Sunday, 30 December 2012

Good riddance to 2012

A review of this lousy year in blog posts...


While Australian anti-smoking nuts proposed "foul-tasting cigarettes" and smoking licences, David Hockney responded to the miserable puritans with creativity and joie de vivre.

In the USA, perfume was called the "new secondhand smoke" and a Californian university banned people from possessing e-cigarettes on campus.

In Canada, the police took the 'quit-or-die' approach to absurd new heights when they refused to describe the appearance of a killer batch of Ecstasy in case it encouraged people to take Ecstasy.

Back in the UK, the anti-smoking "charity" ASH continued to be funded by the taxpayerCAMRA continued to stick its head in the sand and the British Medical Journal inadvertently showed that the smoking ban had no effect on the heart attack rate.


The Department of Health made its plans for the minimum pricing campaign while its sock puppets campaigned on its behalf. In the House of Commons, Sarah Wollaston MP repeated neo-temperance lies about the 'cost of alcohol'.

The humourous magazine Tobacco Control celebrated its 20th anniversary with an all-out push for prohibition. Meanwhile, a crank of a different hue wanted to 'abolish the food industry' and some unspeakable people in California declared sugar to be "toxic" (more about that here). The Adam Smith Institute published my short book about plain packaging.


In Australia, a simpleton claimed that counterfeiting cigarettes was the easiest thing in the entire world. Meanwhile, I nearly appeared on Newsnight for what turned out to be a hilariously one-sided discussion of minimum pricing. Elsewhere on the BBC, the pro-minimum pricing churnalism continued to pour forth (and forth) and Alcohol Concern kept the junk science coming.


The campaign for plain packaging gathered pace in the UK, mostly funded by the British taxpayer. Ill-informed self-publicist Dr Aseem Malhotra spread misinformation about obesity and I found a couple of documents from the 1980s which showed that the life-saving potential of snus had been recognised for many years (here and here).


While Californian fruitcakes started having a go at fruit juice and Britain's leading advocate of soda taxes announced that he was doing the Lord's workI debated drug prohibition with Peter Hitchens and argued about plain packaging with Gabriel Scally and Amanda Sandford. The Adam Smith Institute published The Wages of Sin Taxes.

One of Britain's countless fake charities called for a retail display ban for sweeties and ASH decided that everybody in the whole world was in the pay of Big Tobacco.


Following the anti-tobacco blueprint to the letter, British doctors demanded a ban on all broadcast advertising for booze and EU-funded temperance groups called for massive health warnings on bottles and cans. Meanwhile, the IEA published my report about government-funded lobby groups, Sock Puppets.

In the USA, the Zombie Apocalypse continued, with 'bath salts' being blamed for a bizarre cannibal attack. It later transpired that the assailant had not taken the drug.

Those who were interested in facts and logic had little to celebrate in 2012—the New Economic Foundation declared that Costa Rica was the happiest place to live—but some interesting graphs surfaced showing the amazing decline of heart disease in the UK and the reasons for the rise of 'non-communicable diseases' in the USA. Statistics also showed a clear correlation between visits to McDonalds and body weight. An inverse correlation, that is.


The horror of the Olympics began with a bit of politics in the opening ceremonyBritish 'public health professionals' demanded graphic warnings on alcohol and the British Medical Association hounded a retired doctor after he denounced their junk science.

Elsewhere, Michael Bloomberg continued to be unAmerican and Aseem Malhotra continued to be clueless.


While the UK's public consultation attracted a huge number of responses against the proposalTasmanian politicians contemplated the prohibition of tobacco. Also in Australia, a knee-jerk ban on alcopops had predictable consequences.


As a Scottish sock puppet supported its paymasters in government over the seemingly doomed minimum pricing scheme, politicians in Queensland decided to stop using taxpayers' money to fund lobby groups.

Panorama produced yet another commercial for minimum pricing. It was reported that housework reduces breast cancer risk. And the Australian government announced a cynical tax rise on cigarettes to make it look like plain packaging works.

The British Medical Journal published possibly the worst article of the year, a deeply authoritarian rant by the left-wing manchild Gerard Hastings which called for a dictatorship of public health. Meanwhile, it was quietly announced that inequality and 'poverty' had fallen sharply during the recession.


The Antipodes officially became a no-go area for sane people and UK politicians were proven to be appallingly ignorant. Meanwhile, Panorama admitted that they used very dodgy statistics and the New England Medical Journal suggested fining people for not having a gym membership.

In other news, the EU's health commissioner was investigated for corruption and sacked, and it was revealed that plain pack campaigners in the UK had been trying to corrupt the public consultation. The IEA published Drinking in the Shadow Economy.


While Australia's wowser-in-chief called for smokers to be registered, licensed and monitored, his fellow zealots extended plain packaging to fruit machines. Deluded bureaucrats decided behind closed doors that they would eliminate illicit tobacco, the hysteria about sugar continued and I gave six reasons why minimum pricing for alcohol should be rejected.


The Tobacco Products Directive gave e-cigarette and snus users another reason to want out of the EU and, in the year's most predictable news, a chap in Australia started selling stickers to cover up the graphic warnings on 'plain' packs. Equally predictably, the demagogues of public health demanded criminal sanctions against him. Also in Australia, a godawful public health professional suggested a return to food rationing as the 'next logical step'.

And finally, in today's Observer, Assem Malhora is at it once again, determined to treat the food industry like the tobacco industry. He even uses the phrase "Sugar is the new tobacco."

If there was ever any doubt that the campaign against smoking was a dress rehearsal for a wider crusade of puritanism and prohibition, those doubts were surely put to bed in 2012. The question for 2013 and, I fear, for many years to come, is how much more taxing, banning, lying and demonising will society permit before a line is drawn.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

No To Plain Packs signatures were genuine, admits DoH

From The Times...

Imperial Tobacco ‘did not fake campaign signatures’

Imperial Tobacco was asked by the Government to prove that thousands of postcards opposing plain packaging on cigarette packets were not fakes after questions were raised over the similarity of the handwriting.

The world’s fourth-largest tobacco manufacturer was asked by the Department of Health to inspect 4,900 signed postcards, correspondence obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act shows.

... Imperial has now inspected the postcards and said: “We were able to confirm that we were fully satisfied of their genuine nature.

“The Department of Health has subsequently agreed and confirmed that the responses will be considered as part of the ongoing consultation process.” It added that there had in total been about half a million responses to the consultation expressing views against plain packaging.

The department confirmed that it was now satisfied with the postcards.

Jolly good. That's all sorted then. However, as Tim Worstall says...

But note that no queries were made over the responses in favour of plain packaging...

Indeed. After all, there is good reason to suspect foul play on the part of the pro-plain pack supporters. Let's remind ourselves of the round robin e-mail sent by the quasi-academic UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies back in summer.

You can only vote once on each petition, but I would seriously doubt that there will be cross checking between charity petitions so it may be worth signing all of them to get your money's worth!

How blatant does the corruption have to be before these people are investigated?

Monday, 24 December 2012

Bonfire of the fake charities

An early Christmas present to us all from the Department for Communities and Local Government, which has released a document titled 50 Ways to Save: Examples of sensible savings in local government. At number 37 we find this...

37. Cease funding ‘sock puppets’ and ‘fake charities’: Many pressure groups - which do not deliver services or help the vulnerable - are now funded by state bodies. In turn, these nominally ‘independent’ groups lobby and call for more state regulation and more state funding.

A 2009 survey found that £37 million a year was spent on taxpayer-funded lobbying and political campaigning across the public sector. Many of these causes may be worthy, but why should they be funded by taxpayers? Councils should also review their memberships to regional quangos and membership bodies: such residual regional structures are redundant following the abolishing of Regional Development Agencies, Government Offices for the Regions and unelected Regional Assemblies.

Ho, ho, ho!

Friday, 21 December 2012

What's got into Private Eye?

Why is Private Eye so reluctant to believe that an EU Commissioner could be involved in corruption?

Last month I mentioned the piss-poor report the magazine ran about snusgate. For those who don't know, EU Health Commissioner John Dalli has been sacked and is under investigation by the EU's anti-corruption body Olaf. He is suspected of being involved in an attempt to solicit a €60 million bribe from the snus manufacturer Swedish Match in return for overturning the EU-wide ban on oral tobacco. Private Eye has made the lame insinuation that Olaf itself is corrupt, on the basis that the tobacco industry gives money to the EU to clamp down on tobacco smuggling and that some of this money probably "filters down" to Olaf. Therefore Olaf, er, falsely accused Dalli because, er, the tobacco industry wanted him out of the way so that, er, oh, I don't know... It's a half-baked conspiracy theory with no evidence to back it up.

The original article was littered with basic factual mistakes and made allegations that even the most emotional anti-smoking headbangers have not made. I was therefore surprised to see it rehashed in the current issue (see below—click top enlarge).

The dilemma for the conspiracy theorists is that since the first Private Eye story was published it has become clear that the sacking of Dalli has made absolutely no difference to the Tobacco Products Directive which was released on time and unchanged. To get around this problem—and to establish some sort of motive for why the anti-fraud office would suddenly risk everything to unseat an innocent man—the Eye brings plain packaging into the mix (which was not mentioned in its original story and is not part of the Tobacco Products Directive)...

Having secured the dismissal of EU health commissioner John Dalli with a damning dossier, "Big Tobacco" squashed any threat of a new European directive forcing firms to sell their poison in plain packaging.

Once again, the Eye focuses on the extremely tenuous financial link between Olaf and the tobacco industry:

Questions must be asked as to the independence of the EU investigators at OLAF, the anti-fraud section of the EU. Four Big Tobacco firms had agreed to fund the EU with $1.96bn to combat smuggling and other crimes. Some of this vast sum will have filtered down to OLAF, whose fraudbusters ended up investigating health commissioner Dalli's links with a tobacco lobbyist in his native Malta. This led to him being fired before a new directive on plain packaging could be pushed through.

That would be a great motive if it weren't for the fact that plain packaging was never part of the Tobacco Products Directive and John Dalli said as much when he was still in the job back in April...

Dalli said: “We want to reduce the attractiveness of smoking. Packaging can help in this regard but the European Commission doesn’t want to go as far as Australia, where cigarette packets must be completely plain.”

It would be jolly exciting if there was some grand conspiracy behind the Dalli sacking, but there is not a shred of evidence to support Private Eye's hunch. The magazine would make a more impressive case if it didn't keep making a Horlicks of easily verifiable facts. For example, it refers to snus as "gum", it has talked about a non-existent European smoking ban, it wrongly refers to Dalli's Maltese acquaintance as a "tobacco lobbyist", it refers to a JTI court case which ended months ago as if it were ongoing and it gets JTI's argument in that case completely the wrong way around. As a regular reader of Private Eye, it makes me wonder how much rubbish I've taken on trust from the esteemed organ over the last twenty years.

The least a decent conspiracy theory requires is a credible motive, but if you ask "cui bono?" about the Dalli sacking, the answer is clearly not the tobacco industry since the Tobacco Products Directive gives them 75% graphic warnings, a continuing snus ban, a ban on menthol, a de facto ban on new reduced-risk products and a vast array of petty regulations regarding pack sizes, additives, cigarette lengths and much else besides. Moreover, the only evidence the Eye can find for Dalli's innocence is (a) the EU gets money from the tobacco industry to combat smuggling, (b) some of Dalli's friends say he is innocent, and (c) Dalli says he is innocent.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that Dalli's acquaintance solicited the €60 million bribe and Olaf says there is "unambiguous circumstantial evidence" that Dalli knew about the approach. It would hardly be the first time an EU Commissioner had engaged in corrupt behaviour, so why is the Eye so unwilling to believe that the obvious explanation is the real explanation?

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Why snus will stay banned

Tomorrow sees the release of the EU's Tobacco Products Directive. Despite overwhelming real-world evidence that snus has helped Sweden achieve the lowest smoking rate—and the lowest lung cancer rate—in Europe, the snus ban will remain in place.

Why? This document from the EU's Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety gives a short and honest answer:

We very much welcome that the prohibition of Snus outside Sweden will be maintained. Especially in this case it would be very harmful for the credibility of the European Institutions if the current rules would be liberalized.

That's the important thing, eh? We wouldn't want the EU to damage its credibility by admitting it made a mistake.

Shame on them.

(H/T Clive Bates)

One more time: Smokers' healthcare costs are lower

If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: smokers (and fatties) do not place an extra burden on the health service. Numerous studies have confirmed this, most recently this from the NEJM and now this from BMJ Open:

Results Smoking was associated with a greater mean annual healthcare cost of €1,600 per living individual during follow-up. However, due to a shorter lifespan of 8.6 years, smokers’ mean total healthcare costs during the entire study period were actually €4,700 lower than for non-smokers. For the same reason, each smoker missed 7.3 years (€126,850) of pension. Overall, smokers’ average net contribution to the public finance balance was €133,800 greater per individual compared with non-smokers.

But there is one way to show that there is a much greater 'cost' of smoking...

However, if each lost quality adjusted life year is considered to be worth €22,200, the net effect is reversed to be €70,200 (€71,600 when adjusted with propensity score) per individual in favour of non-smoking.

Yes, if you give a year of life an arbitrary value (why €22,200? Why not €2.2 million? Why not €22?), you can easily increase the 'cost'. That would be an intangible cost and they account for a large proportion of the final amount in many 'cost of smoking/drinking/eating' studies. It should be clear, however, that these are not real costs—ie. they are not monetary; nobody needs to pay them. And insofar as they are costs at all, they are costs to the individual who smokes/drinks/eats—ie. they are not externalities; they cannot be a 'burden' on society. Moreover, they are plainly not costs to the health service.

Therefore, the only effect of smoking on a society's healthcare costs is to lower them...

Conclusions Smoking was associated with a moderate decrease in healthcare costs, and a marked decrease in pension costs due to increased mortality.

The supposed healthcare costs of smoking/drinking/eating are the most commonly-cited justification for getting the government to tell people how to live. Look at the comments on the 'let's ration food' article I mentioned yesterday, for example. People will often say something along the lines of "I don't mind people smoking/drinking/eating themselves to death so long as I don't have to pay for their lifestyle choices".

I have lost count of the number of times I have explained to such people that the negative externalities they are referring to do not exist. Although they usually understand and accept the findings of studies such as the one above, they never change their mind about wanting to tell people how to live, which makes me think that perhaps their concern for healthcare costs was only ever an excuse in the first place.

I've written about this before in 'Is the nanny state caused by socialised healthcare?'

Monday, 17 December 2012

Slip sliding away

The Guardian reports that the Tobacco Products Directive due to be released on Wednesday will allow "plain packaging by the backdoor" by mandating graphic warnings over 75% of a pack's surface.

Andrew Langford, CEO of the British Liver Trust, wasted no time in spotting the obvious implication for the temperance troops...

I'm sure they will, Andrew. I'm sure they will.


Graphic warnings on 75% of a bottle of beer? Yes please, says the (taxpayer-funded) British Liver Trust.

Rationing: The next logical step

From the plain packing, sticker-hating, sunbed-banning, speech-restricting madhouse of Australia comes some characteristically freedom-loving new ruses to deal with the obesity "epidemic".

The policies and public health strategies that we have implemented are proving inadequate for controlling the global epidemic of obesity.

Peer-reviewed policies from the finest minds in public health are inadequate? Say it ain't so!

An effective approach may be for governments to implement radical policy change – regulate food consumption and control the food industry in a similar way to the tobacco industry.

But...but...tobacco is a "unique product". You swore that this kind of "slippery slope" would never happen.

Oh well, guess we were fooled agin. So what's the plan now?

  • higher taxes on fast foods. 
  • Local government tax revenue on fat- and sugar-dense foods could be used to provide subsidies for fruits and vegetables
  • pricing strategies to promote purchases of healthier foods increasing the availability and lowering the cost of foods that are low in fat and less energy-dense 
  • banning fast-food advertising on the television, radio, and mass media, and with sport increasing social marketing of healthy foods requiring manufacturers to put health warnings, and use traffic-light labels on selected foods and drinks 
  • providing financial incentives to manufacturers and food outlets to sell smaller portion sizes 
  • and rationing the purchase of selected foods.

There is a lot to make the jaw drop here, but let's focus on that last gem.

During the second world war (1939–1945), the British government introduced food rationing with a point system in every household. Everyone was allocated a number of points a month and certain food items, such as meat, fish, biscuits, sugar, fats, and tea, were rationed.

Every adult was given a total of 16 points a month and could choose how to spend these points. Special supplements were available for young children, pregnant women, and people with certain diseases. Wartime food shortages and government directives forced people to adopt different eating patterns. They ate considerably less meat, eggs, and sugar than they do today. [No shit!—CJS]

Rationing was enforced in Britain for 14 years, and continued after the war had ended. Meat was finally derationed in June 1954. Petrol was also rationed, so people stopped buying and using cars, and public transport was limited. There was no “obesity epidemic” [nor had there ever been—CJS] as food supply and travel was limited, meaning people ate less and did more physical exercise (walking).

Interestingly, during the years when rationing was enforced, the prevalence of obesity was negligible in the United Kingdom. And waste was minimised as both individuals and government agencies were busy finding new ways of reducing the waste of food resources to a minimum (sustainable consumption).

Is it conceivable that some form of food rationing and portion control may help address the dramatic rise in obesity and the sustainability of our foods supply? If we continue to over-consume foods in unsustainable ways for both our health and our planet, we may be left with no other choice.

Once again, I find it almost impossible to summon up the words to describe the policies of Australia's public health establishment (the author of this piece is the director of Canberra's Centre for Research & Action in Public Health). I'm tempted to say that I warned you this would happen, but that would be untrue.

Student of the slippery slope though I am, I never thought that someone would seriously suggest that the government should introduce war-time restrictions on food in response to people being chubby. What an interesting place Australia is these days.

Friday, 14 December 2012

EU wants to stamp out e-cigarettes

On December 19th, the European Commission will present a draft of the Tobacco Product Directive. A leaked copy has been circulating for several months and I have finally gotten hold of the page that is relevant to e-cigarettes. As I reported in September, it's not good news.

3.7 Nicotine containing products (NCP)

NCP fall outside the scope of Directive 2001/37/EC and Member States have so far taken different regulatory approaches to address these products, including regulating them as medicinal products, applying certain provisions that are used for tobacco products or having no specific legislation.

The proposal stipulates that NCP that either have a nicotine level exceeding 2mg, a nicotine concentration exceeding 4mg per ml or whose intended use results in a mean maximum peak plasma concentration exceeding 4 mg per ml may be placed on the market only if they have been authorised as medicinal products on the basis of their quality, safety and efficacy, and with a positive risk/benefit balance. NCP with nicotine levels below this threshold can be sold as consumer products provided they feature an adopted health warning. The nicotine threshold identified in this proposal has been established by considering the nicotine content of medicinal products (Nicotine Replacement Therapies, NRTs) for smoking cessation which have already received market authorisation under the medicinal products' legislation.

The proposal removes current legislation divergence between Member States and the differential treatment between Nicotine Replacement Therapies and Nicotine Containing Products, increases legal certainty and consolidates the on-going development in Member States. It also encourages research and innovation in smoking cessation with the aim of maximising health gains. Given the novelty and rapid increase of the NCP market as well as their addictive and toxic character there is an urgency to act, before more people—unaware of the content and effects of these products—inadvertently develop a nicotine addiction.

Where NCP below the identified threshold are allowed, the labelling requirement set out in this proposal will better inform consumers about the health risks associated with the products.

To all intents and purposes, this amounts to a de facto ban on e-cigarette use. Typical nicotine content in e-cigarette juice is around 10mg and it often goes up to 18mg and beyond. It needs to be at this level to work as an effective substitute for smoking. E-cig juice of 4mg or lower would be virtually useless. (The draft Directive would not ban the hardware of e-cigarettes and so a black market in medium and high nicotine juice is conceivable.)

The option for e-cigarettes to be clinically tested as medicinal devices is available. Aside from the fact that they are not medicinal devices, this process would take years and would cost millions of pounds. E-cigarettes would have to be off the market during that period and the anti-tobacco extremists, along with the pharmaceutical industry, would work hard to make sure they did not return. There is no guarantee that science would guide the decision to prohibit or legalise, to put it mildly. Snus clearly has "a positive risk/benefit balance" but that has not prevented its prohibition.

As reported this week, the Directive will also uphold the snus ban (except in Sweden, which now has the lowest rates of smoking and lung cancer in Europe).

The Commission proposes a ban on the sale of tobacco for oral use and to uphold the current ban on snus (moist tobacco, which is consumed by placing it under the upper lip) in all European countries except Sweden, which has a specific derogation in its accession treaty.

The Directive will ban all flavourings and will also mandate standardised packaging. Not quite plain packaging but, with 75% of the pack to be covered in graphic health warnings, not far off. (Expect the state-funded anti-smoking agitators to feign outrage and demand full plain packs.)

The Commission ... wants packs to be rectangular in shape (no round edges) and to contain at least 20 cigarettes. Health warnings should cover 75% of the front and back of packs (and be positioned at the top edge of the unit packet) and 50% of rolling tobacco packs.

The question is why has a Directive that was drafted by a sacked health commissioner who is under investigation for corruption been rushed out, apparently unchanged? (This could be a clue.) If Dalli was involved in soliciting bribes from the snus industry, how can the EC be sure he did not solicit bribes from other industries who stand to gain from the Directive? Dalli is discredited and the Directive is tainted with corruption.

Sweden's Trade Minister has threatened 'all out war' over the snus issue. It's likely that the UK will get an in-out referendum on EU membership in the next few years and at least one Southern European state will probably have to withdraw from the EU in the near future. With a bit of luck, the European project will collapse before the Tobacco Products Directive can do too much harm to the health of the continent.

(Read more about the Dalli case here. His pal Zammit has now confessed to soliciting a bribe from Swedish Match. As a commentator points out, if he was acting alone "what was he planning to do then, grab the 60 million and hide for ever since he was powerless to do anything to reverse the tobacco directive himself?")

Bill stickers will be prosecuted!

This stickers-for-plain-packs farrago is getting better and better. According to the International Business Times, the Napoleonic mandarins of the Australian Medical Association think that any attempt to undermine their petty little law must, by definition, be illegal. Ipso facto, the government must close down the company and stop it selling, er, stickers.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has urged on the Australian federal government to immediately put a stop to the company and its marketing blitz because its end goal is to hide the health warnings on tobacco boxes, which runs against the law's very purpose which is to educate the people of the ill effects of smoking.

"Those graphic health warnings are there for a very important reason. Over a million Australians have died because they smoked, but I think covering up those health warnings, I think the Federal Government is going to act very quickly and ban those products," Steve Hambleton, AMA president, said.

"It is just morally wrong for a business to profit from selling items in relation to goods that are lethal when you use them as the manufacturer intended."

This is what happens when you let 'public health' zealots run roughshod over a country.  So successfully have they pushed the hapless Gillard government around that they now demand their every whim be backed up with state force.

Yes, the stickers are intended to cover up the enormous graphic images on the misleadingly named 'plain' packs. However, both the packs and the stickers are private property. Unless Australia's nightmarish supernanny state has descended into full-blown fascism more quickly than I expected, it is not yet illegal to place one piece of private property over another.

Nor is it illegal to sell something that a handful of obsessives regard as "morally wrong", even if it can be used "in relation to" something that they really hate. You can, for example, sell bongs and large cigarette papers despite these items being purchased almost exclusively for the purpose of using illegal drugs. And we are not talking about consuming illegal drugs here. We are talking about obscuring a photograph in the comfort of one's home.

To prohibit a harmless product based on speculation as to what the purchaser might do with it would set off the klaxon of tyranny. Like so much news coming from Down Under these days, it defies belief that educated people in a civilised society would suggest such a thing. The conclusion I draw is that the demagogues of the Australian Medical Association are not civilised people and are not fit to live in a free society (not that they have any desire to do so). It is they, and not the smokers, who should be denormalised.

You can't win

This, from The Guardianreminds us that no matter what happens in 'public health', the future is always gloomy and something must always be done.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

You really didn't see this coming?

06:41am December 12, 2012 reports the following:

Company's answer to plain packaging laws

A GOLD Coast company has done what the tobacco industry could not -- cover up the confronting images on new plain-packaged cigarettes.

Box Wraps, based at Yatala, will today unveil a range of designs for a purpose-built sticker that wraps around cigarette packets in seconds.

You'd have to be simple not to have predicted this (Simon Chapman said it would never happen, natch). Plain packaging was always going to create commercial opportunities for those who make covers, stickers and cigarette cases. The only thing more predictable than this industry emerging is what the nanny state's response would be—and it took them less than 12 hours...

05:17pm December 12, 2012

Brisbane Times reports the following...

AMA wants stickers back in their box

The Australian Medical Association has urged the federal government to ban stickers being sold to wrap around cigarette packets to sidestep tobacco plain packaging laws.

These people really only have one tune, don't they? Good luck banning stickers, guys.

The company's website, which sells the stickers on a subscription basis from $1.75, crashed under the demand this morning.



Quite incredibly, from the pen of Stanton Glantz...

I normally do not comment on Mike Siegel's blog because he has long since lost all credibility with me as a scientist.


That would be the same Stanton Glantz who said only a few days ago...

"About 44% of all adolescents smoking in the U.S. today are estimated to have been recruited by smoking in movies."

Fortunately the innumerate mechanical engineer of Ban Francisco who has spent the last thirty years pretending to be a doctor has never had any credibility to lose.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

David Nutt on drugs

David Nutt has been writing about drugs in The Guardian again. As usual, his ostensibly pro-liberalisation article is mainly an anti-alcohol polemic.

There are several reasons for people choosing to try drugs. For "legal" drugs particularly alcohol and tobacco that most people find unpleasant to start with, the choice to use is largely driven by fashion, manifesting through peer pressure. With alcohol, the drinks industry has marketed less aversive mixtures (alcopops) to help people overcome the taste of alcohol. It also engages in massive sexually orientated advertising to induce use, much of this illegally targeted at underage drinkers via social media sites.

Nutt has bought the traditional temperance/anti-smoking line that people do things because those fiendish advertisers tell them to. There hasn't been any tobacco advertising in this country for a decade, of course, and people were drinking heartily in Merrie Olde England long before the advertising industry was born, but Nutt ignores all that because it doesn't fit his argument. Illegal drugs: good. Legal drugs: bad. (And why does he put the word 'legal' in scare quotes in the first line?)

In the UK last year half of all 15- to 16-year-olds were intoxicated on alcohol at least once a month, despite the drinking age being 18. This behaviour is de facto "illegal" though the government turns a blind eye, which means that many are addicted to alcohol before they are able to legally purchase it.

I don't know where the factoid about 15-16 year olds comes from—it sounds a little more sensational than the data I've seen in recent years—let alone the claim that "many" people are addicted to alcohol before they turn 18. Leaving that aside, it is not illegal for 15 and 16 year olds to drink. It is perfectly legal, de facto and de jure, for them to consume alcohol and so naturally the government "turns a blind eye."

But if people drink because of peer pressure, marketing and "fashion" (it's been in fashion for a very long time now, hasn't it?), why do people take drugs? The clue is in the headline 'Drugs are taken for pleasure – realise this and we can start to reduce harm'.

In some cases illicit drug-taking is about challenging authority, but in most cases it's about psychological exploration, often driven by positive comments and encouragement from friends.

"Driven by positive comments and encouragement from friends" sounds very much like "peer pressure" to me, but "peer pressure" has negative connotations and so the professor only uses it in reference to the demon drink. Where now is Nutt's outrage at the state's failure to stop people taking drugs? Only a few sentences earlier he was bemoaning the government's tendency to turn a blind eye to young people breaking a law that does not actually exist. One does need to be Peter Hitchens to see that the Misuse of Drugs Act could be more rigorously enforced when it comes to petty possession, so why does Nutt not demand tougher sanctions? Could it be because upholding the law is not, in fact, his real aim?

Moreover, does it not also make sense to view underage drinking and smoking as a way of "challenging authority"? Apparently not, because the teenager drinking at a party is a victim of the advertising industry whereas the teenage amphetamine user is a brave challenger of authority on a psychological journey.

What muddle-headed, starry-eyed nonsense this is. People take drugs for exactly the same reason they smoke and drink—because they offer a shortcut to pleasure through chemistry. How dispiriting it is that one of the country's best known (putative) liberalisers regurgitates rhetoric from the neo-prohibitionists (and, indeed, the classical prohibitionists). The whole point of an evidence-based drugs policy is that you leave prejudice and cultural baggage at the door. This is what Nutt claims to do in his work and yet his emotional involvement in the issue prevents him from doing so.

If this is a liberaliser, give me a prohibitionist.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Letter to Brussels

Blogging's rather light at the moment as my real writing takes precedence, but if you haven't read Clive Bates latest missive to the EU, you should: European Union making bad policy on nicotine – five ways to make it better

Clive also mentions something in the comments which got me thinking:

It is interesting to consider if the smokers’ class actions of the future might be directed at Commission officials, politicians and European health groups who conspired to deny them much safer alternatives, with full knowledge of the relative risks, addictiveness of tobacco, and plenty of scientific advice showing that they knew or should have known the harm reduction benefits of these products.

How sweet the irony would be.

On a different note, I participated in a debate on the Voice of Russia about minimum pricing on Monday. I haven't listened back to it, but it seems quite lively at the time. Other guests were from the Scottish Whisky Association, British Liver Trust and UK Faculty for Public Health. Here it is...

Friday, 30 November 2012

Minimum pricing debate on Sky

I did a lot of media on Wednesday when the minimum pricing consultation was announced. For those who are interested, here's the Sky News discussion.

You can also see me much earlier in the day on BBC Breakfast.

On another note, these are very encouraging words from the new head of the Charity Commission.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Six reasons...

... to reject minimum pricing.

Over at the Adam Smith Institute blog.

Monday, 26 November 2012

The minimal evidence for minimum pricing

I've discussed the Sheffield University minimum pricing guesstimates before on this blog and at Spiked. It was the Sheffield team that provided Panorama with the insanely inflated—and now retracted—estimate that the lives of 50,000 pensioners would be saved by a 50p unit price.

This single computer model has been responsible for numerous predictions about what would happen if minimum pricing were introduced. Such forecasts are speculative by their nature, but it is only by reading the Sheffield studies in full that one sees how wild the speculation is.

Hardly anyone does read these studies, of course, least of all politicians and journalists, but the statistician John C. Duffy has and today sees the publication of a paper I have co-authored with him which looks at the flaws in the model in detail.

You can download The Minimal Evidence for Minimum Pricing (Adam Smith Institute) here.

There are bits of coverage in The Sun, The Express, The Telegraph and The Independent. I've written articles about it for The Spectator and ConHome. And this is the press release...

Basis for government alcohol policy is bogus

As a consultation on minimum alcohol pricing launches, the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) has released a report showing that the evidence base for minimum alcohol pricing is, to all intents and purposes, non-existent.

Co-authored by John C. Duffy, a statistician with forty years experience in the field of alcohol epidemiology, the report explains that most of the estimated health outcomes, used to justify calls for a minimum alcohol pricing of 40p or 50p per unit, have come from a single, flawed computer model.

This model, the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model, is used to predict minimum pricing’s effect on everything from NHS expenditure to unemployment, and is based on false assumptions and wild speculation which render any predictions meaningless.

Arguments for minimum alcohol pricing based on this computer model should be ignored and the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model should not play a role in the debate.

The model is deeply flawed for a number of reasons:

When calculating health outcomes, the model assumes that heavy drinkers are more likely to reduce their alcohol consumption as a result of a price rise. This contrasts with ample evidence that heavy drinkers are less price-sensitive. The majority of alcohol related harm is linked to heavy drinkers who are much less likely to be deterred by price rise than a casual consumer. By claiming that any price rise will lead to bigger drops in consumption amongst heavy drinkers, the model ignores the complex psychological and societal factors leading to alcoholism and alcohol-related violence.

It bases its calculations on controversial beliefs regarding the relationship between per capita consumption and rates of alcohol related harm. A low rate of per capita alcohol consumption is no guarantee of better health outcomes. There is little to be gained from making moderate drinkers reduce their consumption slightly.

The model provides figures without estimates of error and ignores statistical error in the alcohol-harm relationship. Patterns of consumption and harm are not the same in all countries. When Denmark reduced the tax on spirits by 45% in 2003 it did not experience any increase in alcohol consumption, and instead there was a decline in alcohol-related problems. As alcohol has become more affordable as a result of rising incomes we have seen a decline in alcohol consumption across most of Europe and the US. There are, of course, examples where higher prices have reduced alcohol consumption and alcohol related harm, but it is clear that price interventions are highly unpredictable and cannot be easily extrapolated from a computer model.

The model ignores other potential negative social outcomes of minimum pricing, such as a likely increase in the illicit alcohol trade and the greater poverty it may push many consumers into. It also ignores some of the health benefits associated with moderate drinking habits.

Alcohol-related harm may rise, fall or stay the same under a minimum pricing regime. The evidence simply does not exist for reliable forecasts to be made about the consequences of such a far-reaching policy. The Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model is riddled with flaws and wishful thinking. It has no merit as a guide to policy and the government should not base legislation on such speculative and weak statistics.

Christopher Snowdon, co-author of the report, adds: “In the era of evidence-based policy, it seems that speculative statistics are considered superior to no statistics and a wrong answer is better than no answer. We argue that this is a mistake. The aura of scientific certainty, or even mild confidence, in computer-generated numbers based on dubious assumptions is misplaced. Minimum pricing might reduce alcohol harm, or it might increase it, or it might bring about other unexpected consequences, good or bad. An admission that the evidence base is, to all intents and purposes, non-existent is less likely to mislead decision-makers than a spurious prediction. The only certainty is that minimum pricing will transfer large sums of money from the poorest people in society to wealthy industries. This is a deeply regressive leap into the unknown and it should not be taken as a response to wafer-thin ‘evidence’.”

John C. Duffy, co-author of the report adds: “A supporter of the model might ask me ‘If you’re so smart, what’s your model – what do you predict?’ My answer is that I don’t have a model and therefore I won’t make a prediction. There is not enough information around to produce a reliable model and I won’t invent one that is engineered (by undemonstrated assumptions) to fit the prevailing facts and pretend that it is of any use for prediction. As Taleb says in The Black Swan about those who attempt to justify worthless predictions because ‘that’s their job’—get another job.”

Sunday, 25 November 2012

State-funded charity orchestrated Costa protest

In September, I mentioned the attempt to keep Costa Coffee out of the town of Totnes—an effort which I said "epitomises the bigotry and bossiness of a certain sort of Guardianista". As far as the Deep Greens and far-left is concerned (insofar as the two can be distinguished), stopping people buying a certain type of coffee on the whim of some barely-elected local councillor is a victory for freedom and democracy. I later discovered that the No To Costa campaign was supported by our old friend Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative party's go-to nanny statist.

At the Battle of Ideas last month, I was struck by how the new leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett, decided to use a significant part of her ten minute slot to talk about how wonderful it was that Costa Coffee had been refused permission to open a branch in Totnes because "the people" didn't want it there. I wondered at the time why it was that, if the people hated Costa Coffee so much, it was necessary to shut them out rather than let them open a branch that would go bust. I also wondered why she thought an example of big government trampling on free choice was a good way to make the '21st-century Case for Freedom' (for that was the title of the debate). I could not help but be reminded of the comment left on the Guardian website when this was first discussed...

If your idea of 'democracy' is 'a system where me and my condescending arsehole chums get to dictate to other people what kind of coffee they're going to be allowed to drink', then I hope you never develop any kind of inclination towards fascism.

I was therefore delighted to see on the BBC website that the coffee-loving people of Totnes have not gone down without a fight...

Costa's Totnes pull-out 'provoked fury'

Costa Coffee's decision to drop plans to open in Totnes has led to a war of words in the town. Campaign group No To Costa collected 5,750 signatures against the plan, which prompted the firm to pull out last month. The coffee chain's plan would have caused "irreversible damage" to the town, campaigners said.

However, one independent coffee shop owner said its decision not to move in left other people "furious".

Costa announced that it was not going to open in Fore Street because it had "recognised the strength of feeling" against national brands in the town.

They had responded to the likes of eco-charity Transition Town Totnes (TTT) which, after backing the campaign against Costa, has been accused of going beyond its aims.

...Costa's decision, she said, had affected young people in the town who wanted jobs and a meeting place. "A lot of people were furious after Costa pulled out," she said.

A Facebook page has been created "for all those against the narrow minded people at Totnes transition town that seem hell bent on sending Totnes back to the stone age".

Take Back Totnes creator Matt Trant, said: "TTT acted as if it was representing the majority in the town but it wasn't. I hardly bumped into one person that was against Costa and I have lived here 21 years. A lot of people felt cheated."

So what is this "eco-charity" Transition Town Totnes and why is it so reluctant to allow the people of Totnes to decide where they go for a coffee? A look at their financial statement indicates that they are a bunch of ineffectual middle-class tree-huggers. Amongst their achievements in 2010-11 were...

Transition Homes 

This project, which is for the low-impact affordable housing development for local people made progress, albeit at times rather slow progress, in its negotiations with the Dartington Trust for the land to build the scheme.

Translation: We haven't built any houses and we haven't got any land to build on.

Fruit and Nut trees

This project identifies appropriate sites for the wild planting of fruit and nut trees. Over the last year we have planted over 30 trees: almonds, walnuts, sweet chestnuts and heart-nuts, as well as apples, plums and pears in the public spaces around town. Most have been developed by the Agroforestry Research Trust in Dartington, and are specially adapted to grow well in our climate.

Translation: We planted the seeds of some native trees which would have grown anyway because they're wild. They were "specially adapted to grow well in our climate" insofar as they were apples and walnuts rather than pineapples and mangos.


This theme group meets bi-monthly and explores the role the arts has to play in preparing for a carbon constrained, energy lean world. This includes allowing temporary spaces, time and practical projects to explore, engaging, experiencing, enthusing and empowering.

Translation: An acid casualty played some Goldfrapp and told us how to do yoga.

This doesn't strike me as the most essential charity that has ever existed. Still, if people want to donate their hard-earned money to eco-mentalists and Costa-haters that's their prerogative. Their proudest moment of last year was getting that socialist über-liar Naomi Klein to speak at a meeting so I would never give them any money myself, but it's a free country.

No, wait. I did give them money—and so did you...

Transition Town Totnes Financial Statements for the year ended 31 August 2011

Department of Energy and Climate Change: £548,773

Total donations and grants: £598,051

That's right. This organisation relies on the taxpayer for 92 per cent of its donations (52 per cent of its total income)—more than £500,000 for a pressure group in a town of 8,000 people. This government is still trying to make cuts to the budget, right? I think I've found half a million right here, unless "carbon constrained theme groups" and Costa Coffee boycotts are essential frontline services.

Everywhere I turn there is a fake charity masquerading as civil society. I don't think I can even remember the last time I heard from an organisation that wanted to relieve people of their money and/or liberties which wasn't funded by the state.

As it happens, on Monday I'm going to be debating the issue of sock puppet charities (with my dear, dear friend Kate Pickett) and on Tuesday I'm going to be giving evidence on the same subject to a parliamentary select committee. So thank you, Transition Town Totnes, for reminding me how endemic the problem of fake charities is and how urgent is the need to do something about it.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Alcohol Awareness

As this is Alcohol Awareness Week, I thought I'd do my bit by showing a few informative graphics about drinking in the UK.

This is where Britain stands in the EU league table of per capita alcohol consumption. Right in the middle.

These are the tax rates on drink in Europe. Only Finland and Ireland have the same or higher rates of alcohol duty than the UK.

Here is the proportion of adults who had a drink in the last week from 1998 to 2010.

This is weekly alcohol consumption from 1992 to 2009. The survey methodology was changed in 2006 (which led to higher estimates), but the downward trend remains evident.

Here's 'binge-drinking' prevalence amongst the young...

Here's the proportion of 16 to 24 year olds drinking at least once a week.

This is how per capita alcohol consumption (as measured by quantity sold) has changed since 2004....

This shows weekly consumption, historical annual consumption and alcohol-related mortality. Note that the bottom-right graph starts just after the war when per capita alcohol consumption was lower than it has ever been in the country's history. Note also that the rate of (supposed) alcohol-related deaths doubled for men between 1991 and 2001 despite male drinking rates being flat or falling.   

But while drinking rates have been flat or falling, rates of hepatitis C—a major cause of liver disease—have been rising sharply.

Here's something else that has been rising sharply: the number of references to 'binge-drinking'—a term that was barely used ten years ago. This shows the epidemic of binge-drinking references in parliament...

And this shows how many times the term has been used in The Times...

In summary, alcohol consumption is down, 'binge-drinking is down', taxes are high and hysteria is rising. Ever get the feeling you're being cheated?

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Smoking licences

Simon Chapman has recently resurrected the idea of forcing smokers to buy a licence and to carry a swipecard with which to buy tobacco. A database would then be created that tracks how much tobacco people buy and where. I didn't blog about this Orwellian nonsense this week because I have written about it in the past (for example, in 2010) and I also discussed it in my 2009 book Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. From this, you will gather than smoking licences are not a new idea, but then Australia gets everything a few years after we do.

This morning I was on Five Live with Chapman to discuss the suggestion. You can listen to it from 24 minutes in here.

This particular proposal has been kicked into the long grass before and I don't expect things to be different this time. I wonder whether even Chapman takes it seriously. More likely, it is a tactical move to open an Overton window, moving the debate to such an extreme that slightly less extreme measures start to appear reasonable. Plain packaging is the biggest bee in Chapman's bonnet, of course. It his best chance of becoming a footnote in history, but only if other countries follow Australia's example. At the moment, that is looking shaky. Britain's plain packaging consultation received many more responses from those who oppose the idea than support it and it seems as if the same thing has happened in New Zealand.

In 2003, just as the campaign for the smoking ban was beginning in the UK, the Lancet published a well-publicised editorial that called for the total prohibition of cigarettes. The magazine cannot have expected this to be taken seriously, but it did perhaps make a ban on smoking in pubs seem less extreme. The smoking licence gimmick may serve the same function. On the other hand, it might just be that Chapman is at a loose end and needs to keep that grant money rolling in.

On the subject of plain packs, Chapman said during the Five Live interview that: "Quite a large proportion of smokers say 'yeah, bring it on. It'll probably help me quit.'" This is a guy who just cannot stop lying. Insofar as there is an evidence base, it indicates that both smokers and nonsmokers—but especially smokers—don't think plain packs will make any difference. As I wrote in my report about plain packaging earlier this year...

Indeed, most studies which involve direct questioning find that the majority of respondents expect plain packaging to have no effect on smoking prevalence and cigarette consumption. This includes ASH’s own “citizen’s jury” who were “sceptical that branding encouraged people to start smoking or to continue smoking and so did not believe that plain packaging would reduce the number of smokers significantly.”

Simple Simon's claim about the popularity of plain packs was made while he was constructing a bewildering fantasy in which smokers love higher cigarette prices and smoking bans. Simon Chapman—friend of the smoker. Who needs enemies?


Just remembered that as I was being dropped off at the studio, the taxi driver said to me: "Tell him where to stick his smoking licence." It's not a thorough survey of public opinion, but I suspect it's representative.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Private Eye's pisspoor Snusgate report

Private Eye has got round to covering the snusgate story. Unfortunately its account is riddled with inaccuracies and exhibits a perverse refusal to accept that John Dalli might be guilty.

Is Big Tobacco up to its dirty tricks again? A murky episode in Brussels suggests its questionable approach to law-making might not have gone out with the European smoking ban.

There isn't a European smoking ban.

Maltese politician John Dalli was the EU health commissioner charged with implementing a new tobacco control directive. It would have forced large pictures of smoking-related diseases on cigarette packets, restricted sales of smokeless tobacco products and e-cigarettes and stepped up the ban on snus, a €500m-a-year cigarette smoking substitute gum banned everywhere in the EU except Sweden.

Snus is not an easy product to describe to those who haven't seen it. 'Fine-cut tobacco in a teabag-like pouch' isn't a bad description, but no one who knows what they're talking about would ever think of describing it as 'gum'.

Before the directive could be passed, however, Dalli was called to the European Commission and given 30 minutes to read a final report by Olaf, the EU anti-corruption police. The report's contents remain under wraps, but Dalli promptly resigned, under pressure from commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, 30 minutes later.

The report remains "under wraps" because—as was reported last week—"only the Maltese attorney general can give access to the Olaf report because it now forms part of a Maltese criminal investigation."

The background to the Olaf report was a dossier provided to the commission by lobbyists for Swedish Match, which makes snus and pipe tobacco. It is claimed that Silvio Zammit, an associate of Dalli and a Maltese mayor and owner of a seaside kiosk on the island, solicited an initial €10m, with another €50m to follow, from the company in return for influencing Dalli to make his directive less hostile to snus.

Or, to be specific, to repeal the ban on snus—a ban which is scientifically unjustifiable. Private Eye could do its readers a favour by looking into the forces that have led to it being banned and what the health implications have been (see, for example, Clive Bates' recent post—and note the discussion between numerous health experts below the line.)

Zammit claims he works as a legitimate lobbyist, that he was approached by Swedish Match and that he is not guilty of soliciting any money. Olaf admits that the evidence against Dalli is "circumstantial"...

"Unambiguous" circumstantial evidence.

 ...and limited to the possibility that he might have known about the payment.

Which is a sackable offence.

Dalli, who emphatically denies all charges, says he has been stitched up by a tobacco industry that didn't appreciate his hard line.

It is not unusual for the accused to insist he is innocent of the charges against him. Barroso has rightly described Dalli's conspiracy theories as "incomprehensible".

Olaf itself may not be entirely objective. The European Commission has signed a series of agreements with the fag companies, leading to €2.15bn of funding being funnelled to the commission—some of it filtering down to Olaf to fund the fight against cigarette smuggling.

Oh, come on. So the EC gets money out of the tobacco industry to fight the illicit trade and Olaf is funded by the EC, so this means that Olaf is somehow compromised by tobacco funding? Is it really being suggested that the funding of Olaf depends on the contents of the tobacco products directive? This is just ridiculous. It's another taxpayer-funded EU institution amongst many other taxpayer-funded EU institutions. And if the EU is pro-tobacco, I am a banana.

The tobacco lobby has long had it in for Dalli and his ominous directive which should have been launched last month.


What's more, Barroso was also uncomfortable with Dalli's tough policy measures—supposedly on legal grounds—and told him so. His secretary general, Catherine Day, repeatedly delayed launching the new directive even though it was finalised. What has left many EU observers blinking in disbelief is the skimpiness of Olaf's work. Five months into what he called "a comprehensive investigation", Olaf boss Giovanni Kessler admitted finding no proof that compromised Dalli.

No he didn't. What he said was that "there is no conclusive evidence" that Dalli "was involved as instigator or mastermind." He went on to say that there are "a number of unambiguous circumstantial pieces of evidence ... that he was indeed aware of the requests of the Maltese entrepreneur and that this person was using his name and position ... He was aware of a person close to him asking for money from a company in order to use his influence on the commissioner to try to attempt to change the policy of the commission."

Whether this is "proof" or not is for the courts to decide, but clearly there is evidence and what he has been accused of is undoubtedly a sackable offence.

Staffers at the commission's health and consumer directorate, Sanco, emphatically told Olaf investigators that the idea of Dalli ever compromising his treasured directive was incredible.

Dalli's friends are defending him? Emphatically? Then he must be innocent!

Word from Brussels is that the writs are just about to start flying.

Bring 'em on. Let's get to the bottom of this. I'm as keen as anyone to hear the evidence against Dalli, and I'm also keen to hear what evidence there is that "Big Tobacco" is "up to its dirty tricks" because I don't see any evidence for it in Private Eye.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The science has spoken

From the Telegraph...

Just one glass of wine a day linked to breast cancer: research

A review of research on alcohol and breast cancer has found that just one drink a day can increase the risk of breast cancer by five per cent.

Women drinking 'heavily' by having three or more drinks a day are up to 50 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer than those who abstain, it was found.

It could mean that thousands of cases of breast cancer in Britain each year are caused by alcohol.

There is no safe level of drinking, one drink can kill etc. etc.

Also from the Telegraph...

Glass of wine a day 'fights breast cancer'

Women with breast cancer can boost their chances of surviving the disease by drinking a glass of wine a day, according to research.

Those who drink a medium-sized (175ml) glass a day cut their chance of dying within a decade of diagnosis by a fifth - from 20 to 16 per cent, say Cambridge University doctors.

So there you have it. If you want to avoid breast cancer, don't drink wine (or other alcoholic drinks—I assume the focus is on wine because it's the Telegraph). But if you develop breast cancer, be sure to drink plenty of the stuff.

Truly, as the philosopher Homer Simpson once said, alcohol is the cause of—and the solution to—all of life's problems.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Illicit tobacco to be eliminated

In any group of enthusiasts, there is always one who goes too far. The schoolgirl who is just a little too keen on the latest boyband, the football fan who gets a little too caught up in his team. It is only by being around normal people that fanatics are forced to acknowledge their peculiarities and moderate their behaviour. But if they surround themselves only with those of like mind, they spiral further towards extremism, with each member of the group set on proving that they are the most committed to the cause. Isolated from normality, it is only a matter of time before one of them gets a facial tattoo.

This unfortunate state of affairs is very common in the "public health community" for two reasons. Firstly, since funding comes from the state to meet perceived health crises, there is an incentive to be hysterical. Secondly, fanaticism breeds fanaticism. When reasonable objectives have been achieved, reasonable people leave the movement. This leaves the fanatics to pursue more fanatical objectives which, in turn, attract new fanatics to the movement.

With life expectancy soaring, infectious diseases plummetting and people enjoying better health, working conditions and diets than ever before, you might expect the health lobby's wailing to subside somewhat. This has not happened, of course, least of all in tobacco control—a faction of public health which has won victory after victory for decades and yet only gets more anguished and hyperbolic. Take this comment about smoking from one Dr Seffrin who, according to the Independent, "leads the US national society dedicated to eliminating [!] cancer".

"It killed 100 million in the last century and we thought that was outrageous, but this will be the biggest public health disaster in the history of the world, bar none. It all could be avoided if we could prevent the terroristic tactics of the tobacco industry in marketing its products to children."

There are a number of things to be said about this statement. One might, for example, cite malaria, smallpox and bubonic plague as just three diseases which have been greater public health disasters than cigarette smoking, not least because they killed people at a much younger age and were not the result of taking a risky, but freely made, decision. One might also ask exactly in what ways the tobacco industry markets its products to children in 2012. Is this the "glitzy pack" argument? If so, does Dr Seffrin seriously believe that "the biggest public health disaster in the history of the world ... all could be avoided" by changing a red pack into a green pack?

But never mind all that. What is this stuff about terrorism? Even to a man who thinks he can eliminate cancer, that is a stupid thing to say. Alas, the fanatics are in too deep to understand why such a comment is risible and offensive. Let us remember that ASH (New Zealand) thought nothing of issuing this advert a few years ago...

This is what comes from spending years in the tobacco control bubble. One's sense of proportion goes out of the window. Flying an aeroplane full of innocent people into a building full of innocent people starts to seem commensurate with selling a legal product covered with health warnings which, if consumed many times a day for decades, increases the risk of developing a potentially deadly disease in old age. What next? Are they going to compare the tobacco industry with paedophiles? Oh no, they already did that...

I have described this phenomenon of escalating hyperbole as "bullshit inflation" (one of the leading causes of "bullshit fatigue"). You can expect to hear a lot of it this week because yet another anti-smoking conference is taking place. This time it's in South Korea ("Join tobacco control—See the world!"). It's the Fifth session of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which means that it has some legislative muscle (you can read the agenda here). It kicked off with Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO, coming up with another silly simile...

Tobacco use is the epidemiological equivalent of a drive-by shooting – it hurts the innocent bystanders, as well as those held captive by an addiction that damages their health.

Chan played to the gallery by using military metaphors about the tobacco industry. "This is how we hem in the enemy," she said. "It is a ruthless industry that quite literally cannot afford to lose. It behaves like a corrosive substance that can eat and slip through any cracks or fissures in the armour of our defences." She was using similar rhetoric earlier in the year when she said: "We have an enemy, a ruthless and devious enemy, to unite us... The enemy, the tobacco industry, has changed its face and its tactics. The wolf is no longer in sheep's clothing, and its teeth are bared." Etc., etc.

This kind of banter is all well and good for the average street preacher, but it's a little sad to see the head of a once-distinguished UN body resort to tub-thumping. It really is reminiscent of the rants against the 'liquor trust' which prohibitionists like Richmond P. Hobson delivered in the early part of the twentieth century. I guess it's more comforting to think that you're at war with an industry than it is to admit you're demonising, impoverishing and harassing hundreds of millions of ordinary people who happen to enjoy tobacco. Better to imagine yourself at war with terrorists and drive-by shooters.

I can see the appeal of the us-versus-them conceit. If you're a government pencil-pusher it must feel very exciting to think you're at war. I don't care if people want to talk like this, I just don't think we should have to pay for it with our taxes (and, as Dick Puddlecote recently reported, delegates at this WHO meeting are discussing levying an international tax on tobacco to fund—guess WHO?) And yet, Chan constantly talks about the anti-tobacco industry as if it were "civil society". For example...

Members of civil society,

We need you, now more than ever.

Experience has shown that, when government political resolve falters or weakens under industry pressure, coalitions of civil society can take up the slack and carry the day. We need this kind of outcry, this kind of rage.

I'm all in favour of civil society and voluntary action. All I ask is that it be genuinely voluntary. Get rid of the taxpayer funding for these groups and let's see how many of these people are prepared to "take up the slack" and attend week long conferences in South Korea.

Here's an interesting fact about these 'Conference of the Parties (COP)' shindigs. It won't surprise you to hear that the tobacco industry is not invited to participate, but they are apparently not even allowed to observe proceedings from the spectator's gallery. These are—I say again—publicly funded conferences. Refusing to allow the relevant industry to even hear what is being said strikes me as peculiarly paranoid—as if tobacco execs are so powerful that they can transmit pro-tobacco messages by just being in the same room.

Predictably enough, the (taxpayer funded) anti-booze brigade wants the alcohol industry excluded from (taxpayer funded) discussions about alcohol.

Eurocare strongly recommended exclusion of the alcohol industry as a stakeholder, similarly as it is being done with the tobacco industry.

Of course prohibitionists want their "enemy" excluded from the discussion. If they let their opponents speak, they might undermine their paper-thin arguments. But it gets worse. As if it wasn't crazy enough not to allow the industry to see what goes on in these meetings, the fanatics have now banned Interpol (yes, that Interpol) from attending. Why? Because the tobacco company Philip Morris recently gave Interpol 15 million euros "to support the agency’s global initiative to combat trans-border crime involving illicit goods, including tobacco products".

This is madness. Is there any organisation these maniacs do not suspect are 'front groups' for Big Backy? The real issue here is not allowing the industry—or Interpol—to engage, it is that no opposing views are allowed whatsoever. I don't imagine that the industry necessarily represents the views of its customers, but they represent them better than the people who hate the customers, hate the industry and hate the product. Ideally, I'd like to see the tobacco control "community" invite smokers to their conferences and ask them how they feel about higher taxes and outdoor smoking bans, but they never do. I can't think why.

The result of excluding everybody except fellow fanatics is that you end up with retarded and delusional policies which only make sense at two in the morning when they are being discussed by monomaniacs in the hotel bar. It seems obvious, for example, that the tobacco industry could make common cause with the anti-tobacco industry—not to mention Interpol—on the issue of counterfeit cigarettes where both parties stand to lose. No dice, say the anti-smokers. Instead, we get a pompous announcement of monumental hubris...

The Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products

That's right, folks. They're going to eliminate illicit tobacco. Just like they eliminated illicit drugs.

"The elimination of all forms of illicit trade in tobacco products, including smuggling and illegal manufacturing, is an essential component of tobacco control," says Ambassador Ricardo Varela, President of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the WHO FCTC.

If winning an unwinnable war is an essential part of your plan, it's time to rethink the plan. The tragedy is that it really is essential to their plan. It won't happen—prohibition never works—but they won't let anyone into the circle of trust to bring them to their senses.

To read about what the WHO should be talking about this week—if the 'H' in it still meant anything—read Clive Bates' open letter to COP-5.


Reading the full text of Chan's speech, it looks like the knives are out for snus and e-cigarettes:

You have before you state-of-the art reports on recommended responses to smokeless tobacco products and electronic nicotine delivery systems. Again, industry is seeping through the cracks.

Sounds like these "state-of-the-art reports" have been written by the usual quit-or-die merchants.