Saturday, 6 February 2016

The beginning of the end of the sock puppet state

This is the best new I've heard in ages.

Charities to be banned from using public funds to lobby ministers

Revealed: A new clause to be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements will make sure that taxpayer funds are spent on improving people's lives and good causes, rather than covering lobbying for new regulation 

Charities in receipt of Government grants will be banned from using these taxpayer funds to engage in political lobbying, The Telegraph can disclose.

A new clause to be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements will make sure that taxpayer funds are spent on improving people's lives and good causes, rather than covering lobbying for new regulation or using taxpayers’ money to lobby for more government funding.
It will not prevent organisations from using their own privately-raised funds to campaign as they see fit. 
The Institute of Economic Affairs, a right of centre think tank, has undertaken extensive research on so-called “sock puppets”, exposing how taxpayers’ money given to pressure groups is paid to fund lobbying campaigns on policies such as a sugar tax and the environment.
Officials are hoping that the clause will ensure that freedom of speech is protected, while stopping taxpayers’ money being diverted away from good causes.
Matt Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister, told The Telegraph: “Taxpayers’ money must be spent on improving people’s lives and spreading opportunities, not wasted on the farce of government lobbying government. 

“The public sector never lobbies for lower taxes and less state spending, and it’s a zero sum game if Peter is robbed to pay Paul. 

“These common sense rules will protect freedom of speech – but people won’t be made to foot the bill for political campaigning and political lobbying."

“Conservatives are standing up for value for money, so we can keep taxes down and support better services that people can rely on.” 

Chris Snowden [sic - damnit!] , head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA, said: “This is very good news for taxpayers who will no longer be forced to pay for the government to lobby itself.

“At every level - local, national and European - people have been subsidising political campaigns that they may not know about and might disagree with. 

“Campaigning is an important part of a thriving democracy but charities and pressure groups should not be doing it with taxpayers’ money.” 

The exact phrase that will be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements reads: “The following costs are not Eligible Expenditure:- Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, Government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action”.

It might seem obvious that the government shouldn't be paying for pressure groups to lobby itself, but the practice has become endemic in recent years. Hats off to Matt Hancock for doing something about it.

Ministers don't get enough credit when they do good things in politics. Hancock will doubtless receive a flurry of complaints from those who see it as their right to use taxpayers' money for their political campaigns, so if you are pleased about him chipping away at the sock-puppet state, do send him an e-mail at I will be doing likewise.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Goodbye and good riddance

It's always nice to see a leech being pulled off the arteries of the taxpayer...

Smokefree South West to close this summer after cuts to funding

Taking Liberties has the full details, but isn't it telling that these organisations make no attempt to carry on with private donations once the state withdraws its funding? Take away taxpayers' money and they're dead. The public don't want to know.

This 100% state-funded lobby group has burned millions of pounds of our money in recent years to harass and demonise smokers. Dishonest to the last, its final act before it had its ill-gotten gains withdrawn was to retweet a lie from one of its fellow state-funded sock puppets.

A few months ago this parasitic organisation changed its name to Public Health Action in order to do 'denormalise' alcohol (that ol' slippery slope once more). Thankfully, drinkers have been spared the attention of these bullies, but the damage they have done to smokers - and to pubs, via the smoking ban - will endure.

Let's hope the long overdue defunding of this mob is only the start.

Living in the past

"Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever 
correctly reported in a newspaper"
George Orwell

Some, er, interesting journalism from Andrew Whitaker in the Scotsman...
Calls for action as Scotland records highest rate of alcohol deaths in UK 

Scotland had the worst rate for alcohol-related deaths in any part of the UK, according to figures recorded over the past 20 years. 
Alcohol death rates for men in Scotland have risen dramatically, according to the figures published by the Office for National Statistics. In Scotland they stood at 31.2 per 100,000 of the population, compared to 18.1 per 100,000 in England, 20.3 in Northern Ireland and 19.9 for Wales. 

Risen dramatically, you say? Oh dear.

The latest findings from 2014 led to renewed calls for the introduction of the Scottish Government’s plan for a minimum alcohol price, aimed at tackling alcohol abuse. 

Well, there's a shock.

Dr Peter Bennie, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) Scotland, said: “It is disappointing to see the rise in the number of alcohol-related deaths, but it does underline the importance of tackling the culture of heavy drinking in Scotland.”

Terrifying stuff, eh? Until you look at the Office for National Statistics' data that formed the basis for this report...

Scotland is the top line: the one that's been going down while all the other ones have been flat or rising; the one that saw the rate of alcohol-related deaths fall from nearly 50 per 100,000 to barely 30 per 100,000 since 2003.

Does Scotland have the highest rate of alcohol deaths in the UK? Yes. It has for decades. Has this rate 'risen dramatically'? Once upon a time, yes - as it did in all the other home nations - but the story of the last thirteen years has been steep decline, in contrast to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

How strange that the Scotsman is still reporting a rise in alcohol-related deaths that came to an end in 2003 while ignoring the 33 per cent decline that has taken place since. Is this a newspaper or a historical journal?

It's almost as if there's a fixed narrative that no amount of facts can shift, isn't it?

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Garbage in, garbage out

Heart miracles are once more in the news. This story, for instance, is on the front page of the Telegraph...

Smoking ban sees 40 per cent cut in heart attacks in UK since 2007 law was introduced

Heart attack rates in the UK have fallen by up to 42 per cent since the 2007 smoking ban, major research suggests.

A review of 77 studies found that reduced exposure to passive smoking has caused a “significant reduction” in heart problems across the population.

The basis of the report is a literature review from the Cochrane Collaboration (not to be confused with a Cochrane Review). Smoking ban/heart attack miracles were invented by Stanton Glantz with the notorious Helena study. Glantz has since published at least three meta-analyses/literature reviews, all of which cobble together terrible studies in the hope of masking their obvious flaws and providing the illusion of strong evidence. You can do this as many times as you like but it won't stop the underlying evidence base being outrageously, hilariously and often fraudulently awful. A meta-analysis of smoking ban miracles is the ultimate garbage in, garbage out study.

Michael Siegel and myself have written about dozens of these studies over the years. For a while, it was mildly entertaining because those responsible would try audacious new tricks, but they have generally settled for relying on the simple post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (as in the Telegraph headline above) or by using one of two techniques I described in 2014:

Firstly, dredging the data for any town that saw a large decline (in percentage terms) in heart attacks at around the time of a smoking ban. Nobody decided to do a study of Helena, Montana or Bowling Green, Ohio before the bans took place. The decision to focus on such obscure places came about only once it was clear that they were anomalous (not unlike Derren Brown's horse-racing trick). They were then presented to the media with the implication that they had been randomly selected.

Secondly, although less frequent, studies of larger populations have portrayed rather small declines in the heart attack rate as being the result of a smoking ban, without acknowledging that that there had been a secular decline of the same magnitude long before the ban was enacted. As the authors of the above study note, the secular decline is simply ignored in such cases.

As that blog post highlighted, there is also a great deal of publication bias in this corner of quackademia.

I've pretty much exhausted the subject on this blog. There's a large archive of posts if you want to catch up, but I will leave you with a couple of graphs showing hospital admissions rates and mortality rates from heart attacks in the UK between 2002 and 2010 (click to enlarge). I trust you will notice the lack of change in the trends when the smoking ban was enacted in 2007.

These graphs come from a 2012 BMJ study which looks at trends in heart attack mortality and the reasons for them. It doesn't mention the smoking ban at all, nor does this study from Heart which looks at the epidemiology of cardiovascular disease in the UK. That's because (a) the smoking ban didn't have any effect on cardiovascular disease or rates of acute myocardial infarction, and (b) the authors are not tobacco control activists and therefore do not have the same exceptionally large incentives to make stuff up.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Whatever happens, we've won

Sally Davies has been giving some more advice to drinkers (at a parliamentary committee meeting yesterday):

"I would like people to make their choice knowing the issues and do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think, 'Do I want my glass of wine or do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?'. And I take a decision each time I have a glass."

If that's how she wants to see out her miserable existence, she's welcome to it. I've written a piece for the Spectator in which I argue that she can throw as many taxes and bans at us as she likes. She thinks about cancer whenever she sees a glass of wine. We don't, so we win.

Do have a read.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The race is on

As reported just before Christmas, the European Court of Justice has ruled that minimum pricing is illegal if other anti-drinking measures would be (a) more effective and (b) less disruptive to trade. The court strongly suggested that alcohol tax rises would be more effective in achieving the Scottish government's stated aims of addressing heavy drinking and reducing alcohol consumption across the population.

The Scottish government and its front groups (eg. Alcohol Focus Scotland) are on a sticky wicket here because one of the bugs (or is a feature?) of minimum pricing is that it will have the least effect on the rich. Since the rich tend to be the heaviest drinkers, it is hard to argue that minimum pricing is more effective than alcohol duty rises in discouraging heavy drinking, nor is it the best way to reduce alcohol consumption across the whole population.

The matter has now been tossed back to the Scottish courts, leaving us in the strange situation in which the drinks industry has to claim that alcohol duty rises are reasonably effective and the neo-temperance lobby have to claim they are not as great as they had previously led us to believe.

I can imagine the frantic scenes in the 'public health' industry on December 23rd when they realised they would have to get some evidence that minimum pricing is better than taxes into the public domain before the Scottish court sat. You may recall that after David Cameron rejected minimum pricing because it would hurt the poor, a new version of the Sheffield model was published in The Lancet which concluded that, actually, y'know, it wouldn't be as regressive as previous versions had predicted. What a happy coincidence that was.

I don't know how long it takes to cobble together a 'public health' study and get it through the not-very-rigorous review process, but the activist-academics have now been given some extra time to get their story straight.

Minimum alcohol pricing delayed for further evidence

Scottish courts have agreed to accept further evidence before making the final decision over whether Scotland can legally introduced a minimum price for alcohol.

The inner house of the court of session met last week to consider the recent ruling of the European court of justice, and decided to hear more material. The final hearing will provisionally be June.

Five months should be enough. The only question is who'll be getting the (taxpayers') money for the commission, which journal will print it, and when. The odds on favourite has to be Sheffield University, but other runners and riders include Liverpool and Sterling, both of whom have a solid record for policy-driven research.

As for which magazine accepts it, The Lancet is always keen to help but the British Medical Journal and Addiction are also good bets. If I had to put money on it, I would go for Sheffield in the BMJ in May. Watch this space.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Transparent lies down under

There was a time when the 'public health' racket used a bit of imagination when they misled the public. It sometimes took a little effort to unpick their tricks. These days, however, they just lie to your face in such an flagrant and obvious way that there is no fun in debunking them.

Flat out lying has been their only option in Australia since plain packaging flopped. The latest deceit was parroted by the gullible ABC last week...

The rate of smoking among young people in Australia has dropped to a record low, and there is hope it could be the early signs of a potentially smoke-free generation...

This was based on a study of sorts in an obscure journal which claims that...

Australian adolescent smoking is at a record low, with only 3.4% of people aged 12–17 smoking daily

This immediately struck me as being suspicious because I remember seeing this graph on Dick Puddlecote's blog on several occasions:

Those figures come from the Australian government and they are correct. You can check them here.

This isn't rocket science. 3.4% is more than 2.5%. It is also more than 3.2%. Even an ABC reporter should be able to see that.

There is nothing more I can say about this without insulting your intelligence. Since youth smoking is quite obviously not at a record low, the news report and the journal article that spawned it are castles built on sand.

Needless to say, this garbage had a political purpose, as the ABC article made clear:

The data is being used to highlight the effectiveness of plain packaging laws...

And if you add an 'in' before 'effectiveness', that's exactly what it does.

h/t Catallaxy Files