Thursday, 20 July 2017

Snusgate: the movie

You may recall the scandal around the former EU health commissioner John Dalli who was sacked after being accused of being involved in an attempt to solicit a bribe from the snus company Swedish Match and subsequently exposed for some strange shenanigans in the Bahamas. Dalli was vigorously defended by 'public health' groups at the time and Private Eye made the ill-judged decision to take his side on a couple of occasions.

Dalli's defence is that he is the victim of an inexplicable conspiracy conjured up by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission, OLAF, the tobacco industry and numerous others. The gist of the plot is that Barroso didn't want Dalli to regulate cigarettes and so conspired to replace him with a more pro-tobacco commissioner who would water down the Tobacco Products Directive (nb. Dalli's replacement is not remotely pro-tobacco and the TPD was not watered down).

On Monday night, BBC4 showed a documentary about Dalli which is well worth watching. The title and blurb for the programme (see above) are rather misleading. The 'mystery' involved smokeless tobacco, not cigarettes, and Dalli was not accused of being 'in the pocket of "big tobacco"', he was accused of trying to get in the pocket of a small tobacco company (and was reported to the authorities by the company).

I was expecting a pro-Dalli whitewash and the first 20 minutes seemed to confirm my fears. (Spoiler alert.) At first, the two Danish journalists are taken in by Dalli's protestations of innocence and are keen to blow the cover on a Big Tobacco conspiracy. But as they dig a little deeper and get to know more about the man, things take a turn.

Dalli shows them e-mails from a mystery correspondent named Maria who claims to have a dossier proving that Barroso took a bribe from the tobacco industry and put it in a Norwegian bank account. But this evidence never surfaces and we find that Maria does not exist.

They then go to Bahamas and find out about a con artist friend of Dalli's known as 'Ladybird'. They meet some American victims of a scam who point the finger at Dalli. When the journalists mention these new accusers to Dalli, he claims that they are also part of Barroso's conspiracy against him. Other accusers are said to have been 'brainwashed'.

By the end of the documentary, the journalists have concluded that 'Maria' is Dalli himself and that the man is, at the very least, half-mad. It's hard to disagree.

You can watch it on the iPlayer for another 27 days.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

200,000 hypothetical children

When the plain packaging idiocy was first mooted in 2008, we were told:

More than 200,000 under-16s start smoking each year

In 2010, this statistic was officially endorsed (but not referenced) in the government's Tobacco Control Strategy:

Each year in England, an estimated 200,000 children and young people start smoking

And it was repeated many times, for example in this article about plain packaging in 2011:

Research has shown around 200,000 children and young people in England start smoking each year

In 2013, with the government still failing to commit to the idea, the BMA signed a letter to Jeremy Hunt demanding that the government introduce plain packaging, saying...

With over 200,000 children starting to smoke every year, there is no good reason for the UK to wait any longer.

The government eventually buckled to the fanatics and passed the legislation in 2015. Campaigners celebrated, saying:

“We are simply delighted that the House of Commons has spoken out to protect the 200,000 children taking up smoking every year in this country"

Every pack of tobacco is now in plain packaging and those 200,000 children are now 'protected' from seeing an irresistible logo, so I was interested to see the British Medical Association's statement responding to the new Tobacco Control Plan for England yesterday:

'While we are glad to see developing policy such as plain cigarette packaging and increased taxation on tobacco, it is still worrying that more than 200,000 children and young people take up smoking...'

So that's nine years of display bans, vending machine bans, tax rises and finally - the jewel in the crown - plain packaging, and the same number of children are taking up smoking as they did before? Is this a junk statistic or an admission of failure?

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Tobacco Plan: too much stick, not enough carrot

The government has published its new Tobacco Control Plan for England. This will come as a relief to Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) who have been waiting 18 months for a justification for their taxpayer subsidy.

The government has set an entirely arbitrary target of reducing smoking prevalence to 12 per cent by 2022. It has no way of doing this. Britain is still a nominally free country and people can choose to smoke if they want to, albeit within the constraints of extortionate taxes and a draconian smoking ban.

The government pats itself on the back, saying:

Since the previous Tobacco Control Plan, smoking prevalence has substantially reduced; from 20.2% of adults smoking at the start of the plan [to 15.5%], the lowest level since records began.

This is certainly a remarkable decline, but the Tobacco Control Plan had nothing to do with it. The lion's share of anti-smoking activity took place between 2007 and 2010 and yet the smoking rate refused to budge until 2013 when e-cigarettes took off.

Insofar as the state can take the credit for the post-2012 decline it is - as I said last year - because they left the free market for vaping alone. That has since changed thanks to the EU and, in a roundabout way, the government admits that it was vaping wot done it in their new plan.

In 2016 it was estimated that 2 million consumers in England had used these products [e-cigarettes] and completely stopped smoking and a further 470,00056 were using them as an aid to stop smoking.

Since there were around 9 million smokers in England in 2012, this means that the vast majority of those have given up in the years since have done so by switching to e-cigarettes.

The government must know that it has zero chance of achieving its new goal without reduced harm products, and it strikes a reasonable tone when discussing them.

PHE recommends that e-cigarette use is not covered by smokefree legislation and should not routinely be included in the requirements of an organisation’s smokefree policy.

Local authorities, football clubs, pub companies and Welsh politicians, please take note.

In addition there has been the development and very recent introduction of novel tobacco products that claim to reduce the harm of smoking. We welcome innovation that will reduce the harms caused by smoking and will evaluate whether products such as novel tobacco products have a role to play in reducing the risk of harm to smokers.

Good stuff. And best of all...

Over the course of this Tobacco Control Plan, the government will review where the UK’s exit from the EU offers us opportunities to re-appraise current regulation to ensure this continues to protect the nation’s health. We will look to identify where we can sensibly deregulate without harming public health or where EU regulations limit our ability to deal with tobacco.

In particular, the government will assess recent legislation such as the Tobacco Products Directive, including as it applies to e-cigarettes, and consider where the UK’s exit provides opportunity to alter the legislative provisions to provide for improved health outcomes within the UK context.

Excellent. The Tobacco Products Directive only came into force eight weeks ago and we are already talking about repealing this dreadful and counter-productive legislation. Because we can.

That's all the Tobacco Control Plan needs to say. It should have been one side of A4 saying that the government is going to encourage a competitive, innovative and low-cost market in reduced harm products for smokers who want to quit. And if you don't want to quit, that's your choice as a sentient adult human being.

Alas, the state can't bring itself to get out of the way and instead throws some bones to the vile prohibitionists at ASH. It lays out its intention to ban smoking inside and outside of all hospitals, mental institutions and prisons. It also intends to tackle the £2.4 billion black market in tobacco while 'maintaining high duty rates to meet the twin objectives of promoting public health objectives and raising revenue'.

At least they're honest about raising revenue, but the consequences of these policies are not hard to predict because we have seen them before. Raising the price of tobacco will incentivise both the sale and purchase of illicit tobacco. It's not rocket science.

Moreover, we know that people ignore bans on smoking outside hospitals. As a consequence there is (a) more secondhand smoke hanging around the entrance, and (b) NHS resources are wasted in a futile attempt to police something that is neither harmful not illegal. If Public Health England were not so pig-headed on this issue, they would rebuild smoking shelters away from the main entrance.

Banning smoking in prisons has caused riots in other countries and is already starting to cause riots here. ASH should be held personally responsibly for the damage done by this violence. It is entirely predictable and totally avoidable.

Banning smoking in and around mental hospitals (in which people are effectively incarcerated) causes emotional distress to the patients and will deter smokers from admitting themselves voluntarily.

Are any of these paternalistic bans going to reduce the smoking rate to 12 per cent? Clearly not. The number of people affected is too small and most of them will start smoking again the moment they are free to do so. It is pointless harassment that will cause all sorts of unpleasant externalities that taxpayers will have to foot the bill for.

The policy of pointing at things and banning them has been tested to destruction. The only people who benefit from it are professional prohibitionists who get government grants to lobby against freedom. They have done enough damage. Depart and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

"Who speaks for smokers in our government?"

The Guardian has been running a lot of stories about tobacco in the last few days. I'm not sure what the occasion is. Perhaps there is an announcement on the way? [UPDATE: It seems there was!]

I say that they've been writing about tobacco. In fact, they've only been writing about the tobacco industry. For the last twenty years, this has been the only part of the story that really interests journalists. This suits the anti-smoking lobby because it allows them to present their war on people as a war on corporations.

We saw last week that the 'public health' racket would rather not hear from ordinary people, but as a reminder that it is the rights of people that are primarily being infringed by the wowsers, here's a reality check from VapingPoint Liz...

Saturday, 15 July 2017

The National Death Service

The NHS is great unless you want to stay alive, according to a new report. I've written about it for the Speccie.

The Commonwealth Fund is a US think tank that campaigns for reform to the American healthcare system. In particular, it wants the US to adopt the kind of universal healthcare coverage that is taken for granted in Britain and Europe.

Every few years, it puts the healthcare systems of eleven rich countries into a league table and the USA always come bottom. Fans of the NHS (may peace be upon it) like these reports because the UK always come at or near the top. The latest Commonwealth Fund study was published today and Britain came top again. In your face, Australia! Suck it up, Sweden!

Of the five criteria included, Britain does well on four of them. It is only the fifth criterion – health outcomes – that lets us down. When it comes to avoidable mortality, the NHS (may peace be upon it) is not so hot and its inability to heal the sick is, as the Guardian admits,’a significant weakness’.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Slandering vapers

New Zealand is in the process of repealing its ban on e-cigarettes. In the past year, Finland, Hungary, Sweden, Belgium and Denmark have all legalised the sale of vaping devices and fluids. Every EU country now allows the sale of these products.

Once New Zealand has legalised e-cigarettes, Australia will be the only developed, western nation to have maintained its prohibition. The tide has turned and Australia looks increasingly like a backwater.

Judging by the words of the Australian Medical Association, that's the way they like it. Here's their president speaking yesterday - that's yesterday, please note, not in 2009:

"We must not allow e-cigarettes to become a socially acceptable alternative to smoking," he said. "E-cigarettes essentially mimic or normalise the act of smoking."

This antediluvian scaremongering is not taken seriously by those who have looked at the evidence. The Royal College of Physicians, for example, concluded that: 'There is no evidence that either NRT or e-cigarette use has resulted in renormalisation of smoking.'

The Australian government has recently conducted a public consultation on whether to legalise vape juice that contains nicotine and the prohibitionists are not going down without a fight.

Incredibly, anyone who takes issue with the AMA's claims on Twitter is sent a link to this article from The Age, effectively accusing them of being paid shills for the tobacco and/or e-cigarette industry.

Pretty mature, eh?

So what is this article that is so compelling that it can be tweeted without comment to end any discussion? It was published yesterday and nicely illustrates the retarded mood of the 'public health' lobby down under. It has the fingerprints of the anti-vaping sociologist Simon Chapman all over it.

Exposed: big tobacco's behind-the-scenes 'astroturf' campaign to change vaping laws

Tobacco giant Philip Morris is running an under-the-radar campaign to convince federal politicians to legalise e-cigarettes containing nicotine, with anti-smoking campaigners accusing the company of using the same "astroturf" tactics it used in its fight against plain packaging.

The multinational has been using its offshoot smokers' rights lobby group - dubbed "I Deserve To Be Heard" - to contact Australian smokers and vapers and urge them to make submissions to a parliamentary probe into the use and marketing of e-cigarettes.

If this campaign is going on, it is certainly 'behind the scenes'. Philip Morris's I Deserve to be Heard website hasn't been updated since August 2015 and seems to have been mothballed. It doesn't mention e-cigarettes anywhere.

According to the article, the people who signed up to its mailing list have been sent an e-mail encouraging them to 'make their voices heard' because Australia's vaping laws are 'ridiculous'. This sets the scene for an article which portrays any vaper who has responded to the consultation as a shill for the tobacco.

In fact, lots of groups have been encouraging vapers to respond...

The company's campaign - along with a coordinated push from Australia's online vaping community - has seen the inquiry inundated with submissions from people who say vaping has helped them quit smoking and dramatically improved their health.

The online vaping community has certainly been responding to the consultation. The article mentions Vaper Cafe Australia where there are several threads about it, such as this one which has 230 replies. These are people who 'say vaping has helped them quit smoking and dramatically improved their health' because that's what happened. Why wouldn't they respond to a consultation about vaping?

While health groups in Australia and across the globe continue to warn about the potential risks of nicotine vaping, 107 of the 108 submissions so far loaded on the inquiry's website are strongly pro-vaping - and the vast majority follow a similar "personal story" template.

And why not? As one poster at Vaper Cafe Australia says:

Remember, the most powerful personal submission you can make will be YOUR STORY. If we can inundate this inquiry with successful quit stories it will send a strong message.

This is not 'astroturfing'. It is good advice to ordinary e-cigarette users who have been given a rare opportunity to speak truth to power.

World renowned tobacco control expert [sic] Simon Chapman, an emeritus professor at the University of Sydney, said Philip Morris and other interest groups were "astroturfing" - trying to create the illusion of a big grass-roots pro-vaping movement that does not really exist.

This is a characteristically dishonest comment from Chapman. For the vapers who have responded to be 'astroturfing', they would have to (a) not be real vapers, and (b) be paid. There is absolutely no evidence that this is the case.

On the contrary, there quite obviously is a 'big grass-roots pro-vaping movement'. They are legion. They have vape fests, conferences and numerous online forums, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts etc.You can contact them, meet them, speak to them face to face. They have responded to this consultation, giving their names. There are thousands of vaping activists all over the world, not to mention millions of ordinary vapers. They are real and they are - quite rightly - pissed off.

"They've been actively recruiting people to put in submissions," Professor Chapmen [sic] told Fairfax Media. "These are exactly the same tactics they used for plain packaging. They have dusted off the same software, the same template and just changed the content."

Encouraging stakeholders to respond to a consultation that directly affects them is not a 'tactic'. Unless the consultation is a sham, getting people to respond is exactly what the government wants.

It's pretty obvious what Chapman's real problem is here. He doesn't want the public to respond to consultations because there are more ordinary vapers than there are professional wowsers. The views of e-cigarette users with real stories to tell threaten to crowd out the views of cranks like Chapman with fake stories to tell. You can see how this would be distressing for him.

I don't know how many people are on the I Deserve to be Heard mailing list. Probably not many, although I'll bet Chapman is one of them, hence this pathetic news story. The website is for adult smokers (you have to declare that you're 18 to access it) and focuses on issues that negatively affect consumers of tobacco in Australia.

It is reasonable to assume that anyone who bothered to visit the website when it was set up a few years ago was more committed to smoking than the average punter. Those who signed up to its mailing list would have been keener still. If some of these hardcore smokers have subsequently started vaping and quit smoking - despite Australia's ridiculous prohibition - it kinda suggests that vaping works, wouldn't you say?

Chapman's message to smokers and vapers alike is simple: You don't deserve to be heard and if you try to make yourself heard, you will be slandered, belittled and dehumanised by professional prohibitionists who have friends in the media.

Now that is what you call a 'tactic' - and it is losing its power. Australia cannot insulate itself from the rest of the developed world forever. The glaring success of vaping in getting large numbers of smokers off cigarettes cannot be ignored indefinitely. Whatever Australia chooses to do with e-cigarettes will not stop vaping being a success in other countries. Chanting the words 'big tobacco' over and over again will not change that. Describing vapers as 'astroturfers' and 'trolls' will not disguise the fact that e-cigarettes have the support of many respected doctors and medical organisations. The magic words are losing their power. The trick is getting old. The spell is wearing off.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Shopping basket cases

The latest gormless idea from 'public health' appeared in the newspapers over the weekend.

The plan is to take the red, amber and green ‘traffic-lights’ system commonly used on food packaging one step further and grade the full contents of a basket or trolley for calories, sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt, then print the results on the receipt. 

By the time it had reached the Guardian, this ruse had been expanded to include financial incentives and subsidies...

“What would be really interesting is if the retailers link it to algorithms set up for loyalty cards for those who want it,” says Taylor. “So, if a till receipt shows lots of reds, you might get vouchers to buy more veg"
'Buy junk food, get free veg' is an incentive to buy junk food, of course, but the workability of the plan doesn't seem have crossed the minds of the something-must-be-done crowd.
I gave a quote to the Mail on Sunday, most of which was published. In full, I said...
This is a hectoring and highly bureaucratic proposal which has the potential to alarm people unnecessarily. The amount of fat and sugar in a shopping trolley is largely irrelevant unless we know how the ingredients are combined and how big the portions are. The idea is almost certainly unworkable in practice, but even in theory it would be crude, inaccurate and unhelpful.
It is worrying how little thought has gone into this proposal (which was devised by someone in the advertising industry). I was initially opposed to traffic light labelling and I still think it is imperfect, but it can be useful in comparing direct substitutes at a glance, eg. two different brands of frozen lasagne. 

But it would be useless with whole shopping baskets. The practical problems are insurmountable. For example, how would the purchase of a couple of bottles of cooking oil, which is extremely dense in calories and fats, affect the healthfulness of the basket? How do you decide if a shopping basket is high in calories? By weight? By price? And how does the computer know how many people will be eating the food? It doesn't, of course. It can't.

It's a ridiculous idea, and it is telling how few people in 'public health' have stood up to describe it as such.