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Evidence on drugs policy held back from the public debate

Do tougher laws reduce drug use? An international comparison of the way different countries regulate drugs suggests not – but instead of this evidence informing the public debate over the last few months, the politics of drug policy has meant the findings were suppressed until today.

The Home Office conducted a study comparing drug laws in thirteen countries, concluding that “looking across different countries, there is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use.” But the report’s publication was delayed by months – because the report’s findings are inconvenient for politicians who claim that tough criminal sanctions work to reduce the harm from drugs.

It’s one thing for Ministers to decide that despite this evidence, they wish to keep the UK’s current drug laws in place. The official Home Office stance is that “Our drugs strategy is working and there is a long-term downward trend in drug misuse in the UK.”

It’s unacceptable, however, for the evidence itself to be suppressed or delayed – no matter what it concludes. As a minimum, policy should be informed by the best available evidence, and it would be just as unacceptable if supporters of decriminalisation had prevented a study that supported tough laws from being published. Doing so distorts an already ill-informed debate.

The suppression, delay and alteration of evidence that doesn’t suit political agendas is not new. In the last year alone we’ve seen reports on minimum alcohol pricing, food banks, immigration and fracking held back from public discussion for political reasons. Evidence Matters, our new campaign for accountable public policy, will investigate cases of government suppressing evidence as it calls for the effective and transparent use of evidence in public policy.

Is red wine treatment for acne spot on?

Guest post by Max Templer (@maxetempler), Sense About Science volunteer.

red wineResveratrol hit the headlines again last week with The Independent, The Business Standard and the Drinks Business – reporting the findings of a study on Acne treatment. Whilst the study's findings are potentially important for future treatments the headline 'Resveratrol may improve effectiveness of Acne Treatment' probably wasn't going to draw readers in. However, resveratrol is found in one particular item that almost guarantees some press coverage:

'Antioxidant in red wine could help reduce acne, study says' - The Independent

'Red Wine Could Hold Key To Acne Cure' - The Drinks Business

'Now, drink wine to hold back acne' - The Business Standard

As resveratrol is found in red wine (as well as chocolate and grapes) this quickly became the 'hook' for stories about the study. However, this framing was more than a little misleading. Having noticed The Independent's story I decided to investigate further and ask for evidence.

I contacted Yang Yu, one of the co-authors of the study, who filled in some crucial gaps which the stories had missed out. Like the fact that the studies didn’t look at red wine, chocolate or grapes – but in fact looked at applying resveratrol directly to the skin.

"Our study evaluated resveratrol in direct contact with Propionibacterium acnes. In order to find out if resveratrol can improve the skin of acne patients, there would need to be further studies in humans to validate our findings.

The resveratrol in wine is metabolized by the body before it gets to the skin. Thus, we do not know if whether drinking wine would have the same effect as applying resveratrol topically."

In other words there is only evidence to suggest that resveratrol would work as part of a topical cream and, conversely, there is no evidence to suggest that ingesting it (eg drinking it in wine) would have a similar effect.

Upon finding this out I emailed all three publications to inform them of this. However, this is where things get a bit more complicated - and the onus seemed to fall more on the reader to critically engage with the piece.

As The Independent and Drinks Business only stated that resveratrol was found in red wine and did not state that drinking wine could prevent acne they had not published anything inaccurate. Whilst it might be reasonably assumed that many people would infer that drinking wine could help prevent acne - most people drink wine as opposed to applying it to their skin - this isn't really the news outlet's responsibility. Whilst The Independent acknowledged that people might infer this and amended its article, the Drinks Business disagreed with me about this and left its article as it was. The only outlet which published something explicitly inaccurate, The Business Standard, did not respond to my query and its article remains the same.

Who's asking for evidence?

What do the Women’s Institutes and the weightlifting podcast Iron Radio have in common?

They, along with Oxford Skeptics in the Pub and the South Harpenden Gardens and Allotments Society are just some of the groups that I’ve spoken with recently about our Ask for Evidence campaign. These are all groups whose members, listeners and supporters have got in touch to say they object to having the wool pulled over their eyes by misleading advertising and evidence-free policies.  And people from all these organisations are doing something about it – they’re asking for evidence.

It’s important we have a diverse range of people supporting the campaign – and Ask for Evidence has uniquely eclectic mix, such as Mumsnet, the UK biggest parenting forum, the British Institute of Radiology, the consumer association Which? and the Vegan Society. All of them are putting their shoulders to the wheel to help challenge misleading information in politician’s speeches, newspaper articles, and beyond.

But we have to make a lasting change by putting science and evidence in the hands of the public. And for that we need even more people involved. There are plenty of ways you can help. Ask your organisation if it will support the campaign. As you can see I’m happy to come and explain exactly what that means. And if you’ve seen a claim that you’re not sure about, don’t just walk on by, take responsibility – ask for evidence.

White noise and breast cancer risks

If you do one thing to reduce your risk of breast cancerOn 2nd October 2014, there was a double page spread in the Daily Mirror on “13 ways to cut your risk of breast cancer”. The article included insights from medical research charities and breast cancer experts. They gave evidence-based advice, like exercising regularly. But alongside them and given equal weight were unfounded claims, including comments from a nutrition coach with no medical training about avoiding plastic bottles. And the article included the contradictory statement that there is not clear evidence for the danger of plastic, but to avoid it anyway, which is really unhelpful.

When presented with so many claims, it can be confusing and stressful. And it has real consequences when the useful health advice is lost in the white noise.

The simple question many people have is “Should I be worried?” We know that worry over breast cancer risks causes anxiety and stress. This list of 13 risks just adds to it. It even tells you to “de-stress”! What we need is help navigating these claims – see our guides about understanding evidence, and Ask for Evidence.

Second-hand and chemical free

Ask for EvidenceA fortnight ago, when my wife mentioned we were planning on getting a second-hand pram, one of her colleagues firmly remarked: “You shouldn’t buy anything second-hand – why would you put your baby’s life at risk?”. As expectant parents you’re susceptible to the hard sell and bombarded with conflicting advice, but at times like this asking for evidence can help. Where did this second-hand claim originate? I decided to do a bit of digging.

Car seats and mattresses

The problem with second-hand things is you don’t always know their history – for a car seat that means you wouldn’t know if it was damaged as a result of a car accident.

It seems second-hand mattresses are similarly a bad idea, as soft mattresses have been linked to cot death. Seeing as a new mattress for our second-hand Moses basket is a little under £20, it’s a price worth paying.

It turns out my wife’s colleague vaguely remembered an article about the dangers of second-hand car seats – but she’d taken it further and decided against any second-hand items for her children. The original article seems to have come from a press release issued by the Baby Products Association which quite openly states it was “set up with the objectives of promoting the baby and nursery products sector in both the UK and Europe.” It’s always worth asking questions rather than just accept things at face value. “Who made the claim?” “Where did the information come from?”

Pure, safe and chemical-free

We have splashed out on a bedside crib which came with a brand new mattress proudly boasting to be ‘chemical-free’. Something that we at Sense About Science have already found is completely meaningless.

I asked Mothercare for evidence about this claim and they replied quickly saying “Chemical-free is a term used in marketing to imply that a product is safe, healthy or environmentally friendly because it only contains natural ingredients.” Mothercare accepts that the term is a ‘misnomer’ as “nothing that physically exists in Earth’s ecosystems is free of chemicals”.

But it’s a shame that Mothercare continues to misinform people by using the phrase ‘chemical-free’ in its marketing, as well as perpetuating the myth that natural is always better than synthetic. I’ve asked Mothercare to amend this claim and I’m waiting to hear back.

In the meantime it’s great to see Mumsnet championing the Ask for Evidence campaign by featuring it as this week’s ‘Campaign of the Week’. As a Voice of Young Science member put it:  "As father to a one year old I see this area as a minefield of misinformation so Mumsnet getting on board is excellent."