Friday, 30 September 2011

Scotland prepares for failure

Tomorrow sees the start of new temperance laws in Scotland which will ban two-for-one offers and group discounts. The putative 'health' lobby has been blaming such offers for 'binge-drinking' for years. At midnight tonight, they will have a sudden change of heart and declare that these cheap deals were never the real problem and that much tougher action is needed to stem the mythical alcohol epidemic.

This is how it works. You might recall that selling alcohol below cost price was the Great Evil until the British government announced plans to stamp out the practice. At that point, the temperance lobby admitted that below cost sales were incredibly rare and demanded tougher action.

Prof Ian Gilmore, of the Royal College of Physicians, said in practice it was a "small step" with "no effect at all on the health of this nation". "If you go round the supermarket shops today, even where they're heavily discounted, they will not fall below this level."

Today, an editorial in The Scotsman accepts that Scotland's new laws will probably have no effect and opens the door to the inevitable tougher action.

It was a sound idea in theory, stopping an obvious economic incentive to over-indulge, but like so many ideas it appears it will not work in practice. As we report today, the supermarkets have already found a way around it by the devastatingly simple device of reducing the price of a bottle of wine, or packs of beer.

Public health professionals outwitted by the devastatingly simple? Say it ain't so!

Alas, it is so, and the BBC has noticed that Scotland borders a country that is marginally less of a nanny state.

Online deals are being used to get round new laws banning discounted promotions on alcohol in Scotland.

The legislation, which comes into force on Saturday, will stop deals such as two-for-the price-of one and group discounts on wine.

Tesco has emailed customers to say they can still get wine discounts because cases will be dispatched from a depot in England.

Damn you, open borders! Curse you, worldwide web! A plague of your house, free trade!

Those of you who have been dipping into my new book The Art of Suppression (reviewed by Dick Puddlecote here) might recognise the old 'cross border sales' problem from America's attempts to introduce statewide prohibition. In came the rum-runners and the mail order delivery companies.

Since it was not illegal for drinkers in dry regions to order alcohol by mail order from wet regions, local prohibition was primarily a problem for the poor who depended on the saloon. For the middle class, as Towne recalled, “it was mighty easy to give a dinner party with plenty of liquid refreshment. All one had to do, it seemed, was to lift the telephone receiver in Bangor, and ask that Boston send over a supply of whatever one desired.”

American politicians, under heavy pressure from the dry forces, responded to this 'loophole' by banning cross-border sales with the Webb-Kenyon Act in 1913. That Act ultimately pathed the way for national Prohibition seven years later. The Scots cannot do the same since it would certainly be viewed as a restraint of trade by the European Union.

And speaking of things the European Union won't allow...

The SNP will, of course, argue that the way to deal with this is for their flagship policy of a minimum price per unit of alcohol to be re-introduced, as it has promised to do in this session of Holyrood. In this the Nationalists are, again, right in theory - a minimum price, if set high enough, would probably reduce alcohol consumption.

"If set high enough" is the key phrase. The proposed 40p or 50p limit would make everyone a little poorer but it is very unlikely to lower overall consumption. The rich (doctors, politicians etc.) would not be affected at all and chronic alcoholics will never be put off by higher prices. Possibly a few moderate consumers might reduce their intake somewhat, but that would be a pyrrhic victory.

But there are two problems. The first, is the extra money goes to the retailers, mainly the big supermarkets...

When businessmen and politicians collude to screw the citizen, we should expect nothing less. But whilst it would be annoying to see supermarkets (or anyone) profit from an illiberal law, who makes the money is not the problem per se. The problem is that minimum pricing is a highly regressive policy that takes money from the poorest people in society.

Besides which, it won't work.

...and the second is that it is unlikely to stop those who crave alcohol from purchasing it.

Indeed. This is not a trifling flaw in a scheme that seeks to reduce alcohol-related harm. Why are we even talking about a policy that can't be introduced under EU law and, even it is could, won't bloody work?

The answer, I suppose, is that failure is the lifeblood of the neo-prohibitionists. They have to introduce laws that won't work. They'd be out of a job if the perceived crisis disappeared. Their motto is: "That didn't work, let's do it again." Same number of people smoking after the smoking ban as before it? Let's extend the ban. Graphic warnings had no effect? Try plain packaging. Higher prices lead to more smuggling? Make 'em even higher. Banning below-cost selling made no difference? Let's ban two-for-one deals. Banning discounts failed? Introduce minimum pricing.

This pattern is so familiar that The Scotsman can predict the response to the discount ban's failure before the law has even come into effect.

If these two measures, one coming into effect tomorrow, the other to be legisated for soon, do not succeed, the SNP might further its case for Scotland having powers over taxes levied on alcohol as a more logical, and fairer solution since the money raised would go to government

And so it continues.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Art of Suppression

10 October 2011 sees the publication of my new book The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition since 1800. This is the baby I've been working on since finishing Velvet Glove, Iron Fist more than two years ago and I consider it to be my best work yet. I hope you'll agree.

The Art of Suppression: With thanks to the
ever-glorious Devil's Kitchen for the jacket design

The idea was to create a biography of The Prohibitionist and seek an explanation for why bans begin. I wanted to see how substances—which is to say 'drugs' in the modern sense of the word, including narcotics, alcohol and tobacco—go from being benign and acceptable to becoming demonised and illegal. How does this happen? More importantly, who makes it happen?

The result is a panoramic study of prohibitions around the world, from opium-smoking in China and the crusade against alcohol in the USA to the more recent European ban on snus and the ongoing war on designer drugs. This is a story of religious zealots, vested interests, political opportunists and social deviants. Above all, it is the story of moral panics. If there is a single characteristic that unites The Prohibitionist wherever and whenever he (or she) surfaces, it is the reliance on fear over hope.

Some of the subject matter has been covered before, notably America's 'Noble Experiment' with alcohol suppression and the War on Drugs, but I hope that I have found enough fresh material to hold the interest of those who are already familiar with these wretched tales of failure. Other stories, such as the ban on snus, the attempt to ban alcohol worldwide, and Britain's quixotic battle against the likes of mephedrone ('Meow Meow') are told for the first time in this book.

The chapters are divided as follows:

1. Bone dry forever: Alcohol suppression in the USA

2. Prohibition averted: The campaign for a dry world

3. Opium: The dawn of the War on Drugs

4. Snus: If you can, ban

5. Narcotic moonshine: Designer drugs and the media

6. The Art of Suppression

The breadth of the subject matter meant that the research was exhausting at times and I wondered if I would ever get it finished, but reading it now, The Art of Suppression is what I wanted it to be—a lively, amusing and (hopefully) thought-provoking collection of stories which highlight a subject that is more relevant than ever in these prohibitionist times. This is a true labour of love and I'm very proud of it. You can read the introduction here.

The RRP is £11.99 (UK) or $19.99 (US). If you would like to receive a copy before it is officially released (signed, if you like), I can offer the book to readers of this blog at the discounted rate of £9.99 or $17.99 each—and that includes free postage.

For readers in the UK:

UK and Europe (£)

For readers in the rest of the world:

Rest of the world (US$)

Because Utopia is only ever one ban away...

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Puritans then and now

I'm grateful to Michael McFadden for alerting me to an article in the New York Times (City’s Battle Against Smoking Goes Back Centuries). In particular, this reference to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union caught my eye. When not fighting for Prohibition, this band of puritans spent a great deal of time battling tobacco, as readers of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist will recall.

In 1907, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in Manhattan began inspecting library books to eliminate smoking heroes and heroines from modern novels.

A bunch of zealots vandalising artistic work to further an obsessive political agenda? This sounds rather familiar. I suppose 1907 was a bit early to go after smoking in the movies, but their ideological descendants have got that base covered and, as mentioned in a recent post, the latter-day temperance movement will no doubt soon demand that booze be banished from our screens (for the sake of the children, natch).

How strange it is that we have 20/20 vision when it comes to identifying cranks and puritans in earlier times but are so blind to them in the present day.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Some real research into alcohol

In August, former British Medical Journal editor Richard Smith discussed an encounter with two sociologists. The topic of discussion was 'binge-drinking' and the role of parents. One of the sociologists was his daughter. She was unsurprisingly against "tough love" from parents. The other was this person:

A much older sociologist at the lunch said that it was fashionable to blame parents for everything and that there wasn’t good evidence of the influence of parenting.

This sentence tells you quite a lot about sociologists. It might help explain why sociology is treated with such disdain by a large section of the public (unfairly, IMHO). It is, I think, blindingly obvious that the people who raise you have a profound influence on your character, prospects and behaviour. If "older sociologists" dispute this it is perhaps because their horizons have never extended much beyond school and university. (There is an amusing video of a sociologist describing her experience of going to Las Vegas after the American Sociological Association accidentally held their annual convention there.)

More importantly, ideological axe-grinders—of whom there are many in sociology—like to blame problems on things that they can change by force of law. Why focus on important but complex issues like parenting and education when you can focus on simple but trivial issues like advertising and pricing?

Activists, neo-prohibitionists and anti-capitalists are much happier blaming the corporations and the institutions, man, than looking at the real factors behind excessive drinking and alcoholism.

I dislike and distrust 'alcohol control' partly because I put a high value on freedom but also because I strongly believe that their broadbrush stategy is ineffective, costly and harmful, since it ignores the real issues. It is a neo-prohibitionist population-level response when it should be a targeted response to the minority who need help.

Considering how implausible it is that corporations could mould minds in ways that friends and family cannot, it is remarkable how entrenched is the view that parenting has only a minor influence on behaviour. Both nature (genetics) and nurture (parenting) have been downplayed in academia since the 1960s to such an extent that when the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) found that family and friends are the biggest influence on drinking behaviour, they described it as an "inconvenient truth".

JRF have produced successive reports showing the same thing, most recently in June when they reported that "family and friends have a strong influence on teenagers’ drinking patterns, and are stronger influences than some other factors – such as individual well-being, celebrity figures and the media."

Well, duh, you may say. Even so, the temperance lobby managed to harness the findings for their own ends (as the Quaker teetotaller Joseph Rowntree would no doubt have wished). The ubiquitous Don Shenker said...

"Government ministers must also look at some of the causes of why it is so easy for children to obtain alcohol, usually from the home.

"Government should look to see if they've done everything they can to stop the large supermarkets from continuing to heavily promote cheap alcohol which incentivises more alcohol purchases and therefore results in more alcohol being stored in the home, blah, blah, blah..."

Note how he takes a report that discusses a deep-rooted social factor and turns it into an issue about access and pricing. It's no accident that this guy is in the lobbying business. He's good at it.

Since then, the think-tank Demos has produced a report which broadly echoes JRF's findings, but using a more sophisticated methodology and coming to a more sophisticated conclusion. JRF found a link between parent's drinking habits and those of their offspring, whereas Demos found the link with the particular types of parenting. 'Tough love', they say, is the best way to bring up a child. 'Disengaged' is the worse.

None of this should be a great surprise, as one of its authors, Jamie Bartlett, said:

This is quite intuitive. It does not mean parenting is the 'cause' of binge-drinking, as some reports have put it, or that it is the only factor. But it is important.

Note that Bartlett, unlike certain advocacy groups, has the integrity not to shout 'causation' here, even though the associations being reported are stronger than any epidemiological finding you'll read about this month.

The risk of excessive drinking at age 16 is 8.36 (836 per cent) times higher if a child’s parent has a ‘disengaged’ parenting style rather than one of ‘tough love’.

The whole report, which is now available to download, exhibits a degree of academic rigour that is rarely displayed by partisan groups and is frequently absent in the peer-reviewed literature (sadly, these two elements frequently merge together). This is a credit to Demos—and a vindication of think-tanks, which George Monbiot ludicrously believes are "crushing democracy" (because democracy would be so much better served if the people George doesn't like were silenced)—but it is also an indictment of the state of research into this, and other, contentious topics. There is a refreshing absence of an a priori conclusion in this report and, almost uniquely amongst the current literature, there are no policy demands. It's difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when ending an academic study with a political call-to-arms would have been viewed as crass and unprofessional. Demos's report takes us back to those good old days when there was a division between science and politics.

What is striking is how many unspoken facts are laid out openly from the start. Many of them are the kind of things I've been saying on this blog and elsewhere for some time. They are the facts that do not get aired on Panorama or in the newspapers.

On alcohol consumption, for example:

In strictly medical terms, binge-drinking in the UK – as measured as more than twice the recommended daily allowance of alcohol consumed in a single episode – has been falling for at least five years in a row, and is not significantly higher than in other European countries.

Indeed it has. And, as I have said before, alcohol consumption in Britain today is unexceptional both in historical terms and in relation to other wealthy nations...

UK per capita alcohol consumption is unremarkable by comparison with other countries of a comparable size and income level, and well below historic levels in the eighteenth or very early twentieth century. Moreover, the majority of the population either do not drink, or do it within the government’s lower risk limit.

There are a couple of points with which I disagree. For example...

Unfortunately, there has been a marked increase in the number of people who are unconcerned by the long-term health effects of their behaviour – and even their immediate personal safety.

I have not heard this claim before and I am not at all convinced that it is true. The reference they give does not seem to support the assertion that people are less concerned about their health and safety than previous generations. There may be research elsewhere showing this, but my own, admittedly jaded and anecdotal, view is that the people are more obsessed with long-term health and safety than ever before.

I also think the following statistic could have been treated with greater scepticism: 

There has been a steady increase in reported alcohol-related hospital admissions over the last decade. In 2009/10 there were 1.1 million admissions related to alcohol, which was an increase of 12 per cent on the previous year and around double the number in 2002/03, when there were 510,200 admissions. However, it is to be noted that the majority of alcohol-related admissions were older people, likely to be suffering from long-term alcohol misuse.

It is certainly true that the majority were old, and often very old, people. Whether they were suffering from long-term alcohol misuse is more questionable. As this eye-opening article by Nigel Hawkes explained, 'alcohol-related' hospital admissions are estimates of the crudest variety. Admissions figures are added up and then large percentages are hived off and designated 'alcohol-related'. More than half of the so-called 'alcohol-related admissions' are for hypertension and heart palpitations, and the definition of 'alcohol-related' has been expanded to such an extent in the last decade that I see the figures as being essentially useless. What we are seeing is an increase in old people going to hospital for various reasons. Tellingly, the proportion of admissions that are 'alcohol-related' has barely changed over this period. The very fact that alcohol-related hospital admissions have doubled in a decade, at a time when alcohol consumption has been falling should make us ask serious questions about the reliability of these data.

What, then, is the problem with British drinking habits? It is not one of overall alcohol consumption in the general population, but of the behavior of a minority.

However, the last decade has seen changes to the way people drink. A small, but possibly growing, number of young adults in the UK is drinking to extreme excess, often in an intentionally reckless and very public way, putting themselves and others at risk of harm – and causing considerable social and financial cost.

How much this has changed in the last decade, it is difficult to say. As the authors indicate, it is not clear whether the number of people drinking to "extreme excess" has risen at all. There is more than a hint that our recent obsession with 'binge-drinking' falls under that most useful of sociological terms, the moral panic.

With more people going to university, more disposable income, people marrying later and having children later, there are very plausible socio-economic reasons for drinking and 'binge-drinking' to be on the rise. Alcohol consumption is undoubtedly higher now than it was fifty years ago, though not higher than 100 years ago. There is also evidence of greater drunkenness than in most other countries.

The UK consumption average for a single drinking episode is the highest in Europe, and the drinkers in the UK have the fourth highest average number of drinks per day overall.

I suspect it was always thus. Northern European drinking habits and all that. But, again, this is not a question of overall alcohol consumption so much as patterns of alcohol consumption. It would be helpful if we could ditch the silly term 'binge-drinking' and return to calling it drunkenness. Or at least tipsiness, for that is all you need to be to meet the ludicrous modern definition of 'binge-drinking'.

That being the case, we believe the task at hand, and the proportionate and liberal response to binge-drinking, is to help create an environment in which people are free to drink alcohol – but behave in a responsible manner when they do.

But what, if anything, can be done? I have always maintained that pricing has the least effect on the people who most need to be targeted. (Exhibit one: the homeless.) This seems to be borne out by the data.

One study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found that heavy drinkers are in fact likely to be the least responsive to changes in price, meaning a minimum unit price of 50 pence per unit would reduce alcohol consumption by harmful drinkers by a very small amount: around two pints of beer per week.

Sin taxes are highly regressive. It is always fascinating to see supposed left-wingers supporting regressive taxation when 'vices' are concerned, despite conclusive evidence that they widen inequality and exacerbate poverty.

The distributional impacts of minimum pricing are heavily contested, and have been questioned by a recent report by the CEBR, which argues that minimum pricing is a regressive measure because people on lower incomes typically pay more as a proportion of their income on alcohol, and will therefore be the most affected.

And if pricing really made a difference, we would expect countries which have the highest alcohol taxes—such as the UK—to have the lowest rates of binge-drinking.

The evidence on how minimum pricing would affect binge-drinking is not conclusive. Countries where excise tax on alcohol is very high also have very high levels of consumption.

In other words, the real-life evidence suggests that minimum pricing would be a futile and counterproductive endeavour. The real drivers of hazardous drinking are not price or advertising, but factors which are beyond the reach of government, and therefore of little interest to those who demand remedial legislation.

It appears that although not the only determinant of drinking behaviour among young people, parenting can and does have a dramatic effect on it. Good parenting has positive effects on young people’s drinking behaviour and there is indirect evidence that it builds the kinds of personal qualities and relationships that guard against risky behaviour in general. If there is an optimal parenting style for reducing the risks of early and excessive binge-drinking, it is the tough love, authoritative style cited above.

There is more to this report than a message of 'blame the parents'. It is rather more nuanced than that—go read the rest to see why—but nurture is clearly very important and should not be a surprise to those of us who are not "older sociologists".

Insofar as alcohol is a problem in society, it is a problem of public order and—for a small minority—an issue of addiction and health. In my experience, people who behave like idiots when drunk are idiots when sober. Drunkenness may bring this to the fore, but it is the underlying lack of respect and self-restraint that is the real problem. The nanny state panders to, and encourages, the irresponsibility and indiscipline that is at the heart of the problem. Don't blame the drug (alcohol) for these people. Blame them and, if you wish, blame their parents. As Frank Zappa once said: "A drug is not bad. A drug is a chemical compound. The problem comes in when people who take drugs treat them like a license to behave like an asshole."

Britain has more than its fair share of assholes (these are now my views, not those of Demos, BTW). From my travels to other countries, I regard this as an incontrovertible fact. You can argue about why this is so until the cows come home. As the wildly differing reactions to the London riots demonstrated, your opinion will probably be coloured by your political views. Whatever they are, you would probably agree that the causes are complex and deep-rooted. The temperance lobby, however, portray the problem as simple, political and easy to remedy through legislation. Most of what is written about alcohol is designed to further this legislative agenda, whether on the Alcohol Concern website or in the pages of The Lancet. Politically motivated junk science takes us further from the truth and further from real answers. Demos has produced a report which looks at the issue more thoughtfully and, though it will probably be ignored by the public health lobby, it is a valuable contribution to serious discussion.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Movies and Australia

Yet another bunch of 'public health professionals' has called for films which show smoking to be given 18 certificates. And, yet again, the BBFC has told them where to go.

David Cooke, director of the BBFC, said: "Smoking is a major public health issue and we consulted the public very extensively on it in 2005 and 2009. Their clear expectation is that we should be vigilant, sensible and proportionate in how we deal with the issue.

"Glamorising smoking has therefore been included as a classification issue in our published classification guidelines and we frequently use our extended classification information to draw the attention of parents and others to depictions of smoking in films.

"There is, however, no public support for automatically classifying, for instance, a PG film at 18 just because it happens to contain a scene of smoking. We always look carefully at all research on this and related subjects drawn to our attention.

"Experience suggests, with media effects research generally, that attempts to claim a causal link between a particular depiction and a particular behaviour are often disputed and seldom conclusive."

Are we getting the message yet, anti-smokers? You can keep on knocking but you can't come in. Accepting your junk science would mean accepting the junk science of every two-bit Mary Whitehouse from here to eternity. And you can tell your friends in 'alcohol control' to give it up too.

On an only slightly different topic, I wrote an article for Spiked in May in which I described Australia as the world's number one nanny state.

There is a PhD thesis waiting to be written some day about how Australia came to be the world’s number one nanny state; how a country that was once renowned for rugged individualism capitulated to puritanism with barely a whimper.

This little article got a mention in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Ours was a history of extending freedom, of resisting and repelling the enforcement of conformity. Now, we stand by and witness the curtailment of the many for the protection of the few.

The British writer Christopher Snowdon was surprised by this acquiescence. Australia, he wrote, was ''a country that was once renowned for rugged individualism'' but had ''capitulated to puritanism with barely a whimper''.

We want smokers to quit, so we wrap their cigarettes in yuck-coloured packets. Some people bet too much, so we try to limit gaming opportunities for all. We censor the internet and ban more video games than does China, that bastion of liberty. We went after lolly-coloured alcohol drinks because they appealed to teenagers.

There's a Victorian move to stamp out swearing, and much noise is made about stopping kids from seeing junk food advertising on TV.

And a poll released this week finds that a majority of Australians agree.

‘A new poll shows the number of people who strongly agree Australia is becoming a nanny state has increased by a fifth over the past year, with 55% believing Australia is a nanny state and more than 70% thinking plain packaging won't be an effective policy', said Policy Director, Tim Wilson, today.

‘Recent nanny state proposals from fat taxes, removing cartoon characters from food, to text-based alcohol warning labels show the number of nanny state laws is rapidly increasing.

‘Australians clearly understand governments are frequently introducing new measures, bit-by-bit, on how we live our lives taking us further down the nanny state path. ‘These nanny state policies cannot be treated in isolation.

‘Government should get out of people's lives. It's immoral to create a culture of victimhood where people aren't exposed to risk, responsibility and reward', Mr Wilson said.

55% sounds like a reasonable majority. Perhaps it's time for one of Australia's political parties to run on an anti-nanny state ticket and end the torment.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Coming soon

Details to follow...

Friday, 16 September 2011

Ban all advertising and get it over with

Jeffrey D. Sachs is an economist who works for something called the Earth Institute. I suspect that, like Chandran Nair, he has been sent to test me. He holds woolly, anti-capitalist views based on woolly, Spirit Level-esque evidence, is an admirer of Bhutan, wants to launch a crackdown on advertising and is an abuser of 'happiness studies' for political ends. I have written about all these topics before at some length. Here is Prof. Sachs' view...

We live in a time of high anxiety. Despite the world’s unprecedented total wealth, there is vast insecurity, unrest, and dissatisfaction. In the United States, a large majority of Americans believe that the country is “on the wrong track.” Pessimism has soared. The same is true in many other places.

Any source for this claim that there is "vast insecurity, unrest, and dissatisfaction"? "Pessimism has soared" compared to when? Has there ever been a time when jeremiads haven't told us that the glory days are over and we're going to hell in handcart? A large number of people always think their country is "on the wrong track", that's why we have elections. There is nothing new about this. Besides, didn't the Americans elect the Messiah a couple of years ago? What fickle fellows those yanks are.

But maybe he's only talking about very recent history. Since the economy crashed in 2008, people may indeed be feeling less secure, but that really just shows how important economic growth is. For Jeffrey D. Sachs, however, economic growth is the real problem.

Against this backdrop, the time has come to reconsider the basic sources of happiness in our economic life. The relentless pursuit of higher income is leading to unprecedented inequality and anxiety, rather than to greater happiness and life satisfaction. 

Piffle. Life satisfaction surveys in recent decades actually show an increase in happiness. And there has never been any correlation between inequality and unhappiness.

He continues...

In this respect, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has been leading the way. Forty years ago, Bhutan’s fourth king, young and newly installed, made a remarkable choice: Bhutan should pursue “gross national happiness” rather than gross national product. Since then, the country has been experimenting with an alternative, holistic approach to development that emphasizes not only economic growth, but also culture, mental health, compassion, and community.

Cripes, it's the glorious nation of Bhutan again, the Mecca of the champagne socialist. This is a country with an adult literacy rate of 53%—lower than Rwanda, Swaziland and (its neighbour) Nepal. It has a GDP of less than $5,000 per capita, making it poorer than such places as Angola, Armenia and Namibia. You can see why the dictator-monarch of Bhutan might prefer to concentrate on the fatuous measure of Gross National Happiness rather on more meaningful indicators of progress. Gross National Distraction more like.

Dozens of experts recently gathered in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, to take stock of the country’s record. I was co-host with Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigme Thinley, a leader in sustainable development and a great champion of the concept of “GNH.” We assembled in the wake of a declaration in July by the United Nations General Assembly calling on countries to examine how national policies can promote happiness in their societies.

We know how the racist Kingdom of Bhutan has been promoting happiness recently—by persecuting minorities and throwing monks in jail for possessing chewing tobacco. I have seen your future, Prof. Sachs, and it doesn't work.

Here are some of the initial conclusions. First, we should not denigrate the value of economic progress. When people are hungry, deprived of basic needs such as clean water, health care, and education, and without meaningful employment, they suffer. Economic development that alleviates poverty is a vital step in boosting happiness.

But no more than that. People should be fed, housed and put to work, but that's quite enough. Once the citizen's basic needs are covered, further prosperity will only encourage that great evil of our times—consumerism. We don't want the workers getting above themselves, do we now? This is not economic progress, this is subsistence living.

Dr Sachs will now proceed to "denigrate the value of economic progress".

Second, relentless pursuit of GNP to the exclusion of other goals is also no path to happiness. 

Who, outside the mandarins of 'happiness studies', has ever espoused a life that relentlessly pursues wealth to the exclusion of all other goals? This is the great straw man built up by the anti-capitalists. It is patently untrue to say—as the growth sceptics often do—that people (or governments) are single-mindedly focused on Gross National Product. The only people who are obsessed with GNP are the left-wing intelligentsia. Everyone else sees it as a means to an end.

What is this "relentless" pursuit anyway? You start off in life on a fairly low paid job and over the course of a career hope to move up to better paid jobs. How "relentless" is this? Many people, particularly women, make the choice to sacrifice income quite early on in their careers to pursue other interests. Others take retirement or semi-retirement at ages that would have been unthinkable not so long ago. They are able to make these choices—for the first time in human history—precisely because the fruits of economic growth allow them to do so.

Furthermore, economic growth has very little to do with individuals "relentlessly pursuing" GDP and very much to do with markets becoming more efficient through technological advancement, scientific progress and globalisation. We benefit far more from the invention of the internal combustion engine, the internet, the aeroplane, the nuclear power station and pesticides than we do from our own efforts. We are deeply fortunate to be able to live in greater prosperity than our parents while working shorter hours than our parents.

In the US, GNP has risen sharply in the past 40 years, but happiness has not. 

93.7% of Americans say they are 'quite happy' or 'very happy'. Considering that some people have to endure suffering that money cannot alleviate, there is not much room for growth here. Nevertheless, there has been growth.

Instead, single-minded pursuit of GNP has led to great inequalities of wealth and power, fueled the growth of a vast underclass, trapped millions of children in poverty, and caused serious environmental degradation.

Inequalities of wealth and power have bugger all to do with the "single-minded pursuit of GNP", but if all people need is food on the table and a roof over their head, why would you worry about inequalities anyway? The "millions of children trapped in poverty" are neither trapped nor poor. Only by redefining poverty so it becomes a measure of inequality can such a claim be made. If you want to see children in real poverty you would have to get on a plane and go to somewhere like... oh, I don't know... like Bhutan.

Third, happiness is achieved through a balanced approach to life by both individuals and societies. As individuals, we are unhappy if we are denied our basic material needs, but we are also unhappy if the pursuit of higher incomes replaces our focus on family, friends, community, compassion, and maintaining internal balance. 

Yes, quite. If the pursuit of anything replaces our focus on family, friends etc. we are likely to be likely to be less happy. Excessive materialism is not to be encouraged and an internal balance certainly sounds better than an internal imbalance.

The question is who decides what the balance should be? A 25 year old single male working in central London is going to have a different set of priorities than a 45 year mother of four living in Devon. Neither of their work/life balances is wrong, they are just different. The individual must decide what the correct balance is. It will change over time. As such, the only appropriate function of government when it comes to happiness is to allow its pursuit, as the American Declaration of Independence so rightly said.

As a society, it is one thing to organize economic policies to keep living standards on the rise, but quite another to subordinate all of society’s values to the pursuit of profit.

The usual straw man. No government subordinates society's values for the pursuit of profit. On the contrary, government's are continually subordinating profit to pursue values. That's why prostitution and drugs are illegal, for example, despite the enormous tax revenues that are foregone in the process. Concerns about climate change, health, safety, equality and pollution—to name but five—consistently take precedence over commerce.

Yet politics in the US has increasingly allowed corporate profits to dominate all other aspirations: fairness, justice, trust, physical and mental health, and environmental sustainability. 

In some cases, they probably have, but things like "trust" and "fairness" are so subjective that it would be nice to have some examples. Here, as elsewhere in this article, all we are getting are bold assertions.

Corporate campaign contributions increasingly undermine the democratic process, with the blessing of the US Supreme Court.

How do you suggest political parties should be funded? General taxation?

Fourth, global capitalism presents many direct threats to happiness. It is destroying the natural environment through climate change and other kinds of pollution...

The photo below is of an urban skyline in Soviet Russia. I don't think "global capitalism" can be held entirely responsible for destroying the natural environment.

You can argue that this kind of pollution is created by industrialisation rather than communism, but socialist efforts to go the other way and get back to nature have not been a roaring success either.

The photo above comes from this site, which correctly notes that economic growth is associated with less pollution.

Many of the worst polluters were in the former Soviet Union. Fortunately, industrial emissions are being greatly reduced as nations become richer.

The years of supposed "neo-liberalism" have seen an enormous decline in urban and industrial pollution. Wealthy societies are able to utilise cleaner methods of energy generation, including nuclear and solar. Poorer nations burn kerosene, coal and dung.

...while a relentless stream of oil-industry propaganda keeps many people ignorant of this.

Everything's "relentless to this guy", isn't it? You're pretty persistent yourself, Sachs. As for "oil-industry propaganda", the amount of news coverage devoted to climate scepticism is massively outweighed by the coverage of climate catastrophism. The amount of money given to climate heretics by oil companies is a drop in the ocean compared to the funding of groups like Greenpeace.

It is weakening social trust and mental stability, with the prevalence of clinical depression apparently on the rise. 

There are major doubts about whether the rise of depression reflects a rise in incidence or a rise in diagnosis. Definitions of mental illness have changed so dramatically in the last thirty years that it is impossible to tell.  But even if they have, there is no evidence—beyond the ramblings of Oliver James—that global capitalism has anything to do with it.

The mass media have become outlets for corporate “messaging,” much of it overtly anti-scientific, and Americans suffer from an increasing range of consumer addictions.

If it's "overtly" anti-scientific, it's not going to work, is it? What you mean, perhaps, is "pseudo-scientific". I have now lost the theme of this paragraph. In a few lines, you have merged happiness, climate change, pollution, the oil industry, social capital, mental illness, corporate "messaging" and consumer addiction. This is the scattergun approach of the polemicist and it is overtly bollocks.

Consider how the fast-food industry... 

He's havin' a go at the birds now!

...uses oils, fats, sugar, and other addictive ingredients to create unhealthy dependency on foods that contribute to obesity. One-third of all Americans are now obese. The rest of the world will eventually follow unless countries restrict dangerous corporate practices, including advertising unhealthy and addictive foods to young children.

If sugar and cooking oils are 'addictive' then the word no longer has meaning. Advertising bans have never made any difference to anything. They are the first resort of the bone-headed prohibitionist.

The problem is not just foods. Mass advertising is contributing to many other consumer addictions that imply large public-health costs, including excessive TV watching, gambling, drug use, cigarette smoking, and alcoholism.

I put it to you, Dr Sachs, that you are a puritan who finds advertising itself to be morally reprehensible. How do you plead?

Fifth, to promote happiness, we must identify the many factors other than GNP that can raise or lower society’s well-being. Most countries invest to measure GNP, but spend little to identify the sources of poor health (like fast foods and excessive TV watching), declining social trust, and environmental degradation. Once we understand these factors, we can act.

Countries "spend little to identify the sources of poor health"?! Are you out of your mind? Countries spend enormous sums of money funding research into health and the environment. Never does a day go by without new reports coming out about these topics. Finding spurious health risks and lobbying for prohibition is a multi-billion dollar industry.

The mad pursuit of corporate profits is threatening us all. 

Yes, yes. So you keep saying.

To be sure, we should support economic growth and development...

Do I see the word 'but' drifting into this sentence very soon?

...but only in a broader context...

Uh-huh. that promotes environmental sustainability and the values of compassion and honesty that are required for social trust. 

Yes, but what does that mean? What does any of this mean in practical terms? Everyone is in favour of compassion and honesty. What is to be done, man? What's the plan? I've read your article. I've read every word of the bloody thing and you end with some waffle about "environmental sustainability". I understand that you think that capitalism is "relentless". I can see that you don't want the plebs to eat fast food, or gamble, or drink, or smoke. But all you have to offer is a call for more research to be done and a ban on fast-food advertising. Frankly, I feel a little cheated.

It's the chasm between perceived problem and perceived solution that gets me about these people. Having portrayed a world of unhappiness, anxiety, misery and environmental catastrophe, what solution does he come up with? A ban on advertising Happy Meals to children. It's risible. Give me a revolutionary Marxist over a wealthy academic trying to deal with his middle-life crisis any day.

There's been a lot of this around recently. On Wednesday, a rather silly report from UNICEF resulted in calls to ban all advertising of children's products.

But this was being denounced as not draconian enough even before it had been announced.

A Government proposal for a total ban on advertising aimed at children would fail to end the cycle of "compulsive consumerism" in which parents are trapped, the Government's adviser on young people has warned.

Trapped in compulsive consumerism. God, we'll all so oppressed aren't we? This is the pathetic notion of "pester power". Heaven forbid that parents should have to say no to their own children.

The left-wing think tank Compass, which is run by Neal Lawson—a man for whom the term champagne socialist could have been invented—wants all advertising banned in outdoor spaces. Why only outdoors? Who knows. Presumably it would be a good 'first step'.

The temperance lobby, of course, wants all drink advertising banned (as does this gloriously unpopular e-petition) and the anti-smokers have eliminated cigarette advertising so comprehensively that they now resort to pretending that packaging is advertising. The French have banned mobile phone advertising which is "aimed" at children. George Monbiot wants to ban adverts for cars.

And why not? The precedent was set with tobacco and now every single-issue obsessive can climb aboard. This was predicted by Deborah Orr in The Independent back in 1999 when tobacco advertising was banned. I recommend you read the whole thing, but these are some of the more prescient points.

Banning tobacco advertising cannot be described as a dangerous precedent, but it is certainly a precedent of some kind. If in principle it is considered morally good to protect the consumer from products that are damaging to human and environmental health, then the bandwagon has started rolling.

I'm not against the banning of tobacco advertising. Far from it. Instead, I'm in favour of extending the logic which suggests that tobacco advertising is morally unsustainable, and applying it to other products. What would happen if the ban on the tobacco industry were considered as a blueprint for deciding more broadly what can and can't be advertised? Let's take a slide down the slippery slope of social control, and see what kind of a tangled heap we end up in at the bottom.

First, alcohol. It damages the body and the mind, plays a leading role in violence of all kinds and, like smoking, is seductive to impressionable young people, who are experimenting with booze in record numbers. Clearly, under the tobacco rule, it has to go. Bud would be wiser if he laid off the lager.

It's on its way.

Second, motor vehicles. Not only do they kill and maim people, they also foster aggressive behaviour to the extent that three-quarters of all motorists experience verbal or physical violence from other drivers on the road.

I refer you to the aforementioned George Monbiot and other cranks.

Next, sugary food and drinks. Promoting rampant tooth decay and gum disease among children, they also spoil kids' appetites, ruin their concentration, prime them for a lifetime of unsavoury eating habits and sluggish intellectual activity, and contribute to a raft of related health problems. Like cigarettes, they're pointless and damaging, and serve no positive purpose. You don't have to see a big orange man to know when you've been Tangoed.

Already banned before 9pm. A total ban cannot be far off.

In fact, let's just ban all advertising aimed at children. They're too young to make informed consumer choices, and anyway they don't have incomes. Let's surprise the kinder by treating them less like mini-adults and see if that has any effect on protecting their innocence for a little longer.

As demanded this week by various crusaders.

While we're at it, let's protect them from being surrounded by images of adult sexuality in advertising. How about banning huge pictures of scantily clad women from the billboards of the nation?

Already in place in the freedom-loving nation of China and applied piece-meal in Britain.

Now, since the article in question is from The Independent, I cannot be 100% sure if it's serious or satirical. Either way, it perfectly charts how far down the slippery slope we have slid in the last twelve years. The headline was 'Why not ban all advertising?'. Why not indeed? It would be much quicker than the current salami slice tactics.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Still smoking in New York

Great video from Reason about one of the smoker-friendly bars in New York City—yes, a few still exist and they're legal. A little sliver of free choice and liberty in Mike Bloomberg's nanny city.

The poison pen of Johann Hari

'David Rose':
Oh, what a tangled web we weave
Johann Hari, the plagiarist and liar, has been allowed to keep working at the Independent despite being caught bang to rights as a fraudulent troll. I was barely aware of this fellow's existence until his journalistic techniques were exposed a few months ago. They should have been enough to get him sacked. Instead, the Independent have let him off with a whining, self-serving apology.

More interesting than the shoddy journalism is the Wikipedia trolling. Rumours have abounded for some time that 'David Rose'—Hari's number one fan on the internet—is Hari himself. This has now been confirmed by the bubonic plagiarist. He operated several sockpuppets on Wikipedia to make himself out to be, as Nick Cohen put it, "one of the essential writers of our time". More seriously, he has also persistently edited the Wiki pages of people he dislikes, including Cohen, with libellous glee. This, too, is not a sackable offence at the Independent.

Nothing is deleted on Wikipedia and the entries of David Rose (or 'David r from meth productions') stand as a testimony to the extraordinary scale and range of Hari's six year trolling campaign. Certain themes emerge. Much of his time was spent emphasising his own importance as a major cultural figure. He pushes to have his every award and nomination put centre stage. As a left-wing journalist, he is eager to downplay his privileged education. He consistently edits the pages of his heroes such as Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot to portray them in their best light. He repeatedly edits his enemies to make them look like racists, or thugs, or loonies.

This, again, is apparently all well and good at the Independent.

The depth of the deceit is difficult to put across in a single blog post. The examples below are just just a tiny proportion of his contributions, each of which he fights for, sometimes for months, repeatedly posting them after others have removed them. As other Wiki editors call him out on the subterfuge, Hari goes to extraordinary lengths to maintain the deception. David Rose is given a full back story—details of his education and his career emerge, often with wholly unnecessary detail. At one point, David Rose's IP address is found to be that of the Independent's offices and an elaborate effort is made to portray Rose as a subeditor at the paper, a job that Hari got him (they went to University together, in this fiction).

He is, at the very least, a weird guy, and the Wikipedia edits tell us a few things about him.

He doesn't like people knowing he went to a public school.


He attended Aylward School, the famous fee-paying John Lyon School in Harrow, North Cheshire Theatre School, and Woodhouse College

Hari's version

He attended Aylward School, John Lyon School, North Cheshire Theatre School, and Woodhouse College

But should you happen upon the Wikipedia page of his public school, he wants you to know that he didn't like it there.

One prominent alumnus, Johann Hari, has been very critical of the school, describing it as "appalling" and "a factory-school churning out robotic middle-ranking accountants, and which sees creativity and intellect as a problem."

He doesn't like people knowing that his idols also went to public school either. This, from the Wikpedia entry for George Monbiot.


He was educated at Stowe School, a boys' independent school in Buckinghamshire

Hari's version

He was educated at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire

All pretty mild stuff until we get onto his enemies. He definitely doesn't like (former New Statesman colleague) Christine Odone very much.

She notoriously attacked her colleagues Jackie Ashley and Johann Hari, claiming "to reveal how "viciously" and "wickedly" the Blairites - from Peter Mandelson to Jackie Ashley and Johann Hari - have acted during her six and a half years in the job." She said, "These people - who I call the ‘neo-Left’ - are cancerous crusts on the real old-fashioned socialists like Peter [Wilby]... The neo-Left can’t stand the New Statesman because it is owned and edited by people who are quite old-fashioned Left. So they unleash a poison that has been very personal. I’ve been very close to people on the Right - the Catholic Herald [which she edited] was more right than left, and I’d worked for the Daily Telegraph. However nasty the Right gets, the Left gets much more wicked... I found myself reading that staff had a voodoo doll of me, and were sticking pins in it because they hated me. I’ve even been wished stomach cancer."

Hari replied, "I'm quite worried about Cristina's sanity. This interview is just bizarre. Apparently I am conspiring to create a Blairite coup at the NS with one person I've never met - Peter Mandelson - and one person, Jackie Ashley, who is such a Blairite she calls repeatedly for Blair to resign. And to what end? why would I want a Blairite coup? Hello? Poor Cristina. I hope she is happier - and saner - soon."

He continued, "As for Peter, who she accuses me of attacking, the exact opposite is the truth. I love Peter Wilby. he gave me my big break in journalism, and I have learned more from him than from almost anybody else I can think of. If anything, he will be an even greater editor when he is no longer chained to a very unhappy and paranoid deputy ranting about voodoo dolls and imaginary conspiracies."

He concluded, "And as for the left being more vicious than the right.... well Cristina, of course the right is nice to you. You are one of them. No doubt the right would equally 'vicious' if a left-winger was bizarrely made deputy editor of the Spectator."

In fact, he hates her. (This, from the Wikipedia entry for Jackie Ashley).

Since then, she has been a television news reporter and newspaper journalist, writing for the New Statesman (where she was violently attacked by Cristina Odone)

He doesn't much care for Richard Littlejohn either, as you might expect (his additions are in bold).

Although he is sometimes praised as an antidote to political correctness, other critics see him as a bigot. Littlejohn has shown his dislike for the far-right British National Party by describing them as "knuckle-scraping scum". However, the leader of the far right party, Nick Griffin, has described Littlejohn as his favourite writer.

Littlejohn has a criminal conviction over acts of violence committed in Peterborough in the 1970s.

He sees himself as one of the great intellectuals, (although his spelling could be better).

Hari defines himself as a defender of the Enlightenment as a systme of rational inquiry he believes is under threat.

He does not like people doubting that he is a major figure in public life. (From the Talk page)

I've suggested as a compromise we say "Hari defines himself as a defender of the Enlightenment, which he sees a system of rational thought that is under seige." That is undoubtedly true. This is not a stray judgement - the National Secular Society, founded to protect the values of the Enlightenment, nomintated him for its Secularist of the Year award in 2006 alongside Salman Rushdie and Ayan Hirsi Ali. You may say it is "untrue", Felix, and he is "a fairly trivial op-ed writer" (as well as a "little tyke"), but that is your POV and some very serious people who dedicate their lives to these issues disagree.

You then ask, "Is he an Enlightenment scholar?" No, he is according to the National Secular Society one of the five most distinguished non-scholastic defenders of the Enlightenment in Britain in 2006. Where in the article does it suggest he is a scholar? 

He doesn't like Francis Wheen, who wrote an exposé of Hari in Private Eye. As well as editing his own Wikipedia page to remove all mention of the Private Eye story, Hari added the following section to Wheen's Wikipedia entry.

Wheen has been dubbed "the Rottweiller of Decency" for his alleged habit of attacking people who displease the so-called 'decent' left associated with the Euston Manifesto. He was accused of hypocrisy when in Private Eye he vehemently attacked a review by Johann Hari of the pro-war book 'What's Left' by Nick Cohen, impugning Hari's journalistic standards, without declaring that he is a close personal friend of Cohen's and thanked at length in the book under discussion. Critics charged that this is the sort of unethical behaviour that Wheen condemns so often in others. A letter in Private Eye later argued that the magazine, via Wheen's writings, "attacks honest journalists just because they criticise you and your mates."

He doesn't much care for the then-editor of the Independent, Roger Alton. (Hari's addition in bold—no loyalty to the Indie from Hari.)

In April 2008, Alton was confirmed as the new editor of The Independent, beginning work on 1 July 2008. Since then, the Independent's circulation has plummeted by nearly 20 percent.

He doesn't like the historian Andrew Roberts. (Hari's addition in bold.)

Roberts was raised in the Church of England (Anglican). He attended Cranleigh School. At Cranleigh's senior school he was expelled for drinking, climbing on a roof and cling-filming the lavatories.

He is a rather vain man who spent many months trying to get the photo changed on his Wikipedia entry. This involved the creation of several more sockpuppets and an elaborate wheeze in which he (as David Rose) pretended to be in contact with himself (Johann Hari).

The picture you posted of Hari is barely recognisable; you aren't meant to post odd snaps, they should be reasonable quality photographs where you can see what the person looks like.

Here is the e-mail I revieved from hari re: the original picture I posted (with intro and end-bit edited out, they were about other stuff and a mutual friend):

"Yeah, I own the copyright I guess on that picture, my dad took it on a rare day when I didn't look entirely like a Down's Syndrome. I'm very happy to waive all claims to the copyright and to place it in the public domain. When one day a picture is finally taken showing my remarkable similarity to Brad Pitt I'll let you have that too."

I think that shows we can use the original photo in clear line with the wiki rules.

And then, holding two sockpuppets ('Dave' and 'Jessica'), Hari stages a conversation between the two of them about himself. And third (real) user, Felix, has already seen through the sham.

['Jessica':] Felix, you've again responded to my comments by calling me Dave. This is ludicrous and offensive, as your picture is ludicrous and offensive. I have deleted it again.

What is the status of Dave's attempts to clear copyright on the orginal picture?

['Dave':]Hi Jessica - I e-mailed Hari, and he said he places the picture in the public domain, as I said above. I'm not sure about copyright law, which would say whether this is sufficient, but my sister knows a copyright laywer so I'm going to call her tonight and ask about that. I also asked Hari if he has any other pictures, but I think he's still in Mexico as he hasn't replied.

He doesn't like people accusing him of being Johann Hari.

I have compromised and engaged with those who agree with specific points by Felix. However, Felix by contrast has simply accused anybody who posts in agreement with me of being a sock-puppet and ignored them. (Indeed, he ignored me for a long time, claiming I was Johann Hari, until somebody who we both know pointed out that I am not).

But he is a "free speech obsessive".

I proposed the edits, and no, I am not Johann Hari. I know him a bit, we were at university together, and I have done some work on his website. You can e-mail me at

I think the article about him is outrageous and I e-mailed Johann about it but he has been in Taiwan and has not yet replied. The Private Eye allegations have been answered by Johann and you don't even mention that. While accusing him of lying, you repeat a lie of your own: he did in fact respond to the Iraq Pastor allegations, admitting they were "bullshit". You name him as a friend of Hitchens, but don't point out that he has seriously criticised Hitchens.

To compare him to Steven Glass or Jayson Blair is totally libellous, and if was him I'd sue, and I will recommend that option to him but he is a free speech obsessive and tends to ignore this kind of crap.

He disagrees with his alter-ego about the Iraq War.

Johann and I have argued a million times about Iraq and I'm not defending him on that issue, but the reasons he supported the invasion were sincere and they were not "bomb the towel-heads" crap.

I mentioned litigation only to shock you into realsing that your words have consequences; I also made it clear that Johann is a free speech nut and would never sue anyone. He responed to my e-mail about this article an hour ago and told me to forget about it but I don't think it is right to circulate flasehoods and, since you seem like decent people dedicated to teh truth, I appeal to you to correct the gross innaccuarcies in this article.

...It's frustrating to see a decent guy who works hard for left-wing causes being pulled down by his own side (using right-wing allegations!) because they disagreed with him on one issue.

And so on and so on. There are hundreds of edits like this. No wonder he didn't have time to write proper articles. It's the attention to detail that gets me. The sheer, prolonged, schizophrenic nature of the deceit. But that, once again, is not a problem for the Independent.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Another day, another stupid claim about alcohol

It really is relentless. From the Guardian...

Price of alcohol is 'obscenely low'

The article that follows is mostly a routine pro-temperance piece calling for minimum pricing. It coincides with the launch of Alcohol Research UK, of whom I'm sure we'll be hearing much more in the future.

It does, however, contain one or two gems as the alcohol crusaders attempt to freshen up their message.

"A gram of cocaine in Yorkshire costs £40 [whereas] 40 grams of alcohol costs a pound if you buy white cider at £2 for a 2 litre bottle," said Robin Davidson, a clinical psychologist and chair of the newly launched charity, Alcohol Research UK. "The price of this drug is obscenely low."

Give that man a cigar for the most absurd apples and oranges comparison of the week. Grams of alcohol? What in the name of Lucifer's longjohns is this supposed to tell us? A pound of cement costs less than a pound of parsley, and a pint of nitrogen costs more than a pint of orange juice. So what? I challenge Mr Davidson to take 40 grams of cocaine a day while I take 40 grams of alcohol. At the end of the experiment I shall visit his grave. This individual is the head of this new 'charity', please note. God help us.

There is also a new take on the old 'non-drinkers are paying for drinkers/passive drinking' canard.

Ian Gilmore [for it is he], consultant at Royal Liverpool Hospital and immediate past president of the Royal College of Physicians, said that moderate or non-drinkers are "almost certainly currently subsidising the heavy drinker in the supermarket. All the hooks to get people into supermarkets are drinks adverts – they're subsidising and discounting alcohol instead of fruit and vegetables. If there was no discounting of alcohol, it's likely that the shopping basket would be cheaper for people who do not drink heavily."

This is a reference to the temperance lobby's persistent claim that supermarkets use alcohol as a loss-leader to drag people into their stores to spend money. This, says, Gilmore means that "moderate or non-drinkers" are having to pay for heavy drinkers (because, presumably, moderate drinkers would never take advantage of such offers).

Let us, just for a moment, assume that supermarkets do indeed use alcohol as a loss-leader. Why would they do it? The whole point, surely, is to attract customers who then spend their money on other items in the store. You get your loss-leader cheap but then give the supermarket a nice profit on the rest of your weekly shop. No such thing as a free lunch. You pay your way in the end. No one is subsidising you. You subsidise yourself.

However, I have never seen an example of alcohol being sold below cost (except, perhaps, items that are approaching their sell-by date) and nobody from 'alcohol control' has ever produced evidence to the contrary. Since it would be extremely easy to go into a supermarket and take a photo of a below-cost offer, I have to assume that the forces of temperance are lying again.

In fact, we know that this kid of loss-leading is either non-existent or exceptionally rare, because when the government said it would outlaw the practice in January, the temperance lobby immediately said that it would make no difference.

Prof Gilmore said a tiny amount of drinks were currently sold below duty plus VAT

"If you go round the supermarket shops today, even where they're heavily discounted, they will not fall below this level."

Gilmore's belief in the threat of loss-leading does rather seem to change with the wind, does it not?

Let's remember that Gilmore, who weeps crocodile tears about moderate drinkers being ripped off, wants to bring in minimum pricing, a policy that will institutionalise the system of ripping off moderate drinkers—particularly the poor—and will make drinkers subsidise nondrinkers even more than they currently do.

To examine the issue further, Alcohol Research UK plans to carry out more work looking at the effects of minimum pricing of alcohol when it comes into force in Scotland.

Excellent. An academic study to be carried out by impartial researchers using the most rigorous scientific methods. I imagine the newly formed Alcohol Research UK will look at the issue with an open mind and let the data fall where it may.

Or perhaps not...

"There's a lot of anecdote and bias in this debate and we're funding [a project] to look at the effect of minimum pricing when it's introduced in Scotland on the drinking habits of highly dependent drinkers," said Davidson. "The urban myth is that, if the price of alcohol goes up, the moderate drinkers are going to stop but the alcoholics will find a way to fund their addiction. We know that's probably not true and we're going to fund a major flagship project to explore that."

Look, I'm not nostalgic about the past. I know there have always been bent scientists and dodgy statisticians. I realise that there have always been researchers who have set about their work with a desired outcome in mind. But surely there was a time when such people at least had the common decency to pretend that they were not working to an a priori conclusion, rather than telling a national newspaper that they viewed the null hypothesis as an "urban myth" before they'd even begun.

Alcohol Research UK is just the new name for the Alcohol Education and Research Council (AERC), by the way. They rebadged it, you fool, as Alan Partridge would say. AERC was funded by DrinkAware, ie. the drinks industry.

Presumably the drinks industry is funding AERC under its new name of Alcohol Research UK. If so, I can't help feeling that their strategy for defending themselves against the anti-alcohol lobby is a trifle counterproductive. Suicidal even. But what do I know? Maybe giving your enemies huge sums of cash with which to fight you is a subtle and cunning plan, like Baldric's cunning plan to escape execution by doing nothing until his head is cut off.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Here comes DrinkFree Movies

When I was at University I had a friend who took American Studies. By his own admission, this academic discipline largely involved sitting around watching movies. How we used to scoff at the Mickey Mouse subject and the life of worklessness that seemed destined to follow. Little did we know that such skills would one day make him ideally suited to being a 'public health professional'.

You may already be familiar with SmokeFree Movies. Now welcome, with crushing predictability, DrinkFree Movies.

Alcohol imagery and branding, and age classification of films popular in the UK

Ailsa Lyons, Ann McNeill, Ian Gilmore, and John Britton

Methods Alcohol appearances (classified as ‘alcohol use, inferred alcohol use, other alcohol reference and alcohol brand appearances’) were measured using 5-min interval coding of 300 films, comprising the 15 highest grossing films at the UK Box Office each year over a period of 20 years from 1989 to 2008.

Conclusion Alcohol imagery is extremely common in all films popular in the UK, irrespective of BBFC age classification. Given the relationship between exposure to alcohol imagery in films and use of alcohol by young people, we suggest that alcohol imagery should be afforded greater consideration in determining the suitability of films for viewing by children and young people.

As sure as night follows day, the gathering storm of temperance follows the blueprint of anti-tobacco. It is no coincidence that three of the authors of this study are from the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies. They have joined forces with water-drinking windbag Ian Gilmore of the Alcohol Health Alliance to produce a carbon copy of the studies that Californian quackademic Stanton Glantz has been excreting for years. It is, in fact, very similar to the study produced by the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies last year, which involved many of the same personnel, but with smoking substituted for alcohol. As I said then...

And what have we learnt from this exhaustive study?

"Although smoking imagery and branding images in the most popular films have become substantially less common over the past 20 years, it is apparent children and young people watching films in the UK are still exposed to frequent and, at times, specifically branded tobacco imagery, particularly in films originating from the UK", Prof John Britton and colleagues write.

Dr John Britton—for it is he—is rapidly becoming the UK's answer to nutty professor Stanton Glantz. And if the answer is 'Stanton Glantz', the UK is asking the wrong question.

Once again, alcohol control and tobacco control are "learning from each other" (tickets for the conference are still available), and the outcome is inevitable: a campaign to censor films which show activities of which the health police disapprove.

But first, the shock findings...

At least one alcohol appearance occurred in 258 (86%) of the 300 films, with ‘alcohol use’ occurring in 215 (72%), ‘inferred alcohol use’ in 237 (79%) and ‘other reference to alcohol’ in 233 (78%).


The film with the greatest intensity of specific brand appearances was See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989, comedy, BBFC 15, USA) in which Budweiser appeared 13 times in bar scenes, branded neon signs and bottles of beer.

Alcohol imagery in a bar scene. whatever next?

The greatest number of separate brands occurred in Cocktail (1989, comedy, BBFC 15, USA), with 13 brands appearing a total of 39 times.

Different drinks in a film about making cocktails. Appalling.

Our finding of the high levels of exposure of children and young people to alcohol imagery in UK films, thus identifies an important and potentially avoidable influence on current and future alcohol consumption.

No, actually it hasn't. The 'study' merely shows that drinking and drink "imagery" appears occasionally in many of the top grossing films of the last fifteen years. It does not show, or even attempt to show, any link between said imagery and alcohol consumption amongst viewers of any age group. And, as the two examples given above indicate, many of the films in question are already restricted to those of 15+ or 18+ years.

Since there is no association between people watching See No Evil, Hear No Evil in their youth and later becoming alcoholics, there is no reason whatever for these latter-day Mary Whitehouses to demand that Hollywood depicts the world as they wish it to be, rather than as it is.

Since alcohol consumption is a common activity in everyday life, and bars, pubs and other alcohol retailers are an integral part of the urban environment in most Western countries, alcohol imagery in films is arguably an inevitable consequence of realistic depictions of life in these environments.

Bingo! That's exactly what it is. Now go away.

Alas, there is a "however"...

However, since branded or other alcohol imagery promotes alcohol use, there is a case for their inclusion in films to be a strong factor in age classification.

But you haven't demonstrated that alcohol imagery promotes alcohol use. Even if there was a link, it remains none of your business.

It's quite simple—it is illegal to sell alcohol to a person under the age of 18. It is not illegal for a person under the age of 18 to drink alcohol and it is certainly not illegal for a person under the age of 18 to see somebody drinking alcohol. If it's not illegal to see someone drinking in real life, why the hell should it be illegal for them to see it in a film? Watching people drinking, or seeing a sign for Budweiser, or smoking, is not going to disturb or unsettle the minds of younger viewers, even though it clearly disturbs and unsettles you. You, however, are profoundly abnormal and I fully expect the BBFC to tell you to mind your own business just like they did last time.

A BBFC spokeswoman, Sue Clark, said it had no intention of changing its policy. "These doctors are out of step with public opinion. We have asked the public specifically if smoking should be a classification or category-defining issue, and the response overwhelmingly was no, it shouldn't."

The board flags up overt smoking content through its consumer advice, the short sentence on all film advertising which warns about sexual or violent content, and also by setting out on its website the factors underlying its decision to grant a film a particular rating, she added. "It's then up to parents whether or not they stop their children seeing that film."

Get the picture? Leave us alone you prod-nose, pointy-headed, lemon-sucking puritans. Art is not there to be moulded into your propaganda.

Monday, 12 September 2011

No heart miracles in six US states

A new study published in the Journal of Community Health provides more evidence that smoking bans do not have a measurable effect on incidence of acute myocardial infarction (heart attacks). Rodu, Peiper and Cole looked at heart attack mortality in six US states in the first year after smoking bans were enacted and found that they did not vary significantly from the long-term decline in the rest of the USA.

The white dots show the first full year of the state's smoking ban. The bans took place between 1995 and 2004, at a time when the rest of the USA did not have smoking bans, and so the national decline cannot be attributed to smokefree legislation. Two of the six statewide bans included bars. The others covered all or most other 'public' places.

Five of the states saw declines which were in line with the national decline. The much talked about statewide ban in California—the first in the world—was followed by a fall in heart attack mortality of 2.0%, which was a slower rate of decline than had been seen in the three years prior to the ban (3.0%), and was less than the national decline (3.9%).

The rate fell by 9% in Florida, but rose by 9% in South Dakota. The total smoking ban in New York was followed by a fall in AMI mortality of 12%, but this was not significantly different from the 10% decline seen nationwide.

Overall, the results show no effect on AMI mortality from smokefree legislation. Five of the six states saw a fall in mortality, but this is no surprise since the nationwide rate fell by half over this period. A national decline in heart attack mortality from nearly 300 per 100,000 to less than 150 per 100,000 is of major public health significance, but if smoking bans had any role in this long-term decline, the effect was too small to measure.

The researchers conclude:

Smoke-free ordinances may serve public health objectives by providing non-smokers with indoor environments that are free from irritating and potentially harmful pollutants. However, this study does not provide evidence that these ordinances result in a measurable immediate reduction in AMI mortality of the magnitude claimed by reports based on very small incident numbers.

This is just the latest piece of evidence that discredits the widely reported 'heart miracles' of Helena, Bowling Green, Scotland etc. As I have said repeatedly on this blog, all reports of a significant effect on heart attacks from smoking bans have been based on shoddy evidence, biased methodology and blatant cherry-picking.

The methods employed by tobacco control advocates in this instance have been childishly simple. They chose to look only at places which saw a fall in AMI incidence—as most places have—while ignoring the long-term decline. They have typically chosen places with very small populations where small changes in absolute numbers represent large changes in percentage terms. This is how ridiculous claims about smoking bans cutting the heart attack rate by 40% were manufactured.

As junk science goes, it's at the more facile end of the spectrum, but it should be remembered that the fraud has only been exposed because hospital admissions data is (often) publicly available. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface is a swamp of hidden data and twisted statistics that anti-smoking researchers vehemently refuse to allow the public to have access to.