Thursday, 30 July 2015

Healthy drinkers

A bit more evidence for the deniers to deny. At this stage, I think it's fair to call them that.

Rates of poor self-rated health were highest among those who had stopped drinking, followed by those who never drank. The rates of poor self-rated health among non-drinkers were significantly higher than the rates of poor self-rated health for any of the groups who reported alcohol consumption.


Among those who drank alcohol, there was no evidence that any pattern of current alcohol consumption was associated with poor self-rated health, even after adjustment for a wide range of variables.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Outdoor smoking ban consultation

The public consultation on the 'voluntary ban' on smoking outdoors in Brighton and Hove is online. It's a simple survey which only takes two minutes to complete so please do so. There are various nosy questions about sexuality, race and so on, but you can ignore them.

Give 'em hell...


Simon Clark is getting déja vu...

We all know where this is heading.

It reminds me of the three or four year period before MPs voted for a national workplace smoking ban.

Prior to the 2005 election the Labour government showed very little desire to introduce a comprehensive, nationwide ban. Instead it was rumoured Tony Blair was happy to leave it to local authorities to decide their own policy.

One day therefore I would find myself addressing a council committee in Plymouth. A few weeks later I'd be doing the same in Middlesbrough, then St Albans, and so on.

A decade or so later we're facing a similar situation, but the issue now is outdoor smoking.


Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Good riddance to bad sock-puppets

I'm pleased to able to bring glad tidings for a change. DrinkWise North West, the taxpayer-funded lobby group, has had its state-funding withdrawn. Since nobody in their right mind would give it money voluntarily, this naturally means that it has been closed down with immediate effect. Its Twitter feed has already disappeared.

You may recall DrinkWise as the Department of Health front group that used public money to campaign for alcohol advertising bans and minimum unit pricing (MUP). For the latter, they set up a sock-puppet website - anonymously, at first - which made the ludicrous claim that MUP would reduce the price of some drinks. The rest of its campaign literature had a similarly uneasy relationship with the truth.

There is no doubt that DrinkWise were a lobby group (how nice it is to speak of them in the past tense). It's difficult to find any part of their website that was not devoted to encouraging people to 'join the movement', 'act now' or 'write to your MP'. Despite being 100 per cent state-funded, they were proudly and openly engaged in political campaigning.

Since most of their income came from local authorities, they would have been in breach of the Department for Communities and Local Government's new 'anti-sockpuppet clause' which states:

The following costs are not eligible expenditure: payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action.

Presumably this was a large part of the reason for its funding being withdrawn. We must also presume that DrinkWise's counterpart across the Pennines, Balance North East, will soon also be consigned to the dustbin of history. Balance North East's room-mates at FRESH should be heading for the door shortly afterwards, as should FRESH's state-funded colleagues at Smokefree South West. The recently formed Give Up Loving Pop (GULP) must also be on thin ice. There are others, of course.

It is probably too much to hope that the rinky-dink governments of Scotland and Wales will stop throwing money at the likes of Alcohol Focus Scotland and Alcohol Concern, but England is certainly ready to save a few million quid by burning some leaches off the taxpayers' skin.

It can't happen a day too soon.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Fortunately, Tesco does not have a monopoly

If the newspapers are to be believed, the people who run Tesco have taken leave of their senses.

The UK's biggest supermarket chain is axing some of the best-selling children's drinks brands as the war on sugar is stepped up in a bid to tackle childhood obesity, according to a new report.

Tesco has revealed that it is to cull an array of added-sugar soft drinks including CCE's Capri-Sun and several varieties of Suntory's Ribena as it revamps its range amid growing concerns over health and obesity.

Have these people been smoking crack? Do they really think that they will appease the 'public health' racketeers by taking Ribena and Rubicon off the shelves? Why not stop selling sweets, chocolate and fruit juice? Why not stop selling packets of sugar, if that's what the demon ingredient is? Why not stop selling cigarettes and alcohol? Above all - as the 'public health' goons were quick to shout on Twitter - why not stop selling Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Tango, all of which will still be available under the new regime? Tesco has started something it will not be able to finish without closing down several aisles.

Speaking of Twitter, I was expressing my bewilderment on there yesterday when the inevitable zinger arrived...

Obviously that is not my position. Tesco is free to bring in whatever policy it likes and I am free to shop elsewhere. The market can therefore decide whether Tesco's policy is sensible or not.

My house is pretty much equidistant between a Tesco and an Asda. I tend to go to Tesco and I won't be boycotting it on principle but when Ribena is on my shopping list - as it sometimes is - I'm damned if I'm going to Tesco for most of my shopping before going elsewhere for my soft drinks. It will be Asda for me.

Living in a free market obviously does not mean that the government forces supermarkets to sell Ribena, but nor does it mean that customers shouldn't complain when a company unnecessarily restricts choice in a doomed attempt to satisfy insatiable 'public health' quacks. Complaining might not make them change their minds, but ultimately it's their loss if people decide to vote with their feet.

Contrast this with government regulation. When the state does it, you can't go elsewhere because the state has a monopoly. What are you going to do? Emigrate? You can vote in the ballot booth, but people rarely vote on a single issue and your vote is pretty much worthless anyway. You have no choice and the government doesn't care if sales fall.

In summary...

Company stops selling something you like:

Complain. If your complaint has no effect, shop elsewhere and make the company suffer. No skin off your nose.

Government bans something you like:

No point complaining. Suck it up. You suffer, they don't.

The insanity of the 'endgame'

Clive Bates gave an outstanding speech at this year's Global Forum on Nicotine in Warsaw. He discusses the anti-smoking lobby's ludicrous 'endgame' and compares it with policies that might actually reducing smoking without creating massive costs on individuals and society. If you haven't watched the video, do.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

"No evidence"

The campaign to ban smoking in prisons is marching on thanks to the ever-gullible Observer newspaper and a sock-puppet pressure group known as the Tobacco Control Collaborating Centre. I've never heard of them and nor has The Observer judging from its description of them as "an organisation called the Tobacco Control Collaborating Centre", but its article contains this gem...

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.

No evidence! Not just a little bit of evidence, but no evidence!

Perhaps Debs has forgotten about the events in Australia that took place only a few weeks ago...

Prisoners riot at Melbourne's Ravenhall remand centre over smoking ban

Police armed with tear gas and water cannons were on Tuesday evening still attempting to contain a riot that broke out at a maximum security prison in Victoria earlier in the day, after prisoners became angered by the introduction of a smoking ban.

All staff were evacuated from the prison in Ravenhall, Victoria, after several hundred prisoners rioted.

This apparent oversight is typical of ASH's view of evidence. As with the mass closure of pubs after the smoking ban, it didn't happen unless it was written up by a tobakko kontrol mouthpiece and published in one of their favoured pal-reviewed journals like the BMJ or - if all else fails - their in-house comic Tobacco Control.

The fact that these things did happen - and have happened before in Queensland, Canada and the USA - is neither here nor there to the single-issue fanatic. They make their own reality.

Some people would call it lying.

Friday, 24 July 2015

The middle class drink epidemic

 With alcohol consumption falling every year for over a decade it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the myth that Britain is in the grips of a drinking epidemic, but where there’s a will there’s a way. One method is to focus on whichever group is drinking the most. Even though everybody is drinking less, some people are bound to be drinking more than others and that means scary headlines. Inconveniently for the doom-mongerers, the people who are drinking the most happen to be the middle-aged and middle class. It would be a better story if the heaviest drinkers were the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but the evidence clearly shows that they are the white collar professionals. In Britain, people in the top social class consume an average of 15 units of alcohol per week while people in the lowest social class only consume 10.

And so, after an admittedly slow news day, several national newspapers have led with the story - such as it is - of reasonably wealthy people drinking bottles of wine. Or, as the Daily Mail’s front page put it, the ‘Middle Class Drink Epidemic’. ‘Successful middle classes suffering crisis in alcohol abuse’ was The Times’ front page headline while The Telegraph led with ‘Middle classes most at risk from drinking’.

The hook for all this is a study (in reality, a glorified survey) published in BMJ Open which found that successful, wealthy, middle class people over the age of 50 are more likely to exceed the government’s drinking guidelines than their peers. At this point it is customary to point out that you can exceed the guidelines by drinking a glass, or a glass and a half, of wine a day (for women and men respectively), and that the guidelines themselves were ‘plucked out of the air’ in the 1980s. But even if you take the guidelines seriously, exceeding them does not make you a ‘harmful drinker’ or a ‘problem drinker’, as The Times claims in its report. It makes you a mere ‘hazardous drinker’ which is below both in the ladder of risk.

Getting technical definitions wrong is the least of the problems with the reporting of this story. It is simply wrong to claim, as The Telegraph does, that middle class people are ‘most at risk from drinking’. As a class, it is true that they drink the most, but they do not suffer the greatest alcohol-related harm, not by a long shot. The harm disproportionately falls on lower socio-economic groups and they tend to drink the least.

This is what public health researchers call the Alcohol Harm Paradox. Public health researchers call everything a paradox when reality doesn’t bend to accommodate their theories and so, if boozing fails to kill affluent people despite their supposedly hazardous rates of consumption, it doesn’t demonstrate that the guidelines are worthless - heaven forfend! - it is merely a ‘paradox’ that requires more research (ie. more funding).

Alcohol Research UK published a rather inconclusive study about the paradox earlier this year and I’m told that there is more to come. I hope they get to the bottom of it, but I would be surprised if it comes down to much more than two basic problems:

Firstly, the definition of hazardous and harmful drinking is too broad to accurately capture people who are at serious risk of coming to grief. According to the government, there are over 10,000,000 hazardous drinkers and yet there are only 6,000 alcohol-related deaths each year. An annual death rate of 0.06 per cent does not represent much of a hazard.

Secondly, you cannot assume that an arbitrarily defined group of people is going to produce more death and disease than another group merely because their group average exceeds an arbitrary guideline. Why? Because averages tell you nothing about individuals. Yes, people on low incomes drink less than middle class people on average. They don’t have much money and alcohol is a heavily-taxed luxury, but within this group are some people who not only drink very heavily but also have a propensity for other risk-taking behaviours. It should therefore not be surprising that a disproportionate number of alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths arise in the group that drinks the least. The fact that lots of other poor people bring the group average down by drinking moderately or abstaining is neither here nor there to the low income alcoholic.

We can discuss the reasons why some people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder turn to drink - and, indeed, why some people who turn to drink end up at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder - but that is not really the point here. The point is that middle class people are not the most at risk from alcohol-related harm, despite drinking more, as a group, on average. Rates of alcohol-related mortality are many times higher in the lowest socio-economic group than in the highest.

It takes a certain amount of self-delusion to look at a group of unusually healthy people and conclude that they are suffering from an ‘epidemic’, and yet the report in The Times includes this timeless gem from a spokesman for Age UK:

‘Because this group is typically healthier than other parts of the older population, they might not realise that what they are doing is putting their health in danger.’

In other words, they might be the healthiest people but according to our calculations they shouldn’t be and so we’re going to pretend that they’re not.

To be fair, Age UK are only taking their cue from the authors of the BMJ Open study who apparently saw no paradox at all when they wrote that the ‘problem of harmful drinking’ is concentrated amongst ‘people in better health’. We are through the looking-glass here, are we not?

Imagine if the results had been different. Imagine that the people (ie. group) who were most likely to be ‘harmful drinkers’ were found to be in the worst health. In those circumstances, it would surely have been reported as proof that exceeding the drinking guidelines is very bad for you. Instead, the study showed the opposite but the band played on regardless.