Friday, 16 March 2018

Last Orders returns

The Last Orders podcast is back! Join me, Tom Slater and Brendan O'Neill to discuss Public Health England's calorie crusade, minimum pricing and the absolute filth being propagated by Love Island and Geordie Shore.

LISTEN HERE or subscribe on iTunes.

PS. I was also on the Heartland podcast this week talking about the American Cancer Society's volte-face on e-cigarettes.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Fast food outlets and obesity

I was on the radio last year with some woman from a 'public health' group who wanted fast food outlets banned around schools because there was 'overwhelming evidence' that proximity to these shops increased the risk of obesity.

It's a pretty good rule of thumb that if someone from the 'public health' racket claims that there is 'overwhelming evidence' of something then there is probably little or no evidence of it. So I looked into the literature, expecting to find a dozen studies or so. Instead I found 74 studies and this bit of fact-checking turned into a full blown project.

Today sees the publication of the resulting report: Fast Food Outlets and Obesity: What is the Evidence? You can download it for free but the basic conclusion is easy to summarise. There are far more studies showing no association between both the density and proximity of fast food outlets and obesity among both children and adults. In the case of children, null studies outnumber studies showing a positive association by more than four to one.

My report includes more studies than any previous evidence review in this area and its conclusion is the same as the six evidence reviews published by other researchers. The evidence that restricting fast food outlets will have any impact on obesity is extremely weak. If 'public health' was an evidence-based enterprise, it would have abandoned the idea years ago.

Do have a read of the report or read this short blog post about it.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The futility of divestment

I was in Edinburgh last week at a pensions and investment conference talking about the divestment movement. I have written about this idea before. It suggests that if you disapprove of an activity, you should sell your shares in the industry that facilitates it. In doing so you will achieve, er, absolutely nothing.

As I said at the conference, if you really dislike an industry you might not want to feel that you have to cheer it on because you have a stake in its success. Fair enough. But the divestment movement seems to think that selling off shares has some tangible effect on a company's activities. I see no mechanism by which a private investor selling a share in a fossil fuel company could have the slightest impact on the demand for fossil fuels or the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. The same principle applies to tobacco, guns, alcohol, gambling, sugar or any other 'sin stock'.

If you only want to invest in 'ethical' companies and you are prepared to get potentially lower returns, that is up to you. What I object to is local authorities selling off high-yielding shares from their pensions portfolio for the sake of futile virtue-signalling. These losses ultimately have to make up by taxpayers. That is unethical.

I was on the panel with someone from Tobacco Free Portfolios. If you visit their website or watch their TED talk, you will notice that they do not offer a single reason why divesting from tobacco will have any impact on the number of cigarettes sold or the number of people who smoke. Action on Smoking and Health recently published a briefing paper encouraging local authorities to divest from tobacco. Nowhere in its eight pages is there any indication that divesting will do any good.

Given that there is no theoretical reason to assume that divesting has any effect on the supply or demand for the product in question, and given that proponents of divestment are unable to offer even a bad argument for it, you have to conclude that the whole thing is a pointless gesture.

The ASH document focuses on trying to persuade councils that tobacco stocks are not a good longterm prospect. The woman from Tobacco Free Portfolios made a similar argument. ASH are probably overestimating the efficacy of their anti-smoking policies, but it could nevertheless be true. Who knows?

Either way, that is an investment decision, not an ethical decision. If ASH knew for certain that BAT shares would be the best performing investment of the next decade, they would still encourage divestment. Claiming that tobacco shares - which have been extraordinarily lucrative in the past, despite increasing regulation - are going to head south is a way of wriggling out of giving a single tangible benefit of divestment.

In any case, why would we trust single issue pressure groups over the combined wisdom of investors? As somebody in the audience pointed out, future risks are priced into share prices. You don't have to be a strict believer in the efficient market hypothesis to see that share prices are a better guide to the value of a company than the value put on it by people who hate the company.

Let's remember that anti-smoking groups also claim that it is not in the interest of retailers to sell cigarettes and that tobacco farmers would make more money planting different crops. If either of these claims were true, you would expect retailers and farmers to have worked it out or themselves and changed their business model accordingly. It is hard to believe that organisations with an extreme prejudice against tobacco know more about the economics of the market than people who have got skin in the game.

You can watch the discussion below:

Monday, 12 March 2018

The scandal of 'public health' money being spent on health

A lot of the 'cuts' in the supposed era of austerity are imaginary. The education budget was ring-fenced from the outset and the NHS budget has risen year-on-year. Pensions have increased in line with the ludicrously generous triple lock. Between them, these three budgets make up the majority of government spending.

But one area where there really have been cuts is in central government grants to local authorities. Councils get most of their money from central government and these grants have fallen appreciably - and look set to continue falling.

Among these grants is the money they get from Public Health England. There has been a lot of chatter about 'public health' budgets being 'slashed' by the evil Tories and a lot of junk economics from those whose livelihoods depend on the gravy train continuing.

In January, born again teetotaller Nick Cohen wrote an overwrought piece for the Observer in which he bemoaned the cuts to 'public health' but failed to mention the size of the budget, perhaps because it is so enormous that people would be sanguine about a five per cent cut. In 2016/17, Public Health England's budget was £4.5 billion, of which £3.4 billion went to local authorities.

Moreover, the 'public health' budget for local authorities has risen over the years, from £2.8 billion in 2014/15, to £3 billion in 2015/16 and then to £3.4 billion. Bear these figures in mind when you hear that the 'public health' budget is going to be 'slashed' by £170 million in the next two years. In real terms, the budget will still be bigger than it was three years ago.

This gigantic stack of cash is ring-fenced for 'public health' which is great news for fat cat Directors of Public Health and the various parasitic 'stakeholders' that live off the 'health and wellbeing' industry. It is not so good for residents.

Many local councillors resent being forced to spend money on useless nanny state projects while budgets for genuine public services are cut. Hats off, then, to Northamptonshire City Council for this...

Northamptonshire County Council: £10m public health grant probe

A council dubbed the "worst-run in the country" is under investigation over allegations it used millions of pounds ring-fenced for public health to prop up other services.

Northamptonshire County Council is in talks with Public Health England about the possible "claw-back" of up to £10m.

It comes after the authority voted for almost £40m in budget cuts.

Conservative council leader Heather Smith said the money "may have been spent in adult social care".

She added: "It is debatable whether that was a public health need or not."

Social care may not be a 'public health' need, but it is a health need and I suspect that if local residents were asked if they wanted the money to be spent on helping the sick and infirm or spent on hassling people about their lifestyles, there would be a strong majority for the former.

The county council received more than £70m in funding from Public Health England over a two-year period.

It was meant to be used only for specific purposes, such as health education and smoking cessation services.


Mrs Smith said the money "may have been spent in adult social care, looking after people in some way or another".

Shocking stuff. We can't have 'public health' budgets spent on looking after people!

The fact is that Northamptonshire County Council is skint. Really skint. And yet, like other councils, it has been forced to employ an army of bureaucrats and busybodies to run fatuous, jargon-riddled projects which stretch the concept of 'public health' to breaking point by including things like 'financial wellbeing' and 'social wellbeing'. Its Public Health Director is on £155,000 a year and it has created a 'public health' mini-quango called First for Wellbeing (budget: £17 million) which does lots of 'fun activities' that are enjoyed by a tiny proportion of the local population.

It also parrots the usual inaccurate nanny state propaganda such as...

It might not seem like you are drinking too much, but even having just one or two drinks on most nights can do serious harm to your health, both physically and mentally.


Frequent exposure to other people’s smoke will almost put them at as much risk as an actual smoker!

You can see why councillors might think that 'looking after people in some way or another' is a better use of £10 million than continuing to pour it down this money pit. Northamptonshire County Council may be the 'worst-run in the country' but in this instance it is a beacon of hope that every other council should follow.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

The World Conference on Tobacco or Prohibition

No matter how low the bar of reason and integrity is set, the anti-smoking racket finds ways to limbo dance beneath it. This week, I have been following the #WCTOH2018 hashtag in awe. There is no shortage of charlatans and spivs in the anti-drink, anti-soda and anti-food cults, but for shameless hypocrisy and junk science, no one can touch the anti-smoking lobby.

WCTOH is the World Conference on Tobacco or Health. If memory serves, it has been taking place since 1967 and was a more or less serious science conference until around 1983 when the prohibitionists began to take over (see my book Velvet Glove, Iron Fist for details). It is now a playground for fanatics and tax spongers. Britain was well represented, with various activist-academics running up a quarter of a million pound bill for the taxpayer to pick up.

After a decade writing about this issue, I shouldn't be surprised by the pitiful standard of the rhetoric but it just keeps getting worse. Consumers are never mentioned except, perhaps, as victims of Big Tobacco. Ridiculous assertions abound, such as the claim that cigarette taxes were 'once thought regressive' but are no longer because, er, it doesn't help the cause to admit it.

As for the science behind reduced-harm claims of new products, the response of the tobacco control cult is to simply ignore it.

Perhaps my favourite non-argument of the week was a 'debunking' of the Nanny State Index (which I edit). The Index is only a league table of policies that 'public health' people lobby for so they should be proud if their country is at the top, but a Finnish 'public health' professional gave a whole presentation about it, including the killer argument that the Index is 'rubbish'. Alas, this was also the only argument.

How old are these people?

The most striking aspect of this year's event was how much of it was devoted to in-fighting and the preservation of funding. The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, funded by Philip Morris, has a billion dollars of research funding which the tobakko kontrol establishment can't access because it would blacken their names in the eyes of their colleagues. This is driving them (even more) mad and a lot of energy has been expended turning their own friend Derek Yach into a non-person.

Then there are e-cigarettes. Tobacco control is explicitly morphing into nicotine control. The target is almost irrelevant. The key word is control and the emergence of a viable, low risk alternative for cigarettes is an existential threat to their racket. The same goes for snus. Naturally, therefore, the speakers at this (Pfizer-funded) conference are opposed to harm reduction and use classic merchant-of-doubt tactics to suppress them (or, in the case of snus in the EU, to keep it suppressed).

They are quite prepared to resort to blatant lies to this end...

Carl Phillips and Dick Puddlecote have covered some of the lowlights from this event so I won't go through them all, suffice to say that rank hypocrisy is a running theme, from demanding 'nothing about us without us' to complaining about the WHO shutting out civil society.

Shutting people out is what the WHO does, of course, as we shall doubtless see again in Geneva this October. This week, the corrupt WHO capitulated to demands from China to exclude delegates from Taiwan. Tobacco controllers who rightly described this as an outrage seem to have no problem with the press and public being kicked out of the COP meetings every two years, just as those who 'demand nothing about us without us' never ask smokers what they think about being under their 'control'.

That brings us to smoking, which is supposed to be reason for the conference's existence. After years of denial, the prohibitionists are finally owning up to being prohibitionists. There was even an official declaration.

You might think that the experience of alcohol prohibition and the war on drugs would make 'experts' wary of endorsing a ban on a product consumed by a billion people. But according to Tobacco Control's news editor, there is nothing to worry about:

If smokers had any doubts about what these people have in store for them, an official declaration at the world's foremost tobacco control conference to ban the sale of cigarettes should put an end to them.

Let's not mince words any more. These people are not the tobacco control lobby and they are certainly not public health professionals. They are prohibitionists and should only be described as such.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

What is the real rate of child obesity?

Since I started digging into the methodology used to estimate the rate of childhood obesity in Britain, I have been shocked by how shoddy it is. The figures that are routinely cited are quite simply a lie. They vastly exaggerate the number of kids who are obese.

In my previous post about this for the Spectator I said that the real rate is at least half of that claimed. That much should be obvious. A rate of 23 per cent among 11-15 year olds is extremely unlikely when the rate among 16-24 year olds is only eleven per cent.

In my new post, published today, I show some more credible evidence and argue that the true rate of obesity among children in this age group is closer to one in twenty, not one in five. Indeed, it could easily be one in fifty.

Do read it.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Food is the new tobacco

As reported by the Sun and a few of other newspapers, Public Health England is going ahead with its insane plan to withdraw a fifth of calories from the food supply. Not quite the whole food supply, as the quango has admitted that it can't take energy out of vegetables, but the targets apply to the following:

Egg products, potato products, meat products, processed meats, poultry, fish, meat alternatives, pies, pastries, sausages, burgers, pasta, rice, noodles, savoury biscuits, crackers, bread with additions (e.g. ciabatta with olives), cooking sauces, table sauces, dressings, crisps, savoury snacks, ready meals, takeaways, dips, hummus, coleslaw, pizza, ‘food-to-go’, sandwiches, composite salads and soups.

Biscuits, chocolate bars, confectionery etc. have already been covered by the sugar reduction plan and so are not included.

So much for only reformulating 'food that contributes most to intakes of children up to the age of 18 years', as PHE originally claimed when the 'childhood obesity' plan was devised. PHE bureaucrat Alison Tedstone now admits that everything is fair game:

“Our children don’t eat special children’s food,” she said. “We buy the same food for our entire family.”

As usual in 'public health', it's not really about children. It's about treating adults like children.

But PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie said the steps were as much about influencing the diets of adults.

"Britain needs to go on a diet."

But Britain doesn't need to go on a diet. Some people need to go on a diet, but 74 per cent of us are not obese and a fair proportion of 26 per cent do not want to go on a diet. Some of us need to eat more. And for the many millions of people who consume roughly the right number of calories, cutting energy content in food by 20 per cent is the equivalent of raising the price by 25 per cent. 

Meanwhile, PHE are sticking to their bizarre 400-600-600 rule; 400 calories for breakfast and 600 calories each for lunch and tea. This obviously adds up to 1,600, well below the 2,500 calories the agency maintains are needed by men every day, and so they advise us to consume an extra 900 calories in snacks, soft drinks and alcohol. Even nanny statist Susan Jebb raised her eyebrows at this:

While she welcomed raising calorie-awareness, she [Jebb] noted that the recommendation to eat a total of 1,600 calories for main meals was well below daily levels and assumed people were snacking. “Maybe it is better to have a slightly bigger meal and not to snack,” she said.

In December I wrote...

This seems to be a case of PHE deliberately giving people false information with the intention of tricking them into eating less, based on the assumption that we underestimate how much we eat, even to ourselves. The idea is that if you tell people to eat 1,600 calories, perhaps they will eat 2,300 calories.

...PHE are no longer pretending to be a source of accurate advice. They are in the business of nudging, manipulation and deliberate deceit.

This has now been confirmed by Alison Tedstone who told the Times...

She says people should stick to 1,600 calories a day for meals, leaving room for drinks and snacks. “This is not official calorie guidance; it’s a handy rule of thumb,” she said. Men are still advised to eat 2,500 calories a day and women 2,000 but after seeing that people did not admit to a third of what they ate Dr Tedstone said that the advice would help them to keep to the targets.

Woe betide anybody foolish enough to take the country's leading 'public health' agency at its word.

These people are dangerous idiots, but the food industry will have to go along with them because it has been none-too-subtly threatened with advertising bans, taxes and mandatory limits if it doesn't acquiesce.

As for consumers, the best we can hope for are smaller portions and a higher cost of living.

I have written about this for Spectator Health.

It is difficult to find the words to describe how demented this policy is. Imagine a Soviet commissar, drunk on power and vodka, who had been driven mad after contracting syphilis. Even he would not issue an edict like this. It is off the scale of anything the ‘public health’ lobby has tried before. It represents the final severing of the thread that once connected Public Health England to the real world.

Do have a read.