February’s not turning out to be a great month for the cause of true harm reduction and trusting people to make wise decisions in looking after their own health.
First, schools in New South Wales are banning – believe it or not – birthday cakes. According to media reports, school authorities consider them a “distraction”, and raise fears about allergies and the so-called obesity epidemic to justify why these Trojan horses of unspeakable evil shouldn’t be allowed through schoolyard gates.
Put aside the fact that birthday cakes, as well as the chocolate crackles and fairy bread, are part and parcel of the kids’ birthday rite of passage, once-a-year treats. To the zealots and puritans who run our schools and determine public education policy, they are merely calorie machines that turn kiddie cuties into unspeakable, voracious lard tubs.
What rubbish. Like all yummy food, birthday cakes are a source of fun, pleasure and joy. They mark a big occasion in a kid’s life – and at that age, and in our wonderful Western culture, any birthday is a big occasion worthy celebrating.
Life is, as Thomas Hobbes put it so well, nasty, brutish and short. A birthday is the one day of the year a kid can truly call theirs, and the fun police and the NSW Teachers Federation want to take it away from them? A kid’s birthday being considered a distraction, for goodness’ sake: birthdays are part of the socialising experience. Scoffing birthday cake and other treats may be self-indulgent one-off, but spacing their calorie consumption sensibly (with parental not bureaucratic guidance!) over a year kiddies can still enjoy cakes and sweets without turning into Augustus Gloop.
Pan metron ariston – everything in moderation – as some ancient Greek bloke once said.
And as for the fear of teacher liability from allergies, those self-righteous ninnies who come up with these brainwaves should cast their minds back to the days before 1980 when Aussie kids were fit, healthy and fearless, and food allergies almost unknown. And why? Because parents weren’t afraid of letting their kids try new experiences, and enjoy experimenting with all manner of foods (including, in my case, mud pies).
Now, largely thanks to the nanny-staters, little Johnny and Mary with their gluten-free, macrobiotic, sugarless dietary requirements making diet-observant ultra-Orthodox Jews look like slackers, are breaking out in hives by merely looking at a birthday cake or a bowl of salted peanuts.
Second, there are yet more calls for a sugar tax, especially on the demon soft drink.
Sydney University professor Tom Colaguiri has just published his research that found none out of ten kids aged nine to 18, have sugar intakes exceeding World Health Organisation recommendations. His solution, of course, is to make a sugar tax a top political priority.
Not that the good professor questioned the sense of the WHO recommendations: as we who have followed the vaping debate know, WHO is never wrong, and writes the gospel of public health. Anybody who questions WHO’s received wisdom is a heretic in the pay of Big Whatever. So the nanny staters cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of public health war with their weapon of behavioural choice, taxing the bejesus out of the most convenient consumable scapegoat.
The parliamentary secretary responsible for public health policy, National party MP and gastroenterologist, David Gillespie, is quoted by Fairfax as saying:
Cut to the chase: the thing with all of the proponents of sugar taxes, fat taxes, whatever tax, is taxes will make people angry and it won’t change what they eat.
This is a day-to-day survival, personal choice issue which transcends economics. People buy what they like and we as a government aren’t going to moralise and tell them that we feel better for putting taxes on certain products.
This sounds positive, and it would be reassuring if Dr Gillespie could be taken at face value. But, frankly, he’s an insignificant player in the policy game.
Let’s be honest: the greatest Australian addiction of all is his government’s addiction to revenue. If there’s a feeling in Treasury that a sugar tax might collect a lazy few hundred million to waste on profligate spending that it and the populist Senate refuse to rein in, then consider it to be on the table.
Think I’m overblowing it? Then look at one undeniable fact. Before the last federal Budget, the Turnbull government condemned the Labor plan to raise more revenue by accelerating and extending the phased increases in tobacco excise so that by 2020 a packet is smokes will cost over $40. Yet, come Budget day, that same government not only endorsed Labor’s plan made it a centrepiece of its Budget sell.
Sin taxes work by assuming sinners keep sinning. Drinkers, gamblers, smokers, and maybe soon soft drink consumers are taxed because they can be relied on to keep up their habits whatever the price. These are not public health or harm reduction measures. They are revenue gouges, feeding the reckless and feckless spending addiction of politicians and bureaucrats too self-righteous or gutless to bring their profligacy for wasting other people’s money under control.
After its backflip with pike on tobacco excise this Coalition government, supposedly the intellectual heir of Burke and Mill, cannot be relied upon to resist determined and self-righteous nanny staters and public health fruit loops. Sad but true.
But third, and most seriously, earlier this month the Therapeutic Goods Administration rejected a measured, evidence-based application from the pro-vaping New Nicotine Alliance to amend the Poisons Schedule to allow nicotine to be legally available in vaping solutions, and give smokers an openly-available alternative to the deadly weed and the toxic contents of cigarette vapour.
The TGA’s interim decision – it will be finalised at the end of the March after a token follow-up consultation involving only those who made submissions on the NNA application – was detailed, referenced and elegantly-written. But when all was said and done, it simply accepted and repeated the nostrums of the usual vociferous, McCarthy-like public health suspects and the bureaucrats who treat their words as gospel.
The TGA’s reasons for rejecting the application are consistent with the standard orthodoxy of the more prominent public health and harm reduction advocates in Australia, especially the hackneyed claims that not enough is known about the nature and long-term effects of e-cigarettes and vaping on users and bystanders; the concern about “renormalisation” of smoking behaviours; and the claimed “gateway effect” of vaping take-up by young people leading to deadly tobacco smoking.
The quality of the evidence supporting these bog-standard claims was not questioned by the TGA, nor does it seem the steadily-increasing weight of evidence against them, including a comprehensive submission signed but a staggering 40 Australian and international scientific and clinical experts, was even taken seriously by the TGA advisory committee, or by the decision-makers.
What’s more, the TGA released public submissions so heavily redacted that they were meaningless. Many submitters, including the 40 authors of that major expert submission, and me, agreed in writing that our submissions could be published in full. Yet, reprehensibly, they were published with not only our names blocked out, but with big chunks of our arguments, and especially any references to specific studies and other evidence cited in the body of submissions, redacted to the point of the documents being unrecognisable, even to the authors.
And, as I pointed out in comments to the TGA on the interim decision, the patent lack of due process and procedural fairness – not just the wholesale redaction but the selective use of evidence, and the commissioning on specially-selected but un-named and taxpayer-funded consultants to critique the NNA application and torpedo it – highlighted a serious flawed and inherently biased consideration of an application that used ideology to answer the simple scientific question at the heart of the application: whether a vaping solution containing nicotine at the proposed concentration is safe for human consumption.
Usually, if it’s choice between a cock-up and a conspiracy, it’s a cock-up. But in this case, I’m convinced it’s a conspiracy. As the NNA well knew when they submitted their application, the fix was in from the start, and they should be commended for forcing into the open the ingrained this official hostility to vaping as a harm-reducing disruptive technology. The TGA decision and how it was arrived at simply has proven the point.
The Senate is starting its next round of estimates hearings later this month, an opportunity to scrutinise government administration and put officials on the spot. Our senators could do something useful for a change and shine a light on the darkness that is the TGA’s consideration of the NNA nicotine application. There are certainly lots of curly questions they can, and should, ask.
If these tribunes of the people do ask some of those questions, and force the TGA and Health department to explain themselves, maybe this month won’t be as bad for sensible harm reduction and sensible personal choices as it’s been so far.
Terry Barnes is a part-time Australian fellow of the UK Institute of Economic Affairs, with a special policy interest in sensible harm reduction