Friday
Nov172017

Claire Fox targets public health in “rollicking speech”

It's been a busy week.

Unfortunately there was a clash of events and I couldn't attend both the Golden Nanny Awards in Dublin and the latest Forest event in Brussels.

I therefore missed what Politico Europe described as a "rollicking speech" by Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, founder of the Battle of Ideas, a regular panelist on Radio 4's Moral Maze and author of I Find That Offensive!.

According to Politico, Claire delivered an "excoriation of public health devotees". Defending "the adult joys of smoking against the nanny state", she finished her talk with the provocative claim that "Anyone who has ever told you they're addicted to smoking is lying."

Her talk, at a restaurant close to the European Parliament, attracted a full house including European Commission and European Parliament staff plus journalists, NGOs and trade associations.

The format of these events includes a free burger (and several beers) in a private extension that opens on to a dedicated smoking area. As you can see below, it's proving very popular.

The next 'Burning Issues' event takes place in Brussels on Thursday December 7 and features another great speaker – Sinclair Davidson, professor of institutional economics, finance and marketing at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, and academic fellow at the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance – who will discuss 'How to torture data to justify public policy’.

Given the proximity to Christmas there will also be free mulled wine. I definitely won't miss that – come and join us!

Thursday
Nov162017

Charm offensive

Further to my previous post the Irish Daily Star published this report about Forest's Golden Nanny Awards:

A top politician has been named Ireland's "nanny in chief" for her zealous campaigns to save the nation from itself.

Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone received the tongue-in-cheek accolade at a ceremony on Monday.

It was to honour her committed campaign to highlight the dangers of cheap booze, cigarette packaging, fast food outlets, cut-price chocolates biscuits, mixed martial arts and even ice cream van jingles.

The 41-year-old turned up to accept the gong at a dinner organised by a smokers' rights group where she was the guest of honour.

The rest of the article was based largely on our press release, Senator wins 'nanny-in-chief' award.

Several people – here and on Facebook – have queried why Noone would want to accept such an accolade, even a tongue-in-cheek one. One described her as "arrogant" for even showing up.

I don't agree at all. Far from being arrogant or calculating her response to our invitation was refreshingly artless:

"Thanks for your email. Didn't know this was a thing. Where is it on? Is it black tie? I'll see what I can do. Think it'd be a bit of craic to be honest – I'm not afraid!"

The worst that can be said is that it was a shrewd move by an intelligent politician. By turning up and entering into the spirit of the occasion she charmed everyone, including some of her fiercest critics. By the end of the evening they were queuing up to have their photo taken with her.

At the Forest table there was a particularly amusing moment when she suddenly realised that the man she was talking to was one of her bêtes noires, journalist Ian O'Doherty.

"Oh, it's you!" she exclaimed. To the rest of us she wailed, "He hates me!"

That may have been the case before but it's not true now. A professional curmudgeon, O'Doherty subsequently began his own speech by proposing a toast to Noone for having the balls to turn up.

He wasn't alone. Similar comments were posted by others on Twitter and Facebook.

A smidgeon of charm goes a very long way and I'm amazed so few people in the public health industry use it to their advantage. The truth, I suspect, is that most public health campaigners are self-righteous bores who don't have an ounce of charm in their bodies.

There are exceptions, of course. Linda Bauld, of Stirling University and Cancer Research fame, is one of them and I must confess that having been met with a smile rather than a sullen scowl I do find it harder to be as critical of her as I once was. (And I know others who feel the same way.)

It's human nature, I suppose. You can still disagree but if you like someone it's more difficult to put the boot in, metaphorically speaking. Thankfully it's not a problem I have with most tobacco control activists, the majority of whom make little or no attempt to engage or be friendly on any level.

Catherine Noone understands this, I'm sure, but I don't think her appearance at the Golden Nanny Awards was driven by any ulterior motive. I think she genuinely thought it might be a bit of laugh and her subsequent tweets, including the one below, suggest a sense of humour that should be welcomed not used as stick to beat her with.

Meanwhile, what did Forest and the groups supporting the event get out of it? Rob Duffy (Students for Liberty) hit the nail on the head when he tweeted a picture of himself and Noone and wrote, 'Myself and the great sport @senatornoone at The Golden Nannies award ceremony last night. Let's build bridges!'

Belittling, insulting and attacking the opposition will get you only so far. More often than not the animosity it generates will entrench people's positions to the point of no return.

Long-term it's important to build bridges and engage. On Monday night the Golden Nanny Awards did precisely that.

Tuesday
Nov142017

Libertarians, contrarians, barbarians ... the Golden Nanny Awards 2017

Congratulations to Catherine Noone.

The deputy leader of the Seanad (the Upper House of the Irish Parliament) was awarded star prize at the inaugural Golden Nanny Awards in Dublin last night.

Better still, while other nominees failed to respond to our invitation to attend, Noone not only replied but turned up in person to collect her trophy (above).

The Times (Ireland edition) has a report here – Senator wins award as head of Ireland’s ‘nanny state’.

'The Nannies' were part of a 'Farewell to Freedom' dinner hosted by Forest with the support of the Hibernia Forum think tank, Students for Liberty Ireland, Consumer Choice Centre and the Dublin Salon debating group.

It was first time we'd attempted anything like this in Ireland. The venue was important because we wanted to mimic the annual Freedom Dinner in London, albeit on a smaller scale.

A cosy smoking terrace was essential and there aren't many of those around. Suesey Street, the restaurant we hired, has one of the best smoking areas I've seen either side of the Irish Sea.

I won't go into detail but it's fabulous. Last night, despite the rain, it was warm, dry and perfect for a drinks reception prior to dinner.

Sixty guests had registered (56 turned up) so the restaurant was pretty full. Hibernia Forum brought 17 guests, Students for Liberty ten.

As well as Catherine Noone, the Forest table included The Times' reporter Catherine Sanz, Irish Independent columnist Ian O'Doherty and Forest Ireland's John Mallon.

Welcoming us to Suesey Street, general manager John Healy was an excellent host.

Apart from Noone it turned out his was the most familiar face in the room owing to his long-running role as maitre d’ on TV3’s The Restaurant in which "six celebrity chefs take on the critics".

I acted as MC and rather like the Oscars I ended up getting slightly confused. One envelope containing the nominees and winner of the Golden Nanny Lifetime Achievement Award went missing so we quietly dropped that award, although we still announced it in the press release.

Before the awards Keith Redmond, co-founder of Hibernia Forum, gave a short speech. He also presented Catherine Noone with her award and the funny thing was he had written a fairly scathing citation oblivious of the fact that she was going to be there in person. He only found out when he arrived.

The good news is, even though she was sitting only a few feet away, he didn't tone it down. She in turn responded admirably, beginning her acceptance speech with the words, "Libertarians, contrarians, barbarians, thank you."

She later tweeted, "Proud recipient of the Golden Nanny Award 2017 – proud moment."

The awards concluded with some pithy words (and gags) from Ian O'Doherty, columnist for the Irish Independent and the Irish Daily Star, and then it was back to the smoking terrace for another drink or two.

I left shortly after midnight and I wasn't the last to leave.

Thanks to the following for their help in making this event happen: Eamon Delaney and Keith Redmond (Hibernia Forum), Rob Duffy and Beatriz Giethner (Students for Liberty) and Justin Smyth (Dublin Salon).

Hats off too to Luca Bertolleti, European affairs manager at Consumer Choice Center, who flew in from Brussels and flew back on a 6.30am flight this morning.

And let's not forget law student Eimhear Macfarlane (national coordinator for Students for Liberty in Northern Ireland) who had to catch a late night coach to Belfast in order not to miss an early morning lecture.

Thanks to Eimhear, Luca and everyone else who supported the 'Farewell to Freedom' dinner. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.

See also Senator wins 'nanny-in-chief' award (Forest).

Monday
Nov062017

Tax and tobacco

The Autumn Budget is only two weeks away.

As you probably know the Chancellor has switched the Budget from spring to autumn. It means therefore that taxes on tobacco could rise twice this year.

A couple of weeks ago we published a short document that highlighted the way increases in tobacco duty discriminate unfairly against households on low incomes. (It's not rocket science but it still needs to be pointed out.)

This morning we published the results of a poll conducted last week on another Budget-inspired theme:

The survey, conducted by Populus for Forest, found that 76 per cent of adults think the current level of tax – over 80 per cent on an average packet of cigarettes in the UK – is either about right (44 per cent) or too high (32 per cent). Only 24 per cent (one in four) think it's too low.

A huge majority – 68 per cent – also said that buying illicit tobacco was an "understandable" response to the soaring cost of tobacco purchased legally. Only 22 per cent found it "not understandable".

Simon Clark, director of Forest, said: "Tobacco duty in the UK is exceptionally high compared to most other EU countries.

"Another tax hike will discriminate against the less well off and those who are just about managing.

"It will also encourage more smokers to buy tobacco on the black market because there isn't the stigma associated with other illicit transactions.

"We urge the Chancellor to give smokers a break, take public opinion into account and freeze tobacco duty at the current levels."

In a more pragmatic, less censorious world the government would reduce tobacco duty to a fairer level but it's unrealistic to think the Chancellor will succumb to common sense, hence our call for a tax freeze.

See Tobacco tax: give smokers a break, says Forest.

Inevitably the tobacco control industry takes a very different view and is calling for further tax hikes, but what really sticks in the throat are the crocodile tears concerning their position on illegal tobacco.

Take Fresh (formerly Smokefree North East). According to their website:

Illegal tobacco has helped over half of underage smokers in the North East get hooked on smoking, a new survey released today suggests.

55% of children aged 14 and 15 who smoke say they buy illegal tobacco from sources like "tab houses" and shops - while 73% say they have been offered illegal tobacco.

The figures, from the 2017 North East Illegal Tobacco Survey, are released as Fresh launches the new 'Keep It Out' campaign aimed at helping the public to spot illegal tobacco, report it and to encourage smokers not to buy it.

How hypocritical is that? If it wasn't for punitive taxation on tobacco, a policy Fresh supports, there wouldn't be a thriving black market in tobacco and there would be far less risk of children getting their hands on cigarettes.

But the group isn't content an increase in tobacco duty alone:

Fresh is calling on the Government to introduce a licensing system for tobacco manufacturers and retailers to provide funding for improved enforcement and other measures to reduce smoking prevalence. The measure would be popular in the North East with 76% of adults strongly in favour of businesses needing a valid licence to sell tobacco.

Aside from the fact that the cost of a licensing system would almost certainly be passed on to the consumer (forcing more smokers further into poverty or towards the black market), what could Fresh possibly mean by "other measures"?

My guess is that "other measures" include more funding for parasitic groups like Fresh because that's the Kafkaesque world we live in.

More funding means more campaigns like 'Keep It Out' in which a tobacco control group 'helps' the public "to spot illegal tobacco, report it and encourage smokers not to buy it" while lobbing government to increase taxes that inevitably push consumers towards the black market.

Wilfully ignorant or in denial about the irony of their position, Fresh declares:

As well as helping children to start smoking, people supplying illegal tobacco are often involved in drugs or loan sharking. Buying it means supporting crime and can bring children into contact with criminals.

For crying out loud! Punitive taxation drives illicit trade. How hard is that to understand? If there's a single group that's supporting crime and bringing children into contact with criminals it's tobacco control campaigners and their counter-productive policy on tax.

See Illegal tobacco bought by more than half of teenage smokers (Fresh).

Saturday
Nov042017

Farewell to Freedom Dinner fully booked

Delighted to report that Forest's Farewell to Freedom Dinner in Dublin on November 13 is fully booked.

Organised with the support of Hibernia Forum, a classical liberal think tank, Dublin Salon, Students for Liberty Ireland and Consumer Choice Centre, the evening features our first Golden Nanny Awards.

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, health minister Simon Harris, and former health promotion minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy are all shortlisted for services to the nanny state.

ASH Ireland and Alcohol Action Ireland, a government-funded 'charity', have also been nominated.

A smaller version of our Freedom Dinner in London, the event will start with a drinks reception on a smoking terrace that has its own fireplace. This will be followed by a three-course dinner in the adjacent restaurant.

In addition to the awards guest speakers are Keith Redmond, forthright libertarian and co-founder of Hibernia Forum, and Ian O'Doherty, a famously outspoken columnist for the Irish Independent and Irish Daily Star.

Can’t wait!

Friday
Nov032017

Public Health England? They're having a laugh (at our expense)

Further to my previous post I've now read the long-awaited Stoptober 2016 campaign evaluation.

It didn't take long. If you exclude the cover, credits and contents, it amounts to just four pages.

God knows I appreciate brevity, but four pages?!!

Two of the four are devoted to 'Background', one and a half are described as an 'Overview', and there's a short three-paragraph 'Summary'.

And, er, that's it.

So what does the evaluation, which I first enquired about twelve months ago, tell us about Stoptober 2016? Very little, as it happens, apart from one startling admission:

Our modelling estimates that total incremental campaign driven quit attempts were 124,500 versus 385,000 in the previous year [2015] ...

In other words, the estimated number of smokers driven to attempt to quit as a result of Stoptober 2016 was a third of the number in 2015. And there is of course no evidence that they succeeded in quitting.

However, even the estimated figure is odd because I wasn't aware of any 'modelling' for Stoptober 2015. What we were told – by Public Health England in a press release issued on October 30, 2015 – is that 'over 215,000 smokers signed up to this year’s Stoptober'.

No mention there of 385,000 'campaign driven quit attempts' in 2015 so why include the figure in the 2016 evaluation?

More notable perhaps was the fact that in the press release that followed the conclusion of Stoptober 2015 Public Health England chose to ignore the fact that the number of smokers who signed up that year was 15 per cent lower than in 2014.

Few people would have been any the wiser had it not been for journalist Peter Russell who wrote an online report ('Fewer people joined Stoptober smoking challenge') that I linked to here.

Curiously, you may think, that article is no longer available on the website although Peter Russell continues to write for it.

Anyway, back to the Stoptober 2016 campaign evaluation. Confusingly:

Reported quit attempts were maintained at 2015 levels with 16% of all smokers reporting the key action of a Stoptober quit attempt.

Eh? One minute they're saying "campaign driven quit attempts were 124,500 [in 2016] versus 385,000 in the previous year", the next they're saying "reported quit attempts were maintained at 2015 levels". Which is it?

Leaving this aside, if there's a dominant theme in the report it's funding, or lack of. Frankly the four-page 'evaluation' is little more than a prolonged whinge about the budget and a plea for more money in 2017:

In 2016, competing priorities led to a significant budget reduction for Stoptober. Most notably, media spend was reduced from £3.1 million in 2015 to £390,000 in 2016 (an 87% reduction).

Given the lower budget, the strategic approach to delivering the campaign needed to evolve considerably.

Given the scale of the budget reduction in 2016, the Stoptober campaign performed well.

While the budget for PR declined by 20%, coverage remained very strong.

While the key campaign metrics (such as brand awareness and visibility) have been positive relative to the reduced budget, Stoptober was delivered at a smaller scale with lower absolute levels of visibility and awareness.

If future investment is maintained at 2016 levels the long-term health of the brand and participation can be expected to erode.

Hilariously it's no longer about the health of the nation. It's all about the 'health of the brand'!

In conclusion the evaluation declares:

Stoptober 2016 was successful in driving campaign cost efficiency, but this was done at the cost of reduced overall scale. Our modelling estimates that total incremental campaign driven quit attempts were 124,500 versus 385,000 in the previous year, but that three-year return on investment was £4.22 versus £3.42 in the previous year.

The campaign in 2016 has benefited greatly from four years of previous sustained investment. Without this it is likely that brand awareness and other key metrics in 2016 would have been lower.

The results suggest that Stoptober 2017 will start from a lower base of awareness, meaning that, without greater investment in 2017, Stoptober is likely to shrink further and more rapidly.

Incredibly this wafer-thin evaluation took a whole year to enter the public domain, and only after regular cajoling by Forest. Would they have published it without our persistence? I suspect not.

Clearly however there has been plenty of lobbying behind the scenes because, as we now know (thanks to another Forest FOI request), Stoptober 2017 was given a substantially increased budget with media spend rising from £390,000 in 2016 to £1.08 million in 2017.

Whether it was spent wisely and what the results were we'll have to wait and see. If the 2016 report is any guide, expect the Stoptober 2017 campaign evaluation to be published at the back end of October 2018.

But whether the media spend budget is £390,000 (2016), £1.08m (2017) or £3.1m (2015), it's taxpayers' money and I see very little in this report to justify the use of any public money on a glorified PR campaign whose 'success' seems to be judged less on actual quit smoking attempts and more on media profile.

As for Stoptober 2017 embracing e-cigarettes, am I the only person to be rather cynical about this belated move?

While it's true that Public Health England has been an advocate of e-cigarettes as a quit smoking tool for a couple of years now, I suspect the real reason Stoptober 2017 jumped on the vaping bandwagon is because it will allow the campaign to claim credit for the general reduction in smoking rates, especially if smoking cessation continues to be driven not by Stoptober support tools but by smokers switching to e-cigarettes (ie non-Stoptober support tools).

It certainly wouldn't be the first anti-smoking initiative to claim credit for quit smoking attempts that are largely unrelated to the campaign in question.

Anyway, I think I've dredged as much as I can from this. If I'm finding it boring I can't imagine what it's like for you. If you've read this far, well done!

Tuesday
Oct312017

At last! The Stoptober 2016 campaign evaluation report

Rightly, Public Health England has come in for a heap of criticism over the last 48 hours.

It follows a report in the Sunday Times ('Cut in drink limit ignored advice') which is behind a paywall but Chris Snowdon – who was responsible for the FOI request that led to it – has the full story here.

The headline ('The new drinking guidelines are based on massaged evidence') gives you a flavour but the article goes into enormous detail and it's worth reading in full. For those who have neither the time nor the inclination it concludes:

The more that we learn about the process that generated the new guidelines, the more questions are raised about Public Health England. Far from being an honest broker in this story, the agency seems to have acted more like an activist group working towards a particular conclusion. Its relationship with the anti-drink lobby, which extends to holding its Alcohol Leadership Board meetings at the offices of a temperance group, is worryingly cosy for a state agency. Its decision to appoint leading anti-alcohol campaigners such as Ian Gilmore and Katherine Brown (both of the Alcohol Health Alliance) to the guidelines committee shows that it has become politicised.

This bias was on display again at the start of this year when Public Health England published an error-strewn policy document which it released it to the media with a headline claim that was so incorrect that it had to be retracted. That report was put together by the same familiar faces who dominated the guidelines review process. The revision of those guidelines may seem a relatively minor achievement for the anti-drink lobby. You can ignore them, after all. But, as the minutes of one GDG meeting say, it is ‘important to bear in mind that, while guidelines might have limited influence on behaviour, they could be influential as a basis for Government policies’. That is why the guidelines are important and, I would suggest, it is why Public Health England went to such lengths to change them.

Less important, perhaps, but equally revealing is Public Health England's cavalier approach to Stoptober, the annual taxpayer-funded anti-smoking campaign.

As readers know I've been chasing this taxpayer-funded quango for almost a year to get the Stoptober 2016 evaluation report. The reason I think it's important is simple.

Shortly after Stoptober 2015 concluded it was revealed that the number of smokers who registered for the quit smoking campaign that year was down 15 per cent on 2014.

I was keen therefore to find out how many smokers had registered for Stoptober 2016. Part of the response I got from Public Health England on November 18, 2016, read:

The strategy for Stoptober 2016 was to focus on overall participation rather than sign ups to PHE tools. As such, the evaluation will focus on quits at a population level. It is expected that all strands of the evaluation will be finalised early February.

In other words, with Stoptober quit smoking attempts in apparent freefall (my interpretation), Public Health England moved the goalposts and decided Stoptober should take credit for the general fall in the official smoking rates, a decline that was due in no small measure to smokers switching to e-cigarettes (a product Stoptober only endorsed this year).

Anyway, as I have explained previously, February came and went with no sign of an evaluation report. Despite this Public Health England went ahead and quietly increased the budget from £390,000 to £1.08 million.

In August I submitted a further FOI request and was told, a few weeks later, that the evaluation document would be published “during Stoptober 2017”.

On October 16, halfway through this year's campaign, I enquired again and was told the document would be uploaded “in the next two weeks”.

As of this morning there was still no sign of it on the PHE page of the government website (I'd been looking for it every day since October 16) so I sent yet another email:

Now that Stoptober 2017 is finished and a fortnight has elapsed since the Stoptober team confirmed that the Stoptober 2016 evaluation was complete and would be uploaded on to the PHE website “in the next two weeks”, I still can’t find it. Can you send a link or send me a copy or, if it is still not available, ask the team to explain why?

This afternoon I received this reply:

Thank you for your email. The Evaluation was published on the gov.uk website on 26 October 2017.

Thankfully I was also sent a link to this page – Stoptober 2016 campaign evaluation – because I would have struggled to find it otherwise.

That's because there is no reference to it on the PHE page on the gov.uk website. To find it you have to click on a link that says 'See all our publications' and you won't find it immediately because it's buried in a long list of publications and is only visible when you click 'Next' which takes you to yet another page.

To be fair you could key 'Stoptober 2016' into the search engine but you have to be hunting for it. Idle browsers are very unlikely to stumble upon it. The fact that Public Health England waited until almost the end of this year's campaign before publishing the 2016 evaluation also speaks volumes.

Anyway, having finally got my hands on a copy of the four-page (!) report Stoptober 2016 campaign evaluation I suppose I ought to read it. Watch this space.

PS. Don't hold your breath for the Stoptober 2017 campaign evaluation. After all, why would government prioritise a review of the use of public money on such a noble cause?

Monday
Oct302017

Pets mean prizes for far-sighted tobacco control campaigners

Yesterday, on the back of a poll commissioned by Forest, I wrote about smoking in the home. 

I also highlighted the fact that since talk of banning smoking at home had come up in Scotland a couple of weeks ago ASH Scotland had desperately tried to backpedal (see Why ASH Scotland does not support a ban on smoking in the home).

Forget the fake protestations, I suggested. The idea that this is not a long-term ambition of the tobacco control industry is beyond belief. And today comes further evidence of how they intend to achieve it.

BBC Breakfast and Five Live Breakfast both featured reports highlighting the fact that, for the first time, veterinary groups and the Royal College of Nursing are working together to raise awareness about the alleged damage second-hand smoke can do to pets.

The initative follows research carried out by the University of Glasgow that "found that dogs, cats and small animals such as guinea pigs and birds are just as much at risk from secondhand smoke as people."

The BBC, needless to say, promoted all this without (to the best of my knowledge) a word of opposition. In fact the video they posted online early this morning was little more than a party political broadcast for the Tobacco Control Party.

A few hours later BBC News posted a written report online (Second-hand smoke linked to pet deaths and illnesses, experts say). This time it featured the video and a couple of comments including a quote from me.

You can read our full response here (Pets being used as a "weapon" in the war on smoking, says Forest) but the bigger picture is this.

Most tobacco control campaigners know that legislation to ban smoking at home crosses a line and so they distance themselves from it.

Does that mean a smoker's home is his castle? Far from it. A de facto ban on smoking at home is still very much on the table and this is now the tobacco control industry intends to achieve it:

One, encourage neighbours to complain about 'smoke drift' from one property to another.

Two, encourage councils and local housing associations to restrict and then ban smoking in social housing (including stairwells and other spaces).

Three, guilt trip parents until they stop smoking anywhere children are present.

Four, guilt trip pet owners until they quit smoking in homes with any domestic animal.

You see, no legislation required – well, not until a handful of renegades are left lighting up and the only way to stop it is to threaten them with fines and other penalties including eviction or their children being taken into care.

Tobacco control activists will deny it but their goal couldn't be clearer. Today the BBC was a willing pawn in propaganda war on smoking.

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