Monday 30 November 2015


The heading above is my stock response whenever anyone asks do I take sugar in my tea. I am however, a self-confessed chocaholic and I prefer proper fizzy drinks – not the anaemic ones that don’t have any sugar in them. And what is more, I don’t think that is any of Sarah Wollaston MP’s damned business. The Commons Health Select Committee that she chairs has just recommended a 10% ‘sugar tax’ on fizzy drinks, along with a number of other recommendations including product reformulation to reduce sugar content the legal mandating of reduced portion sizes is also on the agenda along with more labelling requirements.

On the BBC News site this story was presented under the heading “MPs Back Sugar Tax” – er…well, seven of the committee of nine did so – that’s just one percent of the total number of MPs in the Commons. We can take some comfort from the fact that two of the committee didn’t back this. Conservative MPs’ Andrea Jenkyns and Andrew Percy both dissented, with Jenkyns calling the proposal “patronising nonsense”. “Here, here” say I!

This whole campaign has been led by ‘Action on Sugar’ – a crackpot group of healthist zealots who see sugar as one of the ‘industries of addiction’ that need curtailing by government. In fact these people believe sugar consumption should be reduced by half – which would take us back to the levels of consumption last seen during the Second World War when sugar was rationed. This really shouldn’t surprise us. Whenever ‘safe levels’ of alcohol consumption are discussed anti-alcohol campaigners use 1952 as their starting point to show how much alcohol consumption has risen. This is because in 1952 rationing had just ended and people were pretty skint – so if that’s your comparator the increase in consumption is made to look pretty steep.

We hear a lot about austerity, but taking us back to war-time levels of consumption because it is “good for us” is a bizarre ambition. If we want to tackle obesity why pick on sugar? A gram of sugar contains just four calories; a gram of alcohol seven calories and a gram of fat nine calories. People need to eat less and exercise more – and that is sensible advice, but it should be up to you if you want to take it.

Sugar isn’t just about sweetening things – it gives food texture and acts as a natural preservative. It shouldn’t need pointing out, but it does, that a sugar tax is regressive and will disproportionately affect consumers with low incomes. In any event sin taxes rarely affect consumption by much and reduce obesity not at all. Mexico’s sugar tax reduced consumption by just six per cent and had no discernible impact on obesity. Denmark also embraced the idea of taxing its citizens into anorexia with a fat tax and a tax on soft drinks. It abandoned both.

So, with all this evidence why does Sarah Wollaston and her ever-so-cute poster boy Jamie Oliver still champion this idea? For Oliver this is just another way of raising his profile although he’s empty-headed enough to believe it will work; for Wollaston I suspect this measure is at least as important symbolically as it is instrumentally. She is desperate for a victory over Big Soda now that the virtual demise of minimum unit pricing makes a victory over Big Alcohol increasingly unlikely.

I really don’t understand what Wollaston is doing in the Conservative Party. Her ideology is state control of large swathes of industry so that ‘public health’ campaigners become the arbiters of the consumption patterns of the nation. What about free markets and choice Sarah? No doubt Big Business will be blamed if the government sticks to its policy of not introducing a sugar tax. After all, that’s what socialists do. I think you should cross the floor and join Jeremy’s party Sarah – I believe he has a nice allotment and bakes his own scones. I don’t know if he puts jam on them though!

Paul Chase

Tuesday 24 November 2015


The Licensing Act 2003 went ‘live’ at midnight on the 24th November 2005. Initially it enjoyed cross-party support and even qualified support from ACPO. The only stumbling block to its progress through Parliament was an amendment in the Lords which came to be known as the ‘Morris Dancing exemption’ – their lordships were concerned that traditional English folk dancing might be caught by the new definition of regulated entertainment – and thus Morris Dancing and the like was solemnly exempted from the regulations; everyone kept a straight face. It was in the time-lapse between the Bill passing into law and it coming into effect that we saw the development of what was arguably the most extraordinary moral panic of modern times.

The labelling of the new licensing regime by the Daily Mail as the “twenty-four hour drinking Act” was instrumental in persuading politicians, bishops, police chiefs, newspaper editors, a variety of self-appointed, socially-accredited experts and other assorted ‘right-thinking people’ that this would lead to a binge-drinking epidemic, a crime wave, and in particular an increase in rape and other assaults. And that our hospitals would be flooded with so many casualties that the new Act would “bankrupt the NHS”. Ever since this claim, a crisis isn’t a proper crisis unless it threatens to do that.

In reality we have seen crime and disorder fall, and as a sub-set of that we have seen alcohol-related crime and disorder fall. The other falls – in the overall level of drinking and in problem drinking and teeny drinking have been well documented. I don’t suggest that these improvements have happened because of the new licensing regime, but certainly they don’t support the proposition that the sky would fall in and society as we know it would crumble as a result of licensing reform. Some would argue that we haven’t seen the creation of a continental cafĂ©-bar culture either – but this was never more than a piece of New Labour spin.

In fact neither the worst fears nor the best hopes attached to this reform were realised. The lesson for politicians is that the expectation that a reform to the way in which we regulate how the retail distribution system handles a product would automatically read-across to a cultural change in terms of how consumers would use that product, was unrealistic. Regulation is only a part of the mix; drinking cultures are much more complex than was supposed.

All of that having been said, I do think that the Licensing Act 2003 has been a qualified success, despite the legislative repentance that followed as a result of the initial moral panic. It was sensible to separate the licensing of persons from the licensing of premises. It was right to enable licensing hours to be responsive to local needs and consumer demand. Getting rid of nationally prescribed ‘permitted hours’ was a welcome departure from the paternalism of the past. Although the trade was initially suspicious of moving licensing from courts to councils – and in the process discovering that they loved magistrates after all – it was broadly a positive move. If there is to be a further reform of the licensing system I would like to see licensing continue to be administered by council licensing authorities, but for contested applications to be heard in the courts with a proper judicial procedure, in the event that objections cannot be mediated away.

The Licensing Act 2003 did enable some welcome changes to the drinking culture, particularly in city centres. Under the Licensing Act 1964 the city centre night-time-economy had become a youth leisure ghetto. If you could only sell alcohol after 11 p.m. if it was ancillary to the combination of music, dancing and the availability of food, in practice this meant nightclubs and late-night bars with a loud disco. The demographic this appealed to was obvious. What is equally obvious is that we all behave better when we are in the company of people older or younger than ourselves. When the new licensing regime swept away these outdated restrictions it enabled the creation of a much more diverse night-time-economy that attracted a much wider demographic. The political and media perception of the city-centre drinking culture is still rooted in mass volume, vertical drinking establishments, but this is not the way the late-night drinking culture has evolved.

The Licensing Act 2003 did ignite a debate about alcohol and society. The nexus of that debate has now moved beyond crime and disorder and into the realm of health impacts. What is lacking in this whole debate is honest statistics. We don’t even have a nationally agreed definition of alcohol-related crime; the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions and the impact of alcohol on A&E departments have been grotesquely exaggerated by a new public health movement that sees alcohol as an “industry of addiction”. The debate about alcohol and society is more polarised than ever before. That is perhaps the worst unintended consequence of the Licensing Act 2003.

Paul Chase

Thursday 12 November 2015


Barely a day goes by without some new ‘threat’ to our health being announced by epidemiologists or others health campaigners. For these people – I call them ‘healthists’ - the meaning of life appears to be the elimination of anything enjoyable in order to achieve maximum longevity. Key to this is the elimination of ‘risk-factors’ from our diet and our lifestyles. The key technique used to frighten us all into abstinence is to concentrate on cancer risks. Here an old trick is used: take a very small baseline risk and then measure the increase to that risk that arises if you engage in ‘unhealthy’ eating or drinking. The effect of this is to give prominence and publicity to very large percentage increases in very small baseline risks.

Here are some examples of this crack-pottery that have come to light in the past two weeks:

Firstly, inevitably, alcohol. The ‘lower risk’ drinking guidelines are now being examined by the Department of Health with a view to reducing them. The reason given by the DoH is that there is “no safe level of consumption in respect of the epidemiological risk of developing cancers”, and “the cancer risks of drinking is a game-changer.” It is of course accepted that excessive consumption of alcohol is causally related to a number of cancers, but the risk is dose-related.

So, taking oral cancers as an example, what is the overall risk caused by drinking alcohol? According to Cancer Research UK there were some 7,300 oral cancers diagnosed in the UK in 2012. Of these tobacco smoking was identified as the cause in 65% of cases. Alcohol consumption accounted for 30% of these – some 2,190 cases. 30 million adults in the UK drink at least once a week. Of those 30 million, 2,190 of them develop an alcohol-related oral cancer; that’s 0.007% of regular drinkers! And remember, these figures include very heavy drinkers as well as moderate and light drinkers – so should we panic and abstain? Well, about 30% of alcohol-related oral cancer sufferers do die from this condition. So, around 657 deaths out of 30 million drinkers – 0.021%.

Every such death is a tragedy, but the actuarial risk is minute. The proposition that anything that raises the epidemiological risk of a cancer ‘isn’t safe’ is therefore somewhat problematic. In everyday life people make trade-offs. They don’t ask “is this product or behaviour safe?” they ask “is it safe enough?” We do this all the time and not just in relation to food and drink. We don’t ask is driving a motor vehicle safe; we ask is it safe enough. In other words, do the benefits of driving justify me in taking the risks? When we are told that tobacco smoking results in the premature death of half of all smokers that may well deter people from starting, or persuade existing smokers to quit. But if you were told that 0.021% of regular drinkers die from an oral cancer, would that put you off? It is this kind of epidemiological paranoia that leads healthists to call for abstinence and any lowering of the lower risk drinking guidelines is but a staging post on that journey.

In addition to the cancer risks of alcohol we’re had some real healthist gems in the past fortnight:

·         The official advice of the European Food Safety Authority is as follows: when you make a piece of toast only toast it golden brown, don’t burn it or you will ingest acrylamides which are carcinogenic. Acrylamides are contained in crisps, savoury snacks, soft and crispy breads, biscuits, cakes, crackers, cereals and coffee. Or anything nice.
·         Fry your foods in butter or lard because frying them in vegetable oil raises your risk of cancer.
·         Less than one sausage a day increases your cancer risk. And be sure not to cook your Sunday roasties too dark and crispy because they contain acrylamides too!
·         Eating a steak once a week rectal cancers by more than two fifths.
·         Less than one sausage a day raises your risk factor for cancer.

But my favourite was cheese addiction. Cheese contains casein – a protein which becomes super concentrated in the cheese making process and forms morphine-like compounds. These then bind with the opioid receptors in your brain making cheese as addictive as morphine. Pizza restaurant chains are nothing more than drug dealers who rely on addiction for repeat business! Dr. Neal Barnard, founder and president of the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine, describes cheese as “dairy crack”.

And then we come to energy drinks.  Doctors warn that just one energy drink a day raises the risk for heart disease even amongst young healthy adults. This is a veiled attack on caffeine, which is of course contained in coffee. I was wondering when coffee drinking was going to be attacked by healthists. Anything that is successful raises their ire. My tip is that the epidemiological risks of caffeine consumption will be the next ‘big thing’ to occupy their small minds.

Paul Chase