Friday 19 February 2016


“I sense a huge disturbance in the force” said Obi-Wan Kenobe - immediately after the Empire had used the Death Star to destroy an entire planet. From the wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst health lobby cranks over the past couple of weeks you could be forgiven for thinking that something of similar consequence had happened. What could it be? Well, two things have really upset them: firstly the enactment, after a trial, of an anti-sock puppet regulation prohibiting charities from using taxpayers money, received from government, to lobby government; and secondly, the announcement that the government will not, after all, introduce a sugar tax.

Forgive me if I sound just a little smug, but the health racket has always applied something called the “scream test” to policies directed at our industry: if the policy makes Big Alcohol or Big Food scream, then it must be bad for “them” and good for “us”. There’s nothing like getting a dose of your own medicine boys!

So what has been the response to these measures? According to the Daily Telegraph campaigners have reacted with fury to reports that the government has rejected the proposal for a sugar tax of up to 20 percent, preferring instead to agreeing “voluntary measures” with industry to reduce sugar content of foods, but with the threat of a sugar tax if they don’t. Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, said: “The decision must be reversed or it will be more proof that the Government is in the thrall of the food industry and the sugar barons will have won yet again.” And he continued: “NHS chiefs know full well that the combination of child and adult obesity could topple the UK’s most cherished institution.”

No it won’t Tam! Actually both adult and child obesity rates have stabilised recently and the whole moral panic over obesity is being kept going by projections about future obesity rates which are as unlikely to materialise as the previous ones. “This could be the end for the NHS” is the perennial cry of those who want to frighten us into state control of diet, or else the national religion will fall over.

And then there is the response of Graham MacGregor, chairman and founder of Action on Sugar. He’s so miffed he’s threatening to take his ball back and go and play for another country: “We won’t stop  and if the UK don’t want to stop doing it (sic), we will go to another country like Argentina or Chile which are much better organised in terms of public health and nutrition.” Really Graham, really? General Galtieri and General Pinochet must be turning in their graves!

And what of Nanny in Residence Sarah Wollaston MP, chair of the Commons Health Select Committee? Well, she’s not happy either. She’s been locked in a battle with Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary over the sugar tax and she’s even less pleased about government ending tax-payer funding of faux charities that use the money to lobby government. She fears that this will tip the balance even more in favour of Big Food and away from public health. Well, Sarah, quite a lot of people feel that the imbalance has been in the direction of so-called “public health” for far too long and that this is a much-needed correction.

The actual phrase that will be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements reads: “The following costs are not Eligible Expenditure: Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, Government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action”. And much credit goes to the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and their director of lifestyle economics Chris Snowdon for researching and campaigning on this issue. Interestingly, those who don’t like the change are now referring to the IEA as a “neo-liberal” think-tank – conjuring-up images of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who are not on most peoples’ Christmas card list!

Of course, ‘public health’ can always point to the chief medical officer’s Revised Drinking Guidelines as a triumph can’t they? Well, no; these have been met with almost universal derision and a storm of criticism. Reportedly the Department of Health is distinctly rattled over the response to the new ‘low-risk’ guidelines and public support from ministers for Dame Sally Davies’s piece of science-denial has been conspicuous by its absence. And the “there is no safe level of drinking” mantra has quickly been followed by “there is no safe level of sun bathing” – in sunny February! And Dame Sally’s two pieces of advice: “When reaching for a glass of wine, do what I do and ask do I want this glass of wine or do I want to increase my risk of cancer?” and “Use six tea-spoons of sun cream” before going out into the sunshine. Oh dear!

All we need now is formal confirmation from the Scottish courts in a few weeks’ time that minimum pricing is dead and I shall throw a party!

Friday 5 February 2016


In my last article I wrote about “virtue signalling” – the tendency of some people to adopt modes of thought or action as a means of signalling to others how virtuous they are – regardless of whether their actions have any operative significance. The tendency to say “me too” in respect of utterly vacuous policies like sugar taxes, minimum alcohol pricing, plain packaging of cigarettes and health warnings on bottles of booze, is a way of signalling which side of the moral divide you’re on in respect of a range of apparently disparate issues which are in fact connected, in that they represent a kind of new puritanism.

Almost without exception virtue signalling is about gesture politics. It is an easy way of appearing to do something that doesn’t require too much effort. It almost always involves imposing bans, taxes or regulations. And more often than not it signifies a moral disapproval that is rooted in a kind of crude anti-capitalism. Not all of this meddling is restricted to what we eat, drink or smoke. But a lot of it is.

Which brings me to “vaping”. I’m not a smoker and never have been. I spent 23 years running licensed premises in which people were allowed to smoke tobacco and I just took it for granted. When the smoking ban was first mooted I felt then as I feel now: that it should be up to operators to decide whether to allow it or not; or whether to have a smoking room; in essence, give people a choice. But it was not to be. I don’t intend to rehearse the whole debate about smoking and second-hand smoke, but I do think that the advent of vaping has created a dilemma for the virtue signallers who walk amongst us, and the smoking debate has been resurrected in a different form.

The Welsh government is proposing to ban vaping in enclosed public spaces – to treat vapers like smokers. The ban is supposed to kick-in sometime in 2017. But health minister Mark Drakeford has recently told the Welsh Assembly’s health and social care committee that vaping would be allowed in wet-led pubs that don’t serve food, and where unaccompanied children are banned. But it appears uncertain exactly what this means. As Assembly member Darren Millar put it: “Many wet-led pubs serve pickled eggs, pork scratching and packets of crisps on the bar. Are these pubs included in the ban or not?”

What is it that gets into people and makes them feel it is necessary to get into the granular detail, the tick-and-tock of other peoples’ lives in this way? There is a division of opinion amongst the public health community with the British Medical Association, Public Health Wales and the Centre for Tobacco Control Research all favouring a ban (and not just in Wales). But Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation Wales and Action on Smoking and Health are all opposed. The reason for this division is that while most people see vaping as a means by which people can enjoy the recreational use of nicotine without inhaling the carcinogens in tobacco, others say it is a gateway to smoking, not a way of kicking the habit. Overwhelmingly the research demonstrates that it is a way of giving up, not a way of starting.

But here’s where the health and moral aspects of this issue get intertwined. Nicotine is a drug; and it is seen as a drug of addiction. So should people be encouraged to use it at all? And insofar as vaping represents a private sector solution to a public health problem - that is something that makes some in the public health racket feel very nervous indeed. So better to signal that vaping is just a less-bad way of smoking by treating vapours as smokers, but maybe with a few concessions.

What makes this kind of restriction even more of a piece of virtue signalling nonsense is that in the vast majority of pubs and bars vapours go outside with smokers in any event. Some operators insist on that as a matter of policy, and I understand why. It is difficult to explain to your customers why one way of enjoying nicotine is permitted inside, but the other requires you to leave the building. It creates control dilemmas for operators and their staff. So, why not do with vaping what we should have done with smoking – leave it to the operator to decide what their policy is in relation to vaping, and leave it to customers to decide where they want to drink.

Paul Chase