Monday, December 04, 2006


They do come thick and fast

An Australian wine released in Britain has been labelled a new super-wine - with qualities specifically designed to help the heart. Red Heart is produced in South Australia's Riverland district and contains 32 per cent more antioxidants than the average bottle of red, according to studies in Britain. The discovery was made after British distributors Buckingham Vintners sent the wine to a lab to test specifically for antioxidants.

Red Heart is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, has a 14 per cent alcohol content, and is described as "a full-bodied but elegant wine, bursting with succulent blackcurrant and forest fruit flavours". [What the f*** are "forest fruits"?]

While the British label carries the significant claim, Australian laws prevent a similar claim being made on wines sold locally. Antioxidants, long championed by the health industry, are contained in the skin and seeds of the grape. They are credited with sweeping up harmful free-radical chemicals in the bloodstream and body that cause cell damage.


Give cardiac troubles a rest

A nutty British campaign coaxing men to dial 999 if they feel a pain in the chest will make more 'worried well', and possibly delay treatment for the really ill.

Last week the British Heart Foundation (BHF) launched their ‘Doubt Kills’ campaign. Posters show a middle-aged man with a belt of pain around his chest, bearing the warning: ‘a chest pain is your body telling you to call 999’. Radio advertisements feature bereaved spouses, describing how their loved ones put off calling for an ambulance when experiencing chest pain.

The BHF explain in their campaign literature that every second counts when dealing with a heart attack, and that one of the reasons for delays in getting treatment is the time taken to get to hospital. This is true, and the aim of proving that heart attacks are a ‘treatable disease’ is laudable. Research funding from the BHF has contributed to recent leaps in understanding of heart disease and its treatment. Mortality from coronary heart disease (the disease underlying heart attacks) in those under 65 has dropped by over 40 per cent in the last 10 years. From this perspective it makes sense to target an area where results from treatment could be improved. Also of course raising awareness of heart disease keeps up the BHF’s steady stream of donations.

But the use of a middle-aged man in the poster campaign is interesting. Certainly men are more likely to die of heart attacks. However, the BHF cites research that suggests it is elderly people, particularly women, and those with pre-existing heart disease, who are most reluctant to call for help. So, why not have a female chest pain sufferer on the posters? Or why not target information at those with known heart disease, who are much more likely to suffer from a heart attack?

‘Doubt Kills’ should be seen in the context of an increasing number of health campaigns targeted specifically at men, and their attitudes to health. The BHF explicitly point out that ‘British reserve and stoicism is costing lives’. This pathologising of the traditional stiff upper lip is characteristic of such campaigns. I suspect a survey of accident and emergency (A&E) doctors would find the opinion that a little more stoicism among the British public might not go amiss.

In a YouGov poll commissioned by the BHF, 64 per cent of respondents stated they would first call their partner, friend, relative, GP or NHS Direct when experiencing chest pain - with 42 per cent preferring to ‘wait and see’ if their chest pain gets better.  No information is provided about the age of those polled, but the truth is, for many of us, this is a sensible course of action. After all, heartburn is much more common than a heart attack.

The Ambulance Service are nobly supporting the campaign, but it must have occurred to them that a possible result will be more calls from worried young people with indigestion, and consequentially, longer waits for those who are genuinely ill. As with other ‘worried well’ campaigns in recent years, this latest initiative could make the population at large unnecessarily concerned about their health, while overburdening the health system to the extent that it cannot speedily deal with those who are actually suffering ill-health. It may fill A&E with people who mistakenly believe they are having a heart attack, thus reducing the response time to those who really are having a heart attack.


Still not ‘ethical’ after all these years

A report saying our buying habits are increasingly driven by ethical concerns made some fairly unethical contortions to reach that conclusion.

It was widely reported this week that ethical consumerism has gone mainstream, following revelations that spending in Britain on ‘ethical’ products now outstrips retail sales of alcohol and cigarettes. The facts tell a different story. What is really striking is just how irrelevant ethical consumerism remains, despite ever-increasing media hype and the enthusiasm of retailers.

These days, every newspaper and TV show seems to have someone lecturing us about how to live an ethical lifestyle (including spiked‘s very own Ethan Greenhart). Major retailers have leapt on the bandwagon, too. No self-respecting supermarket can be seen without a wide range of organic foods. Marks and Spencer sell ethical clothing lines and fairtrade coffee in their cafés. Even the much-maligned McDonald’s now uses only organic milk and eggs.

So, it did not seem surprising when a report published by the Co-operative Bank and the Future Foundation revealed that ethical consumerism in Britain was worth £29.3billion in 2005, compared to the £28billion we spend on alcohol and cigarettes over-the-counter. This represents a rise in ethical consumerism of 11 per cent from last year. However, the media reporting of these figures left a lot to be desired. The implication is that we’re all rushing out to buy organic and fairtrade food, and that is simply not the case. The figures are actually an almighty conflation of different categories.

First, what on Earth does ‘ethical’ mean? The report (it’s actually a press release with some attached tables) defines ethical goods to include organic food, free-range eggs, fairtrade products, goods from farmers’ markets, sustainable food, vegetarian food, ‘dolphin-friendly’ tuna, energy-efficient appliances, micro-generation, and eco-friendly cleaning products. That’s not all. Also lumped in with the figures are such spuriously ‘ethical’ choices as buying second-hand goods, using public transport, shopping locally and using charity shops. So getting a bus to work is now lumped alongside buying ethical green tea.

A whole set of different motivations are mixed up. It’s true that many people see little distinction between these various categories, often assuming that fairtrade food is organic, or that organic food is fairtrade, and that both will probably be environmentally friendly. In fact, fairtrade is inevitably shipped in from countries far away – after all, that’s where the poor farmers live. The same goes for 70 per cent of Britain’s organic food. Is such long-distance shipping good for the environment? And there’s no reason why a poor farmer would grow organically except out of necessity; that is, he can’t actually afford to buy the fertilisers and pesticides to increase his yields. As has been argued on spiked before, fairtrade products might make consumers in the West feel good when they’re shopping, but they offer few real benefits to the Africa or Asian farmers who produce them (see Shop till global injustice drops, by Nathalie Rothschild).

Not only does one kind of ethical purchase often conflict with another, but the assumption that purchases of organic food or free-range eggs are always motivated by ethical concerns is misplaced. These days, consumers may find that their local supermarket only stocks organic or free-range (particularly in the evenings, when all the cheaper, non-ethical produce has already gone). Many people simply prefer the taste of free-range eggs to those from battery hens.

While ‘buying for re-use’ might practically be better for the environment than buying something new – at least in theory – the second-hand market has always been motivated by money: one owner trying to re-coup money on something he no longer needs, and a new owner trying to get something on the cheap. Even something as green as micro-generation and energy efficiency must be motivated in part by saving money – especially given the huge government handouts available for some of these projects.

More strikingly still, the Co-op and Future Foundation figures include not only spending but boycotts, too. So of the £4.5billion under the category ‘ethical food’, nearly £2billion was food boycotts; well over half the figure for ethical transport related to travel boycotts. So even not purchasing something can be added to an ethical consumerism breakdown…. What does this mean? Presumably, people were asked what they might have spent on a product if they’d been able to obtain an ethical version of it. But there is a huge difference between an opinion poll statement of intent, and the hard economic facts of handing cash over the counter.

The biggest item in this ethical consumerism basket is not a type of good at all. ‘Ethical finance’ accounted for £11.5billion of the figures. This may or may not be motivated by altruism. For example, it includes credit unions, which are usually an attempt by groups of less well-off people to get access to credit without paying punitive rates – in other words, understandable and mutual self-interest. But investments are clearly a very different thing from purchasing goods (it’s also not clear whether this was £11.5billion of new investment or the total amount invested as of 2005).

Going back to the figures, if we add up what was actually spent on ethical goods of all kinds and for all purposes in 2005, the figures are, roughly:

Ethical food:£2.6billion
Green home:£3.8billion
Ethical transport:£0.6billion
Personal products:£1.0billion
Local shopping:£2.1billion

Even setting aside the problematic nature of lumping together so many ethical concerns, and purchases that are probably not motivated by ethical concerns at all, the comparison with cigarette and alcohol sales doesn’t hold up.

A proper reading of the Co-op’s press release (which many journalists seemed not to have bothered doing) shows that even the Co-op knows that you cannot simply say that ethical consumerism is exploding: ‘[T]otal ethical spending is spread over a wide range of products and services, and in very few markets has it become the market norm.’ The Co-op wants increasing use of regulation, labelling and subsidy to promote ‘ethical’ products, particularly in relation to climate change. But should the government be doing more at the consumer level when there is so little spontaneous demand for these things?

And can you really change society for the better by changing people’s shopping habits? I was always unconvinced by the self-flattering notion among some Western liberals that their boycotts of South African goods toppled apartheid in South Africa (the role of the black masses in South Africa was somewhat more important than the decisions made by individuals at Waitrose in Hampstead on a Saturday afternoon). I remain unconvinced that shopping styles are an effective way to transform things in the real world outside of the supermarket.

The embracing of this new report seems to be about making the apparently unethical masses feel like they should play ball: ‘Look, loads of people are buying ethical – why aren’t you?’ But the statistical contortions required to compare ethical consumerism with real mainstream spending only distort reality. And that isn’t very ethical, is it?



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter? It is just about pure fat. Surely it should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

9). For a summary of the weak science behind the "trans-fat" hysteria, see here. Trans fats have only a temporary effect on blood chemistry and no lasting harm from them has ever been shown.


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