Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Plain packaging for alcohol. They don't waste time, do they?

Yesterday, the government announced an inquiry into its 'Alcohol Strategy' and guess what the last item on the agenda is...

My goodness, but don't things move quickly these days? The public consultation on plain packaging of cigarettes hasn't even been launched yet, but that's no reason not to take the ol' 'next logical step'.

Do yourself a favour and sign up at Hands Off Our Packs. Let's try to nip this one in the bud.

The minimum pricing Trojan Horse

My article at City AM yesterday begins thusly...

"THE era of big, bossy, state interference, top-down lever pulling is coming to an end.” So said David Cameron in 2008. Of all the hostages to fortune politicians take in their years in opposition, this has the makings of a classic. It’s hard to believe that less than two years have passed since the bright-eyed coalition promised to “tear through the statute book” as it threw intrusive and illiberal legislation on the bonfire.

Does anyone now remember the YourFreedom website which asked the public to nominate “unnecessary laws and regulations” for the scrap-heap? That project bit the dust when it transpired that the public wanted to repeal the drug laws and relax the smoking ban. The website now exists only in the National Archives, so future historians can marvel at the golden summer of 2010 when deregulation briefly seemed possible.

Read the rest here.

Not had enough minimum pricing comment? Check out Devil's Kitchen here and here, as well as Liberal Vision. PR disaster for the Tories. It's taken our minds off the budget in the same way a dose of syphilis takes your mind of your athlete's foot.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Doctors' Party

Apparently the nation's doctors are taking the 'next logical step' in their bid for world domination by fielding candidates at the next general election. This something I have long recommended. A period of being abused on the doorstep and getting fewer votes than a man dressed as a chicken is just what these meddling quacks need to bring them down to reality.

Sadly, I doubt that many of them will bother to stand. The money's not good enough and they've been dictating the policy of successive governments without any popular mandate for years, so why bother?

There's nothing I can say about this that hasn't been said better by Graeme Archer at the Telegraph, so just go read his article...

[Minimum pricing is] a policy with the sticky fingers of the BMA all over it, too. I don’t know why we don’t just devolve government to the doctors’ trade union and be done with it; after all, they’re in such a high state of dudgeon over the health Bill (the BMA is not accustomed to being disobeyed by Health Secretaries) that they plan to field candidates at general elections. These candidates, it is claimed, will be “non-party” and “independent”, to which one might respond: independent of whom? Not of the BMA, whose party they effectively represent.

I looked up the BMA website, and – surprise! – the policy of minimum pricing is indeed one of the medico-comrades’ manifesto pledges. (The link to the alcohol policy is right next to the “Doctors taking action against Climate Change” page, which made me shudder and fear for what’s coming next.)

... I don’t know why the doctors feel the need to bother forming a party and standing for election anyway, since governments introduce every statist piece of social control they demand. I wonder if they’re ready for the rigours of an election campaign? There’s more to it than shouting “I don’t like the health Bill; now fund my ludicrously over-generous pension scheme” at bewildered taxpayers. The GPs might also be shocked to learn that most political door-knocking happens in the evenings and at weekends, and, no, you can’t get locums to cover that out-of-hours work for you. Still, I do like the idea of GPs being quizzed on their policy by interested voters: just how many units did you consume last week, doctor? And who gave you the right to make my sauvignon blanc more expensive?

Sadly, the answer to that last question is “a Conservative Prime Minister”. One of the reasons I did drag my sorry backside around council estates in the rain at the last election, delivering leaflets for the Prime Minister’s party and desperately trying to squeeze just one more Tory vote from the Labour-inclined burghers of Hackney, was precisely because more than a decade of a government that thought it knew better than I did how to live my life was enough.

Minimum pricing for alcohol fails, miserably, the leaflet test: we got rid of Labour, for this? That beer can be cheaper than water apparently troubles Mr Cameron. He should realise that the cheapness of beer is one of the few perks left to make life bearable for his over-taxed, over-regulated, fed-up fellow citizens. Better the sticky heap of Gin Lane, than the joyless futility of government-controlled alcohol prices.


Tim Worstall is also reliably sound on minimum pricing, an idea "so glaringly, inanely, stupid that it even has the European Commission on the right side of the point issue."

This is the most monumentally insane, stupid and illiberal nonsense that we've had imposed upon us in years. There have been things more illiberal, yes, but not insane at the same time...

I can reveal that I've once met Cameron, just after he came down from Oxford. I took an instant dislike to him and I'm able to say that the intervening years haven't produced any evidence that I should have changed my mind.

Minimum alcohol pricing is doing something that almost certainly shouldn't be done and then compounding the error by doing it in the most cackhanded way possible and illegally to boot. Just what is it that they teach in PPE these days?

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Entirely a matter for you

I usually play snooker on a Friday night. Last night, however, I was preparing to go on Newsnight to talk about minimum pricing. I'd earlier spent an enjoyable hour on BBC Wales talking to the good people of the valleys about the same topic (callers were overwhelmingly against it). Newsnight suits my sleep patterns a lot better than the Today programme and I was pleased to be asked on, especially since it would involve going head-to-head with Sarah Wollaston. I was hoping to get my three main arguments across—that minimum pricing is deeply regressive, that Booze Britain is a modern moral panic and that the government has no right to dictate prices in a free market.

Soon after setting off on the train I got a text from the researcher who booked me, checking I was en route. Yes I was. All was good. Half an hour later I got another text saying they were going to have to drop me. Two hours before the show was due to go live, a replacement had been found in Eric Joyce MP.

As you can imagine, I was somewhat annoyed by the timing of this announcement, but I had some sympathy with the editorial decision. Eric Joyce is undeniably more famous than me and this was to be his first interview since leaving/being thrown out of the Labour party, and therefore a minor scoop.

But, at the risk of bearing sour grapes, I suspect that I would also be quite famous if I had head-butted a Tory MP in the House of Commons bar while out of my mind on discounted booze. And while I was prepared to go to the studio to be interviewed in person, Mr Joyce had no choice but to appear by video-link as a result of being under curfew after his conviction for common assault.

Joyce was very sound in attacking minimum pricing on the grounds that it would hit the poor hardest. He rightly called the policy "abominable". But while he made a good case, there was no getting away from the fact that 'drunken thug defends cheap booze' is not especially persuasive.

Consider, for example, where your sympathies would lie if you were an undecided voter sitting down to Newsnight and the two guests were introduced in the following way (this is a verbatim transcript of the presenters' introduction)...

"Sarah Wollaston is a GP and a Tory MP, not to mention a member of the Commons' Health Select Committee.

Eric Joyce, an MP against minimum pricing, was forced to quit the Labour Party after a drunken punch-up in the House of Commons bar. Tonight he's under curfew in his Edinburgh home."

Ooh, who to trust? I couldn't help but be reminded of Peter Cook's classic 'Entirely a Matter for You' sketch ("You may choose, if you wish, to believe the transparent tissue of odious lies which streamed on and on from his disgusting, greedy, slavering lips...")

As I got into Brighton train station, the phone rang with a researcher from Five Live asking me if I would go on at 11.15 pm to talk about alcohol. I've appeared on several Five Live shows in the past, including this late night slot, and, after the usual questions about what my views were, she said she'd call me at home at the agreed time and I would join the debate.

Since the other guests were to be a recovering alcoholic and an alcohol care worker, I was prepared to counter the inevitable sob stories by saying that policy should be based on empirical evidence, not tear-jerking anecdotes.

The call came at 11.10 pm and I listened to the recovering alcoholic's life story as I waited to be introduced. Then, after five minutes hanging on the line, I heard the voice of the producer regretfully informing me that I wouldn't be needed because there were so many calls coming in from people wishing to tell their tales of woe that there was no longer time.

I protested that I was already outnumbered by temperance folk as it was and that if I was excluded from the programme there would be no one to make the case against minimum pricing. He told me that the programme wasn't really about minimum pricing, but was a general phone-in about the "human cost of alcohol abuse". The fact that minimum pricing had been announced on the same day was, in effect, a coincidence.

I expressed some doubt about whether this was really so—why ask me on the show otherwise?—but I explained that even if it was, it must have occurred to the editor that an hour long misery memoir about people's 'booze Hell' could not fail to influence public opinion at a time when minimum pricing was the BBC's headline news story. It was, at best, an unfortunate editorial decision akin to getting women to talk about the pain and regret of terminating a pregnancy on the day the government announced a ban on abortion. (You can listen to this Victorian melodrama from 1.12 here—note the introduction).

The upshot of all this is that I will be playing snooker tonight instead. Undefeated since the start of the year and with a recent break of 35 to my name, I am a force to be reckoned with.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Medical temperance - minimum pricing unveiled

It is rumoured that the British government will unveil plans for minimum pricing tomorrow [UPDATE: and it has - see update at the bottom or any media outlet - CJS]. I have written much about this subject on this blog in the last two years—that campaigners have used statistics dishonestly to promote the policy; that it is very likely to be illegal under EU law; that pub chains have gone all bootleggers 'n' baptists in their rent-seeking; that the BBC has bent over backwards to amplify the voice of temperance groups; that the government has used public money to lobby itself.

I see minimum pricing as a sister policy to plain packaging in that it will give the government an unprecedented right to impose its will on the free market. Sin taxes and health warnings are one thing. Having the government setting prices and seizing control of a product's entire packaging is quite another. These are powers that the government has never had in our peacetime history (correct me if you can think of an example to the contrary) and they are being taken without any kind of rational debate. The binge-drinking 'epidemic' is a modern moral panic which will baffle sociologists for years to come, and the packaging of cigarettes would be trivial if it were not such a blatant trampling of private and intellectual property.

As James Nicholls wrote recently:

That it is the Tories, rather than Labour, who have been first to throw their weight behind minimum pricing is remarkable enough: it is, after all, a concept entirely at odds with free market principles. 

Indeed so. Same old Labour whoever gets voted in. Our health secretary is a man who said, not so very long ago, that: "All our decisions must be evidence-based, and on that basis, we do not currently support an introduction of minimum pricing." Our Prime Minister is a man who said: "The era of big, bossy, state interference, top-down lever pulling is coming to an end." Our Deputy Prime Minister said: "For too long, laws have taken away you freedom, interfered with your life and made it difficult for businesses to get on."

It counts for nothing. This is a government that has already alienated the medical establishment (or, at least, has alienated the noisy element that makes it into the newspapers). Do they imagine they will get them on-side by throwing them this bone? Can they really imagine that the BMA will be satisfied with a bone? They are, as Mark Littlewood says, like the man who lets the alligator eat his arm in the hope that it will leave the rest of him.

Nothing—absolutely nothing—is more certain than that within weeks, perhaps days, of minimum pricing being introduced, you will hear the usual shrill voices complaining that 45p, or 50p, is mere "pocket money" and the minimum price should be 60p, 70p, 80p, £1 a unit. What hope can we have that the government will stand up to them then?

Nicholls makes a pertinent point about the pace of neo-prohibitionist activity in the 21st century:

Equally remarkable, however, is the sheer speed with which the idea of minimum unit pricing has moved from the margins to the centre of alcohol policy debates.

Funny to think that neither minimum pricing nor plain packaging were on the political radar at all five year ago. They were not even on the radar of our esteemed 'public health professionals'. There was a time when social reformers would work for decades to campaign for their causes. Today, we have two laws which will fundamentally change the government's role in the free market being nodded through in the blink of an eye.

The process of taking a policy from brainstorm to statute book has been sped up enormously by the rise of fake charities and the effective exclusion of public opinion from what is laughably called 'civil society'. Policy-making in Britain today is a closed shop with the self-described public health groups given the top seat at the table. This is, as Phil Mellows points out in a must-read blog post, is the triumph of 'medical temperance'.

What is medical temperance? It differs from 'gospel temperance' in that it does not seek to educate or persuade, only to legislate. But its goals of reducing availability and raising prices are in every way identical to the temperance groups of nineteenth century Britain. They said then, as they say now, that they are not prohibitionists and I believe most of them. What we are seeing is something more akin to 1870s England than 1920s America. As Laura Schmidt said last month:

What doesn't work is all-out prohibition -- that's very old-school and often creates more problems than it solves.

What does work are gentle "supply side" controls, such as taxing products, setting age limits and promoting healthier versions of the product

You remember Laura Schmidt? She's the one who wants sin taxes on sugary products because her Californian brain tells her they are "toxic". And so it goes on.

Every increase in price, as J. S. Mill said, is a prohibition to those who cannot afford to pay it. If minimum pricing is tabled in England, it will be another little prohibition to make the well-heeled elite feel better about themselves while the rest of us pay.


An exceptionally crummy and one-sided article in The Guardian suggests that minimum pricing is a done deal.

Just hours after the revelation that alcohol has fuelled a 25% increase in liver deaths in the past decade, [you see how it works? See yesterday's post for details about this "revelation" - CJS] Downing Street has finally given health experts what they have long clamoured for – and what health secretary Andrew Lansley has resisted – a minimum price per unit.

The Telegraph is reporting that the minimum price would be set at 40p. This would have very little effect on the price of the vast majority of drinks and so is likely to displease libertarians and nannies in equal measure. My guess is that they will begin at 40p, win the argument because no one really cares about a bottle of wine being at least £3.60, and then jack the price up when the Bill gets to its final reading.

The EU will still over-rule it though, and we should send the BMA the bill for all the parliamentary time they wasted. Just need to hope that the EU doesn't collapse until all this is finished with.

More pro-minimum price churnalism from the BBC

The BBC's minimum pricing campaign continues to tick along. Today's story is a straightforward cut and paste from a press release issued by the National End of Life Care Programme. I've never heard of them either, but they are funded by the Department of Health so it is no surprise to find them engaging in thinly-veiled political lobbying.

Liver disease deaths reach record levels in England

Deaths from liver disease in England have reached record levels, rising by 25% in less than a decade, according to new NHS figures.

You can guess where this is leading, I'm sure, so without any further ado let's hear from the chief executive of Alcohol Con.

The chief executive of Alcohol Concern, Eric Appleby, said: "This report shows that loss of life through alcoholic liver disease remains as big a problem as ever, with a worrying tendency for those with the highest deprivation to suffer most, leading to a distinct north/south divide.

"Minimum pricing of alcohol should do much to impact on the levels of drinking that lead to alcoholic liver disease, but health service commissioners must prioritise the disease at the local level too, focusing on ways to catch problem drinking early and so help to reduce the huge social and economic cost of the current death rate."

Readers with a keen ear for the weasel word might have noticed Appleby's slightly guarded description of alcoholic liver disease as being "as big a problem as ever", rather than—as the BBC would have you believe—a problem which has reached "record levels". This is because he knows that rates of alcoholic liver disease are not at record levels. They actually fell in the last year for which we have data, as the Office for National Statistics reported.

...between 2008 and 2009, the total number of deaths directly related to alcohol consumption fell by 2.7% (from 6,768 in 2008 to 6,584 in 2009), this is the first year-on-year decrease in the series. The main contributor to the overall decrease was a 5.6% decrease in deaths from alcoholic liver disease (from 4,400 in 2008 to 4,154 in 2009).

For those who crave visual stimuli, this is how the mortality figures for alcoholic liver disease look over the last decade.

I don't wish to make too much of a one year decline, although I do wonder if the story would have been reported rather differently if this was a graph of heart attack mortality following a smoking ban that had been introduced in January 2009. The fact that mortality from this disease fell between 2008 and 2009 does not mean that everything in the garden is rosy, but several things are worth mentioning.

Firstly, whether the disease kills 3,000 or 4,000 people a year, there are 51,000,000 of us living in this country (the figures are for England). You can always say that even one death is too many, but that is just sentimental, unrealistic rhubarb. Simply put, this is not an epidemic. We are talking about a rare disease brought on by extreme, chronic drinking and a serious addiction that afflicts mercifully few of us. Minimum pricing is not going to stop these people drinking any more than extreme poverty stops the homeless drinking. The problem is much deeper than the stunted minds of the tax-and-ban neo-temperance movement will ever understand.

Secondly, even if it is true that deaths from liver disease rose between 2008 and 2009, it is clear that alcoholic liver disease cannot have been responsible for the rise, as that fell by more than 5%. If Alcohol Concern are so concerned about the overall rate reaching "record levels", perhaps they should look at the underlying causes of the non-alcohol related cases which were responsible. In slight mitigation to the BBC, they do briefly mention obesity and hepatitis, albeit next to a photo of a pint of lager.

Thirdly, and most infuriatingly, nothing in this article—which looms large on the BBC's News website as I write this—is in any way news. All it does is remind us for the umpteenth time that rates of alcoholic liver disease are higher now than they were in 2001, but without mentioning the inconvenient fact that they may have peaked in 2008.

The statistics mentioned in the article were released nearly a year ago (Straight Statistics discussed them at the time). The BBC has referred to the long-term increase in deaths from liver disease in countless news stories, including such impartial gems as 'Liver specialist: Action needed on drinking culture', 'Alcohol policy a joke, says British Liver Trust' and 'Thousands are 'at risk of alcohol death' say doctors'. There is nothing new here whatsoever. A wing of the Department of Health has repackaged some old statistics and sent them out to lazy journalists with some helpful quotes from campaigners, that's all. They are not "new NHS figures". This is no more a news story than 'Brazil won lots of World Cups' is a sports story.

The only statistic that can be considered remotely current or newsworthy is the recent decline in the rate of alcoholic liver disease and, indeed, of alcohol-related deaths generally, but that doesn't get a look in. Nor does the fact that per capita alcohol consumption has fallen dramatically in the last five years (as I reported in a recent post).

This is churnalism, plain and simple, and politically motivated churnalism at that. Day after day, the BBC report any old junk and trivia fed to them by state-funded temperance groups who are clamouring for minimum pricing.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Recommended reading

I've come across a very well-written and incisive PDF—sadly anonymous—which I recommend to anyone interested in the use and misuse of statistics. It's a good complement to the work of John Brignell, who wrote two excellent books about the vanity of ultra-low risk epidemiologists about ten years ago. It focuses on lung cancer risk and it has the most comprehensive annotated list of passive smoking studies yet compiled (more so than the one I produced in 2008, which was limited to female exposure).

Don't be put off by the title ('The Plain Truth About Tobacco'). It's not about plain packaging and it doesn't argue that smoking is not the main cause of lung cancer (in fact, any remaining deniers should be forced to read it), but it does give a well-deserved kicking to those who cite statistics without bothering to understand what they mean.

You would not believe the things that epidemiologists have tried to "link" lung cancer to. If you've ever heard that you can get lung cancer (or protect yourself from lung cancer) by owning a pet canary, see pages  92 to 106 of this book. I learnt a lot and I think you will too.

Download it here. Stick it on your iPad or Kindle or whatever and away you go...

Monday, 19 March 2012

Why are we paying for this? (part 3: D-MYST)

Part three in an ongoing series showing how the government splurges our money on pressure groups who want to relieve us of our liberties without having the decency to admit that they're in the pay of the government. This week it's...

D-MYST. It stands for Direct Movement by the Youth Smokefree Team. Sounds like a grass-roots association of angry young people, right?

It isn't. It was founded and financed by the Department of Health via Smokefree Liverpool to pursue the policy of adult-certification for movies which depict smoking. I first came across these clowns three years ago when a hapless Lib Dem councillor called for 'smokefree movies' under the impression that the yoof were demanding it. I had virtually forgotten about D-MYST until I came across their website today and found that they are now campaigning for a ban on smoking on television before 9 pm.

Go check out their website. Note the lack of contact details. Note the complete absence of any indication that this is paid for with your money. Just like the minimum pricing website I mentioned recently, this is covert lobbying by a government department.

A Freedom of Information request revealed how much public money had been spent lobbying against smoking in films in the Merseyside area as of 2009. It's a lot, and a lot more has been spent since then, I'm sure.

The amount of spending to date of this Department of Health funded project is £20947.75 (plus VAT) and is broken down as follows:

o Billboard Advertising: £3927.81 (plus VAT)
o Paid for advertising in the media (including free media such as the Metro): £5216.94 (plus VAT)
o Spend on promotional items: £0.
o Spend on promotional brochures, factsheets, etc for members of the public: £2143 (plus VAT)
o spend on promotional and lobbying material sent to decision makers such as elected councillors: £532 (plus VAT)
o Spend on media relations (by this I mean editorial coverage as opposed to paid for advertising: £260 (plus VAT)
o Spend on any events or exhibitions £8868 (plus VAT)

D-MYST is an astro-turf group, plain and simple. If a business was lobbying for rent-seeking legislation in this manner, the media would be all over it. Time and time again we see the Department of Health acting like a fifth column in British politics. It is a law unto itself and the Tories seem no more interested in reining these spendthrift covert lobbyists than Labour did.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Alcohol Concern Wales' latest trick

Fake charity Alcohol Concern Wales have recently been spending your money on a study of 10 and 11 year olds and, therefore, have apparently created somthing newsworthy.

Child alcohol awareness 'higher than for some foods'

Children as young as 10 are more familiar with some alcohol brands and adverts than those for popular foods and snacks, research shows.

*Massive yawn*

Eight in 10 also recognised the Smirnoff vodka label as an alcohol product.

Good for them. It is an alcohol product. Is total ignorance now an official temperance goal? Would they be happier if kids thought it was lemonade?

Meanwhile, three-quarters of children associated the image of fictional characters Brad and Dan from a Fosters advert with alcohol, compared to 42% who recognised Cadbury's drumming gorilla was for a food product.

How interesting that they chose this Cadbury's advert as a comparison.

I remember this advert for two reasons. The first is that it got press coverage at the time—it was shown in 2007, but we'll come back to that—because it was considered brave to barely mention the product being advertised in a 90 second commercial. It swept the boards at various advertising awards ceremonies because its studied post-modernism appeals to the kind of cocaine-snorting posers who work in that industry. However...

The second reason I remember it is that, for the reasons given above, it was not very successful at actually shifting product. There was a massive chasm between the art-school pretensions of the back-slapping pseuds of the advertising industry and the commercial objectives of their clients.

In the last year, one of TV’s most talked-about advertisements has been the drumming gorilla. It won awards, it was a typical ‘water-cooler’ discussion point, and many people found it fun and off-beat (excuse the drumming pun!), even though the accompanying music was by Phil Collins.

The advertisers must have been happy with their awards and Cadbury’s must have been thrilled with the buzz. Or were they? Marketing Research company TNS have just issued a report – gratefully referenced by Private Eye in their ‘Ad Nauseam’ section – that shows that, during the period of the advertisement’s run up to July this year, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk actually lost ground to Galaxy (produced by rival Mars).

People remembered the advert because it was—albeit self-consciously—quirky, but they didn't remember what it was advertising because there is no connection between an ape playing along to Phil Collins and Dairy Milk chocolate. In the Foster's adverts, however, the two protagonists have constantly got a beer to hand, thereby reminding the public of what it is they're supposed to buy.

This is all rather significant if you're going to show kids stills from these two adverts and ask them what type of product is being sold. From the survey results...

An image of the characters Brad and Dan from a Fosters television advertisement was correctly associated with alcohol by three quarters (75%) of the children consulted. This was lower than the number correctly identifying Évian’s roller-skating babies advertisement as a being for a soft drink (83%), but much higher than the number who recognised screenshots from the Walkers Extra Crunchy advertisement (58%)...

Never heard of it.

...and the Cadbury drumming gorilla advertisement (42%) as being for foods.

What conclusion can any reasonable person draw from this other than that Evian and Foster's have made effective advertisements and Walkers and Cadbury's have not? Not only do Foster's make it clear that they are advertising a beer, they have made a series of different adverts using the same characters for a campaign that is still ongoing. Cadbury's, on the other hand, made one notoriously uninformative advert back in 2007 when the kids involved in this survey were 5 or 6 years old.

Does this comparison not have a touch of the apples and oranges about it? As I've said, I remember the Cadbury's advert and I knew it was for chocolate, but maybe—just maybe—I wouldn't have remembered the fucking thing if I had been five years old when it was last broadcast.

Mark Leyshon, from Alcohol Concern, said: "Research shows that children who are exposed to alcohol advertising and promotion are more likely to start to use alcohol, have positive expectations about alcohol, and to drink more if they are already using alcohol.

"It's clear that more effective controls are needed."

Shut up and give us our money back.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

To absurdity and beyond

Back in 2002, when Parliament passed a law to ban all forms of tobacco advertising and sponsorship, anti-smoking groups applauded the "comprehensive" legislation that took away the industry's last marketing opportunities.

Then there was the campaign against retail displays. Point-of-sale was, they said, the industry's last remaining means of marketing their products.

Then there was the, er, colour of Formula One cars—the industry's supposed secret weapon.

Then there was plain packaging, the new final frontier.

Is there anywhere left to go from here? Can the definition of "marketing" be stretched any more thinly? Can there be any more barrels left to scrape?

I mean, what are they going to claim next—that the shape of cigarettes is a form of marketing!?!

Ha, ha, ha!


Effects of stick design features on perceptions of characteristics of cigarettes

Ron Borland, Steven Savvas

Objective To examine the extent (if any) that cigarette stick dimension, tipping paper design and other decorative design/branding have on Australian smokers' perceptions of those cigarettes.

Methods An internet survey of 160 young Australian adult ever-smokers who were shown computer images of three sets of cigarette sticks—five sticks of different lengths and diameters (set A), five sticks with different tipping paper design (set B) and four sticks of different decorative design (set C). Branding was a between-subjects randomised condition for set C. For each set, respondents ranked sticks on most and least attractive, highest and lowest quality and strongest and weakest taste.

Results Cigarette sticks were perceived as different on attractiveness, quality and strength of taste. Standard stick length/diameter was perceived as the most attractive and highest quality stick, with men more inclined to rate a slim stick as less attractive. A stick with a cork-patterned tipping paper and a gold band was seen as most attractive, of highest quality and strongest in taste compared to other tipping designs. Branded sticks were seen as more attractive, higher in quality and stronger tasting than non-branded designs, regardless of brand, although the effects were stronger for a prestige compared with a budget brand.

Conclusions Characteristics of the cigarette stick affect smokers' perceptions of the attributes of those cigarettes and thus are a potential means by which product differentiation can occur. A comprehensive policy to eliminate promotional aspects of cigarette design and packaging needs to include rules about stick design.

From the Tobacco Control journal, of course, whose slogan should be "Jumping sharks since 1992". Note the use of the same lazy and pointless methodology as used in the plain packaging and graphic warning studies. Note also that it is the super-nanny state of Australia "leading the way" again here. I sense that a new multi-million dollar avenue of policy-driven research has been opened up to the sociology, mechanical engineering, English and management PhDs tobacco control scientists of the world.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Burn the heretic!

The ASH annual general meeting was unusually well attended

The Independent has published a cack-handed and factually incorrect hatchet job of Mark Littlewood, director of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Littlewood can frequently be heard on television and radio making the case for free markets and is involved in the government's Red Tape Challenge - the latest attempt by the coalition to pretend they are against excessive regulation. The Institute of Economic Affairs has been around since 1955 and is one of the country's most prestigious think tanks.

Wrongly describing Littlewood as David Cameron's "aide", The Independent falsely implies that a report being launched at the IEA's offices is an IEA publication and suggests that Littlewood shouldn't voice his views about plain packaging because, er, he doesn't agree with it.

"He clearly has a pro-tobacco agenda and has campaigned for a number of years against regulation of the tobacco industry. He could not, therefore, fulfil the remit of an independent adviser to the Government," said the [All Party Parliamentary Committee on Smoking and Health] chairman, Stephen Williams MP, in a letter to Mr Cable.

Beg pardon? Haven't you, Stephen Williams, got a clear anti-tobacco agenda and campaigned for a number of years for greater regulation? By your own twisted definition, you are not independent and nor is anyone else who has an opinion on anything. In any case, Littlewood no more has a "pro-smoking agenda" than the pro-choice movement has a "pro-abortion agenda".

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the anti-smoking organisation ASH, said: "Mark Littlewood is not independent, he has nailed his colours to the mast by supporting the tobacco industry-funded campaign against plain packs, just as he did its campaign to bring smoking back to our pubs."

Er, yes. Littlewood disagrees with plain packaging and opposes the smoking ban. So what? So do I. So do millions of people. ASH's own survey found that most people don't support plain packaging. I realise that tobacco control is an amen corner, but diverse views are supposed to be welcome in parliament. It's kind of the point of having a debating chamber.

The Independent says that it doesn't know if the IEA receives donations from the tobacco industry. Nor do I, and I don't care, but I would hazard a guess that, as a free market think tank, it receives a good deal of money from various industries and that some of these industries may benefit from the government's Red Tape Challenge. Presumably then, Littlewood is not a fit and proper person to discuss the regulation of any industry, particularly since he has "nailed his colours to the mast" by speaking out in favour of free markets.

This is sheer McCarthyism. Littlewood is being targeted purely because his views diverge from those of the anti-smoking lobby. No dissenting voice can be heard. Liberals must be purged from civil society.

In a statement to The Independent, the Department for Business said that Mr Littlewood would not be involved in any tobacco-related matter.

Way to buckle to a shrill minority of zealots there, Department of Business. As Alex Massie says:

The horror of it! Since Mr Littlewood believes we could manage with fewer regulations a sensible person would conclude that his appointment was a modest but good thing. Apparently not.

It is telling that as ASH's policies get more weird, desperate and unpopular, the more it resorts to squealing about "Big Tobacco". To its credit - and unlike the head-bangers in Australia and the US - ASH tended not to play ad hominems until about five years ago. The bunker mentality we are seeing now is what you would expect from people who are unable to defend themselves in a rational debate (see also "think of the children" - the real last refuge of the scoundrel).

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the IEA gets funding from cigarette manufacturers. Are we to assume that Littlewood - an enthusiastic smoker and a keen libertarian - would otherwise be vehemently anti-smoking? He was saying the same thing when he worked for the Lib Dems. And Liberty. And when he co-founded No2ID and Liberal Vision. Spot a civil liberties theme emerging here? Are they in the pay of Philip Morris as well? Or maybe - just maybe - his opinions have been formed by studying the evidence and reaching his own conclusion.

It is a sign of exceptional self-righteousness bordering on schizophremia to think that those who disagree with you must be paid to do so, as Kristian Niemietz explained in a perceptive article last week.

Last autumn and this winter, [George] Monbiot [Guardian journalist and climate change fanatic] wrote a number of articles effectively saying that there is not really such a thing as a free-market philosophy. Think tanks who call themselves ‘libertarian’ or ‘free-market’ are merely hired PR agencies, who say what their paymasters – big corporations and billionaires – tell them to say. Monbiot seems to believe that if you could hide bugging device in the office of a free-market think tank, the conversations you would hear behind the scenes would go something like this:

- ‘I just finished my new paper. Complete baloney from the first to the last page of course - we all know that free markets don’t work - but who cares, it’s what the paymasters want to hear.’

- ‘Sure. And I’ve just given a talk pretending I believed in privatisation, can you imagine? Hard to keep a straight face, but I think I managed it.’

According to Monbiot, nobody really believes in libertarianism, not even those obscure paymasters he’s so obsessed with. This is because in his interpretation, libertarianism is not a world view in the conventional sense. It is a character defect, a desire to exploit other people and destroy the planet.

Should it really be surprising that someone who believes in free choice and free markets should disagree with the confiscation of trademarks? Should it surprise us that a libertarian opposes the infringement of private property rights? It should not. The message from ASH is that anyone who opposes red tape should not be involved in the Red Tape Challenge, and anyone who opposes their increasingly unhinged agenda should not be allowed to engage in policy-making.

Tobacco policy is essentially a closed shop in this country. The Department of Health pays ASH to come up with policy documents (such as Beyond Smoking Kills) and then pays them to campaign for the policies it has recommended. The DoH then uses taxpayers' money to pay its other front groups (such as Smokefree Northwest) to lobby at the grass-roots level. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking is run by ASH (Deborah Arnott is its secretariat) and they work to brief MPs and lobby for the same policies. ASH and the DoH work closely together behind the scenes to mislead both the House of Commons and the House of Lords (as the Dark Market e-mails reveal).

At no point is any dissenting voice allowed to be heard. The tobacco industry is forbidden from lobbying the government and smokers themselves are never considered to be 'stakeholders'. From top to bottom, the decision-making process is controlled by a small elite of unaccountable, unelected anti-smoking prohibitionists living off the taxpayers' dime.

And now, it seems, mere disagreement with any part of their policy agenda is enough to have you excluded from involvement and demonised by useful idiots at little-read broadsheet newspapers. One cannot be "independent" if you disagree with the prohibtionists. What a strange and Orwellian definition of independence these people have. Still, it helps to distract from a sensible debate about the issue and that's all ASH can hope for.

Alex Massie has more on this at The Spectator.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Pete Robinson unleashed

Pete Robinson, whom many of you will know from his articles in The Publican, reflects on the demise of that publication and the pub industry generally. His account of five year's of denial and self-delusion over the smoking ban will not surprise anyone outside of the Westminster bubble, but it cannot be said often enough.

Towards the end of 2007 the industry was clearly in deep trouble. The 'New Breed' of non-smoking drinker had failed to materialise and the long exodus of the pub trade's life blood, its rank-and-file customers, was already underway. Pub insolvencies were already up 600%, a number that would TREBLE in the following year to EIGHTEEN TIMES former rates, while those prized industry shares were nosediving into the cellar.

Yet at the time you'd never have guessed any of this by reading The Publican. The main consensus was how smoothly and successfully the ban had been implemented. Every 'industry ‘spokesman’ and his dog queued up to insist their business had been totally unaffected by the ban and each was reported in equal, laborious measure.

I'm sure the smart pubs and wine bars were doing okay around the Publican's plush offices on London's trendy South Bank, and perhaps still are. However this only served to insulate the editorial staff from the grim reality sweeping across the rest of the country everywhere north of Watford.

In one 2007 Publican article I remember a smoking-ban 'official' assuring worried publicans that "it normally takes around 3 months for lost trade to return".

Eh? WTF? I was staggered such a fatuous comment went unchallenged. This eejit had no right nor evidence to make such an unsubstantiated statement yet it was reported as if it were gospel.

By 2008 the post-ban carnage could no longer be ignored. But as the rapidly plummeting trade stats settled into a terminal spiral of descent the Publican's editorial opinion switched to naively blaming 'bad' pubs which had been unable to evolve.

'Embrace' the smoking ban we were told. Just do food and everything will be okay. Up your game, open a library/post office/cinema in your pub. Set aside a lunchtime for expectant mothers or an evening for transvestite grandads.

Just offer 'excellence' then watch the customers come running.

How do you 'evolve' to a 33% to 80% drop in takings? Even if it were possible for the country to sustain 40-odd-thousand foodie pub-restaurants, for many it was madness to invest a fortune in pricey catering equipment when local competitors were offering £2.99 two-for-one deals.

In truth the customers we've lost don't want excellence. Most pubgoers couldn't give a toss about fine dining, health emporiums, creches, drop-in centres or gymnasiums. They simply want to be treated like adults. They want their old pubs back, warts an' all.

During the summer of 2008 the recession kicked off as the 'credit crunch' and that was that. At last everyone had something to blame it all on despite pubs trading well throughout all previous recessions.

And that's pretty much the story up to today. The pub game is still up shit creek and if they had a paddle they'd be rowing even deeper into the murky waters of complete denial.

In 2010 The Publican's own survey showed 78% of licensees, many of them desperate to save their ailing businesses, were demanding the smoking ban be amended to allow separate indoor smoking rooms. This was backed by an F2C survey published in the Morning Advertiser which found the figure virtually identical at 79%.

So why wasn't more made of this? God only knows.

Instead the Publican threw its weight behind three campaigns - to fight the proposed mandatory code of practice, 'axe the tax' (duty and VAT cuts on pub drinks) and hike up supermarket prices, none of which stood a cat in hell's chance of success.

Even if they'd all been won it would still make no difference to today's unpopularity if every pub sold beer at one quid-a-pint. Customers are still abandoning the pub and we've been unable to stem the flow. We never will until the industry admits to the problem that dare not speak its name, that huge grinning elephant sitting in the room.

Read the rest here.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Prohibition working as well as ever

From The Observer:

Mephedrone more popular since being banned – survey

The full story is here, but the following provides a summary of how well the prohibition of mephedrone (bubble, m-cat, meow meow), and prohibition generally, has worked:

"Since we carried out our first study the purity of mephedrone has fallen, the price has risen, yet the results of our second study showed both use and popularity had increased in the year since the ban.

"The results of our two studies showed that not only were club-goers undeterred by the change in law, but the drug had in fact increased in popularity among our sample."


Readers of The Art of Suppression might be interested in this next finding...

The survey found the dance drug GHB – also known as GBL – was the second most popular drug among clubbers

GHB isn't actually the same as GBL, but that is just routine journalistic ignorance of designer drugs. Neverthless, I trust you get the point.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Sugar riposte

As a postscript to the 'toxic sugar' silliness, a spokesman for the sugar industry (Big Sugar?) has responded in a letter to Nature.

As director-general of the World Sugar Research Organisation, I wish to point out some shortcomings in the latest discussion of sugar's impact on health (Nature 482, 27–29; 2012).

Robert Lustig and colleagues incorrectly say that sugar consumption has tripled worldwide since the 1960s. The global population has more than doubled in that time, so the increase in sugar supply per head is more like 60%. [D'oh! - CJS] In fact, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom all show only marginal changes over the past few decades in average sugar consumption as a proportion of food-energy intake.

The authors argue that sugar can kill because of its supposed influence on metabolic syndrome (itself a controversial concept), indirectly implicating a WHO Technical Report that draws no such conclusion. There is little consistent effect on the symptoms of this syndrome in people who eat up to three times more sugar than the average Western intake (A. S. Truswell Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 59, 710S–718S; 1994). Neither have any deaths been attributed to dietary sugars in an exhaustive analysis of US mortality figures (G. Danaei et al. PLoS Medicine 6, e100058; 2009).

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the US Food and Nutrition Board, and the European Food Standards Authority have all considered the issues now revisited by Lustig et al. and find no reliable evidence that typical sugar consumption contributes to any disease apart from dental caries. Without evidence that reducing sugar consumption would improve public health, Lustig and colleagues’ policy proposals are irrelevant.

Scientific controversies should be settled by consideration of all the available evidence, not of a seemingly biased selection. Overconsumption of anything is harmful, including of water and air.

Richard C. Cottrell,
World Sugar Research Organisation,
London, UK

He makes some sound points, I think you'll agree. But why worry about facts when you can shout about 'toxins' and 'poisons' and think of the children? And why listen to the vested interests of the evil sugar industry when you can listen to the batshit opinions of Californian 'medical sociologists'? Look, it's Mary Poppins and she's killing kiddies! What more proof do you need?

Picture used to illustrate Nature's toxic sugar article

Penn and Teller explain the absurdity of Americans levying sin taxes on sugary food and drinks below.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Boozy Britain - what the BBC won't tell you

From the BBC:

Over-45s tend to drink more often, says ONS survey

Adults aged over 45 are three times as likely to drink alcohol every day as those aged under 45, results of a lifestyle survey suggest.

More than 22% of men aged 65 and over, but just 3% of men aged 16 to 24 drank almost every day - though younger adults were more likely to binge drink.

More than 13,000 people across Britain completed the Office for National Statistics survey.

Experts recommend three alcohol-free days a week.

The findings of the General Lifestyle Survey 2010 cover a range of topics including people's drinking and smoking habits.

Yadda, yadda, yadda. Alcohol Concern and Drinkaware are given ample space to say the usual stuff, but this is really a non-story. One age group is bound to drink more than the rest. It is a statistical inevitability.

There is nothing to see here, but there should be. Y'see, the General Lifestyle Survey is, as Ron Burgundy might say, kind of a big deal. It is the main source of statistics for alcohol consumption and I couldn't help but feel, as I read the Beeb's report, that there was something they weren't telling us.

Sure enough, the text of the report tells a very different story...

Between 2005 and 2010 average weekly alcohol consumption decreased from 14.3 units to 11.5 units per adult. Among men average alcohol consumption decreased from 19.9 units to 15.9 units a week and for women from 9.4 units to 7.6 units a week.

That, folks, is a twenty percent drop in the nation's alcohol consumption in just five years. Is that not newsworthy? Why wouldn't a state broadcaster think licence-payers would want to know a fact like that?

When a few medics wrote a letter to the Telegraph calling for minimum pricing, that was considered newsworthy.

When the Lancet picked a number out of the air and extrapolated it over twenty years, that was considered it newsworthy.

When alcohol-related deaths increased by a statistically insignificant amount, that was considered newsworthy.

But a twenty percent drop in alcohol consumption? Nah, who'd want to hear that? After all, it's hardly going to help the campaign for minimum pricing and a total advertising ban if people discover that the Booze Britain narrative is a myth.

The drop in drinking doesn't just apply to per capita consumption. Take the 'safe' drinking level, for example...

Since 2005 the GHS/GLF has shown a decline in the proportion of men drinking more than 21 units of alcohol a week and in the proportion of women drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week. The proportion of men drinking more than 21 units a week fell from 31 per cent in 2005 to 26 per cent in 2010 and the proportion of women drinking more than 14 units a week fell from 21 per cent to 17 per cent over the same period.

Yes, but what about the young people—Britain's true binge-drinkers?

These changes were driven by falls in the younger age groups. Among men, the percentage drinking more than 21 units of alcohol a week decreased in the 16 to 24 age group (from 32 per cent to 21 per cent) and in the 25 to 44 age group (from 34 per cent to 27 per cent). Falls were also present among women; the percentage drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week fell in the 25 to 44 age group from 25 per cent to 19 per cent.

Dammit! What about heavy drinking then? Surely that's gone through the roof...

When using the average weekly consumption measure, heavy drinking is defined as consuming more than 50 units a week for men and consuming more than 35 units a week for women. There have been falls in the proportions of both men and women who drink heavily since 2005. The estimates for men fell from 9 per cent to 6 per cent and for women fell from 5 per cent to 3 per cent from 2005 to 2010.

And so it goes on and on...

The proportion of men who reported drinking alcohol in the seven days before interview fell from 72 per cent in 2005 to 67 per cent in 2010. Similarly, the proportion of women who reported drinking alcohol in the seven days before interview fell from 57 per cent to 53 per cent over the same period. In addition, the proportion of men who reported drinking alcohol on at least five days in the week before interview fell from 22 per cent in 2005 to 17 per cent in 2010. The proportion of women reporting drinking alcohol on at least five days in the week before interview fell from 13 per cent to 10 per cent over the same period.

There is a downward trend in the proportions of men exceeding four units and women exceeding three units on their heaviest drinking day in the week before interview. The proportion of men exceeding four units on their heaviest drinking day was 41 per cent in 2005 and 36 per cent in 2010. The proportion of women exceeding three units was 34 per cent in 2005 and 28 per cent in 2010.

The estimates for heavy drinking follow a similar pattern. When using the heaviest drinking day in the last week measure, heavy drinking is defined as exceeding twice the Government daily benchmarks on a single day: more than 8 units of alcohol on that day for men and consuming more than 6 units on that day for women. The proportion of men drinking more than 8 units on their heaviest drinking day fell from 23 per cent in 2005 to 19 per cent in 2010. The corresponding estimates for women drinking heavily (more than 6 units) were 15 per cent in 2005 and 13 per cent in 2010.

The most pronounced changes have occurred in the 16 to 24 age group. Among men in this age group, the proportion drinking more than 4 units on their heaviest drinking day fell from 46 per cent in 2005 to 34 per cent in 2010 and the proportion drinking more than 8 units decreased from 32 per cent to 24 per cent over the same period. There have also been marked falls for women in this age group with the proportion drinking more than 3 units on their heaviest drinking day falling from 41 per cent in 2005 to 31 per cent in 2010 and the proportion drinking more than 6 units falling from 27 per cent to 17 per cent.

I think you get the picture.

Not one word of this was reported by the BBC, although they are able to find space for the dregs of junk science and thinly-veiled policy documents. I've come to expect nothing more from the BBC's health reporters, but the fact that the rest of the media have reported the findings of the General Lifestyle Survey in much the same way suggests that the Office for National Statistics press released it like this (if you want how deeply churnalism in engrained in Fleet Street compare and contrast the BBC's report with that of the Guardian).


Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Scottish smoking ban miracle touches the unborn

The miracles keep on coming in Scotland, soon there will be pilgrimages.

Drop in pregnancy complications after smoking ban

Complications in pregnancy have fallen as a result of the ban on smoking in public places, according to a new study.

Researchers found the ban, introduced almost six years ago, has led to a drop in the number of babies being born before they reach full term.

It has also reduced the number of infants being born underweight.

My word, this post hoc ergo propter hoc junk science sounds like the kind of rubbish Jill Pell keeps coming out with.

The research team, led by Professor Jill Pell...

Ah, Professor Pell, we meet again and under such similar circumstances. You may recall Jill "Pinocchio" Pell from her signature piece claiming that the heart rate plummeted after the Scottish smoking ban, but for sheer effrontery in the face of rock solid evidence, her subsequent article claiming that the asthma rate fell after the smoking ban takes the cake. Rarely has science met fiction so brazenly.

...looked at more than 700,000 single-baby births before and after the introduction of the ban.

The number of mothers who smoked fell from 25.4% to 18.8% after the new law was brought in, researchers discovered.

This, as you might expect from Pell, is a distortion of the truth. The 25.4% figure relates to 2001, some five years before the ban was introduced. Any honest researcher would surely use the figure for 2005 (22.5%) as the pre-ban measure. We already know from a previous Pell study that the ban had no effect on the smoking rate in the general population. Looking at the ISD figures, it is difficult to see any effect on expectant mothers as well. There is a general downward trend which continued after 2006.

The graph above might actually exaggerate the decline. I was interested to see, upon studying the ISD data, that the smoking ban coincided with (I shall not say caused as I am not a charlatan) a large increase in number of expectant mothers for whom no information on smoking status was available. In other words, more pregnant women are refusing to tell the NHS whether or not they smoke.

The likelihood is that many of these women are smokers but do not wish to be chastisted by the denormalisers of Scotland's health service. This suspicion is supported by the fact that the proportion of pregnant women who are lifelong non-smokers has barely moved for a decade.

Back to the news story...

Experts further found there was a drop of more than 10% in the overall number of babies born "pre-term", which is defined as delivery before 37 weeks' gestation.

There was also a 5% drop in the number of infants born under the expected weight, and a fall of 8% in babies born "very small for gestational size".

This is the meat of the research. As so often, the study has been press released before publication so we cannot see which statistical tricks Pell has employed, but we can use the official NHS records to see how her claims stand up. The data are available here.

The graph below shows preterm births (ie. less than 37 weeks gestation) as a percentage of all live births recorded in Scottish hospitals between 1996 and 2010 (the period that Pell claims to have studied).

The proportion of babies born prematurely in this period remained very constant (between 6.8% and 7.9%). The post-smoking ban years were unremarkable, with percentages of 7.3, 7.4, 7.6 and 7.2 (2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 respectively). The lowest rate was in 1996. There appears to be no relationship with the general smoking rate, maternal smoking rate or the smoking ban.

I suspect what Pell has done here is taken the highest pre-ban figure (7.9%) and compared it with the lowest post-ban figure (7.2%). The difference between these figures in percentage terms is a little under 9% which, with a bit of statistical massaging, could become "a drop of more than 10% in the overall number of babies born 'pre-term'".

Since preterm births are the major driver behind low birth weights, it should be no surprise that there has been no major change in the number of babies with a low birth weight. Between 97.0% and 97.4% of all full-term pregnancies in Scotland in this period resulted in a baby of normal weight (2500 gm+). I can see no evidence of any 'smoking ban effect' in any of the ISD data. There are moderate random variations and nothing more.

Dr Pell said the research highlighted the positive health benefits which can stem from tobacco control legislation.

To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davis, she would, wouldn't she?

She said: "These findings add to the growing evidence of the wide-ranging health benefits of smoke-free legislation and support the adoption of such legislation in other countries which have yet to implement smoking bans.

"These reductions occurred both in mothers who smoked and those who had never smoked."

Sorry, what?

"These reductions occurred both in mothers who smoked and those who had never smoked."

Doesn't that tell you something then, Pell? If you are claiming that the smoking ban reduced preterm births because it made people give up smoking, the fact that you found the same result with nonsmokers rather gives the game away, does it not? If, on the other hand, you're suggesting that reducing secondhand smoke miraculously reduces preterm births (I haven't read the study yet, but I wouldn't put it past you to indulge in such superstition), the findings for smokers strongly suggest that this is nonsense as well. Or perhaps you are going to claim that smokers somehow feel the benefit of secondhand smoke reductions as well. Nothing would surprise me at this stage.

"The potential for tobacco control legislation to have a positive effect on health is becoming increasingly clear."

Yes, yes. We understand why you keep producing this garbage. Why don't you go find yourself a street corner to shout from?

Researchers looked at data for babies born between January 1996 and December 2009, taken from the Scottish Morbidity Record, which collected information on all women discharged from Scottish maternity hospitals.

Which is exactly what I have shown above. Feel free to check the data yourself.

UPDATE: Michelle Roberts—easily the worst of the BBC's appalling health reporting team—has been suckered by this story. Her entry on Journalisted is an A-Z of pointless epidemiology. I notice the national press have ignored the story, presumably on the basis of 'once bitten'.

Pell's study has appeared on PLoS here. It's short on data but this is her killer graph...

This barely resembles the actual data from Scottish hospitals, but even so it takes a massive leap of faith to attribute the smoking ban to any part of it. The hard line represents the smoking ban, but Pell prefers to use the dotted line because "the Akaike information criterion statistics suggested that using 1 January 2006 as the breakpoint produced a marginally superior model fit than using 26 March 2006." Hey, whatever fits your a priori conclusion the best, Jill.

Even having moved that goalpost, it's plain to see that the fall in preterm births began around ten months before the smoking ban came in. In fact, it came well over a year before, because the timeline Pell is using is the date of conception, not birth. It must have been pretty galling for her to see that the largest drop in her graph preceded the ban and came to an end as soon as the ban came in. Moving the date back to January does not help her much in that respect. Furthermore, even if it had happened after the ban, it would hardly have been proof of anything. There are two little peaks in the graph (as there are in my graph above) followed by two drops. Peaks do tend to be followed by drops, y'know. Maybe Jill Pell should look up 'regression to the mean'.

Monday, 5 March 2012

A real scientist speaks

One of the bits of voodoo science upon which the anti-smoking extremists are pinning their hopes vis a vis plain packaging came from the pen of Linda Bauld. You may recall Bauld as the fantasist who insists that the smoking ban did no harm to England's pubs. She works at the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, an organisation that the BBC correctly described as a "campaign group" over the weekend. Although she is not a scientist herself, she is the scientific advisor on tobacco control to the Department of Health.

Her study involved using eye-tracking technology to monitor how long people linger on cigarette health warnings. She claimed that non-smokers (but not smokers) look at warnings for longer on plain packets than on normal packets and concluded that: "Plain packaging will make health warnings appear more prominent and strengthen their impact." This finding was duly misreported by our cretinous media under such headlines as "Smokers ignore health warnings".

There are a couple of critical flaws in this logic. Health warnings only tell people what they have known about smoking since they were about five years old and it takes a massive leap of faith to think that people's decision to smoke will be altered by an few extra milliseconds looking at them. It is simply absurd to believe, in 2012, that people of any age start smoking without being cognisant of the risks.

More interestingly, a vision scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London, has carried out a very similar experiment but got some quite different results. Dr Timothy Holmes used eye-tracking technology on a sample of 59 students and found the following...

...we were surprised to observe two interesting results: the non-smokers looked at the warning messages much less than the other participants, and there was no difference between plain and branded package designs in the amount of time spent looking at the warning message.

Now, it’s great that the right people are looking more at the warning message, but if this doesn’t result in an increased risk perception then surely the messages aren’t doing their job! Moreover, if removing the brand identity doesn’t change the way people look at the packets then maybe plain packaging, which will be costly to implement, isn’t the best of ideas.

Holmes' results are shown below. Non-smokers looked at the brand (blue) more than the warning (red) in both cases, but the type of packaging made no difference to either group.

So, on the one hand, you have a professional vision scientist who has no agenda and no axe grind finding that plain packaging won't make any difference (and giving plausible reasons to support his empirical data.) On the other hand, you have a professor of socio-management who works for an anti-smoking campaign group, using the same methods but finding that plain packaging will make a difference.

Ooh, who to trust?

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Talk is cheap

"The era of big, bossy, state interference, top-down lever pulling is coming to an end."

David Cameron, Prime Minister, 2008

"For too long, laws have taken away you freedom, interfered with your life and made it difficult for businesses to get on ... This Government is going to transform our politics so the state has far less control over you ... We’ll get rid of the unnecessary laws – and once they’re gone, they won’t come back."

Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, 2010

"In the past government has had a tendency to shout at the public from the sidelines rather than being down on the pitch with them."

Anne Milton, Public Health Minister, 2010

"All our decisions must be evidence-based, and on that basis, we do not currently support an introduction of minimum pricing."

Andrew Lansley, Health Minister, 2010

Fast forward to March 2012...

CHEAP booze is finally facing the axe as David Cameron launches a twin blitz on drinks and fags.

The PM is ready to press ahead with plans to introduce minimum pricing in an attempt to stamp out binge drinking.

Meanwhile Mr Lansley will spearhead a TV ad offensive warning smokers not to light up near children.

The campaign will be followed by a ban on tobacco displays in supermarkets starting on April 6. Smaller shops will be forced to end their displays in April 2015.

Mr Lansley will also press ahead with plans to force cigarette firms to sell every brand in plain grey packets with a big health warning to make them less attractive to kids [erm, aren't we supposed to have a public consultation on that first? -  CJS].

Whoever you vote for, the Department of Health's fake charities always win.

David Cameron: "Cheap drinks for me, but not for thee."

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The easiest thing in the whole world

People say a lot of stupid things on Twitter and it's unfair to take off-the-cuff comments as definitive statements. However, if the stupid thing is then repeated twice, it seems fair to assume that it represents their sincere belief.

Last week, wrinkly rocker Simon Chapman applied himself to picking holes in my report about plain packaging. Having given due thought to the possibility that standardising the colour, shape and size of cigarette packs might just make life easier for those who counterfeit cigarettes, Chapman came back with this killer argument....

The evidence he presents is a short video clip in which an undercover journalist shows a Hong Kong counterfeiter a pack of Winfield Lights and asks him: "How close can you get to that?" The counterfeiter replies "100%". That's it. He doesn't say it's "100% easy" (even if he had, it would be a meaningless statement.) He certainly doesn't say that counterfeiting cigarette packs couldn't be made any easier. He just says that perfect replication is, in his opinion, possible. 

For Chapman, however, this statement indicates that there is a scientifically provable ranking of easiness and that counterfeiting elaborate cigarette packaging is right at the top of it. Perhaps it looks something like this...

As you can see from the graph, counterfeiting cigarettes is "100% easy". QED, there are no economies that can be made. It is literally the easiest thing in the whole world. My six month old daughter has been doing it for ages. I've counterfeited several packs whilst writing this.

Spot the logical flaw? Of course you do, and I put all this down to the early onset of senility that comes from of a life-time of wowserism and paranoia, but Chapman evidently thinks that he really has found a dazzling argument because he has pestered me about it twice since, most recently...

OK Simon, especially for you...

There isn't a Scale of Easiness that goes from 0% to 100%, and even if there was, it wouldn't be measured by the bravado of organised criminals. You have taken one idea— that it is possible to replicate a product perfectly—and confused it with a wholly different idea: that the product can be replicated with perfect ease. Having made that logical error, you then assert that it is impossible to replicate the product more easily.

That is manifestly untrue. Counterfeiting cigarettes is a complex process with significant barriers to entry and relatively high start-up costs. By asserting that barriers to entry could never be lowered, costs could never be cut, and the process could never be made more convenient or accessible, you make an absurd statement.

As with all propagandists, it is difficult to know whether Chapman is deliberately trying to mislead or is genuinely confused. If he is sincere, it demonstrates something that is common amongst cranks and conspiracy theorists. The guy in the video didn't say what Chapman wanted him to say so he changed the guy's words around in his head. He then made a basic error of logic which led to a patently ridiculous conclusion and yet, because he cannot see where his thought process went wrong—and because the conclusion matches what he wants to believe—he incorporates it into his dogma as if it were fact. Whereas other people would regard an absurd logical outcome to be the result of absurd logic, he treats the absurd as if it were rational and dismisses logic as "alchemy".

Simon Chapman edited the journal Tobacco Control for seventeen years.