing here is pre-empting the Scottish government’s response to the forthcoming ECJ decision by implicitly stating that tax rises are better than minimum prices. If the ECJ bats this back to the Scottish courts (as it probably will), the SNP will argue that tax rises will not meet their objectives as well as minimum pricing. The Advocate General seems not to agree.

Supporters of minimum pricing have never been clear about what their objectives. I have noticed this myself when I have debated them. Sometimes they say it’s about hidden drinkers, sometimes Saturday night revellers. Sometimes they say it is about targeting heavy drinkers, sometimes they say it about getting the whole population to cut down.

The Advocate General has noticed this inconsistency and concludes that there is a ‘twofold objective of targeting the part of the population whose health is at greatest risk and having a positive effect on the health of the entire population’. He sees nothing wrong with this ‘persistent ambiguity’ but he notes that a tax rise would be effective in achieving both objectives whereas minimum pricing would only be effective (perhaps) in the first, ie. reducing consumption amongst (some) high risk drinkers. He notes that rates of heavy drinking are highest amongst the high income groups that will be almost untouched by minimum pricing.

Put simply, the minimum pricing lobbyists have been hoist by their own petard. By stating that their objective is to reduce alcohol consumption amongst the whole population, they have lost the argument that minimum pricing can do what taxation cannot. If they had been more candid and said that they want to stop poor people drinking – for that is really what minimum pricing is about – they might have stood a better chance. As it is, they will be told to increase taxes instead. Sadly for the SNP - and happily for drinkers - they do not have the power to do so.

Saving England by the pint

My report on the costs and benefits of alcohol to the government got a lot of news coverage yesterday (eg. here, here and here). Even the BBC gave it a good run on the radio news bulletins.

Quite a few of the headlines failed to distinguish between the economy and the treasury - to be clear, taxing people does not 'boost the economy' - but Rome wasn't built in a day.

By far my favourite bit of coverage came from the Daily Mash. Have a quick read.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

How drinkers subsidise teetotallers

I have a new IEA report today looking at the costs and benefits to the treasury of alcohol consumption. As far as I know, this is the first study of its kind in England (or the UK). This is surprising when you consider that estimates of 'societal' or 'wider economic' costs are invariably reported as being costs to the taxpayer.

So what is the cost to public services? I've used the most recent figures and the best methodology, and it is almost certainly no higher than £3.9 billion per year. That's quite a bit of money, but nowhere near as much as the £10.4 billion paid by English drinkers in alcohol taxes. In other words, drinkers are paying more than their fair share and teetotallers are being subsidised.

The report is free to download here.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Jamie Oliver bingo

Bandwagon-jumping punch-magnet Jamie Oliver will be using his 'charisma' to advance the agenda of Action on Sugar tomorrow night on Channel 4. He's already said what's on his political agenda and anyone who has followed the anti-smoking and anti-drinking movements over the years will be unsurprised to hear that it involves advertising bans and sin taxes.

Oliver is the very definition of a useful idiot so we can expect Jamie's Sugar Rush to involve the usual 'public health' incantations and junk science. But how many evidence-free assertions and misrepresentations will he be able to cram in? I've devised a special bingo card so you can play along at home. Click to engorge.

Usual rules apply. Every time the fat-tongued mockney imbecile tells a porky pie—and it will be often—cross it off your card. First one to shout 'House!' wins.

I'll also be live tweeting a selection of his delicious recipes so it really should be a lorra fun.

Good luck!

Friday, 28 August 2015

The Lancet's smear campaign

The Lancet published an embarrassingly bad editorial knocking the Public Health England report on e-cigarettes today. They appear to have given their smear story as an exclusive to the Daily Mail because that's how credible scientific journals work, right?

The hatchet job focuses on the conflicts of interest of two co-authors of one of the many studies cited by PHE in their report. Both were declared at the time and one of them isn't really a conflict of interest.

Regular readers will know that I'm no fan of Public Health England, but this is pathetic. I've written about it for The Spectator so please pop over there for a moment and have a read.

Smoking ban in prison leads to usual outcome

If you could go back in a time machine to the year 2000, let alone the year 1980, what would people make of the following passage from this news story?

Dr Goodwin was on Wednesday asked in Parliament if she would reconsider the smoking ban if it proved to be a key motivation behind the siege.

She said the government would not back down.

"We're not in the business of giving in to the demands of prisoners for things and conceding that a hostage action was appropriate," she said.

"To suggest that we should now turn around and say it's all too hard and give up because the prisoners don't like it [the tobacco ban] is not realistic."

Dr Goodwin said there was no excuse for assaulting or taking a prison guard hostage.

"I am most concerned that there would be any suggestion we should just simply reverse a policy because there's been a hostage situation.

They would think that we had lost our minds, wouldn't they? And they would be right.

As usual, people who work in the prison system predicted that this would happen months ago. As usual, the 'public health' lobbyists said it wouldn't.

And let's not forget this gem from Deborah Arnott:

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of charity Action on Smoking and Health, said there was no evidence to support claims that depriving prisoners of tobacco could lead to riots.


Thursday, 27 August 2015

Aseem Malhotra still doesn't know what he's talking about

Aseem Malhotra has inexplicably been on television again today spouting his latest scientifically illiterate theories. In recent months he has been lurching ever closer towards the low carb cult and the Atkins diet. He is now telling people to eat a low carb, high fat diet while simultaneously telling them to adopt the Mediterranean diet. The latter has never been properly defined but is certainly not low carb. I can only assume that he has now read more than one diet book.

In the last year or so, Malhotra has done his best to deter people from taking statins, downplay the importance of physical activity, eat more fat and not worry about how many calories they consume - strange behaviour for a cardiologist. Perhaps, as Fergus says, he is trying to recruit new customers.

The only upside about the cretin of Croydon appearing in the media is that it stirs scientists into rebutting his drivel, so rather than fisk his eat-more-fat-and-consume-more-calories article, here are a few comments from the Science Media Centre...

... it is disappointing that this incomplete review reduces the diet to mere prescriptive nutrition: eat flaxseeds (good), eat almonds (good), eat olive oil (good), don’t eat sugar (bad) – dogma that’s exactly the opposite to the Mediterranean-style eating approach. The impression to ‘never mind the calories, feel their nutritional quality’ is in my opinion a misleading and superficial approach to a healthy eating.

I can agree with only one point made in this rather confusing editorial which seems to jump from one poorly proven hypothesis to another, undoing the work of thousands of good quality research papers and backed by years of careful research.

In my opinion, it is idiotic to suggest that calories don’t count and then advocate a high fat diet. The editorial has muddled obesity prevention with cardiovascular disease prevention.  Obesity is only prevented if energy intake is balanced by energy expenditure.

Adding fat to food is the easiest way to increase calories in food so pouring large amounts of olive oil over food or eating loads of nuts is not going to help prevent obesity!  

As I have said from the very beginning, Aseem Malhotra doesn't know what he's talking about.