Thursday, 30 June 2016

Alcohol guidelines debate

There was a debate about the new alcohol guidelines in a committee room of the House of Commons on Monday. Here's the opening speech from Byron Davies...

I want to be clear from the outset. I recognise the necessity for sensible and effective guidelines to help consumers—our constituents—to make better informed decisions about the amount of alcohol they consume. Ministers were right to ask the chief medical officer to carry out a review of the guidelines, and it is important that the guidance reflects the most up-to-date scientific evidence that is available across the world and that that is properly communicated to consumers.

I declare an interest as a member of the all-party beer group—unashamedly, given that 30 million adults across the UK drink beer each year and 15 million of us visit the pub each week. But I also know that this issue is a matter of concern for anyone who enjoys a drink and wants to drink responsibly.

We have made great strides in this country in promoting responsible enjoyment of alcohol through a partnership approach with industry. That achieves much more than a draconian approach to taxation or heavy-handed regulation. As a Conservative, I want to treat adults as adults and let them have the freedom to make informed choices about how they live, what they eat and drink and how they enjoy their lives. As a responsible Conservative, I also know that industry has a role to play in promoting responsibility through advertising campaigns, voluntary labelling initiatives and provision of consumer information. We have achieved a great deal, successfully reducing alcohol harm for more than 15 years.

The Office for National Statistics confirms that binge drinking has fallen by 25% since 2007. According to Public Health England, alcohol-related and alcohol-specific deaths have fallen since 2008 by 7% and 4% respectively. The Office for National Statistics confirms that alcohol-related violent crime has fallen by 40% since 2007. The number of children drinking alcohol has fallen by more than 50% since 2003 and is currently at the lowest rate on record. According to Public Health England, under-18 hospital admissions due to alcohol have fallen by 41% in the past six years.


We should not be complacent. It is essential that public health advice keeps pace with advances in scientific understanding. Crucially, the communication of any guidance from the state must be seen to be above reproach and carry the confidence of industry and the public alike. However, I felt this debate was needed because I and several other hon. Members are concerned that the process by which the chief medical officer reaches their conclusion is flawed and has, in some ways, been hijacked by a group of campaigners with a clear anti-alcohol, total abstinence agenda.

Views are strongly held on this subject, which divides scientific opinion and the medical community. I recognise that that puts the CMO in a difficult position in making judgments about risk and in communicating sensible guidelines to consumers. We are bombarded with health advice from all quarters in this 24-hour social media age, and it is vital that anything published in an official capacity as advice from the Government’s chief medical officer is properly scrutinised and beyond reproach. I argue that the process that has been adopted, the clear conflicts of interest of the panel of so-called experts deployed to deliberate on these matters and the biased presentation of the findings have left a crisis of confidence in the new CMO guidelines among consumers, the media and industry. The Minister needs to address that in her response to the public consultation.

Let me deal with those points in turn. First, on the process adopted to undertake this review, the Department of Health guidance for expert group members states clearly:

“It is important to avoid any impression that expert group members are being influenced or appearing to be influenced by their private interests in the exercise of their public duties. All members therefore must declare any personal or business interests relevant to the work of the expert groups which may or may not be perceived by a reasonable member of the public to influence their judgment.”

Members of the guidelines development group set up to advise the CMO have been active policy advocates during the time in which the guidelines have been developed. Thanks to the investigative journalism of Sean O’Neill, chief reporter at The Times, it has come to light that an academic who played a key role in drawing up the controversial new safe drinking limits, Professor Gerard 

Hastings, did not even declare his links to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, a registered charity that receives most of its income from the Alliance House Foundation, which states that its aim is spreading the principle of total abstinence from alcoholic drinks. That is not quite putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank, but it is not far off.

Policy advocates such as Professor Hastings have taken strident campaigning positions. Many have a temperance or total abstinence axe to grind. They are clearly not neutral or, I argue, objective in their assessment of the costs and benefits of alcohol consumption. Indeed, the chief medical officer for England, when giving evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on the proposed new alcohol guidelines, admitted that the experts “found remarkably little evidence about the impact of guidelines, but we did not do them to have direct impact so much as to inform people and provide the basis for those conversations and for any campaigns that, for instance, Public Health England and others might run in the future.”

One member of the behavioural expert group, Dr Theresa Marteau, writing in the British Medical Journal, went further and stated that the new guidelines are “unlikely to have a direct impact on drinking…but they may shift public discourse on alcohol and the policies that can reduce our consumption.”

Minutes from the guidelines development group meeting of 8 April 2015 state:

“It would be important to bear in mind that, while guidelines might have limited influence on behaviour, they could be influential as a basis for Government policies”.

There we have it. Never mind what consumers think about being told by the chief medical officer to think of cancer every time they hold a glass of wine or pour a can of beer, or that, as someone drinking a pint of beer a day, they are drinking more than they should. The not so well hidden agenda of the temperance activists is to influence Government policy to drive down alcohol consumption across the board. Wales has a strong Methodist and temperance tradition, which I respect, but I take issue with organisations such as the Institute of Alcohol Studies, which is funded directly by the temperance movement, helping to produce biased reports that are then given undue influence over the Government’s alcohol policy.

Having raised my concerns with the process adopted in undertaking the review, which I believe may have prejudiced the outcome and has certainly rendered the process lacking in credibility with consumers and the industry, I turn to the presentation of the review’s findings and, in particular, to the assertion that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, the lowering of the recommended weekly levels for men in line with those for women, and the communication of risk. I believe that that assertion is at the heart of the flawed nature of the proposed guidelines and it is, in some respects, clearly deliberate on the part of campaigners. If the Government accept that there is no safe level of consumption, it becomes much easier to argue for more restrictions on alcohol availability.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I agree with the points the hon. Gentleman is making, specifically and generally. Does he agree that, not just on these guidelines but right across the board, Governments 

of all political colours have made a mistake in involving campaign groups and pretending that they are scientific experts? It is not just on alcohol, but in all sorts of other areas.

Byron Davies: I could not have put it better myself. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. As I said, it becomes much easier to argue for more restrictions on alcohol availability, higher taxation of all alcohol regardless of strength, and more alarmist public health advertising to frighten people away from drinking. I am not a medic, but I have been around long enough to understand the old adages of “a little bit of what you fancy does you good” and “all things in moderation”—including international science. Indeed, looking into this further, I have discovered decades of evidence that shows the protective effects of low, moderate drinking.

Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that new, revised alcohol guidelines will not of themselves necessarily change or reduce drinking, but they will increase awareness of potential harm? That is surely a good thing.

Byron Davies: I am not quite clear on the hon. Lady’s point. I genuinely believe that this is a kind of social engineering, which I totally disagree with. A recent survey commissioned by the Campaign for Real Ale showed that a majority of GPs disagreed with the new advice and believes that drinking alcohol in moderation can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

Dr James Davies (Vale of Clwyd) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As a GP, I can confirm the current lack of faith in the validity of the guidelines. Many feel, for instance, that the social benefits of moderate alcohol intake have not been given sufficient weight. Does he agree that, if they are to be observed, it is vital that guidelines are trusted?

Byron Davies: That is the crux of the matter—my hon. Friend makes a very valuable point, which I am delighted that he, as a practising GP, has made.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman talks about the alcohol guidelines as social engineering, when they are actually designed to bear down on the health harms from alcohol consumption. How can he call it social engineering when the Government are trying to ensure that our fellow citizens are healthier and live longer?

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman resumes, it pains me to do so but I have to point out that it is not in order for the Front Bench spokesperson to participate in questioning. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) will get time to sum up for the Opposition at the end.

Byron Davies: I am grateful for that guidance, Sir Alan. The proposed new guidelines do not reflect the full international evidence base on alcohol and health, and actively downplay decades of epidemiological evidence 

that shows the protective effects of low to moderate drinking against cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cognitive—

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Byron Davies: If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I really need to move on. To quote a no less august body than the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the United States:

“More than 100 prospective studies show an inverse association between moderate drinking and risk of heart attack, ischemic (clot-caused) stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular causes. The effect is fairly consistent, corresponding to a 25 percent to 40 percent reduction in risk.”

The US Government’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism supports that position. One crucial point is not scientific, but about responsibility. I am a proud Conservative. Therefore, like most sensible people, I believe that, by and large, people can make their own decisions about their lives. I am not advocating that people go out and smoke 100 cigarettes, drink heavily, eat mountains of butter or consume mounds of sugar. However, if people want to enjoy the company of their friends with a fine pint of British beer that has been brewed using British ingredients following a fine art that has been honed carefully over our history, who are we to stop them? The medical advice I have listed remains clear indeed.

Curtis Ellison is professor of medicine and public health at Boston University School of Medicine, and director of the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research. He says:

“Statements suggesting abstinence is better than light drinking in terms of health and mortality are erroneous and do not reflect current scientific literature, with well-conducted studies showing that mortality is lower for light-to-moderate drinkers than for lifetime abstainers.”

As a nation, we have always believed in the fundamental good sense of the British people and, although my confidence was shaken by last week’s events, we have allowed people to decide what is best for their own lives. The pub is a crucial part of the social and cultural fabric of the UK. There are few things that are as crucial a part of our identity and history as the casual, relaxed pub culture that Britain has enjoyed over hundreds of years. Indeed, the importance of the pub—casual and social drinking—to people’s mental and physical wellbeing is marked.

The Oxford University and CAMRA-instigated report, “Friends on Tap” acknowledges the benefits of pubs to wellbeing. By telling people there is no safe level of drinking, we could be denying millions the positive social effects of going to the pub and the positive effects on the community. The results from the pub surveys suggest that people who go to small community pubs have more close friends and feel that their communities are better integrated. Indeed, small community pubs are now vital in supporting community services.

Pub is The Hub has supported many pubs across the length and breadth of the UK to stay open, become community owned and offer vital services. The services on offer include internet lessons and provisions, restaurants, 

post offices and shops. The pubs have been transformed into a social hub and are providing services that are vital to communities’ very survival. I fear that alarmist advice threatens not only pubs but the threads with which our communities are weaved together.

To further support my case, the findings of Oxford University suggest that pubs in general, and local community pubs in particular, may have unseen social benefits. Pubs provide us with a venue in which we can serendipitously meet new and, in many cases, like-minded people. They offer an opportunity to broaden our network of acquaintances, which has advantages. There is a potential to translate acquaintances into new friendships and to widen our contact with a greater diversity of cultural groups by bringing us into contact with people from other walks of life and other cultures, whom one might never otherwise meet.

Pubs allow us to engage in conversation with, and get to know better, other members of our local communities. By extension, they allow us to mix, meet a wider range of community members, and interact with a greater diversity of social classes and cultures than would otherwise be the case if our social world was confined to work and home.

Closer to home and on the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, Dr Richard Harding was a member of the Government’s 1995 inter-departmental working group on sensible drinking. In written evidence submitted to the Science and Technology Committee in 2012, he outlined the changes in available evidence since 1995, including the strengthening of the evidence base around the range of health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. He said that the key findings are:

“Clear evidence that the frequency of drinking is as important as, or even more important than, the amount of alcohol consumed. All epidemiological studies show that the more frequent drinkers, including daily drinkers, have lower risks for many diseases than do individuals reporting less frequent drinking… Firmer evidence for the protective effect of moderate alcohol consumption for coronary heart disease, as well as further clarification of the mechanisms for the protective effect…Evidence for an approximately 30% reduction in risk for type 2 diabetes for moderate drinkers…Evidence that moderate drinkers have less osteoporosis and a lower risk of fractures in the elderly compared to abstainers…Evidence that light to moderate drinking is associated with a significantly reduced risk of dementia in older people…Increasing evidence that moderate drinking should be considered as an important constituent of a ‘healthy lifestyle’”.

Dr Alexander Jones of the University College London Institute of Cardiovascular Science says:

“There have been a couple of studies which showed that if they were randomised to either just eating a Mediterranean diet or eating a Mediterranean diet and drinking a glass of red wine a night, that those who drank a glass of red wine a night had better cardiac function over time.”

That international consensus is rejected at a stroke by the CMO’s proposed new guidelines in favour of a “no safe limits” narrative. The statement of no safe levels sends out confusing and contradictory messages to consumers and will serve only to generate public mistrust in the health service.

David Shaw, senior researcher at the Institute for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Basel says that “the ‘no amount is safe’ message undermines the new recommended limit for men and the retention of the limit for women. Why should people attempt to adhere to the new limits rather than the 

ones if they are also being told that the new recommended levels are not safe? Giving such a mixed message further increases the likelihood that the guidelines will not be taken seriously.”

Dr Augusto Di Castelnuovo, professor of statistics and epidemiology at the Institute for Cancer Research in Italy says:

“The new recommendation that there is no ‘safe’ alcohol limit is misleading: low to moderate consumption up to one-two units a day in women, up to two-three in men of any type of alcohol—with the possible exception of spirits—significantly reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Moderate drinking is associated with a modest excess risk of oral and pharyngeal, oesoph”—
I will forget that word—“and breast cancers. But the balance between these two different effects is in favour of drinking in moderation.”

As well as concerns about the language of “no safe level”, considerable concern has been expressed about the communication to consumers of the level of risk associated with alcohol consumption. It is really important that we put risks in context so that consumers can make informed choices.
Ignorance of the international evidence has been heavily criticised by the Royal Statistical Society. In the key points in its response to the consultation, it states:

“We are concerned that, in their recent communications about alcohol guidelines, the Department of Health did not properly reflect the statistical evidence provided to the Expert Guideline Group, and this could lead to both a loss of reputation and reduced public trust in future health guidance…We are concerned that scepticism concerning the guideline process might apply to future pronouncements concerning arguably much greater health risks associated with inactivity, poor diet and obesity that, unlike alcohol consumption, are increasing problems. Once public trust has been lost, it is extremely difficult to win back, and you will have lost a key tool in managing future behavioural change.”

Those key points are on not just alcohol consumption but how we will view future medical advice from the Department of Health. The public must have confidence in our great institutions and be of the belief that they are serious and sober in their analysis while also realistic about people’s life choices and lifestyles.

We have worked so hard as a nation, with industry and Government working hand in hand to reduce serious problem drinking. Do not misunderstand me: I know there is some way to go on this matter and I am fully supportive of the efforts to curb problem drinking and tackle its health effects, but we must not remove industry from this process and we cannot let serious medical advice be tainted by alarmist and prescriptive guidelines that threaten to undermine the whole process we have embarked on.

Let me turn to the new CMO 14-unit weekly prescription for men and women, which would effectively make 2.5 million more of our male constituents problem drinkers overnight, classed as increasing risk from low risk by virtue of the fact that they might drink more than one pint a night in the pub. Immediately following this announcement, we saw The Guardian’s front page article asserting that as we now have in excess of 10.5 million people “drinking harmfully”, further regulatory interventions were needed. That was backed up by members of the Guidelines Development Group, including the chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies. Job done—they moved the goalposts and scored straight away. But the established international precedent in 30 countries worldwide is that men and women are set 

different guidelines reflecting differences in alcohol metabolism due to body size and weight as well as the lower body water content and higher body fat content of women. Aside from the UK, there are only five other countries that recommend the same guidelines for men and women: Australia, the Netherlands, Albania, Guyana and Grenada.

Dr Erik Skovenborg from the Scandinavian Medical Alcohol Board and board member at the European Foundation for Alcohol Research said:

“I am surprised to see the same limits for weekly alcohol consumption for men and women, in spite of the well-established greater susceptibility of women. The danger is that the new guidelines will give women the false impression they are on a par with men in their ability to tolerate alcohol.”

The CMO told the Science and Technology Committee that the guidelines were primarily informed by new evidence on alcohol and cancer:

“the science has moved on...we know a lot more about the impact of alcohol on the development of cancer and on the risk of cancer”

Yet guidelines for women have remained the same, while guidelines for men have been reduced based on modelling of acute harms such as accidents and injuries. I simply cannot concur that that is sound medical advice on a number of levels.

Those of us who favour a partnership approach to these matters are very concerned that this triple lock—of proceeding with the language of “no safe level” in the face of international evidence to the contrary, of promoting the notion that men and women have equal tolerance levels to alcohol and of Britain needing to have the most stringent alcohol guidelines in the world, despite the positive recent developments in tackling alcohol harm—is a triple whammy that threatens to undermine the significant recent progress we have made, with industry and Government working together to tackle alcohol harm.

[Debate interrupted by the division bell]

I had about 20 seconds left when the Division bell rang, so I will bring my speech to a close by saying that a triple whammy threatens to undermine the significant recent progress made by the industry and the Government working together to address alcohol harm. The triple whammy also threatens to do significant harm to our communities. We cannot afford to threaten the key bonds and relationships that tie many local communities, particularly rural ones, together.

I fear that this advice will take us down a dangerous path. As we have heard, the advice is not medically sound, and it is certainly not in the best interests of these vital community assets. I call on the Minister to act. Unless she rejects the “no safe level” narrative, the new alcohol guidelines will lack credibility, carry no authority with consumers and potentially cause the industry to rethink its voluntary commitments, all of which will be retrograde steps. I am sure that that is not her intention, as she has worked tirelessly on this issue.

You can read the whole thing - including a Roger Irrelevant speech from Diane Abbott here.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Towards independence: thoughts on the referendum

As a supporter of leaving the European Union, I did not expect to win Thursday's referendum. Or, at least, I did not expect to win until 10.15pm on Thursday night when I heard reports of an unusually high turnout from council estates, at which point I immediately put £20 on Leave at 6/1. It seemed inconceivable to me that people who had gone years without voting - or had never voted at all - would pour out of their homes to keep Britain in the EU.

And so it proved. Much has already been written about how the 'dispossessed' and the 'deprived' gave a bloody nose to their supposed betters. The left is already rewriting history to make it appear that the working class were voting against 'austerity', against Cameron, against neoliberalism - against anything but the EU. Nonsense. If that were true, we would have spent the last year with Ed Miliband as prime minister.

Occam's Razor time: the EU referendum was about the EU. Yes, immigration was a major concern of some who voted to leave and freedom of movement is one reason why some people dislike the EU. But it is deeply patronising to assume that ordinary working people do not understand - or do not care about - self-governance, sovereignty and democracy.    

The In and Out campaigns were both pretty dispiriting but I found the grassroots of the Remain side to be particularly contemptible. They fought the campaign like the left has fought every election in recent years, ie. by calling their opponents racists and making up stories about the NHS (that's the same NHS they pronounced dead in 2013). They sunk to a new low when they exploited the murder of a young woman in the final week and are currently throwing the most enormous tantrum on social media. The sight of educated men and women trying to overturn a national referendum with an online petition is pathetic beyond belief. What kind of imbecile responds to electoral defeat by fantasising about what would have happened if children had been allowed to vote? What kind of twisted individual turns on the entire elderly population?

The EU is fundamentally undemocratic and insofar as it incorporates democratic processes it does so in a way that means Britain would be ignored even if every person in the country spoke with one voice. Many of the arguments made by the Remain camp were fundamentally anti-democratic; they prefer to have an elite in charge with whom they agree than have a demos in charge with whom they do not. Since losing the referendum, their contempt for democracy and the demos has become terrifyingly  explicit. Every attempt is being made to find a way of overruling the will of the people.

The mask has slipped once and for all. If it wasn't already obvious that self-proclaimed liberals hate the working class, it is vividly clear now. The left has claimed for generations that it wants a working class revolution. Now they've got one.

It is tempting to savour the schadenfreude for a while, but the important task of turning independence into tangible gains must begin. It is all very well fighting for sovereignty, but sovereignty, like democracy, is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. There are costs and benefits to leaving the EU and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. It is important to minimise the costs, but at the moment we are hearing too much about fears and not enough about opportunities.

The markets don't like uncertainty and there is now great uncertainty about the European Union that will continue for years to come. It should be obvious from the arrogant remarks of European Commission officials in recent days that their fears about Brexit were for themselves, not us. Angela Merkel has been noticeably less aggressive, and the extent to which the EU tries to 'punish' Britain pour encourager les autres depends on how much it is prepared to cut off its nose to spite its face.

It is inevitable that some jobs will be lost as a result of Brexit. I believe, however, that many more jobs can be created if we seize the opportunity. To do that we need to have people who believe in independence running the show. David Cameron acted decisively in making a dignified exit. I'm not his biggest fan, but he took a cataclysmic personal blow with grace and honour. We need George Osborne to show similar class. It is unthinkable that the man who threatened the country with a punishment budget and who does not see the benefits of leaving the EU should be Chancellor as we make the transition.

Vote Leave do not have a manifesto. They were never supposed to have a manifesto. They are a collection of individuals with wildly differing world views. Perhaps somewhere in Whitehall there is a detailed plan on what to do in the event of Brexit, but I doubt it. For forty years, UK businesses have been buried beneath an ever-growing pile of petty regulation. Countless European directives have become enshrined in UK law, often gold-plated by our own politicians. Leaving is not enough. We need a legislative bonfire on a grand scale.

Some of the industries that will benefit from independence are obvious. Our fishing industry can be reborn, for example, and Tate and Lyle will no longer have to close down. But there are people in every walk of life who complain about the damaging effect of EU regulations on their businesses. It is doubtful that distant bureaucrats are aware of more than a fraction of it. They need to be told.

What we need in the coming months, I would suggest, is a national appeal to businesses large and small - but particularly small, since big business tends to like regulation - to nominate EU regulations that need to be repealed. The coalition government made a half-arsed attempt to do something similar in 2010, but it came to nothing. This time needs to be different - and I believe it will be. So many EU regulations do not benefit us at all. They were not designed to benefit Britain, rather they were designed to benefit other European countries or the special interest groups that the EU funds so generously with our money.

We also need our civil servants to rediscover the art of making trade deals. The EU is pitifully slow at making trade deals and, as a result, has very few of them. This is not surprising given the competing interests of member states. Remainers cheered when Obama said Britain would be at the back of queue when it came to trade deals, but how many of them support the only EU-US trade deal on the table - TTIP? Thanks to the usual idiotic squeals from pressure groups - including the bizarre claim that it will lead to the NHS being privatised - TTIP will be heavily watered down if it is ever signed at all.

Britain may yet get a deal with the US before the EU does. Even if it does not, there are many dozens of major global economies to approach. Let's get cracking. The battle for independence is won. The battle for a better Britain is just beginning.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Ignore the children

In a list of freedoms I would go to the wall for, the freedom of children to order takeaway food to the school gates is pretty low down. When I was a lad, I don’t remember anybody ordering takeaways from school, but then I was lucky enough to do my A-levels before the government forced dinner ladies to serve Jamie Oliver’s horrible food.

According to the attention-seeking campaign group the Royal Society for Public Health, school takeaways are now an issue and should be banned. ‘Public health group wants to ban something’ is a dog-bites-man story and so the RSPH have spiced things up by publishing a survey of teenagers which shows partial support for their cause, hence the Guardian headline ‘Ban takeaway deliveries to schools to stem obesity, children urge’.

Most of the teenagers in the RSPH's online poll said they had used their mobile phone to order a takeaway, 25 per cent said they had done so at school and 50 per cent of them said that takeaway shops should not be allowed to deliver to schools. You don’t need to be a statistician to see that 50 per cent support in a yes/no question is not the strongest mandate, but the RSPH presumably thinks that the opinions of a few 13-18 year olds makes their case inarguable. ‘We might be nannying fuss-buckets who want to ban everything,’ they seem to be saying, ‘but it’s not just us! The kids are on our side. Like Jason, they want to be tied to the mast to save them from temptation.’

Let me get this straight. Children have enough wisdom to make public policy but not enough wisdom to choose what to have for lunch? I don’t really care whether sixth-formers are allowed to order takeaway food on their mobile phones, but I care even less about how they answer a few leading questions from a special interest group. Teenagers use emoticons and watch the Twilight saga. I don’t care what they think about politics. We, as a society, don't care what they think about politics, which is why they won’t be voting in the referendum today. Most of them will have disowned the flat-pack left-authoritarian views that have been hammered into them at school by the time they start their second job. Stop exploiting them when they’re too young to have formed a considered opinion.

There’s a lot of this exploitation about in the world of ‘public health’. Once a year, the ghastly charity-quango Action on Smoking and Health buses a group of children down to British American Tobacco’s headquarters to protest against the use of child labour. As if that were not ironic enough, the neo-temperance group Alcohol Concern run a ‘youth advertising council’ made up of teenagers who are shown endless alcohol advertisements and told to make idiotic complaints like this to the Advertising Standards Authority. Given that Alcohol Concern claim that kids who are ‘exposed’ to alcohol advertising are more likely to drink heavily, it is difficult to see how they can think this ethical. Perhaps they don’t believe their own hype.

Underlying it all is the assumption that a message is more powerful if it comes from the mouth of babes. It is not. If you ask a stupid question to someone who doesn’t pay taxes and has limited life experience, you’ll get a stupid answer. The RSPH’s focus group said that there should be free Wi-Fi in parks. I don’t know if that is even possible, but aren’t parks supposed to be places to exercise? Maybe the kids want to go there to order a takeaway?

Instead of making it a crime to deliver takeaway food to schools, I’ve got a better alternative. Let’s ban children from using mobile phones at school. How about that for an idea, kids?

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Guest post: State government not seeing the light on vaping

Australian anti-wowser Terry Barnes recently wrote an article about e-cigarettes for the Herald-Sun which is behind a paywall. I'm reprinting it here with his permission...

As its disregard for public opinion and due process over East West Link, sky rail and the CFA’s enterprise bargaining agreement show, the Andrews Government does things its way.

The government’s modus operandi is now very well established. Consult minimally or not at all, make decisions affecting significantly the lives of Victorians, then announce them to a supposedly grateful state as “fair and reasonable” — because the government itself says so. Public opinion and evidence to the contrary are brushed aside, as the government knows best.

While not on the scale of its high-handed treatment of CFA volunteers, the government is currently following that MO as a nanny state regulator by introducing new tobacco control legislation last month. As well as having a further go at smoking and smokers, however, this new legislation worryingly cracks down on what the government portrays as a new health danger: using electronic cigarettes (ECs) vaporising flavoured water-based solutions, or “vaping”.

Health Minister Jill Hennessy says the government “is taking a precautionary response, by regulating e-cigarettes in the same way as tobacco products” to “protect kids from e-cigarettes”. Beyond that, however, she says “all existing bans and restrictions on the sale, use and promotion of tobacco products will also apply to all e-cigarettes in Victoria”, whether or not they contain nicotine — and most don’t, as the sale of ECs containing nicotine is illegal. While Nanny Jill believes she’s acting responsibly by lumping vaping with smoking, the government conveniently ignores a growing weight of authoritative scientific evidence and expert opinion on ECs’ harm reduction and quitting value for smokers and bystanders, indicating that while their steamy vapour may be an intrusive nuisance to others, it has almost negligible health risks compared with smoking.

What does the damage in traditional cigarettes is not the nicotine — relatively harmless in moderation — but the blue smoke itself, a cocktail of tars, trace metals and toxic chemicals. EC vapour doesn’t contain anything like the same chemical mix. What looks like steam mostly is.
While citing the views of government agency VicHealth and the Cancer Council of Victoria, Ms Hennessy hasn’t mentioned two recent British reports assessing ECs as invaluable quitting aids for smokers and at least 95 per cent safer than combustible tobacco.

One was published last year by tobacco control experts for Public Health England, a government health agency. The other, released in April, is a compelling study by the UK Royal College of Physicians, one of the most respected medical organisations in the world. Both conclude ECs have health and lifesaving potential that can’t be dismissed and question claims ECs “renormalise” smoking, or give young people a new gateway to a tobacco habit. But their conclusions are dismissed by Australian public health authorities like VicHealth and anti-smoking crusaders like academic Simon Chapman.

In other words, science and experts are far from decided on vaping and restricting people’s behaviour and choices by the Andrews Government should be based on more definitive evidence.

Instead, Ms Hennessy’s legislation follows Queensland’s lead in virtually suppressing the easy availability of potentially safer, harm-reducing vaping while deadly coffin sticks remain readily available. While Australia restricts and bans, however, vaping gets the benefit of the doubt in the UK: indeed, British Prime Minister and reformed smoker David Cameron, and the National Health Service, embrace it as a smoking-combating innovation.

What’s more, a national policy review of e-cigarette regulation is under way and due to report to federal and state governments later this year. So why the rush for Victoria to legislate now?
Nanny state legislation of any kind must always be scrutinised very closely, as once passed it’s rarely wound back. So instead of simply ticking and flicking the government’s rushed crackdown on e-cigarettes and vaping, parliament instead should facilitate informed public debate on the legislation. Ms Hennessy’s claims about the need to treat ECs the same as burned tobacco must be tested openly and genuine, and inclusive consultation with experts, consumers and the Victorian public should take place.

With Labor lacking an Upper House majority, non-government parties should ensure a full inquiry. Opposition health spokeswoman and Upper House leader Mary Wooldridge should insist on such an inquiry before the Coalition takes a position on this Bill.

If this legislation passes unchallenged, its heavy-handed regulation, intended to protect people’s health, could harm them by making smoking more acceptable than potentially far safer alternatives.

Monday, 20 June 2016

The pub champion?

There's an interesting article in the Morning Advertiser today about CAMRA's misguided idea of preventing pubs being sold as anything other than pubs. As I have argued before, the Assets of Community Value scheme addresses the symptom rather than the cause of the pub industry's malaise.

Initially intended to protect historic pubs, CAMRA now wants all pubs included in the scheme, starting with Otley, West Yorkshire where nearly every pub has been listed regardless of the views of their owners.

One such owner is the author of today's article. I was particularly struck by this reference to Greg Mulholland, the Lib Dem MP who poses as the pub champion (literally)...

Linda & I are co-owners of the Old Cock pub in Otley. When we purchased the building in 2007 it needed a complete renovation. Our application for Change of Use to transform the building into a pub was refused twice by Leeds City Council, but with our determination to create the pub we took it to a National Planning Appeal and 18 months later Leeds City Council were overruled.

During this time we had a £200k mortgage to pay and had to employ expensive professional help to fight the Council.

Our local MP Greg Mulholland was unwilling to help as supporting the opening of a new pub was in conflict with his public efforts to save existing pubs. With hard work and securing finance against our home and another business we proudly opened in September 2010.

In January of 2015, without consultation and against our will, led by Mulholland, Otley Pub Club nominated, then successfully listed, 19 out of 20 pubs in Otley as Assets of Community Value.

It's important to remember that the decline in pub numbers is not all about closures. It's also about whether new pubs can open. If, as CAMRA claim, pubs are in decline because greedy PubCos keep selling off viable pubs to developers, it should provide an opportunity for new pubs to open. I don't believe this claim - or, at least, it is only a small part of the picture - because the statistics do not support it. The root cause is a lack of demand thanks to the smoking ban and taxation, but if, as CAMRA insist, demand exists then we should be seeing new pubs open up to meet it. How telling it is that local councils make this difficult and the 'pub champion' is not interested in helping.

This pub in question here is five years old and is in a building that is 261 years old. It is nevertheless being protected like a historic monument. Is that a problem? Well, yes it is...

The restrictive covenant on our title deeds limits future lending against our property. Banks are reluctant to lend against a building that actually cannot be sold for 6 months. This renders us trapped with a loan secured on our home and few alternatives available to us. We are now handicapped in raising additional funds, to sustain our business or for refurbishment. This increases our business risk and potentially the employment we offer to 10 local people.

Industry experts have reported that an ACV listing can negatively affect pub values by up to 30% indicating that our business and property have decreased in value. Certainly, we would not have purchased our building with a restrictive covenant in place and Otley would not have The Old Cock today. We know, if we come to sell, other possible investors may be deterred. Simply put, when we invest our money in a business we need to know we have options should it fail or our personal circumstances change, for example, through unexpected illness etc. Be that an alternative proposition or selling. Thus an ACV becomes a disincentive to individuals who may be attracted to purchasing and running a pub. Waiting around for six months whilst Leeds City Council and a community group decide what is happening to our own personal investment is an unattractive prospect.

So many unintended consequences. Unintended, but not unforeseeable.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Jamie Vardy on caffeine and nicotine

From The Telegraph

England and Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy has been photographed holding a can of Red Bull and a can of snus. Outrage has ensued at The Telegraph...

Just two days before scoring against Wales during a last-minute 2-1 victory, Vardy was pictured leaving the team's five star hotel in Chantilly holding a can of Red Bull, the energy drink, and a tin of Thunder "snus" tobacco - both of which, scientists warn, have dreadful health effects.

Laughing the face of this mortal threat to his health, the notoriously skinny Premier League winner was forced to defend himself...

"It’s just something I’ve always done and they’ve been checked with the medical team, and there’s nothing wrong with them,” said Vardy, in a frank interview after Thursday's match.

“I wouldn’t call it a diet, the Red Bull was just to wake me up in the morning. It’s just standard me, a bit of Red Bull. It’s not a regular thing whereby I have a Red Bull every morning. It’s just something I felt I needed that day.”

Naturally, the Telegraph's Sarah Knapton—for it is she—went through her phone book to get some outraged quotes from scientists...

Prof Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, said "there has never been any evidence that energy drinks improve performance", adding also that "there is evidence tobacco used like this can trigger oral cavity cancer".
The professor said: "Jamie Vardy is a trained athlete so at the moment he can probably get away with the extra calories and caffeine that is in Red Bull. But he will have to be careful when he stops playing. Then it could start to have an impact."

There's the same amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee as there is in a can of Red Bull. Careful there, Jamie!

We have come across Naveed Sattar before. In January, he was busy denying the health benefits of moderate drinking and telling the press that "we need more teetotallers". When asked about Vardy's consumption of a can of Red Bull, he wasted no time in bringing alcohol up again...

"It's like George Best. He could handle drinking so much alcohol when he was playing but it was when he stopped that the problems began."

Occasional can of Red Bull and chronic alcoholism. It's all the same, innit?

Meanwhile, Prof Tom Sanders, Head of Nutritional Sciences Research Division at Kings College: "He may be a good footballer but snus gives you oral cancer and any sports related health claim for Red Bull is bulls****. I thought there was a ban on tobacco promotion in sport."

We've come across Tom Sanders before as well, talking sense about nutritional junk science. His claim that "snus gives you oral cancer" shows what happens when experts step outside their field of expertise because snus does not cause oral cancer. The fact that both Sanders and Sattar believe it does is probably a hangover from the great Skoal Bandits scare of the 1980s which I blogged about recently.

As for the insinuation that Vardy is breaking the law by "promoting" tobacco, where to begin? He was photographed by paparazzi coming out of his hotel and then interrogated by a nosy journalist. He wasn't doing a commercial for Red Bull and snus, although I'm sure Thunder snus are grateful for the free publicity the Telegraph has given them.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Gerard Hastings in the spotlight

The Times continues to dig into the motley crew who drew up the new alcohol guidelines. Today, it's 'Mad' Gerard Hastings in the spotlight...

Safe-drinking adviser had temperance link

An academic who played a key role in drawing up the controversial new safe drinking limits did not declare his links to a group funded by the temperance movement.

...Professor Hastings of Stirling University completed a register of interests form for the Department of Health but did not reveal that he held a paid position as an expert advisor to the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS).

The institute, a registered charity that says it promotes scientific understanding of alcohol consumption and its consequences receives most of its income from the Alliance House Foundation which states its aim as spreading 'the principle of total abstinence from alcoholic drinks.'

None of this will be news to those of you who read my article about the CMO's meetings in February, but this is The Times we're talking about so Hastings had to respond - and what a poor response it was...

"I didn't declare the IAS link and probably should have done; mea culpa. I just assumed this was all in the public domain as it's been on the IAS website since 2011."

Hmm. That's not how it works, is it Gerard? I think you know that.

He said that he could not answer any questions on the links between IAS and the temperance movement because "I know nothing about it".
What does he know about? That's a serious question. Hastings' link to the temperance lobby and his failure to understand how a declaration of interests works are amusing pieces of trivia, but the real question is why this man was on the committee in the first place.

Hastings' alleged field of expertise is marketing. He hates advertising and fundamentally misunderstands how it works, but even if he had some genuine expertise on the subject it would not qualify him to assess epidemiological evidence or do anything else useful at the Chief Medical Officer's meetings.

Being a fanatical anti-capitalist, Hastings hates the alcohol industry (see some of his mental slides below) but that is hardly a qualification for sitting on a scientific committee. It should, in fact, be a disqualification.

The same could be said of Katherine Brown, director of the sneakily named Institute of Alcohol Studies whose 'studies' have never portrayed alcohol in a positive - or even neutral - light in the thirty years since they stopped being the UK Temperance Alliance.

The Times is right to keep picking at this scab. It seems that Sally Davies invited several people onto the committee for no other reason than that they hate alcohol and/or the alcohol industry. It's no wonder that a Mickey Mouse committee came up with a Mickey Mouse report.