Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The eating ban

The European Congress on Obesity took place last week in Portugal and various British journalists were sent over to find a story. The organisers were happy to oblige. First they announced that you can't be fat and fit (based on a verbal discussion of an abstract of an unpublished, unreviewed study) and then they upped the ante with a demand for 'junk food' to be banned on public transport.

Both stories got acres of newspaper coverage and the media were particularly attracted to the idea of an eating ban. From the Telegraph...

Fast food should be banned from buses and trains, as part of efforts to “nudge” the public out of round-the-clock snacking, obesity experts say.

The call for radical restrictions, in an attempt to reset social norms, came amid warnings that “guzzling on the go” is fuelling Britain’s weight problem.

Experts at the world’s largest obesity conference urged politicians to make sweeping changes to limit the availability of junk food on public transport.

They said buses, trains and trams should take action, in the same way that other health threats, like smoking, and alcohol, have been banned.

This is a policy taken wholesale from the anti-smoking lobby. Public transport was the first target of campaigners for smoking bans back in the 1970s, but while restrictions on smoking in small, shared, government-owned spaces could be justified on the grounds that some people don't want to smell smoke, the case for banning 'junk food' on public transport is wholly arbitrary.

You might assume that the issue is about the smell of hot food, but that is not what the nanny statists are interested in. Their intention is paternalistic. Alleged obesity expert Jason Halford (who is obese) says:

“Food is everywhere and the type of food that is most ubiquitous is unhealthy. We need more action across the public sector, we are seeing changes with hospitals it needs to spread to other sectors – councils, transport, universities.”

They are concerned that you will get fat if you eat certain foods and so they want to make it a crime to do so. They are starting with public transport.

Although it is snacking per se that they have a problem with, they can leverage support by focusing on hot food that has a strong smell. People eating a Burger King or Wasabi next to you on a train is one of life's minor nuisances. I don't want it banned but some intolerant prigs do, and there are enough intolerance prigs to give any call for a ban a bit of traction.

Yesterday morning I was on the Good Morning Britain sofa with Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum to discuss the eating ban. It's a dreadful idea but I'm glad they have proposed it because it lays bare the authoritarian impulse at the heart of the nanny state industry. It also happens to be unworkable because there is no legal definition of 'junk food'.

Mr Fry tried to avoid the more obvious criticisms by focusing on hot food and pretending that the main issue was the aroma. Like many food snobs, he is obsessed with hamburgers, although what is so dangerous about bread and meat was never explained.

Alas, it all went wrong when he forgot to maintain the pretence that his concern was about the smell of secondhand food. Under pressure from Piers Morgan, he was asked to give an example of a hot dish that people would be allowed to eat on a train under a Tam Fry dictatorship. What happened next will amaze you.

You can watch the video here or read about it here.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Weekend review

I've been sent a few products to review recently and have been discussing them on Twitter. For those of you who don't follow me on Twitter, here are my reviews (click on the tweet and follow the thread).

First up was a 50w Sub Ohm vape from Kik E-cigs. It's an attractive little gadget but I'm not that keen on Sub Ohming when other people do it and I found I wasn't that keen on it when I did it either. However, if this is the kind of thing you like, you'll like this kind of thing. Looks nice doesn't it?

Next up was some nicotine-free snus from Snus Direct. I suppose this is for snus users who want to give up. I have the opposite problem. I like using snus but struggle get hold of it (thanks, EU). Still, it can't be denied that it has all the features of snus without the nicotine. The only way it could be improved would be by adding some nicotine.

Most recently, I reviewed the PockeX e-cigarette and some unflavoured fluid sent to me by E-Cig Wizard. The fluid has proved to be a more-or-less suitable replacement for my discontinued brand (thanks again, EU) and the e-cigarette itself is a bobby dazzler for a starter kit.

Here it is...

The review starts below...

Please note that I am also available to review hard liquor and cigars.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Tobacco Products Directive now in force

The Tobacco Products Directive came into full effect today. I've written about its petty and counterproductive regulations for Spectator Health...

From tomorrow, it will be a criminal offence to sell vape juice in any container larger than 10ml because, er, something or other. If I want to replace my e-cigarette, I won’t be able to do so in any EU country as its tank can hold more than 2ml of fluid and that presumably poses a threat to somebody somewhere. If I want to buy relatively strong vape juice (over two per cent nicotine), I’ll have to order it from outside the EU because, erm, think of the children or something.

There has never been any coherent explanation for the creation of these seemingly random criminal offences. It was never clear what problem the EU was trying to solve. There was simply an assumption that the vaping scene was an unregulated free-for-all which could only benefit from a good old EU directive. The regulations didn’t have to serve a purpose — any old idea thrown up by anti-vaping lobbyists and ‘public health’ busybodies would do — they only had to exist.

Opponents of vaping like to equate the e-cigarette market with ‘the Wild West’. This ignores the numerous consumer regulations that e-cigarette vendors and manufacturers have to abide by, but it also misses the point. What they call a ‘Wild West’ is — or was — a well-functioning, competitive free market which has resulted in 1.5 million British smokers quitting cigarettes without taxpayers having to pay a penny. If that is the Wild West, let’s have more of it.

Do have a read of that and then watch Prof. Sinclair Davidson explain how plain packaging campaigners made up their own evidence when the policy flopped in Australia...

Friday, 19 May 2017

Tin packs and ten packs

From tomorrow you could face two years in prison if you sell a branded pack of cigarettes. What a great country we live in.

It will also be illegal to sell cigarettes in packs of ten, which leads me to this from The Guardian...

The maker of Marlboro cigarettes has been accused of trying to sidestep new UK laws on plain packaging by rolling out durable tins that look just like ordinary cigarette packets.

Either you break the law or you don't. 'Sidestep' here means 'comply with' - and good for them. I haven't seen any of these tins and, according to the Guardian, Philip Morris have 'distributed a relatively small number' of them, but I wish all the cigarette companies had done the same thing to make a mockery of this absurd law. If you can't geld hold of one, there are plenty of stylish cigarette cases to buy at the click of a button.

It's a tiny gesture of defiance from Philip Morris as their intellectual property is snuffed out, but it has enraged the usual headbangers. Labour MP Alex Cunningham says: 'It’s against the whole spirit of what’s intended with the plain packaging legislation', but since the intention of the legislation is to annoy the tobacco industry - it will do nowt else - it seems wholly in the spirit of this childish spat for the tobacco industry to annoy the anti-smoking lobby.

More weirdly, some cretin from Bath University's Tobacco Research Group is furious that the tins only hold room for 10 cigarettes:

“Research shows that packs of 10 appeal to young people and the price conscious,” said Karen Reeves-Evans, of the Tobacco Research Group at the University of Bath. “By offering packs of 10 in reusable tins, Philip Morris International is knowingly increasing the lifespan of packs of 10 and promoting its brand, if smokers decant their cigarettes into these small branded tins."

You what?!

Even if you ignore the counter-productive idiocy of banning 10-packs, which smokers use as a self-constraint mechanism to reduce their consumption, and focus instead on the mutton-headed justification for the ban, ie. that the chiiiiiiildren are more likely to start smoking if they can buy ten cigarettes for a mere, er, £5, your objective has been achieved by forcing people to buy packs of 20. If smokers want to then decant half of the cigarettes into a tin it is of no consequence to 'young people', 'the price conscious' or anyone else.

These people are catatonically stupid.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Burying the benefits of drinking - a history lesson

I've come across a very interesting article from 1997 by Carl C. Seltzer, a scientist who wrote a chapter of the 1964 Surgeon General's report on smoking and later became involved with the famous Framingham Study...

The Framingham Study has been abundantly reported in the literature and will be outlined here only briefly. It was established in 1948-1949 by the National Heart Institute to follow 2282 men and 2845 women, 22-62 years of age, who were initially free of coronary heart disease. Each subject at baseline received an extensive standardized cardiovascular examination, which included information on habits, physical characteristics, and blood chemistries. Biennially thereafter, and now extending for more than 40 years, the subjects have been thoroughly re-examined for the same initial characteristics, with development of CHD [coronary heart disease] noted as the ultimate endpoint.

Things got interesting when Seltzer noticed that moderate drinkers had lower rates of cardiovascular disease than teetotallers. This was 45 years ago.

Early in 1972, Dr. William Kannel, who was then assistant director of the Framingham Study, gave me a copy of the Framingham IBM cards containing data for all the participants of the Study. My assignment was to analyze the data with respect to such factors as obesity and body build. During the analysis, I found that after 16 years of follow-up, the Framingham men who habitually consumed moderate amounts of alcohol showed a lesser risk of developing CHD than those who refrained from alcohol drinking. The risk of CHD also showed a “dose-response curve,” i.e., a regularly diminishing gradient proportional to the amount of alcohol consumed. To my knowledge, this result was the first time this phenomenon had been observed in CHD research.

Seltzer wrote up his findings in 1972 and was told to send his paper to the National Heart and Lung Institute.

I sent the revised manuscript on June 26 to Dr. William J. Zukel, then Associate Director for Clinical Applications, NHLI. Dr. Zukel never directly answered my letter. Instead, I next heard from Dr. Kannel, enclosing a memorandum he had received from Dr. Zukel, who refused to allow the alcohol/CHD manuscript to be submitted for publication. The main stated reason was that “An article which openly invites the encouragement of undertaking drinking with the implication of prevention of coronary heart disease would be scientifically misleading and socially undesirable in view of the major health problem of alcoholism that already exists in the country”. Dr. Zukel added that it would not be appropriate “to have such a manuscript with these unsupportable conclusions co-authored from the staff of the NHLI."

He urged that an article be produced maintaining the “conclusion of no significant relationship of alcohol intake to incidence of coronary heart disease”. The results would be based on earlier data showing no association between alcohol consumption and CHD. Dr. Zukel also questioned the statistical significance of findings in the submitted manuscript, and asked that I return the punchcards given to me by Dr. Kannel. Since the alcohol data were not my own, and since Dr. Zukel had prohibited publication, I had no choice but to regard the manuscript as defunct.

And so the evidence was buried because it might send out the wrong message. Writing in 1997, Seltzer treats the episode as an example of bias in government-funded research, but seems to hold no grudge since the association between moderate drinking and better heart health had by then been established beyond doubt.

Despite Dr. Zukel’s suppression of the original scientific results, the Framingham finding about alcohol and CHD has been validated in other studies, and has now become the conventional view in the CHD literature.

Little did he know that a new generation of anti-alcohol researchers like Tim Stockwell (who is now calling for the nationalisation of the alcohol industry) would launch a renewed politically-motivated assault on the evidence.

The main point of this essay, however, is that conflicts of interest and pressures on investigators need not arise exclusively from commercial organizations. A non-profit governmental agency that funds research can also suppress some of its findings, and can alter definitions and analyses to make results that originally contradict a governmental policy emerge as supportive. What should be epidemiologic science may then become political science.

This is a highly perceptive and prescient comment given Public Health England's behaviour in recent years. Some things never change.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Slippery slope: gambling edition

Way back in 1985, half-witted sociologist Simon Chapman scoffed at the idea that a ban on tobacco advertising would open the door to the prohibition of the advertising of any product that displeased puritans. In a document published by the British Medical Association, he wrote:

The 'thin end of the wedge...'?

A further deception is the industry's appeal: "Where will they stop?" The industry argues that if advertising is stopped because tobacco is dangerous, then advertising for cars, motor cycles, alcohol, sugar, aircraft travel and any other potentially dangerous product could also be banned.

All of these products can endanger health, but they are dangerous only when abused. Tobacco is the only advertised product which is hazardous when used as intended.

The British Medical Association has since demanded a total ban on alcohol advertising, but that has not deterred Simple Simon from maintaining that the tobacco advertising ban was not 'the thin end of the wedge'.

He reiterated this view on Australian radio in 2012:

Look, if the slope is slippery, it's the most unslippery slippery dip I've ever seen in my life. We started banning tobacco advertising in 1976 and there has been no other commodity where there has been anything like a serious move to do what we've done with tobacco. And that's because there are great big differences between tobacco and all other commodities. 

So imagine my surprise when he popped up this week to demand that the 1976 ban on televised tobacco advertising be copied to the letter for gambling advertising.

The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has already pledged to ban gambling ads before 8.30pm but - who woulda thunk it? - that's not enough for Chapman, who equates it with being 'a little bit pregnant' and wants a total ban (along with a ban on TV presenters mentioning betting odds). Naturally, he cites the anti-smoking crusade as a direct precedent for what should happen.

The history of restricting tobacco advertising is likely to point to what’s ahead in reforms on how gambling promotion.

The last time a direct tobacco advertisement was seen or heard on Australian TV or radio was in August 1976. The Whitlam government introduced the policy, which was continued by the Fraser government. Direct cigarette advertising on radio and television was phased out over the three years between September 1, 1973 and September 1, 1976. 

The decision was framed as a way of reducing the exposure of children to tobacco advertising. Obviously, the proposition was that kids were a prime target for tobacco companies and their advertising was a powerful way of conditioning interest in smoking in young people.

So, direct tobacco ads on TV and radio could help kids take up smoking. But the very same appeals in ads in print, on billboards, in shops and as sporting and cultural sponsorship apparently could not. This was the bizarre logic in governments at the time banning tobacco advertising in only selected media, but not across the board.

As ordinary commonsense and research highlighted the inanity of this policy, governments incrementally increased the number of media where cigarette ad bans applied. It took from September 1973 until April, 30 1996 (when tobacco sponsorship of cricket finally ended) for all forms of tobacco advertising and promotion to end in Australia. That’s 22 years and 8 months from start to finish.

With all the lessons learned from tobacco, I'm sure the wowsers will be able to go from a TV ban to a total ban in much less than 22 years and 8 months. Or at least they would do if there was 'anything like a serious move to do what we've done with tobacco' but, as Chapman has repeatedly assured us, there definitely isn't.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Tory paternalism and gambling

Philip Blond at ResPublica is the latest to join the moral crusade (gravy train?) against fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs). These are the machines in betting shops that have become controversial thanks to the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, a pressure group set up and lavishly funded by the casino tycoon Derek Webb.

I first wrote about FOBTs back in 2013 after hearing several claims that were patently untrue. Whatever anti-gambling campaigners might say, there has been no proliferation of betting shops in the last decade, no rise in problem gambling, and there is no evidence that FOBTs are more 'addictive' than other forms of gambling.

The claim that FOBTs are the 'crack cocaine of gambling' has no basis in fact; this catchy phrase seems to have been coined by Donald Trump in the 1980s when he was lobbying against electronic gambling to protect his casino business. This is apt since the whole anti-FOBT enterprise is firmly 'post-truth'.

Blond's blog post is titled 'A stake in it for everyone; why Conservatives should support regulation of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals'. This implies that FOBTs are currently unregulated. This is obviously untrue. There are strict limits on where they can be played (betting shops and casinos, basically) and there are all sorts of other regulations - age restrictions, stake limits etc - in addition to extensive self-regulation. When Blond says 'regulated', he means 'de facto banned' since he wants stakes to be reduced by 98%, from a maximum of £100 to just £2.

If the stake was reduced to £2, people would not play them. FOBTs are not jackpot machines. You need to put a reasonable amount on to win a reasonable amount. Non-gamblers don't always seem to understand this, as I explained in my briefing paper last year...

To a non-gambler, it might seem incongruous that FOBTs have a stake limit of £100 when other gambling machines have a limit of £1 or £2, but this only reflects the different nature of the games. Fruit machines with a low stake have jackpots which allow up to £500 to be won in a single spin. FOBTs, by contrast, do not have jackpots. In blackjack, a winning player can usually do no more than double what he has staked. The same is true of a roulette player betting on red or black, or odds or evens (the exception is when the player bets on a single number which returns at a rate of 36:1, but since FOBT payouts are capped at £500 it makes no sense to place more than £13 on such a bet).

Given the 1:1 payout ratio, there would be little excitement in betting £2 to win £2 and therefore the stake is considerably higher on FOBTs. In most casinos, the minimum stake on blackjack and roulette is £5 and it is often as high as £10 or £15. Any cap on the maximum stake can only ever be arbitrary, but it must be set high enough for players to get a sufficient sense of risk and reward to make the games satisfying.

The so-called Campaign for Fairer Gambling know that reducing the stake to £2 will - to quote the name of their other group - 'Stop the FOBTs'. It's not regulation. It's prohibition in all but name, like allowing beer no stronger than 0.5%.

Blond says...

FOBTs or B2 machines are highly addictive, one way we know this, according to research conducted by the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, is that FOBT users are much more likely to be ‘problem gamblers’, statistics from the gambling helpline showed that in one year (2011/2012) 28% of calls to the helpline were from gamblers who were experiencing problems owing to their use of FOBTs.

I wouldn't trust research from the Campaign for Fairer Gambling as far as I could throw it, but even if this six year old statistic was true, it does not prove that FOBTs are addictive or that their users are 'much more likely' to be problem gamblers. The mere fact that problem gamblers play the machines tells us nothing. Problem gamblers tend to engage in lots of different gambling activities, including the lottery.

  • 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.

Playing the Tory card, Blond bashes one of the few good things the last Labour government did - dragging gambling regulation into the 21st century. 

This liberalisation has not delivered economic prosperity. Research carried out by Landman Economics has found that gamblers have lost £11 billion on FOBTs since 2008, this money generates little return for the productive economy because such machines reduce the staffing needs of betting shops and the cost of gambling itself reduces disposable and non-disposable income for individuals and families who fall into the ‘just about managing’ demographic.

People don't 'lose' money on gambling. They spend it. It's a form of entertainment and people should be able to spend their money on whatever the hell they like.

Moreover, jobs are a cost. If we ran the economy on the basis of maximising job creation, we would go back to feudal agriculture. Bookmakers are just as much a part of the 'productive economy' as theatres, football clubs and pubs. So, too, are the other parts of the gambling sector which Blond curiously fails to criticise.

FOBTs only account for 13.6 per cent of total UK gambling spend. The largest sector of the industry is online and that it where gamblers will go if anti-FOBT campaigners get their way. With bookies making half of their revenue from FOBTs, it is safe to assume that many of them will close down if the stake is dropped to £2. The jobs of those who work in them will then be lost to offshore online gambling firms, so spare me your mock-concern about employment.
During the General Election it is vital that we redouble our efforts to make the case for a less liberalised and more highly regulated gambling market, an endeavour that reflects conservative tenets of family, community and prosperity.

Less liberalisation and more regulation are conservative tenets now, are they?

Our high streets should be at the heart of our economic and social fabric, providing places of work and places of collective expression. 

Bookmakers are both places of work and places of 'collective expression'. Some people like gambling. Get over it.

The disproportionate growth of betting shops, that have come to dominate some high streets, runs counter to that aspiration and has in part been fuelled by the exponential growth in low-cost, low-maintenance FOBTs.

The graph below shows the number of bookmakers in Britain since 1961.

Can you see any 'disproportionate growth'? No. It's another anti-FOBT lie. The whole crusade is castle built on sand.