Saturday, 26 September 2015

The stupidest thing I've read all week...

Possibly all year, in fact. From the Independent...

Efforts to discredit claims that Alzheimer's is infectious is similar to how the mad cow disease scandal was handled

The suggestion that Alzheimer’s may be a transmissible disease, and the reluctance of government science advisers to countenance the idea, has parallels with what happened over “mad cow” disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

At the time, science advisers to the government took the cautious approach that there was “no evidence” mad cow disease was a threat to human health, although they privately admitted that did not mean there was “no risk”.

The “no evidence” line is similar to that adopted by the Department of Health in relation to the possible transmission of Alzheimer’s disease.

Ooh, uncanny! What a spooky coincidence. Makes you think, huh?

The whole article is here, but its entire 'argument' is presented above. There really is nothing more to it than claming that if there is no evidence for something, there are "parallels" with the mad cow disease situation twenty years ago.

There are also parallels with millions of instances when there was no evidence because there was no relationship, but that doesn't seem to have occurred to the author.

Words almost fail me. I've seen comments on the David Icke forum that have more intellectual weight than this.


Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Institute of Alcohol Studies' response to Alcohol and the Public Purse

The UK Temperance Alliance, which these days prefers to be known as the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS), has responded to my IEA report about the cost of alcohol to the English taxpayer. In the report I showed that the financial, out-of-pocket costs to the government of alcohol-related crime, ill health and worklessness were unlikely to be higher than £3.9 billion a year, which is about a third of what drinkers pay in alcohol duty.

The IAS reply seems to have been written in reasonably good faith so I'll try to be equally constructive in my reply. They begin...

The most important point about the IEA paper is that it deliberately addresses only a very limited question – what the impact of alcohol is on the government’s fiscal balance. By design, it does not look at broader social or economic costs.

That's right. It looks at the cost to the government and therefore the taxpayer. Why? There are two reasons. Firstly, because I think that is what people are most interested in. Secondly, because the wider societal cost of £21 billion that includes intangible costs (such as emotional distress) and private costs (such as lost productivity) is routinely portrayed as being a direct cost to the taxpayer. For example, this is how the figure is typically presented in the media...

The government is seeking to reduce irresponsible drinking that costs the taxpayer 21 billion pounds a year in police and medical bills

Here is Theresa May on a government website:

'Alcohol-fuelled harm costs taxpayers £21 billion a year.'

Here is the Alcohol Health Alliance explicitly comparing a figure dominated by private and emotional costs with financial tax revenues:

And here is Katherine Brown, director of the IAS, describing the £21 billion as a cost to the economy while at the same time saying that it is a direct cost to the taxpayer.

“This government’s failure to keep its promise to come down hard on cheap alcohol has let everybody down except the drinks industry. It’s let the NHS down, the police down, but most of all it lets every taxpayer down. We are all footing the £21 billion bill of alcohol harm to our economy each year.”

Back to the IAS response...

This restriction inevitably limits the force of the IEA’s argument. Most people who are concerned about the level of alcohol harm in the UK are not primarily motivated by a desire to balance the government’s budget. Rather, they are concerned by the damage to public health, crime, social disorder and wider economic costs caused by excessive drinking.

I'm not sure that is true, otherwise temperance groups wouldn't go to such lengths to make the public think that wider societal costs are costs to the taxpayer. At the very least, people are more interested in the financial costs to the state in the context of discussions around alcohol taxes which are supposed to compensate for those costs.

The fact remains that somebody needs to pay these costs – whether it’s protecting themselves against crime, replacing goods that are stolen or vandalised, or functioning less productively at work. The IEA argue that it is misleading to balance these costs against revenue from taxation. But in that case, we need to acknowledge that there is no compensatory mechanism for the billions of pounds of harm suffered by private individuals and businesses.

But there is no compensatory mechanism and the IAS is not suggesting one. To be clear, putting more tax on alcohol will not compensate employers for hungover workers, nor will it pay to have someone's garden fence repaired. Tax goes to government. If alcohol duty is about compensation, it should therefore only meet the costs incurred by government.

(This is separate from the argument about Pigouvian taxation which the Alcohol Health Alliance is vaguely alluding to in the tweet above. The temperance lobby seems to think that alcohol duty should be equal to the gross negative externalities associated with alcohol. This, however, is a misunderstanding of what a Pigouvian tax is. Pigou's aim was not to raise an amount of tax equal to the gross externalities but to use tax to increase the private cost of a product to meet the net externalities. The private cost includes the price of the product before tax. People in Britain spend more than £30 billion on alcohol. That is the private cost, not just the £12 billion or so they spend on alcohol duty.)

The report has performed a valuable service in bringing to light the limitations of previous data/analysis and the confusion they have caused

Hear, hear!

The IEA is also correct in identifying the dangers of conflating social costs, economic costs and fiscal costs. ‘Alcohol and the Public Purse’ should encourage all sides of the debate to be more careful in the language they use. It is vitally important to be clear about the difference between different types of costs, and just as important to clarify who bears these costs – the government, the drinker, other people or businesses.

If it achieves that, I will be very happy (and surprised).

Much of the coverage and interpretation of the IEA’s findings has been misleading

While the IEA’s report criticises public health campaigners for confusing costs to the economy with costs to the Treasury, it is disappointing to see newspaper reports of the paper making the very same error:

“Boozers are subsidising teetotallers as research shows how much they pour into the economy”10 (The Mirror)

“Britain’s drinkers are helping to boost the economy by £6.5 billion a year”11 (The Express)

As discussed above, the IEA’s report says nothing about the cost to the economy, but only refers to the cost to the government.

Yes, it's very frustrating, but we can't control the headlines and nothing in the IEA's press release encouraged this sort of misreporting. The newspapers have been reporting broader economic costs as costs to the taxpayer for years (without being chastised by the IAS) so it is perhaps no surprise that they made a similar mistake this time. I commented on this at the time, both on Twitter and on this blog, saying...

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

Back to the IAS...

While these headlines are ultimately the responsibility of the newspapers that publish them, it is notable that the IEA’s official twitter account made the same mistake, tweeting: “Britain's drinkers are helping to boost the economy by £6.5 billion a year”.

Ah, come on, they were tweeting coverage of the report all day and that was the headline in the Daily Express. They read the Express story, pressed the little Twitter button and that's what came out. People do this all the time. It doesn't mean they endorse every word of the article.

The idea of a ‘subsidy’ from drinkers to non-drinkers, which was central to both the IEA’s press release and many of the press reports, is misleading in a more subtle way. This implies that non-drinkers are better off for the fact that other people drink, because this (according to the IEA) reduces their tax burden. But if we are comparing the balance of costs and benefits between drinkers and non-drinkers, it is no longer appropriate to ignore private costs. Therefore, it does not follow that drinkers subsidise non-drinkers, unless the IEA can show that the tax ‘subsidy’ (if it exists) is greater than the private costs to non-drinkers.

The point is that non-drinkers are able to pay less tax as a result of other people drinking. I take the point that there may be other private costs (and, indeed, benefits) from other people drinking that are not reflected in the tax system, but - as mentioned above - they would not be compensated by taxation paid to government anyway.

Moreover, even in narrow fiscal terms, this ‘subsidy’ will be significantly smaller than the widely claimed £6.5bn. The IEA does not account for the fact that drinkers also use public services that are not directly related to their drinking – they still send their children to state schools, they are still treated for non-alcohol related ailments on the NHS, they still have their rubbish bins collected. If we accept the IEA’s numbers, alcohol raises £6.5bn for the Treasury, which is presumably spent on public services. But 79% of this £6.5bn will be spent on drinkers, since drinkers comprise 79% of the population (assuming that drinkers and non-drinkers are equally likely to use public services not related to drinking). This would imply that the subsidy is in fact closer to £1.4bn (21% of £6.5bn).

I applaud the creativity of this argument. It raises an interesting question. Let's say you had a tax on women that brought in £10 billion. Would you say that women are subsidising men to the tune of £10 billion or would you say that the subsidy is only £5 billion because women use half of the public services paid for by the tax? It seems to me that the former would be the normal way of describing it whereas the latter has the whiff of sophistry, but I take the point.

However, if you want to chop off 79 per cent of the benefit (the 'subsidy') because the money will ultimately be spent on drinkers then you must equally chop off 79 per cent of the cost (eg. spending on alcohol-related harm) because it would be paid by drinkers in the absence of a specific duty. By this logic, 79 per cent of the 'cost of alcohol' is not an externality at all because it is paid by people who drink.

If the costs of alcohol to public services came out of general taxation, drinkers would pay 79 per cent of them. So, by the IAS's logic, the cost to the taxpayer is not £3.9 billion but just £819 million. You can't have it both ways.

In ‘Alcohol and the Public Purse’, there are a number of costs that are omitted from the IEA’s analysis. Most significantly, the IEA do not attribute any social care costs to alcohol, despite the evidence that alcohol is often related to child neglect and mistreatment. This has been estimated to cost the government between £1bn- £2.5bn, so on its own could add 50% the IEA’s estimate of alcohol costs.

My report was explicitly modelled on the Cabinet Office report and the subsequent (thinner) documents that were the source of the £21 billion figure. None of them mentioned social care and I have not heard them criticised for ignoring it.

Whilst there may be costs to be found in social care, it is hardly surprising that it has been ignored to date. The data are practically non-existent. The reference given by the IAS is a report about the economic and social costs of alcohol in Leeds. It includes a page and a half about social care with some back-of-an-envelope estimates about the costs associated with alcohol. The estimates are not based on evidence from Leeds. Instead, they are based on a survey which found that parental alcohol misuse was a factor in 14 per cent of child care cases in four London boroughs. The authors assume causation and attribute 14 per cent of total child care social work spending in Leeds to 'alcohol-related expenditure'. It then adds in an estimate for adult social work, but because 'it is not clear what proportion of this expenditure was spent in relation to alcohol misuse' they just assume 25-50 per cent.

Presumably, IAS have extrapolated this guesstimate from Leeds across the whole country to reach their estimate of £1-2.5 billion. It is exactly the kind of guesswork that IAS said I 'performed a valuable service in bringing to light' and is nowhere near robust enough for an IEA report. 

Additionally, despite the IEA’s claim that they “err towards generosity rather than conservatism when compiling the estimates”, there are a few assumptions that appear to understate the cost of alcohol. First, the IEA ignore hospital admissions where alcohol is a secondary diagnosis (except where these are classified as an ‘external cause’).

This was explained at length in the report. It is ridiculous to assume that a secondary diagnosis was the primary cause for a hospital visit. Public Health England and the Department of Health both now agree that only primary diagnoses should be counted.

Second, the IEA assume that 14% of A&E visits are attributable to alcohol. While they acknowledge that there is significant uncertainty around this figure, it is worth noting that this is towards the lower end of the 2-40% range that is sometimes cited.

This was also dealt with in depth in the report. It should be obvious that if one estimate says that 2 per cent of A & E admissions are alcohol-related and another says 40 per cent then one of them is totally wrong. IAS are implying that you should split the difference and assume the real figure is at the midpoint between the two but that means using a figure that you know is totally wrong to come up with an average.

A better approach is to look at the estimates and see which one looks totally wrong. As I explain in the report, figures of 30-40 per cent are simply not credible whereas there are quite a few studies - that's studies, not surveys - of A & E admissions which arrive at single figure estimates. I went with 14 per cent because it was at the high end of the credible range. I strongly suspect that the real figure is quite a bit lower than this.

The IAS has promised to publish some of its own research on A & E admissions soon and I believe that government is working on a new economic assessment on the total cost of alcohol. Hopefully the government will at least bear in mind the point on which the IAS and myself are agreed - that the differences between difference types of cost should be made clear.

Monday, 21 September 2015

E-cigarettes and the EU: a user's guide

From May next year, the e-cigarette industry will have to abide by new EU laws that were agreed behind closed doors under the Tobacco Products Directive. If you use second or third generation e-cigarette - as most vapers in the UK do - these laws will have a major (negative) impact on you.

I've written a short briefing paper for the Epicenter Network (a group of European think tanks) explaining what the EU laws say and what it will mean for vapers and the e-cigarette industry. It's not pretty and national governments have limited ability to implement it sensibly. They do, however, have some latitude so you should encourage lawmakers to use common sense and - above all - not to gold-plate it with yet more meddlesome legislation.

If you're reading this, you probably have an above-average interest in these matters but I would guess that nine out of ten vapers have no idea that the quality of products is about to be radically degraded from next year so please read the briefing paper and share it widely.

I've had a few comments by e-mail about other issues with the EU legislation. If you have others, please leave them below and I'll blog about this again tomorrow.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Trans fats - a pointless prohibition

It was reported in the week that a ban on trans fats would save 7,000 lives over five years.

Professor Simon Capewell [yes, it's him again], said: “There should be no place in our society for trans fats and a total ban would clearly improve the health of the nation.”

I won't go into the question of how dangerous trans fats are, suffice to say that the epidemiological evidence against them is similar to the evidence against saturated fats which many people now consider to be weak. It should also not be forgotten that the increased use of trans fats in the late twentieth century was largely due to the 'public health' lobby agitating against sat fats. Since then, the food industry has responded to public concerns about trans fats by greatly reducing their use.

For most food products, trans fats can be replaced fairly easily (although it can be costly), but you have to replace them with something and that often means more sugar or more saturated fat. Moreover, there are a few products which really do need trans fats for flavour or storage.

The bottom line is that trans fats are hardly used in Britain these days except in a few products that need them and a few others which contain them naturally. Their presence in the British food supply has fallen from a fairly trivial level to a very trivial level. Average consumption is well within the recommended limit. 

That is not enough for 'public health' zealots who hate it when voluntary agreements with industry successfully address a problem and are more comfortable with 'no safe level' dogma than evidence-based policy. As ever, their attitude is 'if it moves, ban it' and banning trans fats has been one of the top 12 targets of the public health racket since the start of the decade. This week's claim that 7,000 lives would be saved if the UK introduced a full ban came from a study co-authored by Simon 'Caps Lock' Capewell in the British Medical Journal.

As is becoming the norm whenever Capewell opens his mouth, scientists who actually understand the issue, including nutritionists at Public Health England, have raised criticisms. You can read a few of them in this article. For a fuller explanation, I recommend this post by Tom Sanders, professor of nutrition at King's College.

The changes made by industry mean that artificial trans fats are virtually absent from food consumed in the UK, something corroborated by studies measuring levels of TFAs in blood or adipose (fat) tissue. To my knowledge, no partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are currently manufactured in the UK. The main sources of TFAs left are the natural ones.

As such, banning trans fats as suggested by the new report would seemingly involve banning not just the industrial trans fats that are no longer present but also milk, butter, cheese and ruminant meats.

In other words, it would be another pointless and costly ban to make industry-hating public health chancers feel good about themselves.

Monday, 14 September 2015

March of the food police

Via The Guardian - who say that food is getting bigger when it's not - a new front of lifestyle regulation is being well and truly opened up...

A new review has produced the most conclusive evidence to date that people consume more food or non-alcoholic drinks when offered larger sized portions or when they use larger items of tableware.

The research, carried out by the University of Cambridge and published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, suggests that eliminating larger-sized portions from the diet completely could reduce energy intake by up to 16% among UK adults or 29% among US adults.

If you believe that any government intervention, short of rationing or induced famine, is going to reduce calorie consumption by 29 per cent anywhere then you need your head examining.

The researchers highlight a range of potential actions that could be taken to reduce the size, availability or appeal of larger-sized portions, packages and tableware...

Oh, I'm sure they did. I bet you couldn't hold them back.

...including: upper-limits on serving sizes of energy-dense foods and drinks (for example, fatty foods, desserts and sugary drinks), or on the sizes of crockery, cutlery and glasses provided for use in their consumption; placing larger portion sizes further away from purchasers to make them less accessible; and demarcating single portion sizes in packaging through wrapping or a visual cue.

What part of 'mind your own business' don't these people understand?

Other potential actions include: restricting pricing practices whereby larger portion and package sizes cost less in relative (and sometimes absolute) monetary terms than smaller sizes and thus offer greater value for money to consumers; and restricting price promotions on larger portion and package sizes.

So they not only want to place an 'upper limit' on how big a dessert can be, they also want to stop consumers getting 'greater value for money'?

The researchers suggest that some of the highlighted actions to limit portion size are likely to require regulation or legislation...

Of course it will. How else could you get people to go along with this lunatic agenda without the use of state force? Not only will it require 'regulation or legislation', it will require an army of bureaucrats, regulators, spies and police to make sure nobody uses a twelve inch plate or - heaven forfend! - fails to make a large bag of Maltesers 'less accessible' than a small bag.

There is no end to the control freakery of these 'public health' nutters. Seriously, folks, it's us or them.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Simple Simon squirms

The divestment movement is one of the sillier empty gestures to have caught on in recent years. The principle is fiendishly simple: institutions sell their shares in evil corporations like Big Oil and then, er, absolutely nothing happens. The share price doesn't fall and the company doesn't suffer. The only losers are the institutions which have to settle for weaker investments.

It's an idiotic idea and it's pure virtue signalling. Naturally, then, clowns like Simon Chapman are big fans of it...

Simon Chapman, 2007 (in Public Health Advocacy and Tobacco Control: Making Smoking History):

Public declarations by reputable companies and individuals that they will not invest in a tobacco company for ethical reasons can be newsworthy and may cause other groups to reflect on their position. The ethical investment movement in your country will be a useful ally in suggesting ways of promoting divestment of tobacco shares

Simon Chapman, 2009 (in Guide For a Tobacco-Free Campus):

The aim of this guide is to urge campus managers and administrators to review and improve their tobacco-free policies to include three key elements:

... An ethically and socially responsible mandatory standard or core principle that ensures that the institution, its staff and students are not financially or materially associated through the institution with the tobacco industry.

Simon Chapman, 2010:

 “A medical school taking funding from the tobacco industry is like a peace studies school taking funding from terrorists,” said Tobacco Control's editor Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney.

Simon Chapman, 2014:

Simon Chapman, April 1st 2015 (after falling for an obvious April fool joke):

Given his typically blowhard views on this issue, it was an #awks moment for Simple Simon this week when it became known that his own university (Sydney) had just invested $2 million in British American Tobacco. This left him squirming when he wrote his regular column for The Conversation. First, he argued that $2 million isn't very much money, then he resorted to the most tenuous sophistry to claim that everybody gets money from the tobacco industry if you look at things through a kaleidoscope...

With $2m of $1.4b invested in BAT, the homeopathically small proportion that might arguably be linked to my salary would be pressed to buy a sachet of sugar for a coffee. But that’s what passes for excitement among pro-smokers these days.

Indeed, by extending the same logic, there is no citizen in Australia who is free from taking the Big Tobacco dollar. Some $9.763b is collected annually from customs and excise duty on tobacco and GST. This money goes into consolidated revenue where, along with every other form of government revenue, it is pooled to provide expenditure on things we all use and benefit from: roads, government schools, health care, prisons, defence etc.

Every doctor in Australia by this argument, “benefits” from big tobacco each time they receive a Medicare payment from Canberra.

Some strong arguments there, I'm sure you'll agree.

Aside from the hilarity of watching the fool fight his corner, it is interesting, though unsurprising, to note that the university's financial advisers are more realistic about plain packaging's ability to deliver a blow to the tobacco industry than Chapman is.

Does nanny know best?

Last night, I spoke by video link to Australia's 'Nanny State Inquiry'. These were my opening remarks...

My hope is that the enquiry will do at least two things. Firstly, look at how much money the government is giving to special interest groups. Secondly, carry out a cost-benefit analysis to see if the slew of nanny state policies introduced in Australia in recent years has been worth the time, money and effort.

Looking specifically at the so-called ‘public health’ movement, which is the source of most lifestyle regulation, there are two essential points to make. The first is that it has nothing to do with healthcare or medicine, rather it is a political movement for wowsers and the government has no business funding it.

The second is that the ‘public health’ lobby demands government intervention in markets which are functionally perfectly well and, by trying to stop people doing what they want to do, they inevitably impose unnecessary costs on society. Any cost-benefit analysis of nanny state would find more costs than benefits if it was carried out correctly, which is to say if it counted pleasure and enjoyment as benefits.

To elaborate on my first point, ‘public health’ can do useful things. There are times when individuals can only secure health benefits for themselves by working collectively through government. Clean water, vaccinations, environmental pollution and speed limits are all examples of this. If I want to avoid being in a drink-driving accident, it is not enough for me not to drink-drive, everybody else must do the same. Similarly, it is not enough for me to vaccinate myself against TB, I need herd immunity. Those are legitimate public health goals.

The situation with drinking, vaping, smoking, fast food and fizzy drinks is totally different. If I don’t want to eat at McDonalds, I don’t need the government to make it more expensive, I just don’t eat there. If I don’t want to use e-cigarettes, then I don’t use them. I don’t need the government to ban them. These are private lifestyle choices which are, by definition, not public. The choice is mine, the risk is mine, the benefits are mine and if I come to harm, that is my problem, not anybody else’s.

The ‘public health’ lobby is, therefore, getting involved with issues that are none of its business. It differs from medicine in three important ways. Firstly, you have to qualify as a doctor to practise medicine. Most of the people in ‘public health’ are not doctors, they are social scientists, humanities graduates or simply concerned citizens. Secondly, in medicine you need the patient’s consent. The public has never consented to be treated by so-called public health professionals. Thirdly, in medicine the patient is ill. What you get in the world of 'public health' is people who are perfectly healthy being ‘treated’ without their consent by people who are essentially practising medicine without a licence.

The current generation of ‘public health’ campaigners has little or nothing to do with medicine or healthcare. It is simply a collection of wowsers trying to tell people how to live their lives. Meddlesome people have always existed and they have a right to their opinion, but the government should not be funding them.

With regards to costs and benefits, economists tend to believe that government intervention is only necessary when the market has failed, and that any intervention in a functioning market will make things worse. There is no market failure in the areas that the ‘public health’ lobby most often pokes its nose into. The fact that a product carries an element of risk is not in itself evidence of a market failure, nor is the fact that some people might find an activity immoral or disagreeable a market failure.

The main market failures to look for are negative externalities, consumer ignorance, consumer irrationality and monopoly. These are all largely absent when it comes to drinking, smoking, vaping and eating. There is strong competition within each of these industries, there is widespread awareness of any risks, the risks are largely confined to the individual, and there is no evidence that consumers are particularly irrational.

In other words, the lifestyle choices people make before the nanny state gets involved are the choices they want to make. They are the choices that give them maximum benefit. After the nanny state gets involved, they are forced to either settle for their second or third choice, or to pay more and get less benefit from their preferred choice.

Paternalistic legislation ramps up the costs and shrinks the benefits. The ‘public health’ lobby get around this in a very simple way - they pretend that there are no benefits to be had from the things of which they disapprove. They claim that people don’t actually enjoy smoking or vaping, or don’t enjoy getting drunk.

If you ignore the pleasure and enjoyment people get from these activities then you can always make it look as if nanny state legislation has a net benefit. This, however, requires you to ignore the whole point of why people do these things in the first place. Only a blinkered fanatic would do that.

There are many other costs associated with wowserism in addition to making the lives of individuals more miserable. There are costs to businesses from over-regulation, paternalistic taxation clobbers the poor, there are costs to society when black markets spring up, and there are costs to health when the government acts on bad advice, such as forcing cyclists to wear helmets and banning e-cigarettes.

But even without the unintended consequences of ‘public health’ legislation, the intended consequence of stopping people doing what they want to do is enough for us to know it would fail any serious cost-benefit analysis.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Yes, calorie consumption has fallen

Last year I wrote a report for the IEA ('The Fat Lie') in which I showed that calorie consumption in Britain has been falling for decades as physical activity has been waning. Since obesity has risen sharply at the same time, it seems that energy-out has been a bigger problem than energy-in.
Like Timmy, I have been trying to drive this message home for some time. There is ample historical evidence that people consumed more calories in the past, including from sugar, and there is good evidence that physical activity has declined, particularly at home and in the workplace.

It's fair to say that my report did not go down well with 'public health' racketeers and low carb cultists who responded by saying that they simply didn't believe the statistics.

Last week, a new study was published which came to much the same conclusion.

New research from Royal Holloway, University of London has found that changes in lifestyle over the past 30 years have led to a sharp reduction in the strenuousness of daily life, which researchers say may explain why there has been a dramatic rise in obesity.

The study, carried out by Dr Melanie Luhrmann from the Department of Economics along with Professor Rachel Griffith and Dr Rodrigo Lluberas, revealed that while obesity rates have almost trebled, surprisingly, our actual calorie intake has fallen by around 20 per cent compared to 30 years ago.

The researchers found our current lifestyle changes mean in spite of the smaller number of calories we put on weight as our lives have become more sedentary.

The 'public health' lobby did not need to bother trying to rubbish this study because it received hardly any media coverage. Tellingly, it was conducted by economists rather than 'public health' cranks.

I know the researchers are correct because I've seen the data before, but I can't find the actual study. If you can, let me know.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Plain packaging versus doing nothing

Like a Japanese soldier fighting the Second World War long after the army surrendered, 'The Kouk' is still trying to convince his readers that plain packaging was a success. Every three months, the Australian Bureau of Statistics releases new sales data and every three months The Kouk attributes the record low sale of tobacco products to plain packaging.

The truth is that tobacco sales fall to record lows in most Western countries every three months because smoking has been going out of fashion for decades. What The Kouk doesn't tell his readers is that this downward trend went into reverse in Australia when plain packaging first came in and it only resumed when the government hiked up the price of cigarettes with a tax rise of 12.5% in December 2013 and another tax rise of 12.5% in September 2014.

The latest figures that have got him excited are shown below. The vertical axis shows chain volume sales in millions of Australian dollars.

Tobacco sales, Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics)

On this occasion, Kouky has at least moderated his position somewhat by attributing the fall to a 'mix of plain packaging laws, tax hikes, advertising bans and health awareness'. But what about plain packaging specifically? It was meant to be a game-changer, after all.

The graph above strongly suggests that it did sweet FA. If anything, it made have led to higher sales. The Kouk's argument is that plain packaging must have worked because tobacco sales fell (eventually). But we would expect nothing less in the long term. The question is whether they would have fallen less if plain packaging had never been introduced.

One way to answer that question is to compare a country that hasn't brought in plain packaging. The obvious candidate is Britain. HMRC data on UK tobacco sales are shown below (in millions of sticks, with loose tobacco converted at the standard ratio of 1,250 sticks per kg).

Tobacco sales, UK (HMRC)
As you can probably guess from this, (legal) tobacco sales are at an all-time low in Britain, as they are in Australia. Sales last year were 14% lower than they were in 2012.*

By contrast, sales in Australia last year were only 7% lower than they were in 2012.

In other words, the fall in tobacco sales in Britain since Australia brought in plain packaging has been twice as steep as the fall seen in Australia.

Tobacco taxes have risen in Britain during that period, but not as much as they have in Australia. Advertising has been banned in both countries for donkey's years and 'health awareness' is surely similar. The only significant difference between the two countries' approach to tobacco control is that Australia has effectively banned e-cigarettes and introduced plain packaging whereas the UK hasn't.

Evidence-based policy, anyone?

* There were 49,245 million sticks sold in the UK in 2012, compared with 42,427 million sold in 2014.

** Chain volume sales fell from $15,352 million in 2012 to $14,215 million in 2014.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Me and my spoon

I did an interview with Conservatives for Liberty recently in which I discussed pubs, sugar, e-cigarettes, free speech, taxes and the youth of today. Do have a read of it...

An interview with Christopher Snowdon

Jamie Oliver's Sugar Rush

Unless you are new to this blog, you will know that I am not Jamie Oliver's biggest fan. His latest programme, Sugar Rush, did nothing to improve my opinion of the man. I reviewed it at The Spectator.

Imagine a country in which state-subsidised television networks wheel out popular celebrities to scare the masses into supporting more taxes. Imagine no longer. This is not a dystopian future, this is Jamie’s Sugar Rush.

According to a Guardian journalist, Mr Oliver is ‘extremely well liked’. If so, I have drifted further from mainstream public opinion than I realised. In his guise as a TV evangelist on Channel 4 last night, he increasingly resembled a cadaver being zapped with electricity, all blank eyes and random facial expressions. ‘I’ve come here to get my head around it,’ he said with faux-naivety as he prepared to fire loaded questions at another sympathetic interviewee. In an hour of staged encounters and predictable factoids, it was the voyage-of-discovery charade that grated more than anything. It was always going to end with advertising bans, higher taxes and a new crusade for a celebrity chef. Channel 4 knew it, we knew it and Jamie knew it.

Do read the rest.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Minimum pricing - what next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving England by the pint

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

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

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

Thursday, 3 September 2015

How drinkers subsidise teetotallers

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

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

The report is free to download here.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Jamie Oliver bingo

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

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

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

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

Good luck!