Friday, 24 November 2017

Public Health England and the drinking guidelines scandal

At the end of last month, I revealed the e-mails that show Public Health England telling the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group to change the methodology of their computer model despite the obvious reservations of the latter. The change in methodology had no sound scientific justification but it had the effect of lowering the model's implied drinking guidelines for men from around 21 units to around 13 units. The Chief Medical Officer subsequently announced that the male drinking guidelines would be reduced from 21 units to 14 units.

If you haven't read my article, please do so before you go any further.

Public Health England's Duncan Selbie has since written a letter to the Spectator in which he disclaims responsibility for this and gives the credit/blame to the guidelines group. I reproduce it below, along with my response.

Christopher Snowdon’s piece, ‘The new drinking guidelines are based on massaged evidence’, is grossly incorrect and misrepresents Public Health England’s (PHE) role in the guidelines’ development.

PHE emphatically refutes any suggestion that we intervened in some way to influence the evidence made available by Sheffield University to an independent expert group, the Guideline Development Group (GDG), which was set up by the UK Chief Medical Officers to help develop the alcohol guidelines.

As part of the secretariat to the group, we commissioned the analysis, as requested by the GDG, from Sheffield University. Any emails from PHE to Sheffield commissioning additional modelling and evidence were based on the GDG’s decisions and at their request, as is clearly shown by the publicly available minutes of their meetings.

This has been confirmed by Sheffield University’s Alcohol Research Group, which has said:

“Minutes from the subsequent GDG meeting on 21 January 2015 state that, after hearing Sheffield’s presentation of their work, the GDG concluded: ‘A holistic, expert judgement on guideline levels would be needed, taking account of uncertainties and issues not fully modelled’. This demonstrates that the group recognised there was considerable scientific uncertainty present and that no single piece of evidence or modelling decision used in isolation would determine the final guideline.

“As noted in the Royal Statistical Society’s consultation response: “This is a contested area of science with considerable uncertainties” (paragraph 1.1). The change to the base case analyses related to a point of scientific uncertainty. The Sheffield Alcohol Research Group were happy with the decision taken whereby the base case analysis was revised but the original modelling assumptions were retained as one of a series of sensitivity analyses.

“Those analyses explored major areas of uncertainty within the underlying evidence and their implications for the Guideline Development Group’s work. The group considered those sensitivity analyses in detail and took them into account in their decision-making.”

Mr Snowden [sic] also refers to The Public Health Burden of Alcohol and the Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Alcohol Control Policies: An evidence review, which PHE published in 2016. The facts speak for themselves; this unprecedented and comprehensive evaluation of the evidence had an extensive three-stage peer-review involving UK and international academics. The abridged version was also subject to further peer-review processes before its publication by The Lancet.

My reply:

If, as Public Health England claims, my exposé of the alcohol guidelines review was 'grossly inaccurate', one would expect the agency to flag up some factual errors. Their sole complaint appears to be that I suggested that it was they, rather than the Guideline Development Group, who came up with the idea of changing the methodology. I suggested no such thing. I explicitly said in the original article:

"On 21 January, the GDG held a meeting at which SARG’s John Holmes and Colin Angus presented their findings. The minutes of this meeting contain the first mention of an idea that would have a profound impact on the whole project. It was suggested that SARG researchers should ‘estimate risk curves without threshold effects for wholly alcohol-attributable chronic conditions’."

As the commissioner of the research, PHE followed up with a series of e-mails to the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group (SARG) in February 2015. These e-mails show the Sheffield researchers trying to talk PHE out of the idea of replacing their base case scenario with a sensitivity analysis that was built on patently unrealistic assumptions.

The crucial e-mail exchange came on 10 February when SARG said that they were 'unclear exactly what was being requested' and that 'it does not seem right to assign people drinking at very low levels a risk of acquiring alcoholic liver disease and similar conditions.' They added that: 'Unless there are strong opposing views, we think it better to keep the threshold in the base case.'


That e-mail was sent at 4.37pm. PHE replied at 10.40pm with a short e-mail ignoring the compromise suggested by the Sheffield team and asking how much it would cost to drop the threshold from their main findings (the 'base case'). From this, there was no looking back. 

Had the GDG offered 'strong opposing views' in the few hours between these two e-mails or was PHE acting on its own initiative? There was no meeting of the GDG that evening, but it is possible that PHE had made phone calls to some of its members. We know from separate e-mail exchanges that PHE is in regular contact with the anti-alcohol groups that were represented in the GDG.

It is also possible that the GDG had explicitly ordered the base case to be changed in its meeting of 21 January. If so, it was not recorded in the minutes. The minutes merely state that the GDG had suggested that PHE 'commission further sensitivity analyses or new modelling where feasible' including an estimate of 'risk curves without threshold effects for wholly alcohol-attributable chronic conditions'. As I explained in my article, there is a huge difference between running a sensitivity analysis and changing the base case that will dictate the headline findings.

The reaction of the Sheffield researchers to PHE's request for a change in methodology suggests that such a fundamental change was not agreed at the GDG meeting. Two of the Sheffield team were at that meeting. If the GDG had explicitly called for the base case to be changed, why were they so surprised and dismayed when PHE asked them to do it?

We will probably never know what was going on between PHE and members of the GDG behind the scenes. PHE's complaint against me seems to be that I gave the impression that the agency somehow overrode the will of the GDG. I don't think any fair-minded reader would infer that from my article but, for the avoidance of doubt, let me say again that the GDG was packed with campaigners from the temperance and 'public health' lobby who would have been delighted to see the guidelines lowered. There is enough blame and shame to be shared by all three of the groups involved: the guidelines committee, Public Health England and the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group. I have never suggested that PHE bear all, of even most, of the responsibility.

The fact remains, however, that Public Health England commissioned and funded the Sheffield research and it was they who set the parameters, whether acting as intermediaries or on their own initiative. Having funded the research, they now seem keen to pass the buck to the GDG. For their part, the Sheffield team has always been keen to pass the buck to PHE. Twice in their report, SARG stress that the dropping of thresholds was done at the agency's request. On page 28 they say: 'At the request of the commissioners (Public Health England), this threshold effect removed for the base case analysis...' Note that they do not say that it was done at the request of the GDG. Elsewhere in the report they make it clear that they would not normally run their model in the way they did and, at times, they seem to be distancing themselves from their own findings.


If this research was so strong, why does nobody want to take responsibility for it? Why is PHE so keen to point the finger at the GDG? Why is SARG so keen to play down the importance of their report? It is not a good look for PHE to be saying that they were only following orders. The best defence the Sheffield team has been able to mount is to claim that the change in methodology related to 'a point of scientific uncertainty' and that they were 'happy with the decision taken'. Anyone who reads the e-mails can be the judge of how 'happy' they were about it, but there is really no 'scientific uncertainty' about whether moderate drinkers are at an increased risk of developing diseases of alcoholism. They are not. There is plenty of uncertainty about how much an individual needs to drink before the benefits of alcohol are outweighed by the risks, but there is no uncertainty about there being a threshold for the ten chronic diseases that SARG dropped 'at the request of the commissioners'.

SARG are keen to point out that the change in the guidelines was not due to any single piece of evidence. I have never suggested otherwise, but their report cannot be dismissed as unimportant. It was explicitly designed 'to inform the Chief Medical Officer's review of the UK low risk drinking guidelines', as its title says. The first draft noted that the 'implied guideline thresholds are generally similar to those in the current UK lower drinking guidelines’. An anonymous reviewer of that draft wrote: 'I predict that there will be very little, if any, change to the Guidelines'. That all changed once PHE got SARG to change their methodology. It would have been possible to lower the guidelines without changing the Sheffield model, but it would have been a hard sell. The credibility of Sheffield's work is therefore of significant public interest. Is there anybody willing to stand up for it?

PHE defends its 2016 alcohol policy report on the basis that it was peer-reviewed. Peer review can make a document fit for publication but it does not make it true. If the aim of peer review is to fact-check, PHE was let down by its reviewers on that occasion. The 2016 report contains numerous basic errors, such as the claim that ‘real-term alcohol prices have decreased’ since 1980 (they have risen by 23 per cent). The report was released to the public with the claim that people in Britain are drinking twice as much as we did in 1980. We are actually drinking exactly the same amount (9.4 litres per adult). 'The facts speak for themselves', says Mr Selbie. Indeed they do, if you can find them.

When a report is littered with obvious errors, defending it on the basis that it has been peer reviewed is more of an indictment of your peer review process than a defence of the publication. But I am glad they have brought it up since it allows me to mention something about the guidelines process that space did not permit in my original article.

When I have had work peer reviewed at the Institute of Economic Affairs and elsewhere, the editor gives the manuscript to a third party of his or her choosing who doesn't know that I wrote it. When I receive their comments I don't know who they are. This double-blind system prevents any bias towards or against the author. By convention, reviewers are not paid.

This is not how it worked when the Sheffield team submitted their final report. On 6 May 2015, PHE sent an e-mail asking if they had had it externally peer reviewed. Sheffield said that they hadn't but they were 'happy to arrange for this to happen'. On 12 June - more than a month later - someone from PHE replied to say that 'I'm happy for you to suggest reviewers'. Sheffield then provided two names (which are redacted in the e-mails released under FOI) and asked PHE: 'Do you want the reviews to come through you or are you happy for us to just share the comments and revisions?' PHE replied: 'Happy for you to sort out the peer review directly and share comments/revisions with me.'

On 25 June, Sheffield e-mailed PHE saying that they had approached two potential reviewers, one of whom wanted £650 to do it because 'this is the rate he is being paid by PHE to review another lengthy report'. PHE said that they 'don't have any funds set aside for peer review' but were 'looking into' whether they could access some.

By mid-September, no funds had been released and only one reviewer had been found - an unnamed PHE employee. SARG e-mailed to say that 'I think we're just looking at XXX(PHE) unless you would like me to try to find someone else at short notice?' It is not clear from the released e-mails whether a second person was ever found. All we know for sure is that PHE handed the task of finding reviewers for the SARG report to the people at SARG who then approached somebody at PHE to do it! This is a far cry from blind external peer review.

Finally, Mr Selbie quotes SARG quoting the Royal Statistical Society and their reference to a 'contested area of science'. SARG say that the 'change to the base case analyses related to a point of scientific uncertainty'. This is misleading. The contested area of science to which the Royal Statistical Society referred was the general issue of defining a low-risk guideline, which is indeed difficult to pinpoint with precision. They were not referring to the specific question of whether there is a consumption threshold for some diseases.

SARG did not quote what the Royal Statistical Society actually said about that question. On page two of their consultation response, the Society notes that getting rid of the threshold leads to a 'statistically implausible assumption of a linear relationship' and that 'without this enforced assumption, the threshold for males to reach a 1% lifetime risk would have been 21 rather than 14 units, exactly the previous Guideline'.


Mandatory cycle helmets are a bad idea

The British government is considering importing another foolish idea from Australia. From The Times...

Cyclists could be made to wear helmets for the first time in a review of bike safety.

A government consultation in the new year will consider whether helmets and high-visibility vests should be mandatory on British roads, the transport minister Jesse Norman said.

There are several problems with this, as I said in Killjoys...

Helmets certainly reduce the risk of serious head injury if the cyclist is in an accident, but it has been suggested that cyclists take more risks when wearing a helmet and motorists drive closer to those who are wearing them. This is difficult to prove either way, but there is no doubt that laws mandating cycle helmets reduce the number of cyclists on the road because not all bicycle-owners are prepared to buy or wear one


The Times article mentions that the Australian ban on cycling without a helmet has led to a reduction on the number of cyclists on the road. Mexico City scrapped a similar law in 2010 for this reason. It effectively deters people from using their bikes.

There is also the question of what would happen to bike sharing schemes such as London's 'Boris Bikes'. Would people be expected to carry a cycle helmet (and a high-vis jacket!) on the off-chance that they might want to hire a bike?

Compulsory cycle helmets are a bad idea for both individual freedom and 'public health'. It should be taken no further - and, judging by this tweet from the transport minister, it won't...





Thursday, 23 November 2017

Five reasons why mandatory food reformulation is a terrible idea

I've written a short briefing paper for Epicenter about why state-sanctioned food reformulation, as currently being practised by Public Health England, is a bad idea. You can download it here or read it below....

Health by stealth

The food industry is highly competitive and innovative. Its products are being constantly reviewed and reformulated to maintain or gain market share. As with other fast moving consumer goods, the vast majority of new food products are withdrawn from the market within a year while some leading brands have been popular for decades. Manufacturers are naturally reluctant to modify their most trusted brands, but are generally happy to create ‘spin-off’ products, such as low-sugar or organic alternatives.

Food and soft drinks appeal to consumers on the basis of four key factors: taste, price, convenience and health. Historically, consumers have wanted energy-dense food at the lowest price but as countries become more affluent the problems of scarcity and hunger are replaced by the problem of obesity. Many consumers want to consume fewer calories but - crucially - they do not want to sacrifice flavour. This poses a challenge to the food industry because human beings have evolved to find calorific ingredients such as fat and sugar tasty.

In recent decades, the food and soft drinks industries have spent vast sums of money producing and marketing products which can be branded as ‘healthy’ or ‘healthier’. Taking their cue from nutritional science, they have reformulated products with less fat, salt and sugar to appeal to more health conscious consumers. In most cases, they have created alternative brands to give consumers more choice but some flagship brands have also been subtly altered.

Many of the alternative varieties have flopped, but some have succeeded. Diet soft drinks were niche products 40 years ago but are now extremely popular. Various sweeteners, including Stevia, aspartame and saccharine, have been used to mimic the taste of sugar. Full fat milk used to be the norm but skimmed and semi-skimmed milk now make up 80 per cent of milk sales in the UK (semi-skimmed has less than half the fat content and two-thirds of the calories) (Munday and Bagley 2017). Processed food with less salt, sugar and/or fat has proliferated and many low calorie products are successfully marketed as ‘light’ or ‘diet’ variants.

The supermarket chain Tesco claims to have ‘removed over 8,000 tonnes of sugar, fat and salt from over 2,000 products’ since January 2016 (Ewart 2017). In a survey of 102 global food companies, the Consumer Goods Forum (2017: 8) found that 180,000 products on shop shelves in 2016 had been ‘formulated to support healthier diets and lifestyles’. Clearly, it is possible to reformulate food products without losing customers. So far, these innovations have been mostly driven by consumer preferences and without government intervention, but there is growing interest in mandatory targets being set to ensure that reformulation continues.

State-sanctioned reformulation is not without historical precedent. A few countries, such as Denmark, have placed a legal limit on trans fat levels in food (although most countries have seen a sharp decline in trans fat consumption without state intervention). Several countries, such as Australia, require minimum levels of folic acid in bread to prevent children being born with spina bifida. British law requires calcium carbonate, thiamin and nicotinic acid to be added to most flour. Ireland and a number of US states have laws requiring drinking water to be fluoridated to prevent tooth decay.

But using the law to restrict the use of core ingredients for the purpose of reducing the calorie content of food is a new development. As yet, no government has legislated in this area. In Britain, a salt reduction scheme began in 2006 as a voluntary initiative between government and industry. This is believed to have resulted in a 5.1 per cent reduction in salt consumption by 2011 (Griffith et al. 2016: 2). The EU’s Framework for National Salt Initiatives set a target of reducing salt content in food by 16 per cent between 2008 and 2012, and its Framework for National Initiatives on Selected Nutrients proposed a 10 per cent reduction in sugar and saturated fat content by 2020. Participation in both EU projects by member states was entirely optional.

Although the European Commission reported in 2012 that all member states had some form of salt reduction scheme at work, it said that ‘the only country that had reported systematically engaging with and tracking the actions of individual companies through commitments and action plans’ was the UK. The British government has since followed up its anti-salt activity with an ambitious sugar reduction plan that aims for a decline in sugar content in food by 20 per cent by 2020. This scheme, which involves similar targets for fat and calories in its next phase, is technically voluntary but the government has threatened legislation if its targets are not met and has promised to ‘name and shame’ companies which fail to meet them. A sugar levy is also being introduced (in April 2018) with the specific aim of making companies reduce sugar content in soft drinks. The programme is therefore somewhat coercive.

Co-ordinated by Public Health England, this ‘health by stealth’ approach has only been underway since 2016 but it has already highlighted some of the problems with mandatory reformulation:

1. It can penalise companies that have already made significant changes to their products

As mentioned above, food companies have been reformulating products to reduce sugar, fat and calories for years, without pressure from government. Some degree of reformulation is often possible without having a noticeable effect on taste, but beyond a certain point the product becomes unpalatable. By requiring all companies to meet the 20 per cent target, Public Health England is effectively punishing firms that have already reduced sugar content. Those which have not modified their products will find their task easier, leaving them with the commercial advantage of having a tastier product by 2020.

2. It can lead to smaller products

In 2014, a newly formed pressure group called Action on Sugar began whipping up concern about the amount of sugar in savoury products such as ready meals, bread and pasta sauce. The sugar reduction programme includes these products but has also been extended to include items such as chocolate, cakes, biscuits and confectionery for which sugar is absolutely integral. Consumers do not generally find artificial sweeteners to be satisfactory substitutes for sugar in such products and so the only way sugar content can be reduced is to make the product smaller, leading to ‘shrinkflation’. Since prices are usually not reduced when the products is shrunk, consumers naturally feel exploited. The assumption that companies are making excess profits is not necessarily fair - reducing portion sizes requires capital investment in new machinery and packaging - but consumers get a worse deal nonetheless.  

3. It restricts choice by effectively banning the original product

Under consumer-driven reformulation, companies typically add a new low-sugar, low-fat or low-salt product to the market in addition to the original brand. This allows consumers freedom of choice. State-driven reformulation, by contrast, requires modification of the entire product range and effectively removes the original recipe from the market. This is a restriction of choice and is unfair to consumers, many of whom neither want nor need to restrict their calorie intake.

4. It can be unpopular

Because of the restriction of choice and shrinkflation (see above), reformulation can be unpopular with the public. Advocates of reformulation point to various products which were modified to reduce salt content without the public noticing or objecting. But reducing salt from savoury products is a relatively simple process compared with the task of removing sugar from sweet products. People tend to notice when sugar is removed from their trusted brands. The soft drink Lucozade, for example, had its sugar content slashed in April 2017, leading to thousands of complaints and a drop in sales (Fletcher 2017).

5. The targets can unrealistic and arbitrary

The UK’s target of reducing sugar by 20 per cent by 2020 seems to be based on nothing more than numerology. It is twice as challenging as that proposed by the EU and is equally arbitrary. Rather than make a realistic assessment of what can be achieved, the UK government seems to have picked a figure that fits in with the date of the deadline. Public Health England has no expertise in food manufacturing and seems to have been overly optimistic about what can be achieved in such a short timeframe. The 20 per cent target is a classic top-down, command and control diktat.

Conclusion

Food can be reformulated to be made less calorific but the process is by no means simple it can be practically impossible for some products. Governments can force companies to change their products but they cannot force consumers to buy them. Gradual reductions in salt, fat and sugar can sometimes be made, but there is a limit to how far reformulation can go before consumers reject it.

Many consumers do not enjoy the taste of artificial sweeteners are are not interested in reducing their sugar intake. Mandatory reformulation is a way for governments to bypass consumer preferences by putting pressure on manufacturers. The pioneering British scheme will show how far this coercive approach can be pushed before it creates a public backlash. It remains at an early stage and many of the newly reformulated products have not yet reached the market, but it would not be surprising if consumers respond negatively to the changes. 







Consumer Goods Forum (2017) Health and Wellness Progress Report. Deloitte Global

Ewart, K. (2017) Tesco continues work to reduce sugar, salt and fat in own label products. Tesco. https://www.tescoplc.com/news/blogs/topics/health-reformulated-tesco-products/

Fletcher, I. (2017) Lucozade sales plummet after brand dramatically cuts amount of sugar in drinks following tax levy. Mirror 4 November

Griffiths, R., O’Connell, M. and Smith, K. (2016) The importance of product reformulation versus consumer choice in improving diet quality. Economica 84(333): 34-53

Munday, H. and Bagley, L. (2017) The history of food reformulation. Food Science and Technology: http://fstjournal.org/features/31-3/food-reformulation


Friday, 17 November 2017

Plain packaging for alcohol (again)

The week's Lancet has an editorial about alcohol. It doesn't even bother to acknowledge the temperance lobby's victory in the minimum pricing court case. They are already moving on to the 'next logical step'.

Here are the closing sentences...

There is no excuse to ignore regulatory interventions for access, advertisements, and unit cost that are shown to reduce alcohol consumption. Like tobacco, the longer the delay in effective control, the more severe future interventions for alcohol will need to be. It is not unimaginable that bottles of Château Mouton Rothschild, which once bore the artwork of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, might one day be required to have plain packaging and images of oesophageal cancer or a cirrhotic liver.

It only seems like yesterday when those of us who predicted this slippery slope were portrayed as paranoid libertarians who had fallen for a deceptive tobacco industry argument.

Freedom is indivisible and killjoys never sleep.

Europuppets defunded

A few years ago I wrote a report called Europuppets about the EU's exceptional largesse towards 'civil society' organisations of which it approves. Quite a few of them are in the business of punishing consumers under the pretext of 'public health', including the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA).

Over the years, EPHA has lobbied for minimum pricing, taxes on food and the Tobacco Products Directive, so I was delighted to hear that the European Commission is going to stop funding it next year.

In late October 2017, EPHA was informed that it had not been selected to receive an operating grant from the European Commission’s Health Programme, as from January 2018.

Such an occurrence has always been a possibility and the EPHA Board has undertaken contingency planning for several years. While this has some immediate implications for the organisation, the board and secretariat team are implementing plans to ensure EPHA’s long-term sustainability.

EU funding accounts for two-thirds of their income so hopefully their long-term sustainability is out of the question, unless Pharma steps in.

And the good news doesn't end there. The European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP) has been unsuccessful in applying for EU cash and the neo-prohibitionists at Eurocare have been defunded. The former relied on EU taxpayers for more than half of its budget so hopefully it will wither and die before it can bring about its 'tobacco endgame strategy'.

Not a bad start. The full list of unsuccessful grant applications can be read here. I don't recognise them all by the abbreviations so if you spot any gems, let me know in the comments.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Looking forward to minimum pricing

Now that the SNP are free to introduce minimum pricing, it's worth looking at what we're supposed to expect.

Back in 2009, when minimum pricing became a live issue, the Sheffield modellers predicted that a minimum price (of 40p in those days) would result in a drop in alcohol consumption of 2.7 per cent and a decline in alcohol-related deaths of 40 in the first year, rising to 210 per annum after ten years.

Given the 'public health' lobby's absolute obsession with this policy in the years since, we must assume that they regarded these as game-changing numbers. Imagine if alcohol consumption fell by 2.7 per cent! What a victory for health that would be.

We don't need to imagine because consumption fell by much more than that after 2009 without any notable policy change. In 2007, Scots were drinking 11.8 litres of alcohol a year. By 2016, this had fallen to 10.5 litres. This is a drop of 11 per cent - four times as great as the decline Sheffield said would occur if minimum pricing was introduced.

You probably haven't heard much about this, but if minimum pricing had been introduced in 2009 you would have never heard the end of it. Not only did alcohol consumption fall by 11 per cent, but the alcohol-related mortality rate fell from 34.6 per 100,000 to 30.0 per 100,000 for men and from 16.7 per 100,000 to 9.0 per 100,000 for women. This is a drop of 13% and 46% respectively.

It is interesting to see the decline in both drinking and alcohol-related deaths in Scotland in recent years and yet I do not see much interest in it from the denizens of 'public health', presumably because they can't take credit for it. 

Here are the alcohol-related deaths for men and women. Scotland is the top (light blue) line.

It's worth noting that the UK as a whole has seen a decline alcohol consumption of around 18 per cent since 2004 and yet Scotland is the only part of it to have seen a significant fall in alcohol-related deaths. This implies that the fall in alcohol consumption in Scotland has been driven by heavy drinkers consuming less whereas the fall in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has been driven by moderate drinkers consuming less and more people becoming teetotal.

Looking at the actual number of deaths below, you can see that mortality increased sharply between 1993 and 2003 before falling by about 20 per cent. It has not followed drinking trends perfectly, however. Note that there was a relatively large number of deaths in 2016 despite per capita consumption being at a twenty year low.

The latest Sheffield predictions for Scotland predict that a 50p unit price will reduce consumption by 3.5% and will reduce the number of deaths by 58 in the first year and by 102 per annum after ten years. This is what the SNP and its allies have been fighting for all this time. This is the promised land.

But despite all the wild celebrations from the neo-temperance lobby yesterday, these projected outcomes are so trivial that they would get lost in the noise of the data. If there is a 3 or 4 per cent downturn in per capita consumption in the first year of minimum pricing, you could plausibly attribute it to minimum pricing, but (a) it could just as easily be part of the longer term decline, and (b) so what?

The aim of the policy is to reduce alcohol-related deaths, but if minimum pricing did 'save' 58 lives, it would be impossible to tell from looking at the numbers because they fluctuate by more than that on a regular basis. Between 2015 and 2016, for example, they rose by 115 for no obvious reason. Between 2011 and 2012 they fell by 167.

Regardless of whether the figures rise, fall or stay the same over the next few years, it is inevitable that a regression model will be published - probably by the monopoly providers at Sheffield University - claiming that there were fewer deaths than there would have been in the absence of the policy. Such a regression model will be politically driven rubbish, but even if someone made a serious attempt to create a regression model, it would be impossible because they would not be able to project future trends. Why? Because they don't know the reason for the recent trend.

The stark reality is that the projected impact of minimum pricing, exaggerated though it almost certainly is, amounts to a rounding error too small to be seen with the naked eye. Even if it does everything its advocates claim it will, the impact of this supposedly world-leading policy will be too small to measure. The policy of doing nothing and selling alcohol at 'pocket money prices' in the last decade seems to have been vastly more successful than the most optimistic projections of Sheffield's activist-academics. 

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Minimum pricing can now happen before Brexit

The UK Supreme Court has said that minimum pricing is legal under the ridiculous carve out that says that free trade doesn't matter if a policy is designed to protect ‘health and life’, ’public morality’, ‘public policy’ and ‘public security’ (ie. anything). The last reason to stay in the EU has disappeared.

It doesn't really matter for the UK because we're leaving but it's a shame for other EU countries. Now all we can do is see what happens. The clowns at Sheffield University have got the commission to evaluate the policy (quelle surprise) and they will obviously say that it's been a terrific success, but some serious people should be also be able to get hold of the data.

In the meantime, I've written a quick article for Spectator Health. Do have read of it.