Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Jamie Oliver's sugar tax 'success'

The evidence that taxing sugary drinks has any effect on obesity is - to put it mildly - poor. The great success story is supposed to be Mexico but we now know that per capita consumption of sugary drinks was essentially the same after that tax was introduced (in 2014) as it was before.

The other success story is supposed to be Berkeley, California, where sugary drink sales fell by 9.6 per cent after a soda tax was introduced in March 2015. But as I mentioned last week, you only have to read the study to see what really happened. Sales fell by 0.8 fluid ounces per transaction in Berkeley but they rose by 0.7 fluid ounces per transaction in neighbouring areas. People simply went out of town to do their shopping.



Since the quantities of sugary drinks consumed didn't change after the soda taxes were introduced in Mexico and Berkeley, it is inconceivable that they could have any effect on obesity. The authors of the Berkeley study (who include soda tax fanatic Barry Popkin) admitted that there was no statistically significant change in calorie intake from sugary drinks and that 'caloric intake of untaxed beverages (milk and other diary-based [sic] beverages) increased.'

Things are not looking good for advocates of these taxes, especially after the taxpayers' revolt in Chicago. An element of desperation is creeping in, hence this today...

Jamie Oliver’s 10p tax on sugary drinks sold in his Italian restaurants has resulted in a significant drop in sales, a study has found.

Jamie knows a thing or two about losing sales. He's been closing restaurants left, right and centre this year. However, the study looks at soft drink sales per customer so should not be affected by the general decline of Oliver's businesses. So what's the story?

A study of the effects of the levy, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, has found that sales of sugar-sweetened drinks such as colas and lemonades fell by 11% in the first 12 weeks. At the end of six months, sales were 9.3% lower than they had been before the levy was introduced.

The price elasticity of sugary drinks is generally though to be around 0.8-1.2, meaning that a 10 per cent increase in price leads to a fall in demand of roughly 10 per cent. Jamie Oliver's drinks are so expensive - at £2.60 to £3.25 - that a 10p 'tax' only increases the price by 3.5 per cent.

A decline in sales of 9.3 per cent as a result of a 3.5 per cent price rise is implausible. It would imply a price elasticity of about 3.0, ie. three times higher than has been observed elsewhere.

To their credit, the researchers admit that this is not very likely...

Prof Steven Cummins of the department of social and environmental health research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who carried out the study, acknowledged that the clientele of Oliver’s restaurants tended to be affluent, and that the price hike on a drink costing between £2.60 and £3.25 might not make a lot of difference to them.




“I don’t think the financial element of it is a massive disincentive,” he said. But he likened it to the plastic bag charge, which prompts people to think about having one.

It's worth remembering that Jamie introduced his 'tax' after presenting a ridiculous documentary on Channel 4 that portrayed sugary drinks as something akin to asbestos. This is likely to have had an effect on the kind of morons who admire the man and go to his restaurants. By the same token, it is likely that people who enjoy sugary drinks and don't want to be lectured by a fat-tongued Essex pea-brain would have been less likely to go to his restaurants after Oliver got on his high horse.

In other words, the people who visited his poxy restaurants after he introduced this gimmick were not necessarily the same people who visited before.

The drop in sales at six months of 9.3% was only in the restaurants that previously had higher levels of sales of sweetened drinks. There was a general drop in sales on non-alcoholic beverages, except for fruit juices, which went up. 

This is an important point. The most interesting thing about sugary drinks taxes is seeing what substitution effects take place. The Guardian doesn't give the figures, but the study says that there was a 22 per cent rise in the sale of fruit juice (which has about the same amount of sugar as a fizzy drink), although fruit juice orders from the children's menu fell. Sales of off-menu mixers went up slightly, but sales of diet cola and bottled water went down (by 6-7 per cent).

In fact, the sale of nearly every type of drink went down. It is not clear what, if anything, people were switching to. The authors don't have figures for alcohol sales for some reason, but the rise in the sale of mixers suggests that the sale of spirits may have increased. Alternatively, people could have switched to tap water. Either way, it left Oliver out of pocket.


He [Cummins] said he thought the effect was “entirely transferable” to other less expensive chains. “There is no reason why other restaurants couldn’t do exactly the same,” he said. 

Actually, there is a very good reason. Drink sales are an important revenue stream for restaurants and Oliver seems to have lost them overall. It speaks volumes about 'public health' researchers that Cummins doesn't think this would play a part in a restaurateur's planning.

This study doesn't tell us anything useful about the impact of sugary drink taxes as a government policy. I'll leave it to Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, to have the last word:

“The menu was redesigned: it explained that the proceeds of the levy would go to the Children’s Health Fund, new drink products were introduced, and Jamie himself appeared in a television programme about sugar. So we certainly can’t be sure that the fall in consumption of sugary drinks was entirely, or even mainly, caused by the extra 10p.

“The researchers do provide some circumstantial evidence that the 10p played a role in the reduction in consumption, but they (rightly) make it clear that a study like this can’t prove what caused what. Actually, it doesn’t even establish that any of the specific changes at Jamie’s Italian restaurants had anything to do with the lower consumption – for instance, the researchers had no data from any other restaurants, and maybe consumption fell there as well"

“It’s interesting that, in this study, the consumption of fruit juice from the children’s menu fell as well – indeed it fell by rather more than the consumption of the sugar-sweetened drinks, while consumption of fruit juice from the main menu went up. Maybe the numbers of children going to the restaurants changed, relative to the numbers of adults – the researchers couldn’t tell because they had no data on whether customers were adults or children. Maybe things would have been clearer if they had had data over a full year after the change, rather than just from September to February.

Quite so.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Problem gambling figures misrepresented yet again

Back in May, I wondered why Phillip Blond had suddenly taken an interest in fixed odds betting terminals. It now transpires that his think tank, Respublica, had been commissioned by the Campaign for Fairer Gambling to write a report about them. It was published today and you won't be surprised to hear that it supports Derek Webb's longstanding goal to reduce the stakes to an unplayable £2.

I wouldn't bother mentioning it here if it weren't for the fact that it does what so many anti-FOBT campaigners do and lies about the problem gambling statistics... 

The latest available research has found that the number of problem gamblers has surged – from 280,000 in 2012 to 430,000 in 2015. 

Respublica provide two references for this: a Gambling Commission report about England and Scotland with statistics from 2012 and a Gambling Commission report about England, Scotland and Wales with statistics from 2015.

Respublica don't mention the fact that the latter report has an extra four million people in it (three million people live in Wales, plus UK population growth of around one million). In fact, they explicitly claim that both reports only look at England and Scotland. They then claim that there was a rising in problem gambling in these three years 'of over 50 per cent'.

This is implausible on the face of it and it is untrue. The 2012 report gives an estimate of the number of problem gamblers under the two usual measures: 

The confidence interval for the DSM-IV estimate was 0.3%–0.7%, for the PGSI estimate 0.2%–0.6% and for either screen 0.4%–0.9%.

And the 2015 report says:

The confidence interval for the DSM-IV estimate was 0.5% to 1.0%, for the PGSI estimate 0.4% to 0.9% and for either screen 0.6 % to 1.1%.

The figures from 2015 are higher, but there is not a statistically significant difference. All these estimates tell us is that there is a 95% probability that the real figure lies somewhere between the confidence intervals.

Even a naive reading of the stats does not imply a 50 per cent increase, however, and the Gambling Commission's most recent (absolute) number is 320,000 people, not 430,000 people.

If you look at the figures from 2010 you will see that they are higher than in either of the subsequent reports, being 0.7%-1.2% under the DSM-IV estimate and 0.5%-1.0% for the PGSI estimate. (The 2010 report didn't combine the two to come up with a third estimate.)

And the 2010 figures were slightly higher than the 2007 figures. So it goes. These estimates have wide confidence intervals and they fluctuate a bit but there is no visible trend in either direction. (See here for more details about this.)

There was not a significant increase between 2012 and 2015, just as there was not a significant decline between 2010 and 2015. Every problem gambling survey since 1999 has been consistent with the hypothesis that problem gambling prevalence has held steady at around 0.7%.

As I have said before, you can only pretend that there is a trend if you cherry-pick your reports and ignore the confidence intervals. That's why rates of problem gambling have appeared to be doubling and doubling in the last decade, if you believe the media, without the number of problem gamblers ever getting larger. 

There isn't much else in the Respublica report to discuss because it doesn't provide much in the way of evidence, but a dishonourable mention should go The Times for making this howler in its coverage...

In total about 1.5 million people play the machines, collectively losing more than £1.7 billion last year, almost £12,000 each on average.

£1.7 billion divided by 1.5 million people is £1,133, not £12,000. The Times is out by a factor of ten.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Nudge and liberty

The behavioural economist Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize this week. I was on the Moral Maze with Thaler back in 2010 and it was obvious that we were the only two people out of the eight on the show who had read his book. This wouldn't have mattered except that the show was all about nudging and Thaler had to listen to his ideas being totally misrepresented. I remember him saying to one panellist, 'you could not be wronger'.

People have been getting nudge wrong ever since and Thaler occasionally corrects them...




Some libertarians find nudging a bit sinister but most of them have never read the book either. Personally, I have always thought that libertarian paternalism was much more libertarian than paternalistic. The main criticism of nudging is not that it is authoritarianism but that it is quite trivial. In practice, there are not many problems that can be solved by nudging, particularly by government.

I've written about this in my forthcoming book, Killjoys, which will be published on November 10th and I've given CapX an excerpt which you can read here.

I'll say more about the book in a future post but here's the cover.



Wednesday, 11 October 2017

A great day in Chicago

In what is undoubtedly the feelgood story of the week, officials in Cook County, Illinois overwhelmingly voted to repeal their hated soda tax after just two months. Cook County is the home of Chicago, America's third largest city, so this is kind of a big deal, even if the UK media chooses to ignore it.

I've written about it here for Spectator Health, so do pop over and read my article, but let's take a moment here to savour the defeat of that evil old fossil Michael Bloomberg who has been bankrolling soda tax campaigns all around America (and beyond). He's not short of money but even a billionaire must smart from pouring millions of dollars down the drain, as he has in Chicago.

In 2016, Bloomberg handed over $1 million for ads to build support for the tax, and then donated another $2 million in August 2017.

In September, Bloomberg funnelled in another $3 million to the pro-tax cause.

And two weeks ago, in an extraordinary act of hubris, he handed out a $2.5 million grant to some 'public health' researchers at the University of Illinois to study the effects of the tax.


Bloomberg therefore spent at least $6 million campaigning for a soda tax that died on its arse after two months. He then spent another $2.5 million to study its non-existent impact. Evidently, Bloomberg's efforts to change the law in another city were not appreciated...


Funny as this all is, Bloomberg could be using his fortune to do some good in the world and heal the sick, but he chooses to spend it on campaigns to make fizzy drinks a bit more expensive which are a waste of time whether they succeed or not. At best, they will fail and we can have a good laugh at him. At worst, they succeed and the cost of living goes up. Meanwhile, there are important medical services that could spend the money usefully.

Anyway, do read my Spectator piece.


Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Fake obesity news

There are more worthless obesity predictions on the front page of The Guardian today...

In 2014, a third of men and women in the US were obese (34%). By 2025 that is predicted to be 41%. 

Really? Because in 2007 we were told that the obesity rate would have reached 41% two years ago...

More than three quarters of American adults will be overweight by 2015, a survey has found. A further 41 per cent will be obese if people continue to gain weight at the current rate, according to the study by Johns Hopkins University.

Still, I'm sure they'll be right this time, eh? I mean it's not as if the obesity rate is falling in America or anything, is it? Oh.

How about Britain? What do the ball-gazing experts of the World Obesity Federation reckon will happen here?

In the UK, more than a quarter of adults (27%) were obese in 2014 and that will rise to 34% by 2025.

Yeah? Well, it was supposed to have hit 32% two years ago according to the government's ill-titled Foresight report of 2007 which said...

The extrapolation of current trends, which underpins the microsimulation, indicates that, by 2015, 36% of males and 28% of females will be obese.

And the new prediction of 34% by 2025 is a bit of a climb down from the 41.5% predicted in Foresight...

By 2025, these figures are estimated to rise to 47% and 36% respectively.

As I have said before, I will happily take a bet with anybody that these predictions do not come true, which is to say that the real rate will be lower than the forecast. It always is because these 'microsimulations' are not serious attempts to plan for the future. They are quack statistics made up by spivs to draw attention to special interests (in this instance, it's World Obesity Day tomorrow).

Obesity forecasts are among the most useless trash in the whole 'public health' racket. Any journalists who give them credence should be ashamed of themselves.

A one-man anti-gambling torpedo

The Financial Times published an interview with Derek Webb recently. Webb is the multi-millionaire inventor of Three Card Poker who has put a small fortune into the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, an organisation he formed to attack fixed-odds betting terminals in betting shops.

He clearly feels that he has the wind in his sails because he's eyeing up his next target...

He adds he may broaden CFG’s focus to target online gambling next. “I want to fight where I can win,” says Mr Webb.

I'm told that he expressed a similar intention to go after the internet next at the Conservative conference last week.

Webb's growing addiction to attacking non-casino gambling sectors will come as no surprise to students of the slippery slope, but few people seem to understand just what a whirlwind of destruction he is unleashing.

Webb wants to reduce the stake on FOBTs to £2, knowing that this will make the machines unplayable for most punters. This will likely mean the end of FOBTs in bookies in Britain.

And that will mean the end of many bookies. FOBTs contribute around half of the average betting shop's revenue. They have no way of making that money from sports betting, which has largely gone online. If they lose half their revenue, there will be thousands of closures. The Association of British Bookmakers says 92 per cent of betting shops are at risk. Nobody knows how many, but it is not unlikely that most would go.

And that has severe repercussions for the horse-racing industry. Under a system set up in the 1960s, horse-racing gets 10.75 per cent of the profits from bets placed on races in bookmakers. This amounts to a subsidy of £60 million per annum but it will be much less if bookmakers go out of business.

As Lawrence Robinson, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Racing & Bloodstock, says:

If FOBTs go, bookmakers’ shops will go, and racing will lose out. 
The government has recently extended the levy to online betting, but online operators do not necessarily pay tax in Britain (to put it mildly) and it remains to be seen how many people bet on horse-racing without betting shops acting as its high street shop window. Horse-racing has been in decline for decades. This could be the final nail in the coffin for some racecourses.  

But it doesn't end there. If FOBTs go, the government will lose £400 million per annum in gambling revenue. To claw it back, the Chancellor is reported to be looking at taxing casinos more.

Formal proposals to be circulated among senior ministers to increase taxes on casinos, sources say.

That would put casinos under added financial pressure to go alongside all their other problems (as with FOBTs, casinos can't pass the costs onto customers via their table games because the odds are fixed).

And now Webb is going to go after online gambling too! From top to bottom, Britain's gambling industry is going to suffer more from one millionaire with a bee in his bonnet than from all the religious campaigners and moral guardians put together.


Monday, 9 October 2017

It's 10 years since George Monbiot said 'Bring on the recession'

Ten years ago today, George Monbiot wrote an article for the Guardian titled 'In this age of diamond saucepans, only a recession makes sense'. Columnists don't write their own headlines, but when he reproduced it on his own website, Monbiot gave it an even less ambiguous title: 'Bring on the recession'.

Three weeks earlier, Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy and there had been a run on the Northern Rock bank. These were the early rumblings of a financial crisis that would engulf most of the world in 2008. The British economy went into recession in the second quarter of 2008 and remained there until mid-2009.

As the graph below shows, it took until 2014/15 for GDP and median incomes to return to pre-crash levels. Median wages have still not caught up.


None of this pain could be felt in 2007 after more than a decade of uninterrupted economic growth. For miserablists at the Guardian, it was growth that was the problem. Sneering at people's desire to own 'stuff' and wanting the market economy to be replaced by a vaguely defined 'sustainable' and 'steady-state' (ie. zero growth) system was a standard, flat-pack anti-capitalist opinion at the time (see chapters 4 and 7 of Selfishness, Greed and Capitalism).

Worn and wearisome though this view was, Monbiot presented it as iconoclastic as he began his article...

If you are of a sensitive disposition, I advise you to turn the page now. I am about to break the last of the universal taboos. I hope that the recession now being forecast by some economists materialises. 

He goes on to complain that some people on jet skis had recently spoilt his visit to an estuary and that the world is getting too noisy. This, he argues, is because people are getting too rich. He then touches on his favourite topic, global warming, with a lament that 'carbon dioxide emissions are higher than they were in 1997, partly as a result of the 60 successive quarters of growth that Gordon Brown keeps boasting about.'

It cannot be seriously argued that the problems Monbiot identifies are not, in part, facilitated by economic growth. The question is whether the benefits of growth outweigh the costs. Monbiot does not deny the benefits. He admits that recessions cause 'hardship' and he acknowledges that...

The massive improvements in human welfare - better housing, better nutrition, better sanitation and better medicine - over the past 200 years are the result of economic growth and the learning, spending, innovation and political empowerment it has permitted.

But at some point, he argues, the costs must exceed the benefits. And he says that point is now (ie. 2007).

It seems to me that in the rich world we have already reached the logical place to stop...

Surely the rational policy for the governments of the rich world is now to keep growth rates as close to zero as possible?

But why was 2007 the logical place to stop, as opposed to 1997 or 1957 or 1907? If carbon emissions are the real issue, the optimum point at which to stop was some time in the nineteenth century, but that would require a dramatic fall in living standards.

Monbiot does not want to go that far. He just wants to settle for the living standards of 2007 and sacrifice future gains. This, I would suggest, is because existing living standards are tangible and we would feel their loss whereas we cannot feel, or even necessarily imagine, the benefits of future economic progress.

Could Monbiot really be confident that the balance had been tipped by 2007? At any stage in the last 150 years you can find people saying that people are rich enough and that the job of government is to redistribute the wealth that exists rather than encourage people to create more. With the benefit of hindsight even the likes of the anti-growth New Economics Foundation would struggle to argue that they were right.

One of the themes of JK Galbraith's The Affluent Society (1959) was that people do not really need to have such extravagances as wall-to-wall carpets, televisions and vacuum cleaners. He claimed that the desire to own such frivolous goods was magicked into them by advertisers.

A lot of people, particularly on the left, agree with Galbriath's analysis but you will never hear them use his particular examples. Nobody outside the lunatic fringe would claim today that a vacuum cleaner was a luxury, or call for economic growth to be wound back to the point at which wall-to-wall carpeting is unaffordable.

Their desire to stop progress now rather than wind the clock back is a tacit acknowledgement that people's lives would be made worse if progress had stopped a few years earlier. It also reveals a lack of imagination and/or optimism about what the future has in store. 

Writing in the 1950s, Galbraith would not have been able to imagine a thing called The Internet, and yet access to high speed broadband is now on the verge of becoming a legal right. Galbraith would have thought nothing about wearing leather shoes, whereas Adam Smith - writing in the 1770s - remarked that neither leather shoes nor linen shirts were 'strictly speaking' necessities and were only considered essential for even the 'poorest creditable person' as a result of 'custom'.

If ordinary people are able to take for granted goods and services that had once been the preserve of the wealthy, most people would see this as a good thing (as Adam Smith did). But for the miserablists, it is a sign that everybody is rich by historical standards, therefore we can stop bothering with the whole capitalism thing.

By 2007, the equivalent of Galbraith's vacuum cleaner was a mobile phone, and Monbiot adjusted the Galbraith argument to fit the times:

I now live in one of the poorest places in Britain [rural Wales - CJS]. The teenagers here have expensive haircuts, fashionable clothes and mobile phones. Most of those who are old enough have cars, which they drive incessantly and write off every few weeks. Their fuel bills must be astronomical. They have been liberated from the horrible poverty that their grandparents suffered, and this is something we should celebrate and must never forget. But with one major exception [which is housing, as Monbiot later explains - CJS], can anyone argue that the basic needs of everyone in the rich nations cannot now be met?

This is an argument that you would usually associate with right-wing conservatives: 'Don't talk to me about poverty! They've all got widescreen televisions!' It is not an argument we've heard much in the Guardian in the last ten years, even from Monbiot, and that is not because the poor have got poorer. As the graph from the ONS shows, the incomes of the bottom fifth of households has risen by 13 per cent (in real terms) since 2007.

If people's 'basic needs' were being met in 2007, they are being met today. I am not sure whether Monbiot still wants to 'keep growth rates as close to zero as possible' but if he does, he must be happy with the way the last ten years have panned out. We hasn't quite seen zero growth, but it has been very close to it.

Far too close, I would say. What a miserable decade it's been. We have seen stagnant productivity, a fall in real wages and a trivial amount of economic growth (all of which are connected). Meanwhile, the government has managed to borrow £1.3 trillion pounds (and counting) with no obvious means of paying it back.

Perhaps there are fewer boy-racers on the streets of Wales as a result. Perhaps there are not as many jet skis to ruin George Monbiot's day trips. Perhaps carbon emissions are slightly lower than they would have been. But what a price to pay.

Monbiot was not the only pundit pining for recession in the carefree days before it became a reality. The following year, the Observer published 'Hurrah for the recession. It will do us a power of good' in which Hephzibah Anderson suggested that being 'poorer in pocket may not make us richer in spirit, but it could just help us get there'. The Independent, which used to be a newspaper, published a column by Tim Lott under the self-explanatory headline ‘Bring on the pain of the recession and purge our coarsened souls’. The Sunday Times published an article by India Knight headlined ‘Aah, what a relief the boom has turned to bust’ in which she was 'happy to observe that the decades of vulgar excess are finally over.'

The theme of all these articles is that we - the little people - had become vulgar consumerists with too much money for our own good and would benefit from a little make-do-and-mend. Saying 'this bad thing is actually good' is bread and butter for op-ed writers. Even so, it was a stupidly callous line to take on the eve of the biggest financial downturn since the Great Depression. As I said in The Spirit Level Delusion: 'When the full impact of the recession hit home a few months later, these columnists had the good sense to shut up about unemployment cleansing the soul for fear of being lynched by their readers.'

Thereafter, journalists began agonising over every 0.1 per cent of GDP growth and lamenting the government's failure to get the economy moving at full throttle. This is how the cycle works - when the economy is bust, we are too poor, and when the economy is booming, we are too rich. We will only know for sure that the economy is back on its feet when Monbiot is calling for another recession.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Deliberately giving someone HIV downgraded to a misdemeanor in California

It's a common refrain among those who want liberalisation of the drug laws to say that drug use is a public health issue, not a criminal issue. Here's Shirley Cramer of the Royal Society for Public Health, for example...

"The time has come for a new approach, where we recognise that drug use is a health issue, not a criminal justice issue, and that those who misuse drugs are in need of treatment and support – not criminals in need of punishment.”

I don't really agree with this. Drug use can be a health issue but the vast majority of people who take drugs do not harm their health and do not become addicted. As far as I'm concerned, drug use is an issue of personal liberty. It would be better if governments viewed it as a health issue rather than a criminal one because they would then decriminalise or legalise drugs, but I don't think drugs are a health issue per se and they are certainly not a 'public health' issue.

The term 'public health' has been greatly distorted in the last 30 years and is now applied to any issue that can affect the health of more than one person. If defined properly, however, it refers to health risks which require collective action to safeguard individuals. People can be exposed to contagious diseases without their knowledge or consent. They can be exposed to industrial pollution without their consent. That is what makes them public health issues.

An infectious disease like HIV/AIDS is therefore a public health issue. So guess what the loony state of California has done now?

Knowingly exposing others to HIV will no longer be a felony in California 

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill Friday that lowers from a felony to a misdemeanor the crime of knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV without disclosing the infection.

The measure also applies to those who give blood without telling the blood bank that they are HIV-positive.

Even by the standards of the West Coast, this is insane. And guess what the justification for it is?

“Today California took a major step toward treating HIV as a public health issue, instead of treating people living with HIV as criminals,” Wiener said in a statement.

It feels as if the state government has taken the well-worn line about why we should treat drug users as victims rather than criminals and applied it to the issue of people deliberately infecting other people with a serious infectious disease.

Mr Wiener is quite wrong to say that the existing law treats 'people living with HIV as criminals'. It does not. It treats people living with HIV who do this sort of thing as criminals. Wiener is a dangerous imbecile and his justification is idiotic. He might as well have said that legalising asbestos was the 'first step toward treating mesothelioma as a public health issue'.

This is a state where you can be fined for smoking in a park, but the government wants to be more tolerant of people who knowingly donate HIV-positive blood to blood banks.

It was always a safe bet that California would be the place where 'public health' went completely round the bend, but who would have imagined in their wildest nightmares that the moment would come when they decided to make it easier for people to spread AIDS?

Still, if you're in California and you get infected with HIV while having a blood transfusion, take comfort from the fact that it's all part of treating HIV as a 'public health issue'.

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Global Alcohol Policy Conference 2017

The Global Alcohol Policy Alliance (GAPA) has been having its conference in Australia this week. You may recall that GAPA is the latest incarnation of the gospel temperance movement which has found a way to gorge itself on taxpayers' money by integrating with the 'public health' racket.

One advantage of being a 'policy alliance' is that you don't have to pretend your conference is about science. Instead you can focus on political activism, which is what most of the academics in the field are really interested in anyway. Sessions at this year's event include...

Advocating for change: the role of community polling

Skilling Youth as Alcohol Advocates Against Alcohol Advertising and Marketing in Botswana

How to defend alcohol taxes: an economic perspective

Alcohol campaigning in the UK: Ten years of ups and downs

Mobilising alliances to advocate for meaningful progress on alcohol and NCDs

'There’s a War On’ winning the battle for hearts and minds

Advocating for effective alcohol marketing regulation via an alternative complaint review process

Monitoring and Exposing Innovative tool to reveal Big Alcohol tactics

Building support for change: the benefits of a national NCD alliance

Advocacy Campaigns for Alcohol Free Portfolios: Norway as a case study

Lessons from 20 years of tobacco control: The FCTC and Bloomberg Initiative

Public Health’s role in Licensing: equipping Public Health to be advocates

If you look at the conference programme you will see that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a vast number of sessions and a huge number of speakers from around the world, including our very own Colin Shevills (from the Balance Northeast sockpuppet), Katherine Brown (UK Temperance Alliance masquerading as the Institute of Alcohol Studies), Jeff Collin (UKTCAS), John Holmes (University of Sheffield) and Ian Gilmore (Alcohol Health Alliance). You won't be surprised to hear that none of the sessions appear to discuss any social, economic or health benefits associated with alcohol.

Fair enough, you might say. It is a temperance conference, after all. But two things stick in the craw about this jamboree.

Firstly, that taxpayers are being forced to pay for it. When GAPA came to Scotland in 2015, it was the taxpayer who footed the bill thanks to sponsorship by the NHS and Scottish Government. Nicola Sturgeon gave a keynote speech and the organisers paid tribute to her 'political courage'. It is difficult to find the words to describe this nauseating, tax-sponging echo chamber.

This year, the sponsors include the Australian Department of Health, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, NOFASD, the Public Health Association of Australia and the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), all of which are funded by the Australian taxpayer. For example, FARE was set up by the government with a $115 million grant (!) and spends 50% of its income on 'policy and advocacy', 15% on 'leading change', 6% on 'defending the public interest' and 5% on 'working together'. In other words, it is a state-funded political pressure group.

Other sponsors include the World Health Organisation (taxpayer funded), SHORE (funded by the WHO) and the International Order of Good Templars (funded by the EU). In fact, I can see only one sponsor that probably isn't funded by the state in some way.

It's bad enough that ordinary people have to pay for these fanatics to jet around the world campaigning to make our lives worse. What makes it almost unbearable - and this is the second thing that sticks in the craw - is the delusional vanity of the delegates. For instance, here is Alison Douglas portraying herself as a brave and beleaguered individual fighting The Man.

   
Who is Alison Douglas? She is the CEO of Alcohol Focus Scotland.

What is Alcohol Focus Scotland? It is a pressure group that gets most of its income from the Scottish government (£472,000 last year).

What is the Scottish government's stance on minimum pricing? It is massively in favour of it. Here is the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressing the Global Alcohol Policy Conference earlier this week, explicitly encouraging her paid sockpuppets to keep up the good work.


In what perverse parallel universe can people who are funded and supported by a like-minded government be considered the underdogs? Douglas has been flown out to Australia at the expense of either the British taxpayer or the Australian taxpayer to present herself as some sort of citizen activist. It's a farce. It is ludicrous for these people to present them as anti-establishment. They are the establishment. The First Minister is their client and the temperance shindig Douglas is speaking at is, to all intents and purposes, a government conference.

And so I ask - not for the first time - why are we being forced to pay for these headbangers to discuss how best to lobby their employers?

You can catch up with what the loonies have been talking about by following the #GAPC17 hashtag on Twitter. The tweets - like the conference - seem to have become more extreme since the last one in 2015. The majority of them are about how evil 'Big Alcohol' is and nearly all of them are at least mildly deranged. Here is a sample...



























































Thursday, 5 October 2017

Obesity is falling in the USA but you'd never guess

New obesity statistics were released for the USA a few weeks ago. They got a lot of coverage, such as...


The odd thing was that all the coverage focused on individual states and didn't discuss trends over time. When I looked at the original source from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I saw why. Nowhere does it provide the figure for the whole country.

There is a page where you can look at national obesity trends but they only go up to 2013/14 when, we are told, the rate reached 37.9 per cent. This is very high by international standards, but it would be interesting to know what the figures were for 2015 and 2016.

Has the obesity rate gone up or down? RWJF will only say that 'Adult obesity rates are showing signs of leveling off' but provide no figures to show what that looks like.

In theory, you could work out the whole country's obesity rate by looking at the statewide data and adjusting the figures according to the population of each state. I haven't got time to do that and I doubt anybody else has either. 

Whatever the real figure for 2016, it seems pretty clear that it is lower than it was in 2013. It could be considerably lower. Half of the states have a rate of less than 30 per cent. Five states have a rate of 25 per cent or less, which makes them less fat than the UK. And, for what it's worth, the median (state) average is 29.9 per cent.

According to the RWJF report, only five states have an obesity rate of more than 35 per cent - all of them in the South - but the real giveaway is the fact that 'West Virginia has the highest adult obesity rate at 37.7 percent'. If the fattest state has a lower rate of obesity than the whole nation did in 2013, there can be no doubt that US obesity rates are not just 'showing signs of levelling off'. They have gone down.

You don't have to be too cynical to suspect that RWJF are deliberately concealing the national figure because they don't want newspapers to print headlines saying 'Obesity rate on the decline'. But it's not as if people are going to think American has 'beaten' obesity just because the rate has gone from being extremely high to very high. Even if it's dropped a bit, it's still going to be higher than anywhere bar Mexico and a few Pacific Islands. It could be a blip, but don't treat us like idiots. Give us the facts.

Something is very wrong if 'public health' groups are withholding a piece of evidence because it contains some mildly good news.

Czech the facts

When the Nanny State Index (which I edit) was published a few months ago, the Czech Republic came at the bottom the league. It is the freest country in the EU for smoking, drinking, vaping and eating food, and this freedom does not seem to do the Czechs any harm. One of the findings from the Index was that there is no correlation between nanny state scores and life expectancy. Despite the Czech Republic's relative lack of lifestyle regulation, its citizens are not noticeably unhealthy; ten out of the 28 EU countries have lower life expectancies.

So I was surprised to read last week that the Czechs are not only the unhealthiest people in the EU but are the unhealthiest people in the world. And my flabber was well and truly gasted when I heard that the healthiest country in the world was none other than Afghanistan, with Eritrea, Malawi and Somalia all making it into the top ten.

Suspecting that the results had been misreported by the newspapers I looked for the source and was led to a report produced by an organisation called Clinic Compare. And there it was in black and white: 'The Czech Republic was exposed as the most unhealthy country in the world... Residents of Afghanistan were named the healthiest'.

What eccentric methodology was used to put the Aghans at the healthiest end of the spectrum and the Czechs at the unhealthiest? It turned out that the report's authors simply assumed that countries with high rates of alcohol consumption, smoking and obesity were sick while those with low rates of alcohol consumption, smoking and obesity were healthy. No other criteria were used.

This is the lifestyle theory of medicine turned up to eleven. Never mind hunger and disease. Never mind violence and malnutrition. If a nation doesn't comply with the three tenets of western 'public health' puritanism it is unhealthy per se.

And yet if you look at people's actual health, the reality is rather different. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is currently 61 years. In the Czech Republic, it is 79 years. The adult mortality rate in Afghanistan is 260 per 1,000 people. In the Czech Republic, it is 84 per 1,000 people. The infant mortality rate in Afghanistan is 6.6 per cent. In the Czech Republic, it is 0.3 per cent.

But alcohol is banned in Afghanistan, very few women smoke, and people are too poor to be fat so it is a 'public health' utopia, right? Similarly, Niger might come second to bottom in the United Nation's Human Development Index but its people are careful to avoid 'lifestyle-related diseases' by dying, on average, twenty years earlier than the people of Luxembourg. Consequently, Niger is the third healthiest country in the world while Luxembourg is the ninth unhealthiest.

This is clearly bonkers but it is what happens when you mistake inputs for outcomes. The 'public health' lobby has become obsessed with three modifiable lifestyle factors - alcohol, obesity and tobacco. Unable to see beyond this trio of risk factors for diseases of affluence and old age, there are some who have convinced themselves that they are all that matters.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this tunnel-vision leads to bizarre pronouncements, such as when the Director-General of the World Health Organisation visited North Korea and complimented the regime on how few fat people she observed or when Oxfam described Ethiopia as the 'best country' for obesity.

Under no reasonable criteria is the Czech Republic the most unhealthy country in the EU, let alone the world. Perhaps it would be if 'public health' dogma was correct, but that says more about the dogma than the country. A more credible input-based ranking system suggests that the Czech Republic is the 30th most healthy country in the world (the UK is 23rd). If we use life expectancy as the sole measure, it comes 35th. Either way, it is comfortably inside the top quartile.

In fairness, we cannot blame the 'public health' lobby for this particular piece of misinformation. Clinic Compare is a price comparison website for cosmetic surgery which promises to give customers 'the first step towards a new you'. It may not be the most reliable source of global health statistics, but that did not stop the Evening Standard, the Independent and numerous other global media outlets repeating its nonsense verbatim.

It is slightly worrying that none of the journalists who covered the story asked themselves whether it passed the smell test, but so much quackery, garbage and clickbait crosses their desk under the umbrella of 'health news' that it is no surprise if they have become desensistised to piffle.


First published at Spectator Health

Monday, 2 October 2017

Another Big Food conspiracy theory

A few weeks ago I quoted a comment from Virginia Berridge about the 'public health' lobby's selective use of e-mails and memos to rewrite history...

The enthusiasm for online industry archives is an interesting phenomenon. We are seeing a new type of family history, a Whig history revived and a rediscovery of 'the document' whose main role is to play to the policy objectives of the anti-tobacco field.  

There has been a lot of this recently and it goes beyond tobacco. Last year, Stanton Glantz and his UCSF colleagues picked up an obscure, 50 year old evidence review and presented it as the central document proving that 'the sugar industry has distorted health science for more than 50 years'. More recently, we have seen Glantz (again) cherry-pick a tiny handful of documents to claim that the tobacco industry was somehow responsible for nicotine patches being ineffective. Mark Petticrew did a similarly shady job of riffling through some public documents from the alcohol industry last month, with a view to asserting that the booze industry denies the link between drinking and cancer.

Such claims are daft on their face and collapse under closer inspection, but they garner the desired headlines and that seems to their purpose.

I missed this laughable effort about the food industry when it was published a couple of weeks ago but it has subsequently come to my attention thanks to an excellent fisking by Katherine Rich (it's a shame there are not more people in industry prepared to publish forthright and readable critiques like her's) and this follow-up post by Hank Campbell.

The article was written by a familiar set of food cranks, such as Boyd Swinburn and Gary Ruskin, who think that the only people the media should listen to is themselves. They conclude:

The results provide direct evidence that senior leaders in the food industry advocate for a deliberate and co-ordinated approach to influencing scientific evidence and expert opinion. The paper reveals industry strategies to use external organisations, including scientific bodies and medical associations, as tools to overcome the global scientific and regulatory challenges they face.

Incredibly, the sole source for these sweeping statements is a single e-mail written by one British scientist, Dr Michael Knowles, who had once worked for DEFRA and Coca-Cola. He retired in 2013. The e-mail was written in 2015. I reproduce it in full below.

For context, IFIC is the International Food Information Council, an industry-funded body. When the e-mail was written, IFIC had held a teleconference with the media to discuss new recommendations from US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. IFIC were critical of the committee for getting involved with policy when its job is to look at science and for demonising certain food groups, particularly red meat. It also questioned the committee's suggestion that sugar should not be replaced with artificial sweeteners.

This is what Knowles said:


There's not much to the e-mail, is there? Knowles is suggesting that there might be some biased people in the advisory committee - a racing certainty when 'public health' policy is at stake - and that scientists who disagree should make sure that they are heard. So what?

As Rich says, this is not exactly Watergate and yet the article's authors conclude that...

The tactics displayed by these food industry leaders to influence the scientific evidence base and global debate in relation to nutrition and food represent a substantial risk to efforts to address NCDs globally. The public health and medical community need to be aware that they are viewed as tools through which food companies can overcome threats to their profits... 

Importantly, companies need to be held to account, through the media and the public health community, if found to be undermining the public’s health using the tactics described here.

Who are these 'food industry leaders'? They are one bloke who retired four years ago writing to a bloke who hadn't worked in the food industry for fifteen years.

What are the 'tactics'? Essentially, a retired scientist is suggesting that scientists challenge other scientists when they believe them to be mistaken.

This is pitiful stuff. I recommend you read Rich's article to see how an elaborate conspiracy theory was built on such feeble foundations. In particular, see how the authors use selective quoting, misrepresentation and self-citation to make claims that are insupportable.


Friday, 29 September 2017

"Completely mad" - Action on Sugar on Aseem Malhotra

How crazy do you have to be to get kicked out of Action on Sugar? Let's find out.

I'm grateful to Blair Spowart for sharing some e-mails between Action on Sugar and Public Health England which he received under the Freedom of Information Act. If you recall how closely PHE works with the UK Temperance Alliance (AKA Institute of Alcohol Studies) you won't be surprised to hear that PHE and Action on Sugar have a cosy relationship and exchange many e-mails. PHE appear to be using them as outriders for their sugar reformulation programme and, for reasons that have never been adequately explained, Action on Sugar - a pressure group - are invited to the meetings between PHE and the food industry.

But the most amusing correspondence involves someone whose name has been redacted but is quite clearly Aseem Malhotra.

When AoS was launched in January 2014, Malhotra was the group's scientific director and he was the smug little face of the organisation. But his relationship with the group gradually faded and he has been written out of AoS's history.

As others have noted, Action on Sugar's claims were hysterical nonsense from the outset. It takes a special kind of pseudo-scientific bullshit to get excluded from such company but Malhotra managed it by going off the deep end. Despite being a cardiologist, he recommends that people eat lots of saturated fat and avoid statins. He also reckons that exercising doesn't help people lose weight.

AoS have never spoken publicly about their divorce from Malhotra, but the FOI e-mails reveal what they think of him. In March last year someone from Action on Sugar wrote to PHE's Alison Tedstone to reassure her that Malhotra had nothing to do with the group...


It's not clear what the trigger for these e-mails was. At the time, Malhotra was all over the media claiming that 'type 2 diabetes is a condition of carbohydrate intolerance' and getting in trouble for a flawed (and retracted) journal article about statins. But he was in the media for all sorts of reasons, none of which were scientifically robust, so it could have been anything.

Things got worse in May 2016 when Malhotra and his new low carb chums released a ridiculous report with the National Obesity Forum telling the public: ‘Eat fat to get slim, don’t fear fat, fat is your friend'. It was near-fatal for the National Obesity Forum's credibility. Various board members walked out and the organisation released a statement saying:

The rest of the Board of the NOF wish to make it completely and transparently clear that they were not given the opportunity to see the document, or give any input into it and some members opinions differ from those specifically presented in the document.

On May 23rd, with PHE openly describing Malhotra's advice as 'irresponsible', Action on Sugar contacted the agency again to confirm that they had nothing to do with him. They not only said that Malhotra's report was 'ridiculous' but also noted that he was 'completely mad' on the issue of statins. He or she expressed relief that Malhotra had 'at least given up saying that he is a Founder Member of Action on Sugar, which was completely untrue'.



In fact, Malhotra still describes himself as 'Founding member and advisor to campaign group Action on Sugar' on his hilarious website and it seems to me that Malhotra has a decent claim for saying he was a founding member. He was certainly a member when it was founded - indeed, he was its scientific director - but it is understandable that MacGregor and his AoS colleagues want to distance themselves from him. With his thirst for fame, he has gone too far even for his fellow zealots. It seems that Action on Sugar now agree with what I said about Malhotra way back in April 2012 when I first became aware of him and wrote a piece entitled 'Aseem Malhotra doesn't know what he's talking about'.

Four years later, on the very same day that AoS e-mailed PHE to call Malhotra 'mad', I asked on this blog 'Is this the end for Aseem Malhotra?' and predicted...

Within a year or two Malhotra will be earning his living selling diet books and delivering cherry-picked presentations to credulous low carb cultists on cruise ships. Mark my words. 

His diet book came out a few weeks ago. I'm not aware that he has done any work on a cruise ship yet, but he is on the low carb conference circuit so it can only be a matter of time.

Martin McKee is wrong about the EU

In the last 18 months, fat socialist toad Martin McKee has been too busy wetting his knickers about Brexit to fully concentrate on his vendetta against vapers, smokers and drinkers. Nothing focuses the mind like a gravy train coming to a halt.

If there is anyone in 'public health' who voted for Brexit, they've kept it quiet. The EU is a perfect fit for the nanny state racket. They are both unaccountable, undemocratic, elitist projects that enrich themselves on the money of their victims.

McKee has teamed up with the overtly political Lancet magazine ('journal' is too respectable a word for it these days) to make the case for a soft Brexit, ie. staying in the EU. I haven't read the article and have no intention of doing so, but I've seen the press release and that was enough.

The NHS has benefitted from €3.5 billion in funds from the European Investment Bank since 2001...

That's less than £200 million a year. The NHS budget is currently £125 billion a year. Elsewhere in the article, McKee says that the £650 million we spend on healthcare for Brits abroad 'is marginal compared to the NHS budget'. Indeed it is. In any case, we are the ones who pay for the €3.5 billion that we 'benefit' from because our net contribution to the EU is a not-at-all marginal £8.6 billion a year. You don't need to be Carol Vorderman to work out that we would have more money to spend on healthcare if we left the EU.

But the main thing that caught my eye was this...

In terms of public health, the loss of the EU’s structures for managing public health pose a range of threats. For example, the UK relies on EU law for its tobacco policies, and the authors warn that without these the UK could become a prime target for the tobacco industry post-Brexit. 

This may play well with Lancet readers but it is simply untrue. The UK does not 'rely' on the EU for its tobacco policies. On the contrary, the EU is generally less draconian than Britain when it comes to anti-smoking, anti-obesity and temperance policies. Let's take a look at the UK's main tobacco policies:

Smoking ban - nothing to do with the EU
Plain packaging - nothing to do with the EU
Display ban - nothing to do with the EU
Ban on tobacco vending machines - nothing to do with the EU
Graphic warnings - now EU law but introduced by the UK years earlier and now superseded by plain packaging (see above)
Ban on smoking in cars - nothing to do with the EU
Advertising ban - nothing to do with the EU although a partial ban is EU law

The only anti-smoking policy that Britain has because of EU law is the ban on packs of ten cigarettes. If you extend it to anti-tobacco policies you could also include the ban on snus, although that only happened because the UK banned it first.

The ban on ten packs is stupid and counter-productive. The ban on snus is even more so. In a few years, member states will also have to ban menthol cigarettes thanks to EU law but that is the sum total of tobacco laws that Britain have had to implement as a result of Brussels. We have brought everything else on ourselves.

It is fair to say that British politicians didn't have much of a say on either the ban on ten packs or the looming prohibition of menthol cigarettes. Most of them seemed to have no idea they had been agreed in Brussels, including the Prime Minister. Whether they want to keep these laws after Brexit will be a decision for them. It will be easy to do since the Children's Bill is an enabling act that gives the health minister power to regulate tobacco without going through parliament. But all the other laws will stay in place even if we repeal both Tobacco Products Directives because they did not emanate from the EU in the first place.

So McKee is simply wrong. As usual.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Chickens coming home to roost

The chickens have come home to roost in Australia. After spending years dismissing the warning that banning cigarette branding and setting tobacco duty at ludicrous levels would lead to a surge in black market activity, politicians down under are having to face the music.

Recent months have seen stories like this:

Old Erowal Bay man charged over alleged tobacco smuggling

A 32-year-old Old Erowal Bay man has become the fifth individual to be arrested as part of an extensive Australian Border Force (ABF) investigation into a tobacco smuggling syndicate in Sydney.

... On June 8, ABF officers intercepted a container originating from Malaysia declared as boxes of paper cups, however officers will allege the boxes contained more than 4.5 million cigarettes.


And this...

Australian tobacco executive bashed and stabbed in attempted kidnap

The attempted kidnapping, bashing and stabbing of an international tobacco company manager outside his family home in Sydney suggests crime syndicates are hitting back at efforts to combat the booming illicit tobacco trade.

The attack appears to be an unprecedented escalation in the struggle between policing agencies and the syndicates driving the illicit tobacco trade. Evidence suggests the attack was linked to BAT's support of police inquiries.

Police and big tobacco companies believe the illegal trade is driven by the escalating cost of legal cigarettes, and is now worth more than $1 billion. Budget measures mean a legal pack of cigarettes will cost $40 by 2020, compared with as little as $10 for a smuggled packet.

The bashed BAT manager had been working closely with state and federal agencies investigating the illicit trade, which is a huge source of income for organised crime syndicates in Melbourne and Sydney.


And this...

The Australian Border Force (ABF) has reported that in its first two years of operations it has stopped more than 400 tonnes of illicit tobacco from reaching the black market in Australia.

The ABF estimated the total duty evaded on the illicit tobacco at more than $294 million.

In the same period it said more than 100 individuals had been charged with tobacco smuggling.

Assistant Commissioner at the ABF, Wayne Buchhorn pointed to the recent arrest of two Chinese nationals following the detection of more than 7.4 million cigarettes at the Sydney Container Examination Facility.

The pair had allegedly attempted to conceal the cigarettes inside table tops.

Mr Buchhorn said illicit tobacco could be sold at more than 60 times its offshore price.

“Illicit tobacco is an increasingly attractive market to organised criminal syndicates due to the lucrative profits that can be made in evaded tax,” Mr Buchhorn said.

 And, indeed, this...

An Australian Border Force official has been nabbed over an alleged international tobacco ring operating between Sydney and Dubai.

... The arrests follow dawn raids on Tuesday when more than 570 AFP officers swooped on homes and businesses across Sydney.

"Unfortunately, during this operation, we have uncovered some allegations of corrupt activity, which this syndicate exploited to try and get their drugs into the country," AFP Assistant Commissioner Neil Gaughan said on Thursday. 


...this...

Tobacco smuggling ring busted in Sydney

Five men face serious criminal charges over their alleged roles in a tobacco smuggling ring after NSW Police seized 6.2 million cigarettes.


...this...

Illegal $9m tobacco crop destroyed in Vic

The destruction of a $9 million illegal tobacco crop in rural Victoria shows illicit growers they can't hide from the law, the Australian Taxation Office says.

The five-hectare crop was found at a property near Cobram on the NSW border in Victoria's north last week and subsequently destroyed.

The five tonne crop of tobacco leaves had an estimated street value of $9 million.

... It was the fourth operation of its kind this year and the ninth in Australia since last July, with almost $48 million worth of tobacco destroyed in that time.

...this...

Man charged after police find 4.8 million illegal cigarettes in Melbourne warehouse

A man has been charged with possessing 4.8 million illegally imported cigarettes with a street value of $2.5 million.

Australian Border Force (ABF) officers raided a warehouse at Dandenong, in outer south-east Melbourne on Wednesday, after receiving information from the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.

ABF said they found more than 4.8 million cigarettes hidden among glass bottles, with a street value of $2.5 million.


...this...

Australian Border Force smash Adelaide, Melbourne tobacco smuggling syndicate

A SOUTH Australian woman has been arrested for allegedly importing more than nine tonnes of illicit tobacco into Melbourne and Adelaide.

...this...

ATO seizes illegal tobacco crop worth $5.8m

An illegal tobacco crop with a potential excise value of $5.8 million has been seized from a central Victorian property.

Fifteen acres of tobacco plants were seized at a property in Macorna, between Durham Ox and Kerang, following an ongoing investigation into illegally grown tobacco.


And this...

Australian Tax Office helps police uncover illegal tobacco crop worth over $11m near ACT border 

An illegal tobacco crop worth more than $11 million has been discovered during a search by police and tax office officials of a property just south of the ACT border.

As many as 92,000 tobacco plants and two tonnes of tobacco leaves, along with $15,000 in cash, a shotgun and ammunition, were discovered during the joint operation yesterday morning, after a tip of from a member of the public.


I could go on, but you get the picture. The 'industry scare stories' have become very real and the Aussie government has belatedly set up a senate inquiry to look at the matter.

If you like a bit of schadenfreude, this article from the Saturday Paper will be up your straße. The man leading the inquiry is the 'Liberal' MP Craig Kelly who describes himself as a 'fanatical nonsmoker'...


“I have grave concerns that we’re trying to attack this issue through taxation,” Kelly says. “Like many things we do in government, the unintended consequences can be worse than the problems we’re trying to overcome.”

The Gillard government introduced plain packaging in 2012 and dramatically escalated tobacco excise, implementing yearly rises of 12.5 per cent each September 1 for the next four years. The Turnbull government extended the annual excise hikes in this year’s budget until 2020.

But there is growing concern about the increasing availability of cheap, illegal cigarettes, and the possible impact on smoking rates.

No kidding.

“We’re creating all these law-enforcement issues and we’re basically going down the track of prohibition by price,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

By George, I think he's got it.

And yet the article contains so many of the same delusions and idiocies that have got Australia into this fix that it is difficult to see how they are going to find their way out. Firstly, there is the government's refusal to work with - and use the resources of - the people who know the most about tobacco...

The [tobacco] industry also wants to expand co-operation with law-enforcement agencies. But the degree to which that already occurs has attracted some criticism because of World Health Organisation guidelines that the tobacco industry not be allowed to influence governments.

Earlier this year, the three companies asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for permission to work together – normally a breach of competition law – to withhold their products from retailers found to also be selling cheap illegal tobacco.

But the ACCC refused, saying they could already do so individually without permission, and allowing collusion could be seen as giving them a “quasi-regulatory role”. It said such permission might be inconsistent with the WHO guidelines and “could create community perception of a partnership between the Australian government (and government agencies) and the tobacco industry”.

Then there is the pig-headed refusal of anti-smoking groups to accept simple facts...

In its submission to the tobacco inquiry, Cancer Council Australia says increasing excise is “the single most effective method available for reducing tobacco consumption, increasing attempts to quit and reducing smoking prevalence, thereby reducing death and disease caused by smoking”.

“Cancer Council Australia is not aware of any evidence suggesting that increases in excise in Australia have led to an increase in the size of Australia’s illicit tobacco market.”

There is, of course, masses of evidence to show that high taxes and excessive regulation drive activity in the shadow economy and there is specific evidence from KPMG about the Australian tobacco market which the anti-smoking lobby ignores based on nothing but an ad hominem...

The council rejects the findings of a 2016 annual report that the three big players commissioned from KPMG UK, which estimated the Australian federal government is missing out on $1.61 billion in tax each year. The health sector says the report is discredited because the tobacco industry funded it.

That's not quite how discrediting evidence works, is it? But shouting 'industry!' is like saying a magic word in the 'public health' racket. Say it and inconvenient facts disappear.

Finally, there is open contempt shown towards smokers by politicians...

Despite his concerns, Kelly acknowledges price should still play a role.

“You have to have some price pressure,” he says. “You have to have the strongest possible law enforcement. You’ve got to make lepers of those that smoke… make their lives horrible.”

With that kind of hateful attitude, it is hardly surprising that Australian smokers want to minimise the amount of money they give politicians via extortionate tobacco taxes. Thanks to the policies of recent governments there are plenty of latter-day Al Capones who are prepared to help them do so.