Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Fake dental news?

The dubious claims about tooth decay are coming thick and fast now. Only two months after the last dodgy press release about children having their teeth extracted in hospital (from the LGA), comes this from the Faculty of Dental Surgeons:

Hospitals in England are seeing thousands of very young children each year needing baby teeth removed. 

The Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, which compiled the data, blames tooth decay linked to sugary diets.

Figures show there were 9,206 extractions carried out on children aged four and younger between April 2015 and March 2016.

A decade ago, it was closer to 7,400 extractions.

This 26 per cent rise needs to be put in the context of a 16 per cent rise in the number of children aged under five in that period. Nevertheless, it is a rise and the Faculty of Dental Surgeons wasted no time in pinning the blame on sugar:

‘When you see the numbers tallied up like this it becomes abundantly clear that the sweet habits of our children are having a devastating effect,’ said Professor Nigel Hunt of the RCS Faculty of Dental Surgery.

And yet there is no credible evidence that children's teeth are getting worse. As I said in the Spectator last year...

We are no longer a nation of Austin Powers. ‘The dental health of the majority of British children has improved dramatically since the early 1970s,’ according to a 2005 study, which also noted that ‘levels of dental decay in UK children at five and 12 years are among the lowest in the world.’ A further study in 2011 also found that ‘since the 1970s, the oral health of the population, both children’s dental decay experience and the decline [in] adult tooth loss, has improved steadily and substantially’. This was confirmed in a report from the Faculty of Dental Surgery last year.

It is possible that the number of tooth extractions could have risen despite the overall trend getting better. Extractions are quite rare and there could be some groups in society who are not visiting the dentist or brushing their teeth. (The BBC mentions the worrying fact that '42% of children did not see a dentist in 2015-16'.) 

However, a few weeks after I wrote the Spectator article, Public Health England published the latest data from the Oral Health Survey of 5 Year Olds which told a very different story to the one we're being told today:

Tooth decay among 5 year olds continues significant decline

The oral health survey published today (Tuesday 10 May 2016) by Public Health England (PHE) reveals that less than 25% of the cohort suffers from tooth decay, a 20% drop since 2008.

Public Health England says:

The proportion of 5 year olds who have had teeth removed due to decay was 2.5%, compared to 3.5% in 2008 – about 2,000 fewer children.

And:

The survey also shows the average number of teeth affected by decay per child was 0.8, down from 1.1 in 2008. 

Moreover:

There has been a 9% increase in the proportion of children with no obvious decay since 2008.

Who to believe? Should we believe that tooth decay has fallen dramatically since the 1970s amongst every age group and that the number of under-5s who have had a tooth extracted has dropped from 3.5 per cent to 2.5 per cent since 2008? Or should we believe the opposite?

There are two reasons to take the more positive view. Firstly because it is backed up with a very large amount of evidence from academics, the Office for National Statistics, Public Health England and others. Secondly, because - at the time of writing - the Faculty of Dental Surgeons has not made its own evidence publicly available. 

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Smoking rate falls to 9% in Sweden thanks to snus

In Sweden, the smoking rate has fallen to a mere nine per cent, as the New Scientist reports, and snus is being given due credit. It's a good job the EU banned it everywhere else, eh?

I've written about this for Spectator Health. Do have a quick read.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Sugar statistics for everyone to ignore

Mike Gibney has dug out some sugar statistics from around the world to show, for the umpteenth time, that sugar consumption has not been rising during the obesity 'epidemic'.

The Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the UN measures the “disappearance” of sugar in countries worldwide which takes overall national production data, adds imports and subtracts both exports and non-human use. If used wisely and for time trends only, such data can be very valuable.

In Australia, such data shows a decline in per capita intake of sugar from 152 grams per day in 1980 to 127 in 2011. Using similar techniques, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows a 17% reduction in apparent sugar consumption from 1961 to 2011 (139 to 115g/hd/d). Data from Australian National Nutrition Surveys, which are based on surveys of actual sugar intake at individual level, also show a decline in total sugar intake, from 115 grams per day in 1995 to 105 in 2012. Given that among the devils of sugar sources, those from beverages are considered as the Satanic level, it is interesting to note that such Satanic influences have also fallen over time.

No matter how defined (soft drinks, sugar sweetened beverages, sugary products, sodas plus juices etc.), the time-related decline of sugar intake in liquid form is still obvious. Data from industry sources were also made available to the authors and once again, no matter how defined, the same pattern of a decline in solid and liquid sugar intake is seen. For example, the % of children classified as “consumers “ of sugar-sweetened beverages declined from about 65% in 1995 to 25% in 2012. Energy from sugar-sweetened beverages plus juices in children fell from an average of 9.2 % of calories in 1995 to about 5.5% in 2012. All in all, there is not a shred of evidence from the either global overview or the Australian deep-dive into sugar intakes to suggest any rise whatsoever in sugar intakes.

Facts don't make any difference in this debate, of course. People believe whatever they want to believe and I sympathise with Mike's frustration:

Why therefore do we suffer the avalanche of data telling us about the poisonous nature of sugar and the wicked damage it is doing to the health of our children? In my view this is a consequence of our post truth era where post-truth is defined by The Oxford Dictionary as: ‘An adjective relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

You see, sugar was extracted on the back of the global slave trade and is now used by corporate food giants to manipulate the food supply to make a tasteless mechanically derived ultra-processed foods into ones which are rendered hyper-palatable with copious levels of added sugars. Gurus from California with impeccable medical backgrounds have shown conclusively that sugar is toxic, the new tobacco in fact. Tax the damn thing and be done with it!

That’s the emotional argument. It wins out every time against the peer-reviewed data cited in this blog. As a life timer in nutrition I have come to accept this and other such misuse of nutritional data and its adaptation by populist experts and governmental departments.

Last week another study came out showing a decline in sugar consumption in Australia over the last thirty years. This is laughably called the 'Australian paradox' because (a) it is assumed that sugar consumption must have risen if obesity has risen, and (b) it is assumed that sugar consumption has risen in other countries.

Neither assumption is true, but that hasn't stopped one anti-sugar fanatic hounding those who prefer data to doctrine. Rory Robertson set up a green ink website several years ago attacking Jennie Brand-Miller and Alan Barclay after they published a study showing a fall in sugar consumption over several decades. He even managed to get Sydney University to investigate the pair, both of whom were cleared of any misconduct.

Robertson has since been threatened with being banned from Sydney University for allegedly acting in an 'aggres­sive and intimidating manner'. You won't be surprised to hear that Robertson gave up eating sugar, lost weight and is now something of a crusader. Thanks to his n=1 study, he seems to think that sugar is the sole cause of obesity.

I don't know what it is about giving up sugar that makes people so angry but I see a lot of it Twitter. Perhaps we will one day discover that carbs are good for mental health.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Scot puppets

The SNP has been building a whole own army of lobbyists to create the illusion of public demand for bans, taxes, minimum pricing and general lifestyle micromanagement. I mentioned Alcohol Focus Scotland and ASH Scotland last month. Inherited from previous governments, they consume £1.5 million of taxpayers' money every year between them.

While the UK government has taken action against state-funded political campaigning, the problem has been growing north of the border.

In the field of diet, the Scottish government set up Obesity Action Scotland in mid-2015. It features such familiar faces as Simon Capewell (Action on Sugar) and Sheila Duffy (ASH Scotland) and is entirely dedicated to political campaigning. It does the usual sockpuppety things like welcoming government consultations and lobbying for policies which even the government admits are 'unpopular'. I haven't been able to find out how much public money it is getting (perhaps a reader could find out?) but it mentions no other source of funding than the government so it is safe to assume that it is 100% sockpuppet.

Then there is Food Standards Scotland, an organisation created in 2015 which sounds like a Scottish equivalent of the Food Standards Agency but is actually yet another lobby group. Yesterday, they were lobbying for the sugar tax to be extended to all products that contain sugar and a 'calorie cap' on food eaten outside the home, whatever the hell that means.

Food Standards Scotland can always be relied on to send a warm response to government consultations on raising taxes and is always on hand to offer congratulations to politicians when they introduce nanny state policies while complaining that the policies do not go far enough.

None of this has got anything to do with food standards. It is about telling people what to eat because, according to the FSS, the question of what to have for lunch 'cannot be left to individuals alone'. To that end, FSS sends out regular press releases demanding 'urgent action' and 'radical measures' to raise prices, reduce flavour and restrict choice. It does so with an annual budget of £15 million.

And so the sham continues.




Thursday, 9 March 2017

The year of acrylamide

You may fondly recall the scare story about roast potatoes that made everybody roll their eyes back in January. The villain of the piece was acrylamide, a chemical that is created when carbohydrates are cooked. It is not just roast potatoes, but french fries, biscuits, toasts and many other food stuffs that can generate acrylamide. It can cause cancer in mice, but only at very high doses (‘as much as 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the levels people might be exposed to in foods’, according to the American Cancer Society.)

Nevertheless, the Food Standards Agency tried to generate a bit of hysteria by warning about this supposedly new cancer threat. As I said at the time:

We simply do not know whether acrylamide in food causes cancer in humans. Even if it does, we do not know what a safe level of consumption is. The Food Standards Agency’s assumption that people would benefit from reducing their consumption of roast potatoes and toast is just that — an assumption. It is the precautionary principle on steroids. Further research would be welcome, but it is not the job of the FSA to pre-empt it. We have organisations like the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to weigh the evidence and assess risk. They found ‘inadequate evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of acrylamide’. The FSA has gone way beyond its remit by issuing its scare story today.

It later transpired the European Commission is planning to regulate acrylamide in 2017 and a host of the usual pressure groups are campaigning for tough legislation, ie. excessive bans based on the precautionary principle regardless of costs. By accident or design, the FSA was clearing the path for the EU.

This week, two more pressure groups have added their voices to the mix...

Carcinogens found in British baby food and Belgian fries

Two new surveys have found high levels of acrylamide, a known carcinogen, in UK-made baby biscuits and Belgium’s favourite fast food.

...The Changing Markets Foundation and NGO SumOfUs, looked at 48 types of biscuits, including well-known brands like Little Dish and Ella’s Kitchen. The highest acrylamide levels were found in Little Dish biscuits, with levels almost 5 times higher than the European benchmark and 30 times higher than products with the lowest concentrations of acrylamide.

...In the meantime, Changing Markets and Brussels-area news service BRUZZ conducted a similar investigation last month (23 February) of Belgian fries sold in the capital. They found that 15% of the food business surveyed sell fries with high levels of acrylamide, exceeding the European benchmark of 600 µg/kg.

The highest acrylamide level found in the survey was 670 µg/kg, over six times higher than the lowest at 100 µg/kg, followed by two samples at 660 and 620 µg/kg.

I haven't seen either of these studies (if they are studies), but if the highest acrylamide level in french fries is only 10 per cent over the benchmark I doubt that it is much to worry about, since the benchmark is arbitrary in the first place (we don't know for sure that acrylamide causes cancer in humans at all, let alone at what level).

As I mentioned in January, the American Cancer Society, European Food Safety Authority and International Agency for Research on Cancer have all found insufficient evidence to declare that acrylamide, as typically found in food products, increase the risk of cancer. It is rather suspicious that non-scientific pressure groups are suddenly coming out of the woodwork with press releases like this just when the EU is looking to regulate.

The two organisations involved are hardly specialists in this area. Changing Markets specialises in 'campaigns that shift market share away from unsustainable products and companies' and when I visited SumofUs's website (slogan: 'people over profits') I was greeted with a pop-up telling me that 'SumOfUs exists to put bad corporations back in their place'. Apparently, their mission is to 'tame corporate beasts like Pepsi, Nestlé and Monsanto.'

Each to their own, obviously, but it is fair to say that identifying cancer risks is not these group's main area of interest or expertise. I suspect that we are going to see more activist science of this sort as the EU's decision gets closer.

Meanwhile, you might be interested in this paper on acrylamide from the American Council on Science and Health from 2003. The acrylamide scare might be new in Europe, but it has been going on in the USA ever since the chemical was discovered in food in 2002 (despite this, the FDA does not set legal limits on acrylamide in food).

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The vaping revolution rolls on

The latest smoking prevalence figures from the Office for National Statistics will have disappointed the handful of crackpots who still claim that e-cigarettes are a gateway to tobacco that will cause a surge in smoking.

Between 2012 and 2015, the UK's smoking rate fell from 20.4 per cent to 17.8 per cent.* After a number of years when the smoking rate was barely budging, it is now dropping quite rapidly.


As the Guardian rightly notes, vaping is the best explanation for this renewed drop in smoking, but that didn't stop ASH trying to take the credit and demanding more money for itself.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH said: “The decline in smoking is very encouraging and shows that strong tobacco control measures are working. However, the government can’t leave it to individual smokers to try to quit on their own. If the downward trend is to continue we urgently need a new tobacco control plan for England, and proper funding for public health and for mass media campaigns."

ASH's grant from the government is supposedly given to 'support the tobacco control plan for England' - which seems to mean lobbying, in practice - so it is no surprise that they spend all their time demanding a new 'plan' and 'proper funding'. Deborah Arnott is constantly complaining that there is currently no tobacco control plan. She says it was supposed to be published 15 months ago, but it has been delayed. If there has been no tobacco control plan for ASH to 'support' what have they been doing with all that money from the taxpayer? Are they going to return it? I think we should be told.

More importantly, there is scant evidence that 'strong tobacco control measures are working'. You can see in the graph above that the smoking rate was falling steadily until 2007 when the smoking ban ushered in a wave of extreme anti-smoking policies. The ban itself was introduced in July 2007, the smoking age was raised from 16 to 18 in October 2007, graphic warnings were introduced in 2008, the tobacco duty escalator was introduced in 2008 and the ban on cigarette vending machines began in 2011. All this was combined with a bunch of anti-smoking advertisements which were so gruesome that some of them were banned.

The effect of this frenzy of prohibitions can be seen above, ie. nothing. The fall in smoking prevalence came to an end and the smoking rate stayed stubbornly at around the 20 per cent mark until e-cigarettes became mainstream in 2012-13. Between 2012 and 2015, the only anti-smoking law that was introduced was the display ban but that didn't come into effect until April 2015.  (There was also the ban on smoking in cars with minors but that didn't come into effect until October 2015 and no one believes that is going to reduce the smoking rate.) 

The only things achieved by 'strong tobacco control measures' are the mass closure of pubs, the maintenance of a large black market for cigarettes, and secondary poverty for low income smokers.

By contrast, e-cigarettes have given people who want to quit smoking an enjoyable and vastly safer alternative. Vaping has not led to a surge in smoking, nor was it ever likely to, despite the hysterical claims of 'public health' racketeers (though not ASH, to be fair). A study published today in Drugs Education, Prevention and Policy finds that the 'availability of e-cigarettes makes smoking appear less attractive to young people [and] discourages tobacco uptake'.

Neo-prohibition has failed. Let's hear it for the free market.


* The media have reported a rate of 17.2 per cent. This is what the ONS webpage says but their dataset says 17.8 per cent. I am waiting for clarification from the ONS on this point. A drop to 17.2 per cent would be quite sensational given  that the rate was 18.8 per cent in 2014. UPDATE: I haven't had official confirmation but someone at the ONS has suggested that the figures are different because 7.2% is for 18+ years whereas 7.8% is for 16+ years.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Plain packaging for food (again)

Pandora's Box has been well and truly opened. From the Guardian...

Sell high calorie foods in plain packaging to beat obesity, says Brain Prize winner

Selling high calorie foods in plain packaging could help in the battle against obesity according to a leading researcher who has won a share of the most lucrative prize in neuroscience for his work on the brain’s reward system.

The colourful wrapping and attractive advertising of calorie-rich foods encourage people to buy items that put them at risk of overeating and becoming obese in the future, said Wolfram Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.

Only a fool didn't see this coming, and Schultz seems like just the kind of loathsome, illiberal, messianic health fascist to push it forward...

“We should not advertise, propagate or encourage the unnecessary ingestion of calories,” Schultz said at a press conference held on Monday to announce the winners of the 2017 Brain Prize. “There should be some way of regulating the desire to get more calories. We don’t need these calories.”

Steady on, Wolfram.

“Colourful wrapping of high energy foods of course makes you buy more of that stuff and once you have it in your fridge, it’s in front of you every time you open the fridge and ultimately you’re going to eat it and eat too much,” he added.

The claim that colourful wrapping makes people buy more food is a strangely evidence-free assertion from a man who's just won a science prize. And why he is banging on about this on the day of his prize-giving anyway? He hasn't conducted any research on plain packaging, and the kind of research that is conducted on plain packaging is certainly not going to win any science prizes.

Weirdly, none of the media that have reported this story have quoted him explicitly supporting plain packaging for food, but the press release I saw earlier today contained this line:

Asked if he meant plain packaging for junk food: "I would think it's worth a try."

I'm sure there are plenty of people in the 'public health' racket who agree with him.


UPDATE

Proving my point in the Daily Mail is the Royal Society for 'Public Health', one the vilest nanny state pressure groups, who say:

‘While introducing plain packaging for foods high in fat, salt or sugar may be more complex than for tobacco, we certainly believe this is worth piloting to better understand what impact it has on consumer perceptions of these foods and ultimately on people’s buying behaviour.’

There is also a quote from yours truly:

Christopher Snowdon, head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs said:

‘This is the slippery slope in action. ‘It was inevitable that there would be demands for food and alcohol to be put in plain packaging once the government capitulated to the nanny statists on tobacco.

‘Sensible people warned that this would happen. We were ignored, but we are being proved right.’

Sadly, there's no quote from Deborah Arnott.