Monday, 15 September 2014

Legends in their own lunchtime

I've started doing a spot of blogging at the Telegraph. Today, it's about a school banning packed lunches...

A new academic year at Milefield Primary School in Grimethorpe, South Yorkshire, gave authorities a fresh opportunity to override the will of parents in the name of heath. As reported in the Telegraph, a ban on packed lunches has so far led to six children being removed from the school by their parents, but the governing body remains unrepentant.

Justifying the new diktat, head teacher Paula Murray applied the newspeak of the public sector, saying that she was "taking a holistic approach to school meals". On the basis that what is not compulsory must be banned, she noted that there is "no requirement for the school to provide an area for children to consume packed lunches" and that the new policy would (in so many words) be based on the pretence that such facilities do not exist. Plenty of seats will be available for those who are prepared to eat school dinners, but they miraculously vanish when a child wants to eat a sandwich.


Do read the whole thing.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Yet more failure in Australia

More awkward news for plain pack campaigners, this time from Cancer Council Queensland:

"New Queensland Health data has found a sharp increase in the prevalence of smoking among Queenslanders aged between 25 and 34 years old over the past two years.

"This trend defies the declines we have seen in other age groups, with 28 per cent of men in the 25-34 age bracket now smoking every day, compared with 19.8 per cent in 2012.

"Among women in the 25-34 age bracket, the rate of smoking has increased from 12.8 per cent to 16.7 per cent.

Alas, the figures for the other age groups are not given, but so much for plain packs making cigarettes taste worse and making smokers rush to the Quitline.

The reason for the Cancer Council talking about the huge surge in smoking prevalence in this key demographic (smoking rates are highest in the 25-34 year age group) is that it wants to ban smoking outside (no need to make up stuff about secondhand smoke at this stage in the game). In this, it echoes the government of South Australia which started a campaign for the same policy back in May by making this crucial admission:

Health Minister Jack Snelling said the new measures would help to tackle an increase in the State’s smoking rates which have increased from 16.7 per cent to 19.4 percent over the past 12 months.

Combine these two states with New South Wales, where the official survey found a rise in smoking prevalence of 14.7% to 16.4% (not statistically significant, but certainly not indicative of a decline), and plain packaging looks like a damp squib once again.

Meanwhile...

Black market in tobacco booming in the streets of Sydney, with cheap Asian imports flooding the streets

  • Cigarette smuggling on the rise, one in eight cigarettes smuggled 
  • Areas with large migrant populations are prime markets for the trade 
  •  Some smuggled cigarettes contain ‘mould, faeces and even asbestos’ 
  • 500,000 cigarettes and $1m in cash seized in recent raids

    It is emerging as one of the most lucrative illegal trades on the streets of Sydney’s southwest, but it’s not drug dealing or car boosting — it’s smuggling cigarettes. Last month, in seven raids across Fairfield and Bankstown, police seized more than 500,000 smuggled cigarettes and $1 million cash.


The words 'chickens', 'home' and 'roost' spring to mind.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Food wowsers in action

Another 'public health' conference took place this week. This time it was the World Public Health Nutrition Association. Never have those speech marks around 'public health' been more necessary. It was, in truth, a far-left political rally against 'Big Food' and in support of 'Big Government'.

Amongst the speaker was the tree-hugging Trotskyist, Gerard Hastings, and the unctuous brain donor, Aseem Malhotra. The following tweets give you a taste of the conference in all its fanatical glory. Note the intense hatred of business, trade, capitalism and economics. Note also the clear intention to bring about a worldwide treaty in the style of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control so that your diet can be controlled by international law.

Many of these people need psychiatric help, in my opinion.



Monday, 8 September 2014

The dark soul of Prof. John Ashton

Plenty of people have already written about this, but I can't resist covering it again in case anyone missed it.

Professor John Ashton, formerly of the Socialist Health Association and currently the head of the UK Faculty of Public Health, had a funny old weekend. He started Friday in true public health form by putting out a statement about e-cigarettes which began with the whopping lie that there is consensus on this divisive issue:

“The average person on the street could be forgiven for being confused about what health professionals think about e-cigarettes. Fortunately, there is common ground among public health professionals. 

"FPH doesn’t want to ban so-called ‘nicotine sticks’ [no one calls themselves nicotine sticks - CJS]. We do want to be sure that any benefits they may have don’t undo all the hard work that’s been done over decades to save lives by reducing smoking. We are particularly concerned that ‘vaping’ may lead to young people starting to smoke cigarettes. A recent report from the US backs up this concern [no, it doesn't - CJS]

“We agree with the authors of this paper that we should separate opinion and evidence. At the moment, there is very little hard data about e-cigarettes: until we get some solid facts on their impact on people’s health, we need proper regulations of e-cigarettes, and to encourage anyone who wants to quit smoking to get help from the NHS. That’s proven to be the best way to quit the habit for good.”

It got rather worse for him when he turned in an embarrassing performance on the Jeremy Vine show in which he refused to shut up when asked and rambled on about nicotine causing people to go blind. He told smokers to use the (rubbish and inefficient) NHS Stop Smoking service instead (a service that gives me people free, er, nicotine).



As Clive Bates rightly said on the show, he sounded like a bloke in a bar and that it where he may well have spent the following day because when he got home he went on Twitter to abuse vapers, call women c***s and make various bizarre sexual references. Here are some of his pearls of wisdom:





There was much more of this, all of it now deleted. For me, the most troubling aspect of Ashton's Twitter binge was his urge to seek out tweets that vapers had written weeks or months earlier and insult them as pathetic addicts. This, remember, from a man who heads up a major public health organisation and who regularly appears in the media to "separate opinion from evidence".



As Dick Puddlecote says, the mask has slipped. You have to wonder how many people in the public health racket have the same mentality but manage - as Ashton did until Saturday - to keep it to themselves.


UPDATE


Probably for the best.

 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

What a small world

Dick Puddlecote recently mentioned the latest advocacy-as-science article in BMJ Open. The 'study' is, as he says, nothing more than "a telephone poll of (average) 650 people in just one Australian state which attempted to disprove claims that plain packaging will encourage criminal counterfeiters. A very difficult thing to do considering the Sun newspaper collected video evidence in June of an ecstatic Indonesian fake cig manufacturer describing how his business will benefit from plain packaging legislation."

Only the left-wing media bothered to cover this effort, ie. the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent. The latter managed to balls up its report by using the headline 'Australia shows that plain tobacco packaging significantly cuts smoking' (the study had nothing to do with smoking rates), but the Beeb followed basic journalistic standards by quoting opposing views (FOREST and the Tobacco Manufacturers Association) which gave some semblance of balance.

The Guardian report, in the other hand, was extraordinary one-sided from the outset...

Claims that plain cigarette packaging would hurt small independent retailers and increase use of illicit, unbranded tobacco have formed the core of big tobacco’s argument against plain packaging.

But those arguments have been debunked by new Victorian research, which public health experts have described as a win for science.


It included a quote from the lead author (who, tellingly, is a tobacco control 'policy adviser'), as well as a quote from veteran anti-smoking campaigner Mike Daube and, above all, a lengthy quote from Jurassic wowser Simon Chapman:

A professor of public health at the University of Sydney and tobacco control expert, Simon Chapman, said big tobacco feared a domino effect of plain packaging reforms around the world with nine countries implementing or considering it.

“Canada was the first country to introduce graphic warnings on cigarette packets and within 10 years, 60 other countries had followed suit,” Chapman said.

“California did the first banning of smoking in restaurants and now that has swept throughout the world. There are many examples in tobacco control policy of the domino theory at work.”

The tobacco giant Philip Morris has threatened to sue the British government if it forges ahead with its plain packaging reforms.

The arguments from tobacco companies against plain packaging made no sense whatsoever, Chapman said.

“Of course smokers have always known, even before plain packaging, that cigarettes are cheaper in supermarkets,” he said.

“So the only thing that would drive more people away from small retailers would be if supermarket prices fell even further.”

The only 'balance' in the article came in the form of a brief and cursory quote from the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores, half of which was complimentary towards the group that funded the study.

The words used by the reporter - 'debunked', 'big tobacco', 'discredit tobacco reforms', 'made no sense whatsoever' - as well as the tendency to present opinion as fact - '[cigarette packaging] is used as a way of marketing towards young people' - give the article the feel of an advocacy piece rather than a work of journalism.

So who is this reporter? Step forward Melissa Davey who just happens to be completing a Masters Degree in public health at the University of Sydney where Simon Chapman just happens to be a senior tutor.







I have a feeling that Melissa is going to pass with flying colours.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

New Australian tobacco sales figures published

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has today published tobacco sales figures for the second quarter of 2014 (see table 8 for the data and see here for the background). After the decline in sales that followed the December 2013 tax hike, sales have risen by 1.8 per cent. Perhaps the most plausible reason for the increase is that smokers stockpiled cigarettes prior to the tax rise (which they have now consumed), as well as failed New Year's resolutions to quit smoking.

This is the picture over the last five and half years:


There is not much to say about the recent rise in sales, except that it is the third quarterly increase since plain packaging was introduced in December 2012. Contrast that with the two year period before plain packaging came into force when sales only rose once.

The bigger picture is clear for those who have eyes to see. Firstly, tax rises clearly have some effect on consumption, as might be expected (although these figures do not tell us anything about illicit tobacco sales or smoking prevalence in general). Secondly, plain packaging has been an irrelevance, at best. Tobacco sales were higher by the end of 2013 than they had been at the end of 2012. Only the tax hike of December 2013 saved the anti-smokers' blushes, at least in the eyes of the more gullible sections of the media.

Another 12.5 per cent tax hike has just been introduced. At this rate, they will have to increase the tax rate every quarter.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

I rest my case

My main reason for going to Australia was to take part in a panel discussion titled 'The Grit in the Oyster' at the Centre for Independent Studies' Consilium conference on the Gold Coast. The purpose of the discussion was the talk 'in praise of contrary opinion'. You can read an edited version of my speech below (published in The Australian), before scrolling down for the punchline.

John Snow is a legend of public health. In the 1850s he investigated a cholera outbreak in London and noticed that the victims' houses were clustered around one particular water pump. He removed the pump's handle and the epidemic came to an end. This led him to conclude that cholera spread through contaminated water and not, as was widely believed, through the air. In one fell swoop, he had invented epidemiology and discovered germ theory.

A lesser known fact about Snow is that he was reviled by much of the medical establishment in his lifetime and germ theory was not accepted as fact until after his death. Wedded to the miasma theory of disease (which, put simply, says that disease is spread by bad smells), doctors were intent on closing down polluting industries in Britain's cities. These industries protested their innocence and found common cause with Snow, who used the issue to promote germ theory.

The editor of The Lancet, a leading medical journal, treated Snow with undisguised contempt. In so many words, he portrayed him as a crank and a hired gun of big business. "The theory of Dr. Snow tallies wonderfully with the views of [industry]", he wrote in a scathing and sarcastic editorial. Snow's theory, he said, was "a mockery of science" and a "wretched crudity". Appealing to the authority of the existing consensus, he said that the belief that cholera was a waterborne disease was not "in accordance with the experience of men who have studied the question without being blinded by theories".

The Lancet was right about Snow being a hired gun. He had received money from the threatened industries to give testimony to a parliamentary committee. But neither his links with business, nor the fact that the establishment disagreed with him, stopped Snow being right and the establishment being wrong. Although doctors eventually came round to Snow's way of thinking and now idolise him, the fact remains that Snow's heresy was not addressed by coolly assessing the evidence, but by appealing to authority, appealing to consensus and dismissing Snow as a tool of big business.

For all his troubles, Snow got an easy ride compared to those who step out of line in the field of public health today. Take Katherine Flegal, a statistician at the US Centers for Disease Control. Last year, she and her colleagues published a systematic review of 97 studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found that mild obesity produced no extra mortality risk and that being merely overweight resulted in a small reduction in mortality risk.

Despite being supported with a ream of data, the study was savaged by the public health lobby. Walter Willett, one of the world's most prominent anti-obesity campaigners said: “This study is really a pile of rubbish and no one should waste their time reading it.” A spokesman for the National Obesity Forum said “It’s a horrific message to put out at this particular time" and absurdly suggested that Flegal's "message" was that we can "eat ourselves to death with black forest gateaux.” Willett later organised a symposium in which speaker after speaker lined up to denounce Flegal and her work.

Or take James Enstrom, a vastly experienced and respected epidemiologist who had been working at UCLA since 1976. In 2003, he and a colleague published a study in the British Medical Journal that found no association between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. Many other studies had come to the same conclusion and Enstrom's research had no substantive flaws. Nevertheless, when anti-smoking campaigners heard about the findings, they breached the journal's embargo and hastily organised a press conference in which they slated the study (which they they not yet read) and described the study as "crap" and Enstrom as "a damn fool".

In 2005, Enstrom further blotted his copy book by conducting research on fine particulate matter which cast doubt on the scientific basis of new air pollution laws proposed by the Californian Environmental Protection Agency. Although Enstrom's findings have since been replicated in other studies, he was later sacked by UCLA because his research was "not aligned with the department’s mission”.

Or take the 2011 study by Brand-Miller and Barclay which claimed that sugar consumption had been falling in Australia while obesity had been rising. They and their study - titled 'The Australian Paradox' - have been viciously attacked by anti-sugar campaigners, with the usual accusations of being in the pay of industry. The researchers were eventually charged with scientific misconduct and have only recently been exonerated.

All of these examples involve scientists of good standing whose studies have been published in peer reviewed journals. It is hard to believe that any of them would have been attacked with such vigour had they not been dealing with red button issues that are of great importance to public health pressure groups.

In the 1850s, doctors were committed to make cities smell better. In the 2000s, they were committed to smoking bans. Today, they are committed to fighting obesity, with a particular focus on sugar.

To put it bluntly, the policies had already been decided. The campaigners want to send a clear, unambiguous message to the public while persuading politicians to act. Any research suggesting that a policy is misplaced or directed at the wrong target brings down a firestorm upon the heretical scientist, regardless of the quality of the research or the credentials of the researcher. In each case, the response from the establishment is visceral rather than rational. The implications of dogmatic groupthink and intimidation for the pursuit of sound science - and sound policy - are chilling.

The theme here is, I hope, pretty clear. I am arguing that the establishment often reacts to challenging evidence by resorting to ad hominem attacks (typically based on alleged funding from industry) and appeals to consensus (eg. 'the debate is over') rather than addressing the evidence directly.

With that in mind, let me explain that whilst in the antipodes I had a couple of days in New Zealand where I gave a talk to the NZ Food and Grocery Council about the abject failure of taxes on food to reduce obesity. This was largely based on the report I wrote about the rise and fall of the Danish fat tax for the IEA.

Four days after my visit, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists came back with their rebuttal (to a speech they hadn't heard). The organisation carefully picked apart my arguments, proving beyond doubt that any loss of utility from such taxes would be more than offset by benefits. They demonstrated that indirect taxes on essentials were not, in fact, regressive. They showed that the money raised by sin taxes could not possibly be more effectively spent on anything else. They identified crucial flaws in all studies that have claimed that soda taxes have little or no impact on obesity. And they showed that the Danish fat tax had actually been a success.

I'm joking of course. What they actually did was release this...

Tired attempt to pass off venal campaign as debate

“The decision to bring British anti-tax spin doctor Christopher Snowdon [!?! - CJS] to New Zealand last week was just another tired disingenuous attempt to dress up a venal campaign as a genuine debate,” says Ian Powell, Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS).

“Snowdon’s attacks on credible medical and social research have been well documented so it was disappointing but hardly a surprise to see him singing to the choir within the NZ Food & Grocery Council about the evils of taxing sugary soft drinks, etc. The Council obviously gives much greater priority to the food industry’s profits than the risk of poor health of New Zealanders.

“What is surprising is that the Food & Grocery Council obviously hasn’t realised the New Zealand public’s distaste for propaganda masquerading as evidence and genuine debate.”

As noted in media coverage http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/wellbeing/10443122/Anti-sugar-campaigners-wowsers, the Food & Grocery Council has been at the centre of ‘Dirty Politics’ allegations that it ran sponsored posts on the Whale Oil blog. Both Katherine Rich from the Council and Christopher Snowdon have been referred to in glowing terms on this blog. When Mr Snowden’s [sic] strongest supporters are the Cameron Slater ‘gang’, what more can one say. [I have been mentioned on the Whaleoil blog twice in its entire history - CJS]

“All of this raises questions about the real intent of these people and organisations. Issues like obesity are very important for New Zealand and any discussion of possible solutions, such as taxes on soft drinks, needs to be based on evidence rather than the commercial desires of opaque vested interests.”

Mr Powell says Snowdon’s arguments on diet and obesity have been comprehensively demolished over the years, including in video interviews and articles such as these: http://blogs.channel4.com/tom-clarke-on-science/obesity-crisis-sorting-fat-fiction/1221 and http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/30/child-poverty-link-malnutrition-rickets. [The first of these links is a video of me talking about obesity, but not sugar/soda/fat taxes. The second just says that the UK Faculty of Public Health supports a sugar tax - CJS.]

He also noted that despite numerous calls to do so, the organisation Christopher Snowdon works for, the UK Institute of Economic Affairs, has consistently failed to reveal its funders. This is despite evidence of its support from the tobacco industry which has been revealed in that industry’s internal documents: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)60480-3/fulltext.

“Mr Snowden [sic] is little more than a front for vested business interests seeking to make profits by increasing poor health,” says Mr Powell. “We have enough ‘Dirty Politics’ in New Zealand already without being subjected to the bile of one of their English imports.”

That's more like it, guys! Who needs empirical evidence and logical deduction when you've got unsubstantiated smears, innuendo and personal abuse? Or, if you prefer, 'dirty politics'.

Viva public health!


PS. Whilst in Auckland, I was interviewed by the Sun Star Times. The article ('Anti-sugar campaigners "wowsers"') isn't too bad, but it included a mild attack from one of the sugar tax lobbyists. On this occasion, the man throwing brickbats was Tony Blakely. I was booked to debate with Blakely on television, but he bottled it at the last minute.

You can listen to me talking about the Grit in the Oyster on ABC Radio here. Quite a sensible discussion, this one.