Sunday, 28 June 2015

"The days of the traditional cigarette are numbered" - but only if we let vaping succeed


The e-cig - vaping - is a game changer. Here's the the senior tobacco analyst at Euromonitor:

“Up until now there has been no direct competition for cigarettes in a meaningful sense, and nicotine replacement therapies were certainly not providing that,” said Mr MacGuill. “The days of the traditional cigarette are numbered – the only question is how long that process will take – and e-cigarettes have the potential to drastically shorten the shelf life of traditional tobacco products.”

See that statement - the end of the cigarette is coming and not because of traditional tobacco control and prohibition tactics but because someone's created an effective, safe and pleasant way to get a hit of nicotine.

And it's no surprise that those whose livelihoods depend on the cigarette - the public health industry, academics in assorted centres for tobacco research as such like, plus Big Tobacco itself - are bothered. Vaping has pushed aside the ineffective (and unpleasant - I speak from experience here) nicotine replacement products like gum, spray and patches.

Let's hope that those dumb politicians don't let the pharmaceutical industry and its lackeys - keen to protect their lucrative market - don't prevent vaping achieving what it promises: the death of the cigarette.

At what point does smuggling negate the health gain from tobacco duty rises?

Until just a few years ago the words 'illegal tobacco' seldom, if ever appeared in the press and media. It's not that the smuggling of tobacco didn't take place (how many folk brought home from overseas a couple of hundred fags for Uncle George or Grandma) or even that there weren't sufficient examples to make police, trading standards and customs keen on sending out press releases when arrests were made.

Now is different. The 'illegal cigarettes' story is a mainstay of the local press (maybe only topped by cannabis factories and 'nuisance' motorcycles) and a regular item on the agenda of local councils:

During the past month, officers from trading standards gathered almost 100,000 cigarettes and 37kg of hand-rolling tobacco, worth more than £40,000, from retailers in operations that also targeted premises in Leeds, Kirklees and Wakefield.

The seizures included counterfeit, non-duty paid and incorrectly-labelled cigarettes and tobacco. Since April 2014, West Yorkshire Trading Standards has seized almost 700,000 cigarettes and 300kg of hand-rolling tobacco.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council officers have seized 14,000 counterfeit cigarettes and 5kg of hand-rolling tobacco in a joint operation with Staffordshire Police.

The operation focused on the sale of illicit tobacco at nine premises in Hanley, Tunstall and Cobridge.

A BRADFORD shopkeeper has been prosecuted for a second time for selling illegal cigarettes and counterfeit tobacco.

Hemen Ahmed Hussain, of Chislehurst Place, Little Horton, was given a 150-hour community order by magistrates for possessing 2,500 cigarettes and 3.2kg of hand-rolling tobacco with an intent to supply.

The goods were seized by officers from West Yorkshire Trading Standards (WYTS) following a visit to Baz's off-licence in Southfield Lane, Little Horton, in September last year.

A Salford couple have been jailed after smuggling 25 tonnes of fake tobacco in a fraud costing the taxpayer almost £4m.

Feng Gao and his partner Mingshu Yang shipped boxloads of illicit hand rolling tobacco into the country.

The criminal duo, of St Heliers Drive, Salford, concealed the illegal tobacco in false soles and shelves as they shipped shoes and furniture to the North West.

The reason for this explosion in illicit tobacco sales is pretty simple - in the UK up to 88% of the recommended retail price for cigarettes is tax. And this means that avoiding paying this duty is a very profitable business. A year or so ago the Daily Mirror published a list of Britain's top twenty tax dodgers - nine of this were wanted for smuggling cigarettes, a fact that tells us just how profitable the dodging of cigarette duty is these days. And with each price escalation the more attractive smuggling gets as a business proposition for the unscrupulous, corrupt and criminal.

As it stands (and it rather depends where you look for data - the tobacco companies have higher estimates than HMRC which has higher guesses than the tobacco control industry) smuggled tobacco represents somewhere between 10% and 20% of total UK consumption. I'm going to plump for the figures used by LACORS (Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services) who put the figure at 17%. And local government recognises that the smuggling problem is significant:

Increased smuggling leads to the wide availability of cheap cigarettes to the poorest people thereby maintaining high smoking rates among disadvantaged groups; and contributing significantly to widening health inequalities

The question here is whether the regulatory and enforcement agencies - police, trading standards, customs - are able to keep on top of a growing problem. And whether the duty escalator, for all its good intentions, is now having the unintended outcome of promoting criminality while, in effect, reducing the price of tobacco in our poorest communities. Moreover, the unregulated distribution of tobacco means that it sits in the same car boot or dingy flat as illegal drugs and counterfeit booze.

There has to come a point at which the gain from increasing the price is lost - it becomes so prohibitive that most people turn to illegal and smuggled product. And if this happens then the use of price as a tobacco control tool is broken. Indeed for deprived communities this is perhaps already the case meaning that, for the poorest smokers the high price is de facto a ban so they turn to illegal supply. And if the supply of illegal drugs is any sort of guide then the steady trickle of press releases from local agencies about illegal tobacco stands to become a flood as those agencies replace shouting about small victories while knowing that they are losing the battle against the smuggler and street distributor.


Saturday, 27 June 2015

Roads are much more important than railways - public investment should reflect this fact. It doesn't.

A bit of Britain's most important transport network
No matter how desperate the banana republic, the international airport is always a shimmering palace of perfume and croissants. It is only when you get out onto the dirt roads that you realise where you are.

The government seems determined to take the same approach to our own transport system: all the money gets sucked into vanity projects while transport used by the rest of us remains creaking.

And the biggest vanity project of all is Britain's rail network. The truth of the matter is that most of the public seldom if ever use a train - they are expensive compared to buses, inconvenient and crowded. But more to the point we prefer - and will continue preferring - to use the car. Just 2.4 million people - overwhelmingly in London - commute to work by train or tram. This is just over 9% of commuter journeys and compares to the two-thirds of journeys to work on the roads (by car, bus or motor cycle - adding in walking and cycling gets us to eight out of ten commuter journeys on the roads). Nearly half the population (45% in 2009/10) simply didn't use a train at all for any reason.

Yet whenever we talk about transport investment, we talk about trains. Billions is promised for new railways like HS2, for ever shinier stations, and for the polishing of existing (and admittedly creaky) networks. The need for rail investment is always hogging the headlines while the scandal that is our underinvestment in looking after the network of roads and pavements that carries 90% of journeys barely gets a mention. In 2012 the government invested £7.5 billion in the road network split roughly 50/50 between the strategic network and local roads. This compares to around £13 billion spent on railways (split between subsidising fares to the tune of £3.8 billion and the rail investment programme).

So Ross Clark is right, government in the UK is starving the everyday transport network - our roads - of funding while promising ever shinier new rail infrastructure (best part of £20 million on a new entrance into Leeds station being a fine example). Here in Bradford we need around £11 million a year to sustain our road network but are only spending about £6 million each year. With the result that the standard of the roads deteriorates year on year - the government responds by bunging one off funding for fixing potholes at councils when what is really needed is an adequate capital budget that would allow the proper maintenance of the road over a 25 year cycle.

The problem is that building grand railway schemes is popular with rail users. And rail users are mostly in London where the decision-making is done:

In 2009/10, 59 per cent of all rail journeys started or finished in London. The South East and the East of England were the regions with the next highest number of journeys but 65 per cent of journeys in the South East and 75 per cent in the East of England were to or from London.

And those train users - even in London - are more likely to be in their twenties or thirties and more likely to be in well-paid professional employment. The profile of rail users doesn't reflect the national demographic profile but the very different profile of London commuters (and higher income London commuters at that).

So we have a transport system that provides just 2% of journeys, costs the taxpayer over £13 billion a year, has incredibly low levels of customer satisfaction, is unreliable and still requires some other form of transport for people to complete their journey. How exactly is this the transport system of the 21st century? And why does it suck up so much of the attention (and investment) while the much more important road system isn't provided with the cash to even maintain it to a safe standard let alone improve it?

People working in the voluntary sector still don't get 'Big Society'


I’ve lost count of the number of government initiatives and funding regimes that I’ve seen during my time in the voluntary sector.

And that's it really. The reason why the idea of a 'Big Society' isn't understood by those who earn their living working in the voluntary sector. For them - and this is borne out by any conversation with any of them - it's all about 'government initiatives and funding regimes'. I know they'll talk the talk about citizen engagement and 'helping people to help themselves' but their daily effort is more often directed to those 'funding regimes' and 'government initiatives' (and to moaning about how they aren't big enough or specific enough or properly targeted).

'Big Society' isn't about those funding regimes. It's about real voluntary action, about people doing things because they love the place they live and want to make it a better place. Or people helping poor people because they think those people merit help. And the involvement ranges from baking a cake for a fundraisers right through to running - entirely voluntarily - big organisations. At no point is it about getting a wage, recovering expenses, let alone having a career. The voluntary sector professional simply cannot get his or her head around the idea that someone might just do it because they want to do it - without payment, without needing their 'professional' input.

Now these voluntary sector professionals (metaphorically sucking their teeth) will then - in that uniquely patronising manner of such folk - explain that all this is fine in a place like Cullingworth, filled as it is with all that lovely social capital. But out there in those deprived areas (so often celebrated by people - I still inwardly cringe remembering the former leader of Bradford Council who wallowed in "I represent one of the 100 most deprived wards in the country" as if this was a good thing) there isn't any of this social capital so those voluntary sector professionals have to go in there and help. Give the community a great big cuddly hug and tell them it will all be alright once the right 'funding regimes' and 'government initiatives' are identified.

'Big Society' isn't about programmes or grand schemes, it's not about offices filled with paid workers (although all of these can and do play their part). It's about the bloke who, instead of moaning to all and sundry about the trough that isn't planted up, blags some compost and a few bedding plants and does it himself. Or the woman who pops in to see if the old lady next door wants a lift into town to do some shopping. A thousand different, small and simple acts of caring make up the big society. Some of them end up growing into fantastic nationally-significant voluntary efforts but most remain as simple and easy acts of kindness done just because it's the right thing to do.

It's this initiative - the real voluntary sector - that makes up the 'Big Society' which is why those making a career out of those 'funding regimes' and 'government initiatives' are blind to the idea. If people did those simple things - had permission to care - then a lot of the stuff the 'voluntary sector' employs people to do wouldn't be needed. And, rather than paid professionals using volunteers we'd have volunteers making use of paid professionals.


Thursday, 25 June 2015

Quote of the day - from ASH on vaping and renormalising smoking


This just about sums up the evidence on vaping and renormalising smoking - the biggest stick used to beat up on vapers:

"There are people in the public health community who are obsessed by e-cigarettes. This idea that it renormalizes smoking is absolute bullshit. There is no evidence so far that it is a gateway into smoking for young people."

And this quote isn't from a pro-vaping lobby group but from Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of Action on Smoking and Health - ASH - the granddaddy of anti-smoking groups.

This fact hasn't stopped councils, hospitals, universities, pub chains and a host of other places from banning the use of e-cigs:

While the university recognizes that these may be useful aids to those wishing to give up smoking, it has taken the view that e-cigarettes could undermine the policy of banning smoking in the work place as it gives the impression of normalising smoking in the work place. (Head of health and safety in the human resources division at Manchester Metropolitan University, Chris Bolam)

The Trust has taken the decision to not include e-cigarettes as part of our approach to support abstaining. The decision has been taken as there is currently insufficient evidence about their impact on health or risks associated with their usage. (Guys & St Thomas Hospital)

We do not allow the use of electronic cigarettes either. They are difficult for you the Managers to police and it would be the Managers as well as the Brewery who would be fined if persons were caught smoking the real thing (Humprey Smith, Director, Sam Smiths Brewery)

I could continue with hundreds of other pathetic, mealy-mouthed excuses for banning e-cigs - organisations from Alton Towers and Weatherspoons through to the Association of Conservative Clubs and Starbucks have all taken the decision to stop you vaping on their premises. Mostly the excuses given are one (or more than one of the following):

1. The WHO (or BMA or some other bunch of fussbuckets) has said we 'don't know enough about the health risks'

2. It looks like smoking and someone might light up a real cigarette meaning we get fined for breaking the smoking ban

3. It looks like smoking which makes smoking look normal and we have children as customers

The comment from ASH's boss should give the lie to all of these excuses. What would be good would be for some of these public health sorts to start telling premises that they should allow vaping inside rather than hiding behind the supposedly blazing row in their profession.


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Dominique Strauss-Kahn - the French Jimmy Savile


The Spectator makes an entirely inaccurate comparison to the trial of Jeremy Thorpe (a man who was charged - and acquited - with trying to murder the man who blackmailed him over a homosexual affair) - the truth is that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, urbane, charming, politically-connected and powerful is the French Jimmy Savile:

Back in Paris, a young female journalist accused him of attempted rape during a magazine interview. When this case too was dropped on the grounds of insufficient evidence, the pimping investigation began. A parallel charge of gang rape, carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years, was withdrawn in 2012. But in preparation for the pimping trial, two examining magistrates spent four years transcribing hundreds of pages of text messages and emails. During the three-week trial, an extraordinary picture of DSK’s downtime emerged. Hours were passed in the company of a Belgian pimp called ‘Dodo la Saumure’, proprietor of ‘le Dodo Sex Klub’. Afternoons were spent arranging meetings on the Belgian frontier, or in Madrid, or in Washington, where expensive locations were hired and his friends including a Lille CID inspector flew in with what DSK called ‘the equipment’ (young prostitutes).

This is an unrepentant goat. Yet it seems French socialists rather fancy him as their presidential candidate. I guess we're supposed to respect Gallic worldliness but all I see is an entirely corrupt culture - sexist, exploitative and oppressive. For all our prurience and hypocrisy, I rather prefer our willingness to call out politicians for unpleasant sexual behaviour and especially the sort we see here - were I some sort of feminist, something of a celebration of 'rape culture'.


Monday, 22 June 2015

Three errors in Laudato Si' - and why it's ideas are bad for the poor

Goit Stock - a bit of that wonderful nature we love
All the pomp, power and might of the Catholic Church has been used to promote a social and economic agenda centred on an environmentalism that is sweetly bucolic and profoundly anti-development. I'm not qualified to comment on the theology in the latest Papal Enclyclical letter - Laudato Si' on "care for our common home"  - but it steps beyond that theology when it addresses matters of demonstrable fact. The Pope, and the Church he leads, promotes ideas are not in the interests of the poor nor especially helpful in addressing the challenges of a changing environment.

Before we look at three errors in Laudato Si', let's remember that, at the heart of the matter is the idea of 'climate change'. This is not - whatever its advocates want to tell us - settled science. There is enough challenge to the basic 'greenhouse' argument of climate change's causes to merit scepticism. And there is sufficient inconsistency in the empirical record for doubt to be a valid response to the doomladen predictions of some who believe in both climate change itself and also in the idea that man's actions are causing that climate change. These statements aren't a 'denial' of climate change but rather an honest reflection on the debate as seen by one curious layman. We should recall, moreover, that the Catholic Church is not (and would not claim to be) a scientific institution so, in the matter of climate science and environmentalism, is no better qualified to express opinion than I am. Nevertheless, the jury is out on climate change and there remains a very strong case, given this, for preparedness in the face of its possible effects.

My concern doesn't lie, therefore, with the Catholic Church's diagnosis (although I might take issue with some of this) but rather with the consequences of the anti-growth programmes that are more-or-less explicitly endorsed in Laudato Si'.

Pope Francis begins his Encyclical with St Francis of Assisi:

He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

Anyone brought up in the Catholic tradition will know of St Francis's love for the natural world, his rejection of earthly wealth in favour of simplicity and his concern for the poor. So this Saint perhaps represents the ideal patron for an encyclical about the natural world - 'our common home' as the Pope describes it. The idea of stewardship - this is the only world we've got let's not ruin it for our children - flows beautifully from St Francis's preaching to the birds and flowers.

The problem I have is that the Pope, for all his unquestioned concern for the poor and excluded, fails to see that his environmentalism is largely against the interests of those poor people in that it wants to reduce growth in the world's economy so as to better preserve the resources of the Earth. In the developed world there might be a case for less growth (and this is exactly what we have today, largely accompanied by cries about 'austerity') but the idea that less growth is in the interest of the poor - whether in Buenos Aires' slums or the Sahel's isolated farms - is quite simply wrong.

Let us look at three of the Pope's errors in this regard:

Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. People take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating.

The error here isn't in the concern about pollution or even that this pollution disproportionately affects the world's poor but rather in the assumption that a developed economy is more polluting that a less developed economy. Using the example of fuel for cooking and heating we can observe that most of us living in developed economies do not breathe in choking, carcinogenic fumes every day from the simple process of feeding and warming ourselves (other than from a barbeque in the garden). This is not true in the poorer parts of the world contributing to over a million deaths a year from respiratory diseases. Even worse the use of 'biomass' for fuel is not very sustainable - something the Pope recognises when talking about paper:

We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them.

And - for Europe and the USA at least - the Pope is wrong about paper recycling since over 70% of paper in Europe is recycled and around two-thirds in the USA. Perhaps we could do still better but we should also remember that:

Paper is made from a natural renewable resource, wood, which has the capacity to be produced in an endless cycle. To safeguard this cycle, our forests have to be managed and harvested in a sustainable manner.

The European paper industry, whilst producing approximately 30% of the world's paper, is a responsible guardian of European forests, 33% more new trees grow in Europe than are harvested each year. According to the UN FAO, forest cover in Europe has increased by 30% since 1950. The 6,450 km² annual increase of European forest cover corresponds to a daily increase the size of 4,363 football pitches.

Deforestation is not about paper but rather about either the gathering of biomass for fuel, the clearing of land for agriculture or the replacement of forest diversity with non-food monoculture. For the first of these switching to cleaner fuels (and almost every other fuel is cleaner than burning wood on a fire) represents the right solution and the others require governments to change their attitude to unsustainable subsistence farming methods and the use of productive land to grow biofuels rather than food.

The Pope's next target is water:

Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.

Here we see the first example in Laudato Si' of the Pope's anti-market message - a message that rather condemns to poor to poverty rather than offering them a route from out of that poverty. As you drive up the M1 from Nottingham to Sheffield you pass Severn Trent Water's treatment plant at Church Wilne attached to which are large signs proclaiming "30 glasses for less than 1p" - this is the reality of a market-led and privatised water system: clean, fresh water delivered by pipe to a tap in your kitchen at less than a penny a gallon. Even better, that penny-a-gallon includes collecting all the waste water, cleaning it up and recycling it!

The contrast - in places where water is either owned in common or owned by the state -  is like this:

Every day millions of people in Africa, usually women and girls, walk miles to have access to any water at all. The length of time it takes to collect the little water they can get means that they do not have time to do anything else during the day. Children do not get the chance to have an education simply because they are too busy collecting water.

To make matters worse, the only water they have access to is from streams and ponds. That water is usually full of diseases and makes themselves and their families very sick. Adults face the decision on a daily basis between dehydration and sickness from the water they drink. Even worse, they have to face this decision for their children.

We give money so charities can install wells with a safe supply, drill boreholes and improve sanitation in urban slums. But the long term solution is the same solution we had in the UK - having the resources to build the systems that deliver water to homes, build treatment systems and ensure quality. This came about because of foresight in investment (often by local authorities) and the ability of people to pay for that water supply. It may be a 'universal human right' to have water but it's a right that's better served in the capitalist world where businesses charge us for supplying clean water than in places where such businesses don't exist.

After pollution and water, the Pope promotes his third error when he speaks of cities:

Nowadays, for example, we are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighbourhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.

We see in this observation the understandable reaction to the unsanitary, chaotic, mish-mash that is the developing world slum - self-built shacks precariously perched on hillsides, mud and waste mixed together in the tiny passages between the rows of these shacks, and thousands of people crammed into the tiniest of spaces looking out onto the shinier, cleaner and richer parts of that city. It is a painful sight to anyone who cares for the poor.

Yet people have chosen that life over another life - they have crammed themselves into these places because they think it will be better than the subsistence farm up-country where they were brought up. And cities - by virtue of their very concentration - use fewer resources than dispersed agricultural communities:

For many nations, rapid urban change over the last 50 years is associated with the achievement of independence and the removal of colonial controls on people's right to move in response to changing economic opportunities. The concentration of population in urban areas greatly reduces the unit costs of providing good quality water supplies and good quality provision for sanitation, health care, schools and other services. It also provides more possibilities for their full involvement in government. And, perhaps surprisingly, urban areas can also provide many environmental advantages including less resource use, less waste and lower levels of greenhouse gases.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't worry about the spread of disease, the safety of buildings, the exploitation of children and the provision of education but it does mean the Pope is wrong to suggest that the urbanisation of the past two centuries "has not always led to an integral development and an improvement in the quality of life". Leaving aside the sort of rejectionist bucolic dream of Thoreau (and generations of hippies since), there is no aspect of life's quality that isn't better today for the mass of humanity than was the case at almost any point in the past two centuries. And for all that wealthy westerners now dream of a rural idyll (albeit with every mod con from running water and sewage through gas and electricity to the now essential broadband) the truth is that the city, despite its crowding and chaos, is an essential element in allowing that better life.

Others (better qualified than I am) will have noted that the Pope's anti-consumption, anti-markets, anti-capitalist message - for all its compatibility with a man who took St Francis of Assisi as his guide - really does the poor no favours. We know (but need reminding time and time again) that the impact of neoliberal ideas on the world has seen the fastest decline in poverty in mankind's history - far from capitalism (for all its sins) being the problem, it is a great deal of the solution.

As so often with these grand proposals, a detailed analysis reveals them to lack the foundations needed to deliver - they are, as the parable goes, built on sand. The Pope, in setting out his Church's 'social teaching', has made too many errors of fact.

It is welcome - it is always welcome - that people, whether religious leaders or not, step back and remind us of our duty to the poorest in our world. And it is right too that we are reminded about the need to conserve and preserve the only planet we've got. But it is not right to so conflate these two concerns that the result is a 'social teaching' that neither serves the interests of the poor nor addresses the imperative of environmental stewardship. The poor stay in poverty, trapped in a back-breaking, hand-to-mouth existence that both fails them and destroys the planet's resources, while the poor old planet gets an endless round of international meetings combined with an almost childish rejection of the very market mechanisms that can both 'save the planet' and also lift the poor from out of that poverty the pope so rightly condemns.

I don't doubt that Pope Francis cares deeply for the poor but I'm afraid he is another victim of sentiment's triumph over evidence. It seems wrong that some have great wealth while other starve and it suits the sentimentalist narrative for that ownership of wealth to somehow be the cause of others' poverty. But it ain't so and it would be more exciting if, instead of simply hugging the poor, Pope Francis had sent the world the message that neoliberalism, market capitalism, property rights and freedom are the central elements in both eliminating poverty and saving the planet.