Thursday, 30 March 2017

It's never really about the children

Public Health England are pushing on with their mad idea to take arbitrary percentages of sugar, fat, salt and calories out of Britain's food supply. It is a idea worthy of Caligula. The last few weeks have seen various food companies announce that their products will be getting smaller. Some have attempted to blame this on Brexit, but inflation is no reason to reduce the size (the normal thing to do would be to increase the price). It's all being done under pressure from this unelected quango with the minimum of public debate.

Health by stealth, they call it, and rightly so. If people were well informed about what was going on, there would be bedlam. Although every reformulation and shrinkage unleashes hell from consumers (see the recent Irn-Bru announcement, for example), you'd never guess there was any opposition to PHE's totalitarian scheme if you read today's coverage.

The BBC's report was typical. It contains a quote from PHE's Alison Tedstone, who obviously supports the policy, plus a quote from Action on Sugar's Graham MacGregor. I'm no psychiatrist but it wouldn't surprise me to hear that MacGregor is at least half mad. He naturally supports state control of the food supply as well. Someone from the British Dietetic Association is also quoted. She not only supports the PHE plan but wants a watershed ban on so-called junk food advertising. The article closes with some bloody 'public health nutritionist' who 'said PHE was doing the right thing'.

The BBC perpetuates the lie that this is all being done 'in a bid to make UK children more healthy.' As ever in the 'public health' racket, the welfare of children is being used as an excuse to kick adult consumers. Let's just remind ourselves about the spiralling epidemic of childhood obesity that supposedly requires the wholesale desecration of the food supply.


Let's also remember that childhood obesity figures are not really measures of childhood obesity. The BMI measure doesn't work with children because hardly any of them have a BMI of more than 25, so it was arbitrarily decided in the 1990s that all children above the 95th percentile were obese for the purposes of data collection.

But childhood obesity is a smokescreen, just as Brexit is a cover story for the corporatist rip off of smaller portions for the same price. As the 'public health nutritionist' says

"This is an excellent approach... Not only are these foods commonly consumed by children - but also by the whole family."

There is no opt out unless you are prepared to do your shopping in another country. The foods that we know and love are, in effect, being prohibited.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The decent and tolerant people of Wales

Given the state-funded hate campaign against smokers that we have seen over the last ten years it is remarkable that the majority of people remain sensible and tolerant when it comes to smoking bans. Every survey that gives people the option of designated, ventilated smoking rooms finds a majority of smokers and nonsmokers in favour. This has been shown yet again in Wales - see Taking Liberties and Dick Puddlecote for details.

Twelve months ago, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the smoking ban in Scotland, we commissioned a poll of 1,000+ adults living in Scotland.

One of the questions we asked was:

Do you think pubs and private members’ clubs, including working men's clubs, should or should not be allowed to provide a well-ventilated designated smoking room to accommodate smokers?

The response was clear:

Should be allowed 54%
Should not be allowed 40%
Don’t know 6%

Two weeks ago, to mark the tenth anniversary of the smoking ban in Wales which falls on Sunday April 2, we commissioned another poll.

We asked 1,000 people living in Wales exactly the same question and got a very similar response:

Should be allowed 58%
Should not be allowed 37%
Don’t know 5%

It has always been thus. As Simon Clark says, 'These polls are staggeringly consistent.' As I mentioned when the IEA conducted a poll on lifestyle freedom in 2015, the anti-smokers only manage to make smoking bans look popular by giving people a choice between a total ban and totally unrestricted smoking. This was noted by YouGov's Anthony Wells way back in 2005:

In the first group there is the recent BMRB poll commissioned by ASH, but there are also several polls commissioned by non-partisan companies. In an ICM survey for the BBC back in July 2004 they asked whether “the Government should ban smoking in enclosed public spaces such as pubs and restaurants” – 65% of people thought they should. A second ICM survey for the Guardian, in October 2004, asked if respondents approved or disapproved “of a ban on smoking in all enclosed public places, such as pubs, restaurants and offices?” 66% of people approved. A YouGov poll for KPMG found almost identical results – 64% supported a ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants. So, all the recent polls seem to agree on a figure of around two-thirds support.

Meanwhile, if you ask people how they would like to see smoking in pubs dealt with, and give them a list of possible options including things other than an outright ban, you get very different results. The Office of National Statistics carry out an annual poll that asks about attitudes to smoking. It shows that around 65% of people would like “restrictions” on smoking, but asked what sort of restrictions people would like to see only 31% say they would like a complete ban; most people prefer separate smoking and non-smoking areas.

Populus have done at least two polls with this sort of question design. A May 2004 poll on behalf of Forest found that only 24% of people supported a total ban, a May 2005 poll, this time for the TMA, found that only 26% wanted a complete ban. In both cases respondents were given alternative choices to a straightforward ban, and in both cases respondents preferred to have smoking and non-smoking sections in pubs. If you ask the question in this way, then support for a total ban stands somewhere between a quarter and a third.


You won't be surprised to hear that ASH's chief harridan, Deborah Arnott, has responded to the new survey by saying: 'The benefits of smoke-free laws are not a matter of public opinion.' Perhaps she could stop wasting taxpayers' money on rigged opinion polls then?

Friday, 24 March 2017

Tobacco Control fail

The 2016 Tobacco Control Scale (TCS) was published yesterday. The TCS pats governments on the back for capitulating to the whims of the anti-smoking lobby, regardless of whether the policies actually work.

Charting each country's score against smoking rates show that obedience to 'public health' diktats is no guarantee of lower smoking rates, even if forcing people to stop smoking were ethically justifiable - which it isn't. As with previous TCSs, there is no statistically significant association between tobacco control scores and smoking prevalence (the r-squared is 0.08, if you're statistically minded).


I've used smoking prevalence data from the OECD and the WHO circa 2015 for this graph. As I mentioned recently, Sweden's smoking rate has since fallen to nine per cent. The Swedes get a fairly mediocre score in the TCS because they don't ban all tobacco advertising, don't have a display ban, don't have plain packaging, don't have especially high tobacco taxes, don't spend much money on anti-smoking campaigns and don't have a 'comprehensive' smoking ban. Above all, they don't ban snus - and that is the reason they have the lowest smoking rate of any developed country. Naughty Swedes.

It says a lot about the tobacco control racket that Sweden gets the same score as Turkey. Turkey was the blue-eyed boy of the anti-smoking movement when the TCS was published in 2013. It introduced a draconian smoking ban in 2008 and has graphic warnings on cigarette packs covering 65% of the surface area. It bans nearly all tobacco advertising and it prohibits the sale of e-cigarettes.

In 2013, WHO director-general Margaret Chan delivered a speech in which she drooled over the fact that Turkey 'has some of the most stringent tobacco control measures in the world' and claimed that 'Turkey’s success in tobacco control has stunned many observers'. The WHO has a penchant for authoritarian regimes, but Chan was particularly awestruck by the Turks.

I am most pleased to mark World No Tobacco Day in Turkey, a country that is a model of success in tobacco control and an inspiration for the world...

Moreover this country was the first in the world to achieve all six MPOWER demand-reduction measures for tobacco control at the highest possible level of achievement. No other country in the world has done this...

I thank the Turkish government for collaborating so closely with WHO... Turkey is the only country in the world to receive three WHO awards for achievements in tobacco control...

It is a model for other countries to follow, and it is a source of great encouragement...

Thank you, Turkey, for being such a shining, and inspiring, model of success. Tobacco control works.

I could quote more of this hubris but you get the picture. Suffice to say, things did not go quite so well in the real world:

From 2008 to 2011, tobacco consumption in Turkey fell to less than 100 billion cigarettes per year. In 2015, the figure stood at 125 billion, including contraband cigarettes and loose tobacco, according to Elif Dagli from the Turkish Thorax Society’s Tobacco Control Working Group. The smoking rate rose from 39% to 42% among men, and from 12% to 13% among women. The real alarm, however, concerns the young. Compared to the 2003-2012 period, the consumption of cigarettes and other tobacco products in the 13-15 age group increased by 51% and 88%, respectively, Dagli said.

 Trebles all round!

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Moderate drinking: doubt, denial and whataboutery

Yet another study has shown that teetotallers have a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular death and death. The study was published in the British Medical Journal and involved nearly two million people, including 280,000 people who had never drunk alcohol. It was conducted by researchers at Cambridge University and University College, and the non-drinker category was split into never drinkers and former drinkers to prevent the usual squeals of 'sick quitter!' from the deniers in 'public health'. The table of results are at the bottom of this post.

I've written a full post about this for Spectator Health so please read that first, but here are a few additional thoughts.

The BMJ study is difficult to argue with, but the usual suspects have been out in force to sow as much doubt as they can. They have opted for a strategy that they would claim was ripped out of the 'Big Tobacco playbook' if other people did it. It takes three forms: outright denial, raising spurious methodological objections, and diverting attention to other issues.

Using examples from the last twelve hours, let me illustrate how this works.

Doubt

Ian Gilmore of the Alcohol Health Alliance, a long time foe of booze, went for the old trick of saying 'correlation is not causation' without explaining why we should not infer causation after 40 years of the same findings being produced. Doubt is his product.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: “As the authors of the study say, it is not possible to draw firm conclusions from the study about cause and effect between moderate alcohol consumption and heart health."

As Gilmore knows, no epidemiological study is able to establish causation, but in the absence of any plausible explanation it seems reasonable to conclude that the effect is causal. Gilmore offers no alternative explanation and the BMJ study explicitly states that his beloved 'sick quitter' hypothesis does explain the results. Gilmore doesn't mention this in his press release. Instead he promotes the risible Chief Medical Officer's report that he and his buddies in the temperance lobby oversaw.

Denial

Outright denials came from the British Heart Foundation, of all people:

“This study suggests that sticking within alcohol guidelines may actually lower your risk of some heart conditions,” says Tracy Parker, of charity the British Heart Foundation, who was not involved in the study. “But it’s important to remember that the risks of drinking alcohol far outweigh any possible benefits. These findings are certainly no reason to start drinking alcohol if you don’t already.”

In fact, the BMJ study shows that participants who drank within the old UK guidelines were 24 per cent less likely to die and 31 per cent less likely to have coronary heart disease by the time the study ended. Let's not mince words, the BHF spokeswoman is lying here.

Whataboutery

James Nicholls of Alcohol Research UK, which is merging with Alcohol Concern, combined denial with whataboutery involving exercise and food.

“There are better ways to strengthen the heart such as exercise and good diet. All things being equal – and given the increased risk of suffering other health conditions linked to any amount of alcohol consumption – if you drink within the existing guidelines it is unlikely that alcohol will either lengthen or shorten your life.”

If a 24 per cent increased risk of mortality is unlikely to shorten your life then presumably a 34 per cent increase is not much to worry about either. A 34 per cent increased risk is what heavy drinkers have, according to this study. Perhaps we should put an end to alcohol research and do something more worthwhile? (To be entirely fair, the Guardian quoted the least true part of James's statement, the full version of which you can read here.)

Rosanna O'Connor of Public Health England went full throttle with the whataboutery:

“Those who don’t drink should not consider taking up drinking to improve their heart health, but are better off stopping smoking, getting regular physical activity and eating a healthy diet.”

Aside from the fact that large numbers of (mainly older) people are unable to be physically active, O'Connor presents a false choice between moderate alcohol consumption and other ways of staying healthy. In fact, research shows that people benefit from moderate drinking even if they already exercise, eat healthily and don't smoke. In other words, if you are a physically active non-smoker with a good diet you will be healthier if you drink moderately. Being teetotal is a risky behaviour no different from having a poor diet. An evidence-based health agency would treat it as such. If Public Health England hadn't just published a pile of dogmatic neo-temperance trash and called it an alcohol review, perhaps they would have admitted the truth today.

Incidentally, the BMJ study has been reported almost everywhere with the notable exception of the BBC. The BBC's health team is usually eager to cover alcohol news. Two days ago they reported a total non-story about the 20 year old fad of drinking alcohol with energy drinks. The Beeb has been keen to write stories about moderate drinking before, such as 'Cancer risk "even from light drinking"', 'Breast cancer link to small amounts of alcohol' and 'Red wine health benefits overhyped' so you would expect them to be interested in the largest study ever conducted on the effect of alcohol on the heart.

And yet they've completely ignored it. I can't think why.

Don't forget the Spectator post.





Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Fake dental news?

The dubious claims about tooth decay are coming thick and fast now. Only two months after the last dodgy press release about children having their teeth extracted in hospital (from the LGA), comes this from the Faculty of Dental Surgeons:

Hospitals in England are seeing thousands of very young children each year needing baby teeth removed. 

The Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, which compiled the data, blames tooth decay linked to sugary diets.

Figures show there were 9,206 extractions carried out on children aged four and younger between April 2015 and March 2016.

A decade ago, it was closer to 7,400 extractions.

This 26 per cent rise needs to be put in the context of a 16 per cent rise in the number of children aged under five in that period. Nevertheless, it is a rise and the Faculty of Dental Surgeons wasted no time in pinning the blame on sugar:

‘When you see the numbers tallied up like this it becomes abundantly clear that the sweet habits of our children are having a devastating effect,’ said Professor Nigel Hunt of the RCS Faculty of Dental Surgery.

And yet there is no credible evidence that children's teeth are getting worse. As I said in the Spectator last year...

We are no longer a nation of Austin Powers. ‘The dental health of the majority of British children has improved dramatically since the early 1970s,’ according to a 2005 study, which also noted that ‘levels of dental decay in UK children at five and 12 years are among the lowest in the world.’ A further study in 2011 also found that ‘since the 1970s, the oral health of the population, both children’s dental decay experience and the decline [in] adult tooth loss, has improved steadily and substantially’. This was confirmed in a report from the Faculty of Dental Surgery last year.

It is possible that the number of tooth extractions could have risen despite the overall trend getting better. Extractions are quite rare and there could be some groups in society who are not visiting the dentist or brushing their teeth. (The BBC mentions the worrying fact that '42% of children did not see a dentist in 2015-16'.) 

However, a few weeks after I wrote the Spectator article, Public Health England published the latest data from the Oral Health Survey of 5 Year Olds which told a very different story to the one we're being told today:

Tooth decay among 5 year olds continues significant decline

The oral health survey published today (Tuesday 10 May 2016) by Public Health England (PHE) reveals that less than 25% of the cohort suffers from tooth decay, a 20% drop since 2008.

Public Health England says:

The proportion of 5 year olds who have had teeth removed due to decay was 2.5%, compared to 3.5% in 2008 – about 2,000 fewer children.

And:

The survey also shows the average number of teeth affected by decay per child was 0.8, down from 1.1 in 2008. 

Moreover:

There has been a 9% increase in the proportion of children with no obvious decay since 2008.

Who to believe? Should we believe that tooth decay has fallen dramatically since the 1970s amongst every age group and that the number of under-5s who have had a tooth extracted has dropped from 3.5 per cent to 2.5 per cent since 2008? Or should we believe the opposite?

There are two reasons to take the more positive view. Firstly because it is backed up with a very large amount of evidence from academics, the Office for National Statistics, Public Health England and others. Secondly, because - at the time of writing - the Faculty of Dental Surgeons has not made its own evidence publicly available. 

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Smoking rate falls to 9% in Sweden thanks to snus

In Sweden, the smoking rate has fallen to a mere nine per cent, as the New Scientist reports, and snus is being given due credit. It's a good job the EU banned it everywhere else, eh?

I've written about this for Spectator Health. Do have a quick read.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Sugar statistics for everyone to ignore

Mike Gibney has dug out some sugar statistics from around the world to show, for the umpteenth time, that sugar consumption has not been rising during the obesity 'epidemic'.

The Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the UN measures the “disappearance” of sugar in countries worldwide which takes overall national production data, adds imports and subtracts both exports and non-human use. If used wisely and for time trends only, such data can be very valuable.

In Australia, such data shows a decline in per capita intake of sugar from 152 grams per day in 1980 to 127 in 2011. Using similar techniques, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows a 17% reduction in apparent sugar consumption from 1961 to 2011 (139 to 115g/hd/d). Data from Australian National Nutrition Surveys, which are based on surveys of actual sugar intake at individual level, also show a decline in total sugar intake, from 115 grams per day in 1995 to 105 in 2012. Given that among the devils of sugar sources, those from beverages are considered as the Satanic level, it is interesting to note that such Satanic influences have also fallen over time.

No matter how defined (soft drinks, sugar sweetened beverages, sugary products, sodas plus juices etc.), the time-related decline of sugar intake in liquid form is still obvious. Data from industry sources were also made available to the authors and once again, no matter how defined, the same pattern of a decline in solid and liquid sugar intake is seen. For example, the % of children classified as “consumers “ of sugar-sweetened beverages declined from about 65% in 1995 to 25% in 2012. Energy from sugar-sweetened beverages plus juices in children fell from an average of 9.2 % of calories in 1995 to about 5.5% in 2012. All in all, there is not a shred of evidence from the either global overview or the Australian deep-dive into sugar intakes to suggest any rise whatsoever in sugar intakes.

Facts don't make any difference in this debate, of course. People believe whatever they want to believe and I sympathise with Mike's frustration:

Why therefore do we suffer the avalanche of data telling us about the poisonous nature of sugar and the wicked damage it is doing to the health of our children? In my view this is a consequence of our post truth era where post-truth is defined by The Oxford Dictionary as: ‘An adjective relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

You see, sugar was extracted on the back of the global slave trade and is now used by corporate food giants to manipulate the food supply to make a tasteless mechanically derived ultra-processed foods into ones which are rendered hyper-palatable with copious levels of added sugars. Gurus from California with impeccable medical backgrounds have shown conclusively that sugar is toxic, the new tobacco in fact. Tax the damn thing and be done with it!

That’s the emotional argument. It wins out every time against the peer-reviewed data cited in this blog. As a life timer in nutrition I have come to accept this and other such misuse of nutritional data and its adaptation by populist experts and governmental departments.

Last week another study came out showing a decline in sugar consumption in Australia over the last thirty years. This is laughably called the 'Australian paradox' because (a) it is assumed that sugar consumption must have risen if obesity has risen, and (b) it is assumed that sugar consumption has risen in other countries.

Neither assumption is true, but that hasn't stopped one anti-sugar fanatic hounding those who prefer data to doctrine. Rory Robertson set up a green ink website several years ago attacking Jennie Brand-Miller and Alan Barclay after they published a study showing a fall in sugar consumption over several decades. He even managed to get Sydney University to investigate the pair, both of whom were cleared of any misconduct.

Robertson has since been threatened with being banned from Sydney University for allegedly acting in an 'aggres­sive and intimidating manner'. You won't be surprised to hear that Robertson gave up eating sugar, lost weight and is now something of a crusader. Thanks to his n=1 study, he seems to think that sugar is the sole cause of obesity.

I don't know what it is about giving up sugar that makes people so angry but I see a lot of it Twitter. Perhaps we will one day discover that carbs are good for mental health.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Scot puppets

The SNP has been building a whole own army of lobbyists to create the illusion of public demand for bans, taxes, minimum pricing and general lifestyle micromanagement. I mentioned Alcohol Focus Scotland and ASH Scotland last month. Inherited from previous governments, they consume £1.5 million of taxpayers' money every year between them.

While the UK government has taken action against state-funded political campaigning, the problem has been growing north of the border.

In the field of diet, the Scottish government set up Obesity Action Scotland in mid-2015. It features such familiar faces as Simon Capewell (Action on Sugar) and Sheila Duffy (ASH Scotland) and is entirely dedicated to political campaigning. It does the usual sockpuppety things like welcoming government consultations and lobbying for policies which even the government admits are 'unpopular'. I haven't been able to find out how much public money it is getting (perhaps a reader could find out?) but it mentions no other source of funding than the government so it is safe to assume that it is 100% sockpuppet.

Then there is Food Standards Scotland, an organisation created in 2015 which sounds like a Scottish equivalent of the Food Standards Agency but is actually yet another lobby group. Yesterday, they were lobbying for the sugar tax to be extended to all products that contain sugar and a 'calorie cap' on food eaten outside the home, whatever the hell that means.

Food Standards Scotland can always be relied on to send a warm response to government consultations on raising taxes and is always on hand to offer congratulations to politicians when they introduce nanny state policies while complaining that the policies do not go far enough.

None of this has got anything to do with food standards. It is about telling people what to eat because, according to the FSS, the question of what to have for lunch 'cannot be left to individuals alone'. To that end, FSS sends out regular press releases demanding 'urgent action' and 'radical measures' to raise prices, reduce flavour and restrict choice. It does so with an annual budget of £15 million.

And so the sham continues.




Thursday, 9 March 2017

The year of acrylamide

You may fondly recall the scare story about roast potatoes that made everybody roll their eyes back in January. The villain of the piece was acrylamide, a chemical that is created when carbohydrates are cooked. It is not just roast potatoes, but french fries, biscuits, toasts and many other food stuffs that can generate acrylamide. It can cause cancer in mice, but only at very high doses (‘as much as 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the levels people might be exposed to in foods’, according to the American Cancer Society.)

Nevertheless, the Food Standards Agency tried to generate a bit of hysteria by warning about this supposedly new cancer threat. As I said at the time:

We simply do not know whether acrylamide in food causes cancer in humans. Even if it does, we do not know what a safe level of consumption is. The Food Standards Agency’s assumption that people would benefit from reducing their consumption of roast potatoes and toast is just that — an assumption. It is the precautionary principle on steroids. Further research would be welcome, but it is not the job of the FSA to pre-empt it. We have organisations like the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to weigh the evidence and assess risk. They found ‘inadequate evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of acrylamide’. The FSA has gone way beyond its remit by issuing its scare story today.

It later transpired the European Commission is planning to regulate acrylamide in 2017 and a host of the usual pressure groups are campaigning for tough legislation, ie. excessive bans based on the precautionary principle regardless of costs. By accident or design, the FSA was clearing the path for the EU.

This week, two more pressure groups have added their voices to the mix...

Carcinogens found in British baby food and Belgian fries

Two new surveys have found high levels of acrylamide, a known carcinogen, in UK-made baby biscuits and Belgium’s favourite fast food.

...The Changing Markets Foundation and NGO SumOfUs, looked at 48 types of biscuits, including well-known brands like Little Dish and Ella’s Kitchen. The highest acrylamide levels were found in Little Dish biscuits, with levels almost 5 times higher than the European benchmark and 30 times higher than products with the lowest concentrations of acrylamide.

...In the meantime, Changing Markets and Brussels-area news service BRUZZ conducted a similar investigation last month (23 February) of Belgian fries sold in the capital. They found that 15% of the food business surveyed sell fries with high levels of acrylamide, exceeding the European benchmark of 600 µg/kg.

The highest acrylamide level found in the survey was 670 µg/kg, over six times higher than the lowest at 100 µg/kg, followed by two samples at 660 and 620 µg/kg.

I haven't seen either of these studies (if they are studies), but if the highest acrylamide level in french fries is only 10 per cent over the benchmark I doubt that it is much to worry about, since the benchmark is arbitrary in the first place (we don't know for sure that acrylamide causes cancer in humans at all, let alone at what level).

As I mentioned in January, the American Cancer Society, European Food Safety Authority and International Agency for Research on Cancer have all found insufficient evidence to declare that acrylamide, as typically found in food products, increase the risk of cancer. It is rather suspicious that non-scientific pressure groups are suddenly coming out of the woodwork with press releases like this just when the EU is looking to regulate.

The two organisations involved are hardly specialists in this area. Changing Markets specialises in 'campaigns that shift market share away from unsustainable products and companies' and when I visited SumofUs's website (slogan: 'people over profits') I was greeted with a pop-up telling me that 'SumOfUs exists to put bad corporations back in their place'. Apparently, their mission is to 'tame corporate beasts like Pepsi, Nestlé and Monsanto.'

Each to their own, obviously, but it is fair to say that identifying cancer risks is not these group's main area of interest or expertise. I suspect that we are going to see more activist science of this sort as the EU's decision gets closer.

Meanwhile, you might be interested in this paper on acrylamide from the American Council on Science and Health from 2003. The acrylamide scare might be new in Europe, but it has been going on in the USA ever since the chemical was discovered in food in 2002 (despite this, the FDA does not set legal limits on acrylamide in food).

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The vaping revolution rolls on

The latest smoking prevalence figures from the Office for National Statistics will have disappointed the handful of crackpots who still claim that e-cigarettes are a gateway to tobacco that will cause a surge in smoking.

Between 2012 and 2015, the UK's smoking rate fell from 20.4 per cent to 17.8 per cent.* After a number of years when the smoking rate was barely budging, it is now dropping quite rapidly.


As the Guardian rightly notes, vaping is the best explanation for this renewed drop in smoking, but that didn't stop ASH trying to take the credit and demanding more money for itself.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH said: “The decline in smoking is very encouraging and shows that strong tobacco control measures are working. However, the government can’t leave it to individual smokers to try to quit on their own. If the downward trend is to continue we urgently need a new tobacco control plan for England, and proper funding for public health and for mass media campaigns."

ASH's grant from the government is supposedly given to 'support the tobacco control plan for England' - which seems to mean lobbying, in practice - so it is no surprise that they spend all their time demanding a new 'plan' and 'proper funding'. Deborah Arnott is constantly complaining that there is currently no tobacco control plan. She says it was supposed to be published 15 months ago, but it has been delayed. If there has been no tobacco control plan for ASH to 'support' what have they been doing with all that money from the taxpayer? Are they going to return it? I think we should be told.

More importantly, there is scant evidence that 'strong tobacco control measures are working'. You can see in the graph above that the smoking rate was falling steadily until 2007 when the smoking ban ushered in a wave of extreme anti-smoking policies. The ban itself was introduced in July 2007, the smoking age was raised from 16 to 18 in October 2007, graphic warnings were introduced in 2008, the tobacco duty escalator was introduced in 2008 and the ban on cigarette vending machines began in 2011. All this was combined with a bunch of anti-smoking advertisements which were so gruesome that some of them were banned.

The effect of this frenzy of prohibitions can be seen above, ie. nothing. The fall in smoking prevalence came to an end and the smoking rate stayed stubbornly at around the 20 per cent mark until e-cigarettes became mainstream in 2012-13. Between 2012 and 2015, the only anti-smoking law that was introduced was the display ban but that didn't come into effect until April 2015.  (There was also the ban on smoking in cars with minors but that didn't come into effect until October 2015 and no one believes that is going to reduce the smoking rate.) 

The only things achieved by 'strong tobacco control measures' are the mass closure of pubs, the maintenance of a large black market for cigarettes, and secondary poverty for low income smokers.

By contrast, e-cigarettes have given people who want to quit smoking an enjoyable and vastly safer alternative. Vaping has not led to a surge in smoking, nor was it ever likely to, despite the hysterical claims of 'public health' racketeers (though not ASH, to be fair). A study published today in Drugs Education, Prevention and Policy finds that the 'availability of e-cigarettes makes smoking appear less attractive to young people [and] discourages tobacco uptake'.

Neo-prohibition has failed. Let's hear it for the free market.


* The media have reported a rate of 17.2 per cent. This is what the ONS webpage says but their dataset says 17.8 per cent. I am waiting for clarification from the ONS on this point. A drop to 17.2 per cent would be quite sensational given  that the rate was 18.8 per cent in 2014. UPDATE: I haven't had official confirmation but someone at the ONS has suggested that the figures are different because 7.2% is for 18+ years whereas 7.8% is for 16+ years.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Plain packaging for food (again)

Pandora's Box has been well and truly opened. From the Guardian...

Sell high calorie foods in plain packaging to beat obesity, says Brain Prize winner

Selling high calorie foods in plain packaging could help in the battle against obesity according to a leading researcher who has won a share of the most lucrative prize in neuroscience for his work on the brain’s reward system.

The colourful wrapping and attractive advertising of calorie-rich foods encourage people to buy items that put them at risk of overeating and becoming obese in the future, said Wolfram Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.

Only a fool didn't see this coming, and Schultz seems like just the kind of loathsome, illiberal, messianic health fascist to push it forward...

“We should not advertise, propagate or encourage the unnecessary ingestion of calories,” Schultz said at a press conference held on Monday to announce the winners of the 2017 Brain Prize. “There should be some way of regulating the desire to get more calories. We don’t need these calories.”

Steady on, Wolfram.

“Colourful wrapping of high energy foods of course makes you buy more of that stuff and once you have it in your fridge, it’s in front of you every time you open the fridge and ultimately you’re going to eat it and eat too much,” he added.

The claim that colourful wrapping makes people buy more food is a strangely evidence-free assertion from a man who's just won a science prize. And why he is banging on about this on the day of his prize-giving anyway? He hasn't conducted any research on plain packaging, and the kind of research that is conducted on plain packaging is certainly not going to win any science prizes.

Weirdly, none of the media that have reported this story have quoted him explicitly supporting plain packaging for food, but the press release I saw earlier today contained this line:

Asked if he meant plain packaging for junk food: "I would think it's worth a try."

I'm sure there are plenty of people in the 'public health' racket who agree with him.


UPDATE

Proving my point in the Daily Mail is the Royal Society for 'Public Health', one the vilest nanny state pressure groups, who say:

‘While introducing plain packaging for foods high in fat, salt or sugar may be more complex than for tobacco, we certainly believe this is worth piloting to better understand what impact it has on consumer perceptions of these foods and ultimately on people’s buying behaviour.’

There is also a quote from yours truly:

Christopher Snowdon, head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs said:

‘This is the slippery slope in action. ‘It was inevitable that there would be demands for food and alcohol to be put in plain packaging once the government capitulated to the nanny statists on tobacco.

‘Sensible people warned that this would happen. We were ignored, but we are being proved right.’

Sadly, there's no quote from Deborah Arnott.


More incompetence in Tobacco Control

There's an article in the anti-smoking magazine Tobacco Control this month claiming that there is a correlation between tobacco control policies - as measured in the Tobacco Control Scale (TCS) - and smoking rates.

This is nonsense from the get-go. Both myself and Clive Bates have mapped smoking rates and TCS scores in the past and found no statistically significant correlation. My graph below shows scores from the 2013 TCS against OCED smoking prevalence data from the same year. 


The Tobacco Control article uses the earlier 2010 TCS and smoking prevalence data from 2012. Don't ask me why they use old figures, I have given up trying to find any logic in the 'public health' racket. Perhaps the newer figures were totally immune to statistical jiggery-pokery.

Whatever tricks the authors used to reach their conclusion are of little importance. They are demonstrably wrong and their study is worthless, but it reminds me to mention something about the Tobacco Control Scale that I only noticed when I was compiling the Nanny State Index.

Tobacco taxes and pricing are the single biggest component of TCS scores. Since some countries are richer than others, the important thing to look at is affordability. The people behind the TCS recognise this and so they weight the price of cigarettes to adjust for the purchasing power of the people in each country:

The price of the Weighted Average Price (WAP) for cigarettes in July 2013, taking into account Purchasing Power Standards (PPS). The country with a WAP of €8.50 a pack and an EU average Purchasing Power Standard receives 30 points.

All good so far. The Nanny State Index does the same thing with alcohol and tobacco duty. A €1 tax on a pack of cigarettes is clearly going to have more effect on consumption in a poor country like Bulgaria than in a rich country like Luxembourg, so you have to account for GDP to reflect this.

Unfortunately, the TCS is designed by economically illiterate 'public health' morons who proceed to adjust for GDP in a way that could not be more wrong:

Gross Domestic Product per capita can be expressed in PPS (Purchasing Power Standard). PPS per capita has been used to take account of the real purchasing power in different countries. In the EU the GDP per capita expressed in PPP varies from 47 in Bulgaria to 75 in Greece, 120 in Belgium and 267 in Luxembourg. The EU average = 100. The country with a weighted average price of €8.50 a pack, based on the EU average PPP (100), receives 30 points. Belgium, for instance, would receive 30 points if the price of a pack was 8.5 x 1.20 = €10.20. In Bulgaria, if the price of a pack would be 8.5 x 0.47 = €4,00.

Do you see what they've done there? They've made a €8.50 pack of cigarettes seem more affordable in Bulgaria than in Belgium.

The correct way to calculate affordability is to divide the price by the PPS and multiply by 100. If you do that, the price of an €8.50 pack of cigarettes adjusted for affordability is €18.09 in Bulgaria and €7.08 in Belgium. That's more like it.

Instead, they've divided the PPS by 100 and multiplied it by the price, thereby making products inherently more affordable in poor countries than in rich countries. And they outline the same dumb methodology for their estimates of how much each country spends on public information campaigns.
 
I don't know how much this affects the correlation between TCS scores and smoking rates, or even if the scores they use even reflect the methodology they outline, but it's yet another small example of 'public health' experts being hopelessly inept.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Healthy food can be as cheap as chips

I've got a new IEA report out today looking at the price of healthy and less healthy food. I look at 78 different food products in two leading British supermarkets and find that healthy options are usually cheaper than the cheapest 'junk' options. The report has been covered by the I, Metro, the Mirror, Telegraph, Daily Mail and others.

Although the Mirror describes the findings as 'controversial', they shouldn't be. Several studies have shown that a healthy diet is no more expensive than an unhealthy diet. Last year, for example, a study in BMJ Open found that adhering to the diet recommended by the government would 'not lead to significant changes in the price of the diet' and an Australian study found that 'healthy diets can be more affordable than current (unhealthy) diets'.

I've written about the new report for Dan Hannan's new website, The Conservative:

A diet of starchy carbohydrates - potatoes, rice, bread or pasta - combined with vegetables is what the world’s poor have subsisted on for centuries. That is because it is cheap. Add some fruit, chicken or fish and you have all the components of the government’s Eatwell Guide. None of it is expensive. Supermarkets sell apples for less than 10p. A serving of spaghetti costs 3p and a portion of carrots costs 4p (plus the cost of boiling a pan of water). Meat and fish are more pricey but you can buy 100 grams of chicken fillet for less than 40p and a tin of sardines for 34p.

With food prices at historic lows and incomes at historic highs, the idea that British people are fat and badly nourished because we cannot afford to eat healthily is perverse, and yet it is widely believed. When it was suggested last week that we should eat ten fruit and vegetables a day (rather than the official recommendation of five-a-day), the Food Foundation claimed that this would be ‘impossible’ for people on low incomes because ‘healthy foods are three time more expensive calorie-for-calorie than unhealthy foods’.

The phrase ‘calorie-for-calorie’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. Measuring the cost of food by the calorie makes sense in countries where people struggle to consume enough energy. In Britain, however, we have the opposite problem. Many of us are consuming too much energy for our sedentary lifestyles.

We do not eat to reach a quota of calories. We eat until we are full. And so, if we want to measure the cost of a healthy diet, we need to look at the cost per meal or the cost per serving, not the cost per 1,000 calories. In an Institute of Economic Affairs report published today (Cheap as Chips) I look at the price of dozens of food products in two of Britain’s leading supermarkets and find that the cost of a government-approved diet is typically cheaper than a diet of processed food, ready-meals and takeaways.

Do read the rest. 

I've also written a longer article about it for Spectator Health. Have a read of that too, but, above all, read the report.

There's a video too..



Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Et tu, Irn-Bru?

I have some extremely distressing news:

AG Barr is to halve the amount of sugar in its leading Irn Bru brand, ahead of a government crackdown on the fizzy drinks industry.

The Cumbernauld-based firm, which also makes Rubicon and Tizer, said it would cut Irn Bru's sugar content from about 10g per 100ml to just below 5g.

Irn-Bru is one of the best soft drinks on the market, in my opinion. At least, it used to be. I won't be drinking it again if they're going to replace sugar with horrible artificial sweeteners. It already has two artificially sweetened versions. This is an outrage.

Much of the reaction on Twitter echoes my sentiments.









Needless to say, I hope their business collapses and they have to make a hasty volte-face.

Problem gambling - apocalypse postponed again

There has been a small amount of coverage of the latest statistics from the Gambling Commission, but it has focused on the unexceptional news that 'nearly half of Britons like a flutter'. The Gambling Commission's report also contains an estimate of the number of problem gamblers, which the Express reports as follows:

Among those who have gambled in the past 12 months, 0.7 per cent were identified as problem gamblers, up from 0.5 per cent in 2015

If this is a rise in problem gambling it must be about the thirteenth rise since the media became obsessed with this issue in 2004. I have written before about the claim that problem gambling keeps doubling and doubling despite the number of problem gamblers never getting any bigger.

In truth, the rate of problem gambling has been within the narrow margins of 0.4 per cent and 0.9 per cent ever since it first began to be measured in 1999. The first three reports in 1999, 2007 and 2010 used two different methodologies and came up with the following estimates:

1999: 0.6 per cent (DSM-IV), N/A (PGSI)

2007: 0.6 per cent (DSM-IV), 0.6 per cent (PGSI)

2010: 0.9 per cent (DSM-IV), 0.7 per cent  (PGSI)

Responsibility for collecting the data was then handed to public health bodies who came up with the following estimate for England and Scotland (combined) for 2012:

2012: 0.5 per cent (DSM-IV), 0.4 per cent  (PGSI)

Since 2013, the figures have been collected by the Gambling Commission which only uses the PGSI methodology. Results are as follows:

2013: 0.5 per cent

2014: 0.5 per cent

2015: 0.5 per cent

2016: 0.7 per cent

The Gambling Commission's sample size is only 4,000 people, which is not much when you consider that less than one per cent of them are going to be problem gamblers (ie. fewer than 40 people). The different between the 2015 and 2016 estimate is, the Commission notes, not statistically significant and we now have data from a period of 17 years that shows no change in the number of problem gamblers.

This, despite the panic about online gambling, gambling advertising and fixed odds betting terminals.

Speaking of fixed odds betting terminals, some research was conducted in 2011, based on the 2007 gambling survey, which found that 'controlling for gambling involvement substantially reduced or eliminated all statistically significant relationships between individual gambling activities and problem gambling, except in the case of machines in bookmakers'.

However, the same researcher has now done a similar analysis of the data from the 2010 and 2012 surveys and found that...

  • The original conclusion that there is no consistent evidence that particular gambling activities are predictive of problem gambling, after controlling for the level of involvement, holds true in 2010 and 2012.
  • The 2007 finding that machines in bookmakers are the exception does not persist into 2010 and 2012.
  • It appears that any ‘significant’ effects borne out of the results are most likely an unexplained variation in the sample.

In other words, there has been no rise in problem gambling and no one type of gambling product can be said to 'cause' problem gambling, including fixed-odds betting terminals.

Perhaps it is time everybody calmed down a bit?