Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Buy one, get one free

Yesterday's news...

Food bank charity gives record level of supplies

The biggest network of food banks in the UK says it provided record levels of "emergency food supplies" last year.

The annual figures from the Trussell Trust charity show a 13% increase, providing 1.3 million three-day food packages for "people in crisis".

Today's news...

Buy-one-get-one-free deals on junk food are set to be banned after opposition parties gave Theresa May their backing to tackle the obesity crisis.

Food bank use is at an all time high, so let's ban food discounts. Hmm.

Admittedly, food bank use is a very poor proxy for food prices, poverty or anything other than the number of food banks that are open, but it is difficult to see how the problem of 'food poverty' will be alleviated by making people pay more for their food (see also: the sugar tax).

I was on the radio this morning with the meddlesome tyrant Malcolm Clark who used to be at the Children's Food Campaign but who now seems to be at Cancer Research UK (CRUK seems to be housing more and more nanny state lobbyists these days). He asked why supermarkets mostly discount 'junk food' and not 'healthy' food. There are two answers.

Firstly, there is no such think as 'junk food'. It is a campaigner's slogan, not a legal definition. If the government introduced this ban, it would apply to HFSS - food that is high in salt, sugar or fat. This is a very broad category that includes jam, cheese, bacon and lots of other things that normal people do not consider 'junk'.


It is no wonder that most BOGOF deals apply to products when the category is so broad - and Public Health England is currently trying to broaden it even further in case the government introduces a watershed advertising ban.

Secondly, fruit, vegetables, rice, pasta etc. are extremely cheap all the year round and so there is little scope to discount them further. Staple foods are always cheap, but BOGOFs are useful for dealing with gluts and promoting new brands.

A ban on BOGOFs would be very easy to get around. The shop could simply sell the products at half price (or with a 40 per cent discount - whatever produced the same sales result). Campaigners would then demand that this 'loophole' be closed and we would be on our way to state control of food pricing.

The proposal has made the front pages today because Jamie Oliver has co-ordinated a letter to the Prime Minister with his usual rubbish about children dying before their parents unless the government gets to grips with the non-existent epidemic of childhood obesity.

The letter has been timed to coincide with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's bit of agitprop which will be broadcast tonight. It has been signed by the leaders of all the main opposition parties: Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, Caroline Lucas, Nicola Sturgeon. If the Conservatives go along with it, it will demonstrate, once again, the futility of voting for a supposedly free market party and prove that we are governed by a monolithic political class in hock to millionaire activists.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Et tu, Fearnley-Whittingstall?

I don't watch any cookery programmes because they are boring, but I know that all the celebrity chefs have a gimmick. Hestor Blumenthal uses a blowtorch, Gordon Ramsay swears, Jamie Oliver was your granny's idea of a 'lad' and then became an obesity campaigner, Keith Floyd drank a lot and Delia Smith makes food that normal people can cook. I'm not quite sure what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's calling card is but I think it's that he kills his own lifestock.

It is with a heavy heart that I must inform you that Fearnley-Whittingstall has moved his tanks onto Oliver's lawn. A decade after the mockney chef started making pisspoor documentaries about food policy for Channel 4, the BBC has produced a copycat series with Hugh taking the lead role. He will be campaigning for more legislation so it will probably be indistinguishable from the BBC's news output.

Specifically, he will be campaigning for a ban on TV advertisements for tasty food before 9pm which, by a remarkable coincidence, is what the UK's 'public health' establishment, including Jamie Oliver, has set its sights on now that the sugar tax is in effect. It will also have the happy effect, from the BBC's perspective, of crippling its commercial rivals.

I won't be watching 'Britain's Fat Fight' but I have read the article that Fearnley-Whittingstall has written to promote it.

Everywhere we go these days, we are urged to buy food and eat it - and it's never good, not vegetables or fruit or well-balanced meals, but crisps, chocolate, burgers, fizzy drinks and sugary breakfast cereals.

Every time I turn on my television there is a baking contest, a cookery competition or a programme about restaurants. Let's start by banning those, eh?

They're cleverly designed, tempting and honed by the fierce competition of the food industry. It's like an arms race for our appetites.

Because what we really want is food that is badly designed, revolting and made by a state monopoly?

And it's causing a health crisis like we've never seen before. In the UK, obesity is already the leading cause of premature death after smoking. 

If it's behind smoking, it's hardly 'a health crisis like we've never seen before', is it? What Hugh means is that it's a 'health crisis' that has the potential to be comparable to smoking. That is highly debatable but I would still sooner live in a world in which obesity is the 'health crisis' du jour rather than the supposedly lesser crises of the Black Death, Spanish Flu, TB, cholera etc.

Today, 25% of us are obese. If things don't change, by 2050 that will be 50%.

Wanna bet? Just kidding, nobody wants to bet on these ridiculous forecasts. Every obesity prediction has been laughably wrong and this one is unlikely to be any different. These people rely on fantasy predictions because the cold, hard facts do not support their hysteria.

In the past, I might have argued the responsibility for change is essentially a personal one.

But then you realised that your television career was slowing slipping away?

Only you can decide what you put in your mouth, right? But after 16 months working on these films, I'm completely convinced that a culture of blaming and shaming individuals helps no-one - and completely misses the point.

We shouldn't shame anybody. If people choose to eat too much and exercise too little, they will become fat. That is entirely a decision for them, but it is their decision.

We haven't turned into a nation of lazy, greedy people in a single generation. Biological evolution doesn't work like that.

Given the choice, people will be lazy and greedy (so will animals, for that matter). No one claims that the rise in obesity is the result of biological evolution. The claim is that over several generations, office work has replaced physical labour, domestic appliances and car ownership have facilitated sedentary lifestyles and increasing affluence has allowed over-consumption of food across the class spectrum. This is an entirely plausible explanation. It is, in fact, what has happened.

Business, on the other hand, can evolve at a terrifying rate. And the business of designing and selling mass-produced food has rapidly outstripped our ability to defend ourselves against it.

Businesses have been mass-producing high calorie food for well over a century. There were more calories in a World War I food ration than there are in the government's recommended diet today.

The fact that two-thirds of us are now overweight proves this is not a problem of the unlucky or weak-willed few. It's a problem we all face.

Something experienced by two-thirds of the population (actually 60 per cent), is not something 'we all face'. Moreover, we should not assume that everybody who is overweight sees it as a 'problem' that they are desperately trying to overcome. The health implications of being overweight are negligible, if not positive. While being overweight may be aesthetically sub-optimal, it is perfectly reasonable to see it as a price worth paying for the freedom to eat and drink whatever you want. Not everybody is a health fanatic.

Obese people may feel the same way, of course, but three-quarters of us are not obese and the number of obese people is rising very gradually, if at all, so it is difficult to claim that there is anything inevitable or unavoidable about obesity.

Early in the first film my GP warns me that my 36in (93cm) waist and BMI of 26.2 puts me firmly in the overweight stats - and at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

This is despite the fact that I'm quite useful in the kitchen, I don't eat a lot of takeaways, and I love my veg.

So how has big business and 'mass-designed food' inflicted this on poor old Hugh?

I thought I knew my weaknesses: cheese (and biscuits), chocolate (and puddings generally) and wine with my dinner.

If I'm not mistaken, all these products have been around for centuries.

But it is still a shock when I work out that, in terms of calories, my weekly wine intake is roughly equivalent to 22 cans of coke.

So it's the wine that's the problem? A product that is rarely advertised and which is taxed at ludicrously high levels has made Fearnley-Whittingshall slightly overweight. Tell me again how a big government programme of sin taxes and advertising restrictions can beat obesity.

In the end, me asking big companies to change their ways, and our government what it is doing about obesity and healthier eating, will only ever have a limited effect.

Let's hope so. It's none of the government's business and politicians have capitulated to enough gullible, attention-seeking TV chefs already.  

But you telling them, with your shopping trolley or your vote, what changes you want to see - now that, I'm absolutely certain, can make a massive difference.

No one voted for Public Health England. No one voted for the sugar tax. No one voted for Victory Lucozade. No one voted for Jamie Oliver and no one voted for Hugh bloody Fearnley bloody Whittingshall.

People voting with their shopping trolleys is precisely what the nanny statists' loathe and fear. We vote with our shopping trolleys every day and make it clear that we like a wide range of food products. Snobs like Fearnley-Whittingshall disagree with some of our choices and want to see choice constrained. A pox on him and the BBC for pushing this illiberal agenda.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Alcohol Focus Scotland's quest for relevance

Spring is in the air and Britain's state-funded pressure groups are ready for a fresh assault on freedom.

ASH, the oldest of the nanny state sockpuppets, has finally found a reason to justify its existence after successive governments capitulated to every one of its demands. It now wants to censor television programmes in case a teenager catches a glimpse of Winston Churchill smoking a cigar. 

With the sugar tax in place, censorship is also the name of the game for the diet police. Millionaire half-wit Jamie Oliver has been talked into fronting another campaign for an evidence-free policy, this time for a watershed ban on HFSS (high in fat, sugar or salt) food advertising. He is encouraging his followers to tweet photos of themselves covering their eyes to send a message to politicians.

The message seems to be that they are frightened by the sight of chocolate and want the government to shield their eyes from it. It makes them look kind of pathetic, in my opinion, but then Oliver has good reason to cover his eyes these days as his restaurant empire crumbles around him.

Finally, there is the temperance lobby. With Scottish consumers being hit by minimum pricing in less than a fortnight, Alcohol Focus Scotland needs something to justify the £500,000 of taxpayers' money that the SNP shovels to it every year and so it has turned to the oldest of all temperance policies - a licensing clampdown.

Naturally, the state broadcaster is giving them a leg up with an anonymously written article that contains no opposing views... 

Alcohol availability 'boosts crime rate'

Crime rates soar in areas where there are a large number of pubs, clubs and shops selling alcohol, according to a new report. 

Researchers found that neighbourhoods in Aberdeen, Moray and South Ayrshire were among those worst affected.

In those regions crime rates are almost eight times higher in areas with the most alcohol outlets, compared with those with the least.

Alcohol Focus Scotland called for action on the availability of alcohol.

If this seems familiar it's because anti-drink groups have been putting out similar stories for years - see here and here, for example.

They are all based on knuckle-headed interpretations of correlations from ecological studies and produce meaningless stats like this...

The report compared neighbourhoods with the highest number of licensed premises across Scotland to those with the least.

It found that, in those with the most pubs, clubs and off-licences:
  • Crime rates were, on average, four times higher
  • Alcohol-related deaths were twice as high
  • Alcohol-related hospitalisation rates were almost twice as high.

It reminds me of the endless stories about the gender pay gap. It doesn't matter how many sets of statistics these people use, they do not mean what the campaigners think they mean. Average pay differentials between men and women who do different jobs do not mean that there is endemic sexism in the workplace, and higher rates of crime and alcoholism in densely populated urban environments where there are lots of shops do not mean that the 'availability' of alcohol causes crime or alcoholism.

Firstly, inner city Scotland is different to rural Scotland for a whole host of reasons that have nothing to do with the number of Tesco Expresses. The researchers (who were commissioned by Alcohol Focus Scotland, although the BBC doesn't say that) say that they controlled for a handful of confounding factors, as if such a thing were meaningfully possible in such a crude cross-sectional study.

Secondly, suppliers respond to demand. If the 'public health' lobby could get this simple fact into their skulls they would be halfway towards understanding how the world works and three-quarters of the way towards understanding that commercial activity is not a conspiracy against the public. 

Alcohol Focus Scotland admit that they can't take licences away from existing premises but want to see a ban on new premises opening. This is exactly what some local authorities have done with takeaway food outlets, based on equally pathetic evidence, and it would have the same negative effect on consumers without doing anything to improve health.

I suppose we must brace ourselves for more of this rubbish in the years ahead until the evidence becomes 'overwhelming'.


For the second time in a week, the BBC has had to change the headline of a story fed to them by the 'public health' racket. 'Alcohol availability "boosts crime rate"' has become '"Higher crime" in areas where alcohol is most available, says study'. Somebody must have explained that whole correlation/causation thing.

That's better

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The art of advertising

Coca-Cola has always had a winning way with advertising. It is one reason why the company is so hated by the anti-capitalist 'public health' racket. Its old slogan about Coke being The Real Thing has taken on a new resonance now that several of its competitors have replaced their flagship brands with artificially sweetened forgeries.

Coke was never going to make that mistake. It will never forget the New Coke fiasco of the 1980s. Pepsi hasn't advertised its full sugar version for over a decade, but Coca-Cola is going all out with a campaign that seems designed to reassure its customers while trolling its competition.

When the sugar tax came into effect, it ran this full page ad in British newspapers...

It has now released this advert in which the company makes it clear that it listens to its customers, not nanny state killjoys.

It's nice to see a company standing up for itself for a change. The contrast with Lucozade Ribena Suntory could not be sharper. Via Dick Puddlecote, I found this scarcely believable quote from its CEO, Peter Harding, in which he explains why he decided to degrade his products.

“I was being stared at, at the school gates by other parents. Jamie Oliver was beating me up, so were other celebrities, NGOs and the media. They were demonising me as though sugar were the new tobacco. The criticism was not nice for anyone, including our employees.”

Mr Harding's soft skin has cost Lucozade £62.6 million and counting. Despite the fact that it literally cannot give the stuff away, the company announced yesterday that it would be spending another £10 million advertising Victory Lucozade. It hasn't learned the lesson from New Coke that no amount of advertising can shift a bad product. It cannot be long before shareholders are baying for Harding's blood.

It is not just Coca-Cola that can do decent advertising. At one time, the Conservative Party knew how to appeal to the public. Take this campaign ad from 1952, for instance (via Tom Harwood)...

Those were the days. The days when the Conservative Party won elections with a sizeable majority.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Who's to blame when bad science is published?

The gradual, ongoing campaign to push drinking guidelines towards zero took another step forwards last Friday when the Lancet published evidence which confirmed that alcohol has significant health benefits but dressed it up in such a way as to make the media think the opposite.

I have written about it for Spectator Health...

When bad science appears in the media, who is to blame? Sometimes it is the fault of the journalists, sometimes it is the scientists and sometimes it is the person who wrote the press release.

There was a classic example last Friday when news outlets around the world covered a study in the Lancet with headlines such as ‘One drink a day “can shorten life”‘ (BBC) and ‘Just one alcoholic drink a day will shorten your life, study shows’ (Evening Standard). As if this were not scary enough, Yahoo warned that ‘Alcohol guidelines in many countries may not be safe’ and the Guardian declared that ‘Drinking is as harmful as smoking’.

Do read it all.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Reformulated Lucozade is tanking

Camilla Cavendish in last week's FT...

By designing a tax with two bands, Chancellor George Osborne created exactly the right incentive for companies to reformulate. Responsible brands and companies such as Suntory-owned Lucozade and Tesco have done so. Coca-Cola has held out, not wanting to dilute its legendary taste.

The boss of Suntory a couple of weeks ago...

Ribena and Lucozade's top boss says the introduction of the sugar tax today is a milestone moment that could secure the future of the Coleford factory that makes some of Britain's most iconic brands.

Today, back in the real world...

Lucozade has lost the title of Britain’s biggest energy drink brand to rival Red Bull following a backlash over its reformulation.

Lucozade Energy has lost £62.6m in value over the past year - the largest loss in the soft drinks category - as consumers turned away from the new lower-sugar formula.

According to IRI figures, Energy’s value sales were down 18.6% to £273.6m, while volumes fell 18.9% to 162 million litres, after Lucozade changed the recipe last April to avoid the levy.

Oh dear. How sad.

Meanwhile, Red Bull and Monster - two energy drinks that have not caved in to nanny statists - are booming...

Conversely, rival Red Bull added £20.5m to sales of its standard variant, taking its value to £279.6m and assuming the title of Britain’s bestselling energy drink.

... Coca-Cola has taken a similar approach with Monster, resulting in a £19.4m increase in sales of the standard variant, while low-calorie options soared by a further £14.1m.

I suppose that the execs at Suntory (the owner of Lucozade and Ribena) will be telling themselves that these figures all predate the sugar tax and that the money will roll in once people have to pay more for sugary options.

Unless they are totally mad, they must have taken the view that they would lose more sales from their drinks being more expensive than they would from making them taste disgusting. This was always a doubtful proposition and it now looks highly unrealistic. Would they really have lost more than 18.6% of sales if the price had gone up?

How much pain can the company take before the shareholders demand a U-turn?

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Camilla Cavendish: authoritarian idiot

I have always assumed that David Cameron's weird penchant for nanny state regulation was the result of upper-middle class Tory paternalism. With the tobacco display ban, sugar tax and plain packaging, he outnannied Tony Blair.

But I am increasingly minded to believe that he endorsed so many patronising 'public health' gimmicks because he was being advised by ignorant, authoritarian fools. Articles like this from his former adviser Clare Foges support this view, as does this astonishing piece by Camilla Cavendish in the Financial Times...

How to take on ‘Big Sugar’ and win

Straight away we have the David and Goliath delusion of 'public health' lobbyists, as if the soft drinks industry was ever a threat to government.

In trying to ward off obesity, we are fighting our addiction to sugar. And we are up against an industry that risks rapidly becoming the 21st-century equivalent of Big Tobacco. I hope that doesn’t sound hysterical.

It does and it is.

Back in 2015, when I worked in Number 10 Downing Street, there was a mortifying moment when I was called a “health fascist” by one of David Cameron’s other advisers. We had just come out of the prime minister’s office, where I had been arguing that we should tax fizzy drinks. I was taken aback to hear myself described as fascist. I’d been against the smoking ban, I’d campaigned to legalise drugs, and I loathe the nanny state.

What, you might wonder, turned this supposed libertarian into the howling crank we now see before us?

The trouble was, I had come up against the horror of the obesity epidemic. As a mother, I’d experienced the full force of pester power.

Of course. Parenthood. The state must act to prevent children nagging their parents. God forbid that children might have to be told 'no' once in a while.

In Britain, one in 10 children are already obese when they arrive at primary school at the age of five. That doubles to one in five when they leave primary school, aged 10 or 11.

As I explained at length here and here, the childhood obesity figures are based on a definition of obesity that has no credibility and is never used by clinicians. As a result, the statistics are vastly inflated. I doubt there is a school in the country where you would identify one in five children as being obese. 'As a mother', Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice should have noticed this at the school gates.

Consumers are understandably confused. For decades, we were warned off saturated fat. A profitable industry grew up selling “low-fat” processed foods. But these are a con. To make them tasty, manufacturers stuff them with carbohydrates and sugar. These create spikes in blood sugar levels, which lead to addictive cravings when blood sugar falls. The health consequences are dire: insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity. 

It seems that Cavendish has fallen in with the LCHF (low carb, high fat) crowd who have been gleefully retweeting the FT article. Were the initial warnings about saturated fat overblown? Almost certainly. Did sugar replace fat in reduced-fat products? In some instances, yes. Nevertheless, Britons are consuming significantly less sugar than we did in the 1980s, a fact that Cavendish chooses to ignore (or is unaware of).

Big Food offering low-fat cakes is the equivalent of Big Tobacco offering low-tar cigarettes. They make us feel better about ourselves, while keeping us hooked.

This is second of several references to Big Tobacco from a woman who doesn't wish to be viewed as 'hysterical'. Leaving aside the obvious differences between a cake and a cigarette, a low fat cake would be better for you (in terms of weight gain) if it had fewer calories. It might not taste very nice but you'd better get used to it because it is the explicit policy of Public Health England to reduce fat, sugar and calories from nearly everything by twenty per cent over the next few years, including cakes.

The tragedy is that some scientists have known about the pernicious effects of sugar for 40 years. In 1972, when health experts were wondering how to explain an explosion in heart disease, the leading British nutritionist John Yudkin...

Blah, blah, blah. This is the standard LCHF rewriting of history in which sugar-hating Yudkin was a genius and he was silenced by Big Carb.

Industry successfully — and deliberately, according to documents recently unearthed at the University of California — shifted the blame to fat.

The documents were 'unearthed' by our old friend Stanton Glantz who, on the basis that you can't libel scientists if they're dead, used them to create an absurd conspiracy theory that has since been comprehensively debunked in this Science article (which I wrote about here).

What we now know is that sugar is as addictive as cigarettes. The American paediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig has argued...

Yes, I thought Robert Lustig would get a mention. Whose fringe view will be cited next? Malhotra's? DiNicolantonio's? Suffice to say, most scientists do not think that sugar is addictive and I do not consider Lustig, a purveyor of junk science who denies that breast milk is sweet and who claims that pasta was invented in America, to be a reliable source of information.

I read Lustig while I was working as a leader writer and columnist at The Times. Battling exhaustion after my third child, and sitting opposite a dear friend who practically mainlined Coca-Cola, I fell into the habit of needing a Coke and chocolate bar before every deadline. Since I was filing copy every day, my consumption of sugar was considerable. And pretty soon the chocolate bar was no longer a single small, elegant Green & Black’s, but a string of Yorkie bars.

This cannot help but bring to mind Alan Partridge's Toblerone habit ("I would wake up in the middle of the night and eat an entire Toblerone. And I don't mean a small one, I mean a medium-sized one"). The writers of I'm Alan Partridge picked chocolate 'addiction' because it is the lamest equivalent of a drug or alcohol habit imaginable; because it is not really an addiction and its consequences are trivial.

This kind of “mindless eating” has been brought to life, hilariously and poignantly, in experiments by Brian Wansink of Cornell University... Wansink opened my eyes to just how much we humans are influenced by our peers, and by portion size.

Two things should you know about Wansink. Firstly, he opposes the kind of nanny state interventions that Cavendish supports because he acknowledges that they are unlikely to produce benefits and are certain to incur costs. Secondly, he is at the centre of the replication crisis in the social sciences after academics spotted numerous irregularities in his studies. He is not the best person to be citing at the moment.

I wanted us to target what worked, not launch an all-out assault on lifestyles. And so did Cameron, my boss. He was instinctively wary of the nanny state. He did, however, regret not having introduced minimum alcohol pricing...

Not that wary, then. Why can't these people acknowledge what they are?

We looked at Mexico, where a sugar tax substantially reduced fizzy drinks purchases by the poorest. 

No it didn't.

We sat down with Jamie Oliver...

Of course you did.

 ...the celebrity chef and health campaigner, who presented the prime minister with a framed graph showing how poor children fare worst from the onslaught of junk food. That graph sat by the prime minister’s desk for months. And it was that argument — that obesity hurts the poor, and that sugar drives obesity — that convinced him about the sugar tax.

I've never heard of such a graph and am doubtful that the data exists to create one. Since it has had such a profound effect on public policy, shouldn't it be made public so that we can judge its veracity?

The tax could never be enough on its own. But we did hope it would reduce purchasing — especially by the teenagers who were getting, unbelievably, a third of their daily calories from fizzy drinks.

You what?! 11-18 year olds get less than five per cent of their calories from soft drinks (including fruit juice). It's scary that somebody who was at the heart of government lobbying for anti-sugar policies is so oblivious to the basic facts.

To be fair to Big Food, many companies argue that they are simply selling what people like.

'Big Food' is correct. Leave us alone.

My problem is that they don’t deal with the reality of a public health crisis brought on by our inability to resist junk, described so eloquently by Lustig and Wansink.

If I may say so, Camilla, your problem is that you've learned everything you know about nutrition from the fringes of pop science. Try speaking to a dietitian or biologist who doesn't have a book to sell.

The sugar tax shows, however, that regulation needn’t be disastrous if it’s universal. It has also showed that it’s possible for companies to change their ingredients quickly.

Consumers hate the newly reformulated Irn-Bru, Lucozade and Ribena. Lucozade lost £25 million after they created Victory Lucozade.

Reformulating food is much more complicated, for the obvious reason that processed foods contain far more ingredients than drinks (and if you remove all sugar from a cake, it will simply collapse and look like a soufflé). 

It's not just 'more complicated'. It is impossible in most cases, which is why Public Health England has largely given up the fantasy of reformulation and told companies to simply make their products smaller.

But if we humans are terrible at digesting health advice, it would be far better if responsible companies could remove temptation from us at source, rather than try and convince millions of us to change.

Millions of us do not need to change and millions more don't want to change. The fact that you used to eat too many Yorkie bars is not our problem.

There is already a model. In the 2000s, a UK government-business partnership reduced salt in many processed foods by 15 per cent. The same could be done for sugar.

The government has been doing this since 2015. Do try and keep up. 

What would I do next? I believe we need to start treating sugar like nicotine. 

Is this, by any chance, the slippery slope of regulation that the anti-smokers assured us was a figment of libertarian imaginations?

That means putting a health warning on the packet, not complex labels in small print that few of us can make sense of when we’re rushing down a supermarket aisle.

As some wag on Twitter pointed out, Yorkie bars are explicitly marketed as being 'not for girls' but that warning didn't deter Cavendish.

I’d like to see a clear, unequivocal health warning on processed food and drink in a universal language: one that Jamie Oliver suggested to me while demonstrating vividly with a can of Coke and a bowl of sugar. You simply show consumers the number of teaspoons of sugar each product contains.

A stupid idea from a stupid individual that would divert attention from the most important piece of information: the calorie count.

Governments have a moral and financial responsibility to tackle obesity.

They do not. They have a moral responsibility to allow people to live as they like so long as they do not harm others. Fat people may not be aesthetically appealing but they do not harm others. It makes essentially no difference to me whether the obesity rate is 20, 30 or 40 per cent. By contrast, sin taxes, bans and reformulations have a significantly detrimental effect on me.

I don't want my life to be regulated by experts and I certainly don't want it to be regulated by gullible ex-journalists and Jamie fricking Oliver. The fact that people like Camilla Cavendish can have such a strong influence on government policy is a perfect argument for small government.

So although it may be slower than I would like, I do think the reckoning is coming for Big Food. 

Big Food will be fine. They're doing nicely out of Public Health England's shrinkflation scam. It's ordinary consumers who need to be worried.

Aren't you glad that we have the Conservatives in power instead of those bossy socialists?

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Junk science about junk food advertising

A study about 'junk food' marketing was published last October and got a bit of attention in the media with headlines like...

Kiwi kids bombarded with junk food ads - study


Kiwi kids are exposed to 27 junk food advertisements a day, study finds

As you might have guessed, the study looked at 'exposure' to junk food advertising among children in New Zealand. The researchers put a small camera on a bunch of 11 to 14 year olds for a few days to see what they were seeing. The cameras took a photo every seven seconds and provided the researchers with 1.3 million frames of footage.

The study concluded:

Children in this study were frequently exposed, across multiple settings, to marketing of non-core foods not recommended to be marketed to children.

I didn't pay much attention to this when it came out, although I vaguely remember it crossing my radar. I was reminded of it this week when I saw that the publishing company responsible, BMC, had made a video about it.

I had assumed that the study would be junk. I have been following the field of 'public health' for long enough to know that any study that ends with a political call to action is going to be at least partially fraudulent. But I hadn't guessed how bad it was.

The graphic below summarises the findings. The kids supposedly saw more than twice as much marketing for 'unhealthy' food as they did for 'healthy' food. This wouldn't be too surprising because there is relatively little advertising for raw fruit and vegetables. (What would be the point? They're generally homogenous and unbranded.)

So the kids were 'exposed' to 'non-core food marketing' 27 times a day. But it transpires that the vast majority of the 'marketing' was not marketing as most people understand it and it was certainly not 'advertising', as the media reports claimed.

Of the 27 'exposures', 17 involved nothing more that kids seeing food products, often while they were consuming them. Thanks to the BMC video and several news reports, we can see for ourselves how ridiculous this is.

Amazing, isn't it? Every time you think you've seen it all from the 'public health' racket they find a new way of flabbering your gast. Their latest wheeze is to portray kids glancing at the food they are eating as marketing. Children bombarding themselves with junk food advertising! You've got to hand it to them. It's ingenious.

These 'exposures' make up two-third of the total. Most of the rest are signs inside and outside of shops, accounting for a further 7.6 frames per day. The number of actual advertisements seen is incredibly small. The kids saw an average of 0.2 'junk food' advertisements on television per day and an average of 0.6 in print media. No wonder the authors had to widen the definition of 'marketing' so dramatically. If they had actually looked at 'junk food advertising' they would have been forced to admit that kids hardly see any of it.

Once you understand what this study was actually measuring, the conclusions of the authors seem almost comic. In their study, they say...

This research suggests that children live in an obesogenic food marketing environment that promotes obesity as a normal response to their everyday environment.

It doesn't, of course. It shows that these kids, their friends and their families prefer eating 'non-core' food products and that these products are, naturally enough, visible to them while they eat them.

You might forgive the media for assuming that the 'exposures' counted in the study were advertisements, but the researchers clearly knew that they were not. As such, the press release from their university can only be seen as a deliberate attempt to deceive...

New Zealand children are exposed to around 27 unhealthy food advertisements per day, innovative camera research from Otago and Auckland Universities reveals.

... Lead researcher Associate Professor Louise Signal says the study provides further evidence of the need for urgent action to reduce children’s exposure to marketing of unhealthy foods.

“Children in the study were exposed to unhealthy food ads in multiple places via multiple media – including an average of seven unhealthy food ads at school and eight in public places.

“These junk food ads are littering children’s lives,” says Associate Professor Signal, from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, Wellington.

'Public health' is so incorrigibly dishonest, it takes your breath away.

The authors note that most of this 'advertising' takes place in the home and at school. Of course it does. That is where kids eat their meals. But for our intrepid 'public health' researchers, this is a shocking finding:

Particularly concerning is the amount of exposure in school, an environment where children’s health is required to be protected under NZ law, and which the ECHO Commission states should be free of such marketing.

It's not marketing, it's packaging! Surely they are not recommending plain packaging for 'non-core' food?

No, wait. They are...

Given that over two-thirds of marketing is in the form of food packaging, consideration should be given to plain packaging in some specific cases (e.g. sugar sweetened beverages) as a highly effective intervention in this arena.

You can't make this stuff up. And, of course, they told the media:

"It is time for government regulation of food marketing."

By the way, if you're a New Zealand taxpayer, you may want to look away now.

The researchers received $800,000 in funding from the Health Research Council.

What a racket.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Good riddance to bad sockpuppets

Every time a parasitic killjoy pressure group loses its taxpayer funding an angel gets its wings, but this announcement was particularly special...

Two leading Canadian anti-tobacco groups to shut down after Ottawa fails to provide funding

The two award-winning Canadian non-profit groups that led the fight against smoking and tobacco products in Canada and around the world are preparing to close their doors after the money they expected to see in the most recent federal budget failed to materialize.

The Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) and Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada (PSC) have been limping along on a combination of savings, provincial help, and the work of volunteers since their federal funding was cut by the former Conservative government in 2012.

How telling it is that the loss of state funding forces these sockpuppets to close down. They don't lay a few people off. They don't search for alternative funding. They are so dependent on the involuntary donations of taxpayers that they immediately close their doors. We saw the same thing happen with the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia a few years ago.

...the NSRA is now down to a single staff member in Montreal, has closed its Ottawa office, and is in the process of closing the main office in Toronto. Its next campaigns would have been aimed at getting tobacco out of corner stores and creating rules around second-hand smoke in multi-unit housing.

Banning the sale of cigarettes in corner shops and prohibiting people from smoking in their own flats? You can see why these vile people struggle to raise donations from the general public. Good riddance to them.

But what makes this case of defunding extra special is the reallocation of the cash...

...the government says the $11-million that was committed to the strategy this year and the $16-million promised next year will be used to stop the influx of contraband tobacco...

How very symbolic! Years of fanatical anti-smoking activity has led to a booming black market in Canada, despite repeated assurances from tobacco control quacks who insist - absurdly - that high taxes and hyper-regulation do not incentivise illicit trade. How fitting that the filthy lucre earmarked for anti-smoking liars will instead be used to alleviate the damage their policies have done.

Meanwhile, in Britain...

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Sin taxes and the poor

The Tories' regressive sugar tax begins tomorrow and so the Lancet (a student union magazine masquerading as a medical journal) is trying to seize the narrative by devoting a whole issue to the wonders of taxation. As with the Bloomberg-funded Telegraph advertorial published last week, it frames sin taxes around the silly panic about 'non-communicable diseases'.

One of Bloomberg's minions has written the main editorial. Absurdly, he claims that sin taxes do not disproportionately hit the poor. On the contrary, he says, people on below-average incomes benefit the most from them.

I have written a rejoinder for Spectator Health.

A key reason why such taxes are unpopular is that they are regressive. Excise taxes on everyday products almost invariably take a greater share of income from the poor than from the rich. Taxes on tobacco, fast food and soft drinks are doubly regressive because people on below-average incomes tend to consume more of them in the first place.

This is not a notion that is ‘outdated, misleading, or simply wrong’. It is a demonstrable fact. In Britain, the poorest decile spend 34 per cent of their disposable income on indirect taxes, including 2.9 per cent on tobacco duty and 2.0 per cent on alcohol duty. For the richest decile, the equivalent figures are 14 per cent, 0.1 per cent and 0.9 per cent respectively. There is no doubt that the sugar tax will be similarly regressive when it comes into effect on Friday.

If you were employed by one of the world’s richest men to lobby for higher taxes on the poor, you might start to wonder if you were one of the baddies. Summers’ editorial seems designed to help him and his readers sleep easier at night by redefining the meaning of the word ‘regressive’ and engaging in some wishful thinking about the efficacy of such policies.

Do have a read of it.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Puritans in health and feminism

I did the IEA podcast recently with Kate Andrews and Joanna Williams. Between conversations about the nanny state and the #metoo movement, we tried the new formulations of Irn-Bru and Lucozade.

You can listen on iTunes by subscribing to the IEA or click below...

Friday, 30 March 2018

Nanny state propaganda in the Telegraph

An article went up on the Telegraph website yesterday that is so comically one-sided and ill informed that I wondered how it could possibly be published by a reputable newspaper. It only made sense when I got to the bottom and saw this...

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security

Intrigued by this apparent advertisement, I clicked on the link to find out more about Global Health Security. At first glance it looks like they have paid to have a link at the bottom of a Telegraph article. In fact, they paid for the article.

Our Global Health Security coverage is partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This support comes without strings and we retain full editorial control over all the content we publish... The site was launched in February 2018...

To see what Bill and Melinda are getting for their money, you have to read the dreadful article in question. It is written by someone called Aisha Majid who had never written for the Telegraph until a few weeks ago. Presumably she arrived with the Gates' money.

Her article is about 'non-communicable diseases' and she shows all the signs of having spent 30 days in a locked room with the least honest 'public health' campaigners on the planet. She begins...

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes now account for 90 per cent of deaths each year in the UK.

This is a jolly good thing. Dying from a non-communicable disease is virtually the only alternative to dying from a communicable disease. Aside from those caused by suicide, accidents and violence, all deaths are from disease. 'Death from old age' does not feature in the pie charts of 'public health'. Even if you die at the age of 110, it will probably be from a non-communicable disease, usually respiratory or cardiovascular.

These so-called 'lifestyle' conditions are a well known problem in the west. Much less understood is that they now account for the majority (53 per cent) of deaths and disabilities in the developing world – taking 31 million lives a year. 

Good. That is a sign of progress. As these countries get richer and vanquish infectious disease, this figure will go higher.  

NCDs are not driven by infections and viruses but by behaviours such as poor diet, smoking, moving too little, alcohol and drugs. 

What? All of them? What does Aisha Majid think people would die of if nobody smoked, drank or took drugs, and if everybody had a perfect diet and took plenty of exercise? The answer, of course, is a non-communicable disease.

Although often referred to as lifestyle issues – implying personal choice – the rapid spread of NCDs around the world suggests they are a more universal problem, correlating strongly with economic development and urbanisation.

Firstly, this is a non-sequitur. The claim that lifestyle-related diseases are the result of personal choices is not contradicted by them being more prevalent in developed countries. On the contrary, developed countries offer people more choice.

Secondly, non-communicable diseases are less common in developing countries because these countries are still plagued by tropical, contagious diseases and suffer unacceptably high rates of infant mortality.

Globally, 70 per cent of deaths – some 40 million – are now attributed to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), with lower and middle income countries becoming increasingly impacted as there [sic] economies grow.

Again, this is a good thing. The rise of non-communicable disease is closely correlated with rising life expectancy. As countries develop, people live longer.

Non-communicable diseases are diseases of old age, first and foremost. Age is by far the biggest risk factor for cancer and heart disease, not to mention dementia.

In all regions of the world with the notable exception of Africa, more people are dying today from NCDs than from any other cause.

Gee, I wonder what the secret of Africa's success is? If only we could emulate the continent that has the lowest life expectancy on the planet, eh?

The World Health Organization predicts NCDs will be the biggest killers in Africa by 2030.

At the risk of repeating myself, that would be a good thing. Let's hope they tackle HIV, malaria and tuberculosis so it comes true. Perhaps if the WHO spent more time working on those diseases and a bit less time fighting 'Big Soda', it would have already happened by now.

More surprising perhaps, obesity is also rising in countries that only a few decades ago were experiencing food shortages. In Ghana, for example, obesity has soared by over 600 per cent since 1975 and now affects one in 11 adults.

In 1975, Ghana was a military dictatorship and suffered periodic famines. Today it is, by African standards, a relatively prosperous democracy and some people can afford to be fat. Good.

There is now a clear understanding of the relationship between NCDs and poverty in many places, said Ms Dain.

“NCDs are a cause and consequence of poverty,” she said. “It’s often the poorest that are most vulnerable to NCDs and in many countries you are seeing NCDs impacting on lower socio-economic proportions of populations.”

Quite the opposite. People in poor countries tend to be skinny and people in rich countries tend to be fat.

While the causes of chronic diseases in low and middle income countries are complex, experts and campaigners are increasingly pointing the finger at big business and the so-called "commercial determinants of health".  

Oh God, here we go...

“It’s very clear that big tobacco, big food and big alcohol are seeing many lower and middle income countries as their emerging target markets," said Ms Dain.

People in lower and middle income countries have as much right to smoke, drink and eat processed food as everybody else. If these countries were not 'target markets' before, it was only because their people didn't have any disposable income.

Abdul Razzak AlMadani, a consultant in medicine and endocrinology at Al Borj Medical Centre in Dubai and President of the Emirates Diabetes Society puts the rise [of diabetes] down to among other things changing lifestyles and eating habits in the past few decades.

“It’s fast food, but not only fast food,” said Dr AlMadani. “Most foods we eat here have a high calorie content and high carbohydrate content. That’s the food that’s affordable and tastes good.”

It's actually much less affordable than 'healthy' food but, yes, it does taste good. Thank you for finally acknowledging why people choose to eat it.

And then we get to the real reason why this article was written...

Alongside awareness, a number of countries have also started to fight back against the marketing and consumption of unhealthy foods with tax on harmful foods and drinks.

It's about taxing the poor.

Mexico, where more than 70 per cent of the population is overweight or obese, is already reaping benefits from such a levy. In 2014, the country introduced a tax of 1 peso (4 pence) per litre of sugary drink.

Indeed it did, as part of a desperate attempt to balance the budget that also included taxing pet food. It made no difference whatsoever to rates of obesity.

Although it is too early to say what impact this will have, early results are promising.

On the contrary. They are remarkable unpromising. Figures from Mexico's National Institute of Public Health show that it didn't even reduce soda consumption, let alone obesity. Between 2007-13, average per capita soda consumption was 160 litres. In 2014, when the tax came in, per capita consumption was 162 litres. In 2015, it was 161 litres.

A study of the tax by researchers in Mexico and the United States found that sugary drinks purchases fell by an average of 7.6 per cent in the two years after the tax was introduced.

They did not fall by 7.6 per cent. They were 7.6 per cent lower than a bullshit counterfactual that was conjured up by the soda tax campaigners who wrote the study, and that is a very different thing. There was no decline in consumption. 

The UK is also set to introduce a sugary drinks tax in April.

And that, too, will achieve the square root of jackshit, other than taking millions of pounds out of the pockets of consumers and giving it to ball-juggling bureaucrats and nanny state campaigners.

Ms Dain believes that the UK has many good lessons to share at this September’s UN high-level summit on NCDs that can be a model for other countries battling NCDs.

“There have been many commitments and targets but implementation in low and middle income countries, where there are many competing urgent priorities, has been slow,” said Ms Dain. “The UK has lots of good practices and examples such as plain packaging on cigarettes or tackling childhood obesity by taxing sugary drinks".

No list of stupid nanny state policies that have demonstrably failed would be complete without mentioning plain packaging, so I'm glad she managed to give that a shout out. God help the rest of the world if the UK is the trailblazer for these stupid ideas.

And that is the final sentence of an article that is little more than a hagiographic interview with Katie Dain of the NCD Alliance. Its intention seems to be to sett the agenda for 'this September’s UN high-level summit on NCDs' - a summit that Ms Dain just so happens to be chairing.

It is straight up propaganda, paid for by a billionaire. It is reminiscent of July last year when the Guardian suddenly started putting tobacco stories on its front page despite there being nothing newsworthy about them (no other papers ran them). It turned out that they were part of a series that had been commissioned by one of Mike Bloomberg's lobby groups, Vital Strategies, in support of a Bloomberg-funded WHO report released a few days later that, again, called for higher taxes.

Unlike Bloomberg, who is obsessed with tobacco and fizzy drinks, the Gates have given a lot of money to groups that provide medicine, healthcare and vaccines to people in developing countries. It's sad to see them get into bed with people who are more interested in raising the cost of living and restricting choice. Is there anything more nauseating than the sight of billionaires buying up newspaper space to lobby for higher taxes on poor people?

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The sugar tax evaluation farce

Last week I complained to the National Institute for Health Research about the decision to get the sugar tax evaluated by academics who have campaigned for the tax, staked their reputations on it working and, in at least once case, believe that God wanted it to be introduced.

By any reasonable definition, this is a conflict of interest. You can read my complaint here. Yesterday I received a stock reply from the NIHR which basically says that they intend to do nothing about it.

Dear Chris,

The Public Health Research (PHR) Programme funds independent research to generate evidence to inform the delivery of non-NHS interventions intended to improve the health of the public and reduce inequalities in health.

The PHR researcher-led work stream funds research questions proposed directly by researchers. All applications to the PHR Programme undergo a comprehensive assessment as described in the general assessment criteria. Applications are assessed by the Programme Advisory Board for their importance to the public health practitioner community, and by the Research Funding Board whose members are appointed for their academic and research expertise. External review also takes place by both professionals and members of the public. The board looks at whether the study is designed to achieve its objectives in an appropriate, feasible and ethical manner. They will also judge whether the proposal is methodologically and scientifically robust and if the team expected to carry out the research have the necessary skills, experience, project management and infrastructure for success.

Each NIHR funded project has an independent steering committee who are appointed in line with NIHR governance guidelines and is monitored through the duration of the project. On completion, all projects are published in the open access, peer reviewed NIHR Journals Library.

Best wishes


If you click on the links to their Programme Advisory Board, which assesses applications, you will find a link to their conflict of interest policy but this relates only to committee members, not to applicants. In any case, it only includes financial interests. Merely believing that 'God is calling me to work towards the introduction of soft-drink taxes in this country' does not disqualify somebody from evaluating soft drink taxes.

Interestingly, the minutes from their February 2017 meeting which resulted in sugar tax campaigners being given £1.5 million of our money to mark their own homework show that a proposal from MacGregor was rejected. It seems likely that this is Graham MacGregor, the chairman of Action on Sugar. A truly shameless application if so, but then MacGregor has previously evaluated the salt reduction scheme that he campaigned for as chairman of Consensus Action on Salt and Health, so he must have thought he was in with a shout.

To its partial credit, the NIHR rejected MacGregor's proposal and instead gave it to Martin White and his team. You will notice that Martin White is mentioned as having a conflict of interest. And indeed he does. He happens to be the Director of the Programme Advisory Board.

What a small world.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Another evidence review fails to link fast food outlets to childhood obesity

A few weeks ago, the IEA published my review of 74 studies looking at the association between the number and proximity of fast food outlets to obesity. In short, there isn't one. The majority of studies find no association whatsoever. Of the 39 studies that look at childhood obesity, only six suggest a positive association (and five suggest an inverse relationship).

So I was interested to see a systematic review of the evidence published today in the European Journal of Public Health. It, too, fails to find an association, although the authors do not exactly go out of their way to highlight that conclusion. On the contrary, they strongly imply that there is a relationship which dozens of studies have failed to demonstrate as a result of unspecified methodological issues.

Few studies found were able to adequately quantify a correlation between the food environment surrounding schools and obesity amongst pupils attending those schools. The lack of reliable evidence found in this review is more a factor of the ability of the studies found to identify the correlation than the actual lack of a correlation between the two variables.

They recommend that fast food outlets be restricted 'despite the lack of good evidence' and use a ridiculous tobacco analogy to push the precautionary principle:

Planning policy is difficult to change; years may pass between the first inclination to change a policy and the change. Several more years may then pass before the built environment is significantly impacted by the policy. This makes the study of this impact difficult to analyse and time consuming.

This is reminiscent of the study of exposure to cigarette smoke and its impact on health. Tobacco smoking was identified as harmful to health in the 1940s and 1950s. The prevention of exposure to tobacco smoke in the working environment was a hard won change to the built environment and was legally enshrined in the Health Act 2005. Similarly the correlation between fast food retail location, fast food consumption and obesity is still disputed. This lack of evidence may however indicate the inability of many papers to measure the impact of hot food takeaway exposure accurately.

This is a laughable argument for so many reasons. For a start, the smoking ban was not introduced on the back of the evidence that emerged in the 1950s (not the 1940s) showing that it harmed smokers, but on the back of studies published several decades later claiming that it harmed others.

Admittedly, that was only the official justification. Most people realise that its true purpose was to encourage smokers to quit, but even if you think that the smoking ban was a reasonable response to the evidence that smoking is bad for smokers, the fact remains that there is a hell of a lot of evidence that smoking causes cancer whereas there is very little evidence that living near a fast food outlet causes obesity.

It is not that the evidence linking fast food outlets to obesity is 'disputed'. The bulk of the evidence simply does not support the hypothesis that living, working or going to school in areas where fast food is available has any impact on your chances of being obese. Those who argue that restricting the number of fast food outlets will have no effect on obesity rates are not disputing the evidence. They are asserting it.

The implication of the passage quoted above is that 'public health' campaigners should be allowed to act on their gut instincts regardless of what the evidence says. As I said in the little film we made to accompany the IEA report, so much for evidence-based policy.

As for the evidence review itself, it does not do what it says on the tin. My review included 74 studies. This one only includes 14, but that is because it restricts itself to the UK. It includes only two studies that appeared in my review (Harrison et al. 2011, Griffiths et al. 2015) and ignores another one (Heroux et al. 2012). It also includes two evidence reviews conducted by British researchers which mainly look at studies from the USA (Fraser et al. 2010 and Harrison and Jones 2012).

So there are ten studies in the new review that didn't get mentioned in the IEA report. Have I been cherry-picking? I assure you that I have not. Although the new review is titled 'The impact of hot food takeaways near schools in the UK on childhood obesity: a systematic review of the evidence' most of the studies in it do not look at the relationship between fast food outlet density/proximity and obesity. Many of them include neither data on obesity nor data on 'hot food takeaways'.

The authors claim in the abstract that...

Most included studies compared anthropometric measures with geographical location of hot food takeaways to find correlations between environment and childhood obesity.

But this is simply untrue. Here are the studies that are in the new review which were not included in mine. It should be pretty obvious why I didn't include them.

Briggs and Lake (2011) involved giving 24 kids cameras to photograph where they ate their lunch. It doesn't measure the number or proximity of fast food outlets, nor does it measure body weight.

Caraher et al. (2014) looks at the concentration of fast food outlets around schools but doesn't attempt to find any correlation with obesity rates or body mass index.

De Vet et al. (2013) is a survey of kids in four countries which finds that children who have access to takeaway food tend to eat more of it. It does not look at the density or proximity of fast food outlets. Interestingly, the authors do not tell us whether those who ate more takeaways were fatter, despite having the BMI data for each child. I suspect that this is because there was no association, but there is no way of telling.

Devi et al. (2010) is based entirely on an interview with staff and pupils at one school. It doesn't even mention fast food, let alone measure the number of outlets or measure the children's BMI.

Edwards et al. (2010) doesn't look at fast food outlets at all. The closest it gets is finding that obesity is correlated with 'perceived poor access to supermarkets'.

Ellaway et al. (2012) studies the number of takeaways around 'disadvantaged schools in Glasgow'. It does not measure obesity or body mass and makes no attempt to correlate these variables with the number of fast food outlets.

Estrade et al. (2014) doesn't look at obesity or the number of fast food outlets. It is just a summary of some interviews conducted with food shop owners.

Fraser et al. (2011) found that adolescents who were more 'exposed' to takeaway food at home tended to eat at fast food restaurants more frequently. It did not look at the proximity or density of fast food outlets.

Macdiarmid et al. (2015) is a survey of school kids which doesn't attempt to correlate the proximity or density of fast food outlets with obesity. It does, however, ask kids how often they buy food out of school at lunchtime and finds no association between this and obesity. Incidentally, the authors note that only ten per cent of them ate food out of school at lunchtime and say that this finding 'questions the emphasis, effort and likely impact of changing the food environment around schools on improving the overall diet of young people and tackling obesity.'

None of these studies are relevant to question of whether living or schooling near fast food outlets increases childhood obesity risk. However, there is one relevant study in the review which escaped my attention when I conducted my literature search and I am more than happy to give it some attention now. It is Gallo et al. (2014) and it found...

No significant association was observed between food outlet frequency and IMD quintile (F=1.125, p=0.627); obesity prevalence rates nationally or locally (both F = 0.370, p = 0.565) or Supergroup class (F = 2.314, p = 4 0.191).

.. No significant association was observed between obesity prevalence and any specific food outlet typology.

No surprise there. That is what most of the studies show. But it is worth noting that both sentences quoted above are followed in the text by the words 'Despite non-significant results...' and some whataboutery from the authors who are clearly desperate to find an association. There is a lot of that kind of thing in this literature and that is why it is important to focus on what the evidence says rather than what 'public health' campaigners say about it.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Faith-based policy

Nice to see The Sun pick up on the story first broken here a few weeks ago about the sugar tax evaluation...

Academic charged with assessing Sugar Tax ‘told by God to push for it’

A top academic hired by the Government to judge the success of the Sugar Tax claims GOD asked him to push for the soft drinks levy.

Furious campaigners hit out last night over a blog where Professor Rev. Mike Rayner said the Almighty was “calling me to work towards the introduction of soft drink taxes in this country”.

He has also previously published papers claiming a levy pushing up the price of popular fizz will cut obesity.

I have made a complaint to the National Institute for Health Research (via its website - scroll to the bottom), part of which is quoted in The Sun article. In full, I wrote:

‘Last year the NIHR commissioned Mike Rayner and others to conduct the 'Evaluation of the health impacts of the UK Treasury Soft Drinks Industry Levy'. Rayner is on the record saying: 'You may not believe that I have heard God aright but I think God is calling me to work towards the introduction of soft-drink taxes in this country'.

Given that he believes that the sugar levy has the support of the Almighty, and that he (Rayner) has previously published research which predicts that taxing soft drinks will reduce the obesity rate, it is surely inappropriate for him to be given the job of evaluating its effects.

Several of the other people on the evaluation team have also advocated for the levy's introduction and have published research which concludes that it will have positive effects. Even if we leave aside the Reverend Rayner's religious beliefs, it cannot be right for people who have advocated for the levy, and whose reputation rests, in part, on it having the predicted effect, to be given the job of marking their own homework. It is a glaring conflict of interest and should never have happened. Impartial academics should be given the commission instead.’

As I said in my original post, I don't see Rayner's religious beliefs as being any more of a conflict of interest than the equally strong, albeit secular, pro-sugar tax beliefs of his colleagues who have campaigned for it. They are all emotionally invested in it and are desperate for it to be seen to work. Those who have published studies claiming that it will work, including Rayner, are professionally invested in it. They should not be anywhere near the evaluation.

Nevertheless, Rayner's conflict of interest is unusual and, let's face it, funny. I am no theologian, but if God doesn't want people to consume fizzy drinks, surely they are easier ways for him to achieve this than by acting through Mike Rayner to get a modest excise tax than has achieved nothing whatsoever in other countries?

Approached yesterday Professor Rayner told The Sun the panel would evaluate the tax on its merits. He said: “We can always change our minds. The things I said 10 years or so ago are things I said 10 years ago.”

Does this also apply to things that God said six years ago, I wonder?


There is also a rather wonderful editorial in The Sun...

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola are continuing with their radical policy of running a business by not pissing your customers off. It could just work!

Thursday, 22 March 2018

What exactly is the tobacco playbook?

A recent Guardian article portrayed bacon as the new smoking...

The meat industry’s tactics in defending bacon have been “right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook”, according to Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University.

No slippery slope there, then! But what exactly is 'the tobacco industry's playbook'? It's a phrase we hear a lot these days when campaigners are trying the poison the well against their perceived enemies. I've done a bit of searching and the tobacco playbook seems to be used by nearly everybody and includes nearly everything. Here's my top twenty...

1. Sporting associations being involved with medical organisations.

NFL’s partnership with CDC on head injuries is straight out of big tobacco’s playbook

2. Soft drink companies 'donating to adversarial health groups':

Big Soda is using Big Tobacco's playbook

A recent review found that in the past five years, Pepsi and Coke sponsored nearly 100 health-related organizations including the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and even The Obesity Society.

3. Booze companies lobbying:

A new study has found that Australian alcohol companies have successfully copied tactics straight out of the tobacco playbook to block the introduction of mandated pregnancy warning labels.

4. Mobile phone companies questioning whether their products cause brain cancer:

They have their response straight out of the big tobacco playbook and they use it. “Although we are constantly exploring the subject, currently there is no direct evidence that links cell phone usage to brain cancer.”

5. Advertising to men:

“That appeal to macho culture is straight out of the tobacco industry playbook. They are using a lot of the same tactics ... it’s targeting your kids, it’s often sexist and designed with the intent of creating the problem gamblers of tomorrow,” he said.

6. Advertising to anyone:

Old tobacco playbook gets new use with e-cigarette advertising 

The electronic cigarette ads push the same themes as old cigarette ads: sophistication, freedom, equality and individualism, said Timothy de Waal Malefyt, a visiting associate professor at Fordham University’s business school and former advertising executive.

7. Advertising e-cigarettes:

“As Big Tobacco corners the e-cigarette market, it is using e-cigarettes as a global PR scheme to gloss over its tarnished image, positioning itself as a‘solution’ to the problem it drives. In reality, the e-cigarette industry is taking advantage of the regulatory vacuum to employ the Big Tobacco playbook to hook a new generation on its products,” said John Stewart of the U.S.-based group Corporate Accountability International.

8. Distributing e-cigarettes:

Thirteen Members of Congress today called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take immediate action to protect young people from predatory e-cigarette marketing and distribution tactics that are straight out of big tobacco's playbook.

9. Hiring public relations firms:

Today, Big Soda faces the same PR challenges as Big Tobacco, and its PR strategy is straight out of the Big Tobacco playbook. In fact, the soda industry taps many of the same PR firms that helped Big Tobacco deceive the public for so long.

10. Taking legal action (about wording in a referendum on soda taxes):

“This lawsuit is straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook that Big Soda is now using,” Martin Bourque, executive director of the nonprofit Ecology Center and a member of the Measure D campaign committee, said in an email.

11. Publishing peer-reviewed studies:

“This comes right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook: cast doubt on the science,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research. “This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It’s shameful.”

12. Partnering with a non-profit organisation:

By partnering with a group that could otherwise be one of its staunchest critics, Walmart is taking a page right out of the Big Tobacco playbook: Buying silence.

13. Funding scientific research:

Taking a page right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook, five major beverage manufacturers are ponying up $67.7 million to prove that a glass of wine, beer or cocktail every day will increase one’s chances of avoiding a heart attack and live longer.

14. Supposedly advertising to children:

“Predatory marketing to children was the hallmark of Big Tobacco nearly two decades ago,” Madhusoodanan wrote in an e-mail. “McDonald’s and the fast food industry have taken a page right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook and are driving an epidemic of diet-related diseases by getting kids addicted to their junk food at a young age and building brand loyalties that last a lifetime.”

Read more here:

15. Paying CEOs a lot of money:

Sabet said the marijuana industry is taking "pages right out of the big tobacco playbook."
"I think no doubt we are going down the path of creating Big Tobacco 2.0," Sabet said. "When you look at the techniques of the marijuana industry, they downplay risks, they produce marijuana candies and other fun items, they fund research and political advocacy and most of all they are corporate CEOs poised to make millions, the comparison couldn't be more perfect."

16. Advertising to people while they do everyday tasks:

The editorial also compared the people behind “pot-peddling” to those who sell cigarettes. “Marketing pot to consumers while they carry out everyday tasks is right out of the old Big Tobacco playbook,” the piece stated.

17. Talking about personal choice:

Out of the tobacco playbook

Tactics employed by the food and drink industry to influence the public health debate are “identical” to those used by the tobacco industry 30 years ago, experts have warned.

“It’s exactly identical to tobacco,” said Professor Timothy Noakes, an authority on nutrition who has witnessed colleagues accepting funding from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

“The only difference is, in the past the public was not as aware as they are today of the dangers and benefits of different products. Now the companies have to be cleverer and they have to target scientists who are particularly influential.”

Both tobacco and junk food companies emphasise the importance of personal choice.

 18. Pointing out that regressive taxes are regressive:
Is the anti-sugar tax lobby taking a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook?

This week, the Institute of Race Relations became the latest organisation to attempt to discredit research showing that taxing sugary drinks could save lives in South Africa. Hofman cautions that attacks on the public health rationale behind the tax may be similar to ploys that health activists, particularly anti-tobacco campaigners, have seen before.

The institute questioned the rationale behind the proposed tax, arguing that it would only be a burden on the poor and would not reduce obesity.

Hofman has hit back, saying that the tobacco lobby spent years trying to discredit scientific research that revealed the dangers of smoking.

“This is a strategy from the tobacco playbook, in which they [the industry] tried to discredit peer-reviewed scientific research."

 19. Having a trade organisation:

Salt Industry Takes Page from Big Tobacco's Playbook

Remember the Tobacco Institute? The "research" organization set up by Big Tobacco that served mainly to obfuscate and distort what they and other scientists knew about the incredibly harmful effects of smoking?

Meet its reincarnation: the Salt Institute.

20. Borrowing from the oil industry:

Evidence Suggests the Oil Industry Wrote Big Tobacco's Playbook, Then Used It to Lie About Climate Change 

It has long been assumed that, in its efforts to deceive investors and the public about the negative impact its business has on the environment, Big Oil borrowed Big Tobacco's so-called tactical "playbook." But these documents indicate that infamous playbook appears to have actually originated within the oil industry itself.

I hope that's cleared things up.