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New evidence on the effects of plain cigarette packaging in Australia

By Olivia Maynard @OliviaMaynard17 

This blog originally appeared on the Mental Elf site on 27th March 2015

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the 15th Annual World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Abu Dhabi. With both Ireland and the UK announcing in the weeks leading up to the conference that they would implement plain (or ‘standardised’) packaging of cigarettes, it wasn’t surprising that this was one of the conference’s hot topics.

One of the sessions that focused on plain packaging was organised by Professor Melanie Wakefield’s team at the Cancer Council Victoria in Australia. As the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging, Australian data on its real-world effectiveness is of keen interest to policy-makers worldwide.

These researchers published a supplement to the journal Tobacco Control last week, including 12 new studies on plain packaging in Australia (more details about each of the 12 studies and their methodologies are given at the end of this blog). The majority of these used a ‘pre-post’ methodology, which means that they assessed behaviours and attitudes to smoking before plain packaging was introduced and compared with these same attitudes and behaviours afterwards.

At their conference session, some of these studies were discussed in more detail, with one in particular (Durkin et al., 2015), which investigated the impact of plain packaging on quitting-related cognitions, catching my attention. This study seemed like the logical extension of my most recently published paper on plain packaging, which reports the results of randomising UK smokers to use either a branded or a plain pack of cigarettes for a day and measuring smoking behaviour and attitudes to smoking and quitting.

As I’ll discuss later on, it’s important that we use a range of methodologies, including laboratory based experiments (such as those I’ve conducted) and real-world investigations (such as those conducted by the Australian researchers) to investigate the possible impact of plain packaging.

Plain (or ‘standardised’) packaging would mean standardising the size, shape, colour and method of opening of all tobacco products.

Methods

Data for this study were obtained as part of a continuous cross-sectional telephone based survey. Participants were called twice, one month apart, first for a baseline survey and then for a follow-up. Participants were aged between 18 and 69 and all participants were required to be cigarette smokers at the baseline call.

All calls were made between April 2012 and March 2014 and participants were split into 4 groups according to when their two phone calls were made:

  1. Those who had both their baseline and follow-up phone calls before plain packaging was introduced
  2. Participants’ baseline call was made before plain packaging was introduced and their follow-up was during a transitional period where both plain and branded packs were available for purchase
  3. Baseline phone calls were made during the transitional period, whilst follow-up calls were made either during the transitional period or after plain packaging had been fully implemented (November 2012)
  4. Both baseline and follow-up calls were made within the first year of plain packaging being fully implemented

At both the baseline and follow-up stages, participants were asked about quitting related cognitions, micro-indicators of concern and quit attempts. Logistic regression was used to analyse the data and participants’ baseline scores were included as predictors for their follow-up scores (after accounting for potential confounders). Essentially, this means that follow-up scores between participants in the four groups could be directly compared, accounting for any differences at baseline. Responses from participants in Groups 2, 3 and 4 were compared with those of the participants in Group 1.

Results

In total, 5,137 participants completed both the baseline and follow-up calls. At follow-up, approximately 6% of participants across all groups had quit smoking. The following results were found for each of outcome measures:

Quitting related cognitions

  • No differences in thoughts about quitting, or plans to quit in the next month were observed between the groups. However, higher intentions to quit were observed among those in Group 3 as compared with those in Group 1

Micro-indicators of concern

  • Participants in Groups 3 and 4 were more likely to conceal their pack than those in Group 1
  • Those in Group 4 reported higher levels of stubbing out cigarettes early than those in Group 1
  • Higher rate of forgoing cigarettes were observed amongst participants in Group 2 than Group 1

Quit attempts

  • More quit attempts were reported among participants in Groups 2 and 4 as compared with those in Group 1

Given that results are likely to be closely scrutinised by researchers, policy makers and the tobacco industry, it is important to carefully consider their implications and not overstate the findings.

Conclusions

This study provides modest statistical evidence that plain packaging in Australia has increased micro-indicators of concern, increased quit attempts and increased some quitting related cognitions among smokers.

The authors describe the outcomes they measured in the current study as being ‘downstream’ from the more immediate effects of plain packaging, which they have found evidence for in their other studies. These include:

It is possible that more substantial changes in the downstream effects such as those measured in this study may take longer to emerge.

Plain packaging: putting these results in context

Investigating the impact of plain packaging in the ‘real-world’ using this pre-post technique has its limitations. Unlike the laboratory, the real-world isn’t tightly controlled and although the researchers tried to account for other factors which may have influenced the results, such as changes in the price of tobacco and other tobacco control measures such as mass media campaigns, it’s impossible to completely control for the effect of these, making causal interpretations difficult.

Obviously we cannot randomise whole countries to either introduce or not introduce plain packaging (which would address these limitations), and examine what happens to smoking prevalence in these countries. Studies like that by Durkin and colleagues are therefore probably the best that we can do in the real world. Moreover, no one piece of research will give us the full picture when it comes to the potential impact of plain packaging.

Although, on their own, these findings do not provide overwhelming support for a beneficial impact of plain packaging, when they are considered together with the other studies in theTobacco Control supplement, and with data from the Australian government (which this year reported record lows in tobacco sales and smoking prevalence) along with findings fromlaboratory-based experiments and surveys, the evidence looks more compelling.

Now that both the UK and Ireland have announced plans to introduce plain packaging in May 2016, with other countries likely to follow suit, it will be important to continue to monitor the longer-term impacts of this tobacco control measure, making use of the wide range of research tools and methodologies available to us.

Plain packaging will become

Links

Primary study

Durbin S, Brennan E, Coomber K, Zacher M, Scollo M, Wakefield M. Short-term changes in quitting-related cognitions and behaviours after the implementation of plain packaging with larger health warnings: findings from a national cohort study with Australian adult smokersTobacco Control 2015;24:Suppl 2 ii26ii32 doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2014-052058

Other references

Research papers included in the Tobacco Control plain packaging Supplement:

Two paper-based surveys of adolescents:

Six telephone survey-based studies:

One in-depth interview:

One analysis of tobacco retailer journals:

Two observational studies:

High potency cannabis and the risk of psychosis

By Eleanor Kennedy @Nelllor_

This blog originally appeared on the Mental Elf site on 24th March 2015

shutterstock_27220114

Smoking higher-potency cannabis may be a considerable risk factor for psychosis according to research conducted in South London (Di Forti, et al., 2015).

Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in the UK and previous research has suggested an association between use of the drug and psychosis, however the causal direction and underlying mechanism of this association are still unclear.

This recent case-control study published in Lancet Psychiatry, aimed to explore the link between higher THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content and first episode psychosis in the community.

To compare the impact of THC content on first episode psychosis, participants were asked whether they mainly consumed skunk or hash. Analysis of seized cannabis suggests that skunk has THC content of between 12-16%, while hash has a much lower THC content ranging from 3-5% (Potter, Clark, & Brown, 2008; King & Hardwick, 2008).

Cannabis hash and skunk have very different quantities of the active THC component.

Methods

The researchers used a cross-sectional case-control design. Patients presenting for first-episode psychosis were recruited from a clinic in the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust; patients who had an identifiable medical reason for the psychosis diagnosis were excluded. Control participants were recruited from the local area using leaflets, internet and newspaper adverts. There were 410 case-patients and 370 controls recruited.

Researchers gathered data on participants’ cannabis use in terms of lifetime history and frequency of use as well as type of cannabis used, i.e. skunk or hash. Participants were also asked about their use of other drugs including alcohol and tobacco, as well as providing demographic information.

Results

The case-patients and control participants were different in a couple of key areas (note: psychosis is more common in men and in ethnic minorities):

Case patients Control participants 
Male 66% 56%
Age 27.1 years 30.0 years
Caribbean or African ethnic origin 57% 30%
Completed high level of education 57% 90%
Ever been employed 88% 95%
Lifetime history of ever using cannabis 67% 63%

Participants with first episode psychosis were more likely to:

  • Use cannabis every day
  • Use high-potency cannabis
  • Have started using cannabis at 15 years or younger
  • Use skunk every day

A logistic regression adjusted for age, gender, ethnic origin, number of cigarettes smoked, alcohol units, and lifetime use of illicit drugs, education and employment history showed thatcompared to participants who had never used cannabis:

  • Participants who had ever used cannabis were not at increased risk of psychosis
  • Participants who had used cannabis at age 15 were at moderately increased risk of psychotic disorder
  • People who used cannabis or skunk everyday were roughly 3 times more likely to have diagnosis of psychotic disorder

A second logistic regression was carried out to explore the effects of a composite measure of cannabis exposure which combined data on the frequency of use and the type of cannabis used.Compared with participants who had never used cannabis:

  • Individuals who mostly used hash (occasionally, weekends or daily) did not have any increased risk of psychosis
  • Individuals who smoked skunk less than once a week were nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with psychosis
  • Individuals who smoked skunk at weekends were nearly three times as likely to be diagnosed with psychosis
  • Individuals who smoked skunk daily were more than five times as likely to be diagnosed with psychosis

The population attributable factor (PAF) was calculated to estimate the proportion of disorder that would be prevented if the exposure were removed:

  • 19.3% of psychotic disorders attributable to daily cannabis use
  • 24.0% of psychotic disorders attributable to high potency cannabis use
  • 16.0% of psychotic disorders attributable to skunk use every day

These findings raising awareness among young people of the risks associated with the use of high-potency cannabis

Conclusions

The results of this study support the theory that higher THC content is linked with a greater risk of psychosis, with daily use of skunk conferring the highest risk. Recruiting control participants from the same area as the case participants meant that the two groups were more likely to be matched on not only demographic factors but also in terms of the actual cannabis that both groups were consuming.

The study has some limits, such as the cross-sectional design which cannot be used to establish causality. Also the authors have not included any comparison between those who smoke hash and those who consume skunk so no conclusions can be drawn about the relative harm of hash.

Media reports about the study have mainly focussed on the finding that ‘24% of psychotic disorders are attributable to high potency cannabis use’. This figure was derived from a PAF calculation which assumes causality and does not allow for the inclusion of multiple, potentially interacting, risk factors. Crucially the PAF depends on both the prevalence of the risk factor and the odds ratio for the exposure; the PAF can be incredibly high if the risk factor is common in a given population.

In this case, the prevalence rate of lifetime cannabis use was over 60% in both participant groups. According to EMCDDA, the lifetime prevalence of cannabis use in the UK is 30% among adults aged 15-64, so it is arguable that this study sample is not representative of the rest of the UK. The authors themselves note that “the ready availability of high potency cannabis in south London might have resulted in a greater proportion of first onset psychosis cases being attributed to cannabis use than in previous studies”, which is a more accurate interpretation than media reports claiming that “1 in 4 of all new serious mental disorders” is attributable to skunk use.

Future studies looking at the relationship between cannabis and psychosis should also aim to differentiate high and low potency cannabis. Longitudinal cohort studies are particularly useful as they have the same advantages as a case-control design but data about substance use could be more reliable as ‘lifetime use’ can be gathered from multiple measurements collected at a number of time points across the lifetime.

This innovative study is the first to distinguish between different strengths of cannabis in this way.

Links

Primary study

Di Forti M. et al (2015). Proportion of patients in south London with first-episode psychosis attributable to use of high potency cannabis: a case-control study (PDF). The Lancet Psychiatry, 2(3), 233-238.

Other references

King L, & Hardwick S. (2008). Home Office Cannabis Potency Study (PDF). Home Office Scientific Development Branch.

Potter DJ, Clark P, & Brown MB. (2008). Potency of Delta(9)-THC and other cannabinoids in cannabis in England in 2005: Implications for psychoactivity and pharmacology (PDF). Journal of Forensic Sciences, 53(1), 90-94.

Screening of A Royal Hangover: TARG goes to the movies

By David Troy @DavidTroy79 

I recently hosted a documentary screening of ‘A Royal Hangover’ on behalf of the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group at the University of Bristol. The film documents anecdotes from all facets of the drinking culturpic1e in the UK, from politicians to police, medical specialists to charities, the church and scientists, and addicts and celebrities, with high profile personalities such as Russell Brand and controversial figures such as sacked Government Drugs Advisor Professor David Nutt. The director Arthur Cauty kindly agreed to take part in a question and answer session after the film to discuss his experience making the film and debate the issues raised in the film.

The film begins with Arthur talking about his own relationship with alcohol (or his lack of one).  He preferred to shoot silly films, play music or wrestle than go out drinking with his friends. The film deals with the history of alcohol starting off in the 16th and 17th century when it was safer to drink beer than water. Even babies were given what was called “small beer for small people”. In the early 18th century, gin became the drink of choice and reached epidemic levels, famously depicted in William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’. pic2Gin was unregulated and sold not just in public houses but in general stores and on the street. Moving on to the 20th century, Lloyd George recognised the danger of alcohol to the war effort in World War 1, and was quoted as saying that “we are fighting Germany, Austria and drink; and as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink”. Around this time, restrictions on the sale of alcohol were introduced by government. During World War 2, beer was seen as important to morale and a steady supply of it was seen as important to the war effort. Since then, we have seen a steady increase in consumption levels through the ‘hooligan/lager lout’ phenomenon of the 1980’s and the binge drinking of the 1990’s and the early 2000’s. Consumption levels have been falling slightly since the mid 2000’s but there are still 10 million people drinking above the government’s recommended level.

During the film, Arthur investigates how different societies treat alcohol. French and American drinkers describe a more reserved and responsible attitude to alcohol. This is somewhat contradicted by 2010 data in a recent report by the World Health Organisation which reports that French people over the age of 15 on average consume 12.2 litres of pure alcohol a year compared to Britons at 11.6 and Americans at 9.2 litres respectively. The drinking culture of France and the United States is certainly different to that of the UK. The French consume more wine, less beer, and tend to drink alcohol whilst eating food. The US (outside of ‘Spring Break’ culture) is more disapproving of public intoxication. However, neither society should be held up as a gold standard when it comes to alcohol use.

The film talks about the enormous cost of alcohol to England; approximately £21 billion annually in healthcare (£3.5 billion), crime (£11 billion) and lost productivity (£7.3 billion) costs. These are the best data available, but costs of this nature are difficult to calculate. Arthur talked to professionals on the front line – he interviewed a GP who said that a huge proportion of her time is devoted to patients with alcohol problems and their families. She has to treat the “social and psychological wreck” that comes when one family member has an alcohol addiction. A crime commissioner from Devon and Cornwall police states that 50% of violence is alcohol-related in his area.

The film attempts to understand the reasons why alcohol use is at current levels, and offers some possible solutions. Alcohol is twice as affordable now as in the 1980’s and is more freely available than ever. This needs to be curtailed. Evidence suggests that alcoholic beverages were 61% more affordable per person in 2012 than in 1980, and the current number of licensed premises in England and Wales is at the highest level repic3corded in over 100 years. Licensed premises with off sales only alcohol licences have also reached a record high, more than doubling in number compared with 50 years ago. The evidence shows that price increases and restrictions on availability are successful in reducing alcohol consumption. More alcohol education in schools was highlighted as being necessary. The evidence suggests that alcohol education in schools can have some positive impact on knowledge and attitudes. Overall, though, school-based interventions have been found to have small or no effects on risky alcohol behaviours in the short-term, and there is no consistent evidence of longer-term impact. Alcohol education in schools should be part of the picture but other areas may prove more fruitful. The film suggests that parental and peer attitudes towards alcohol affect drinking norms, and these attitudes need to change. In multiple surveys, it has been found that the behaviour of friends and family is the most common influential factor in determining how likely and how often a young person will drink alcohol. Alcohol marketing was cited as a problem and it needs to regulated more stringently. Alcohol marketing increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol and increases the amount used by established drinkers, according to a report commissioned by the EU. The exposure of children to alcohol marketing is of current concern. A recent survey showed that primary school aged children as young as 10 years old are more familiar with beer brands, than leading brands of biscuits, crisps and ice-cream.

David Nutt discussed research he conducted with colleagues, which assessed the relative harms of 20 drugs, including both harms to the individual and to others. They found that alcohol was the most harmful drug overall. Professor Nutt also covered the circumstances surrounding his sacking as government’s chief drug advisor; he claimed that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol, which led to his dismissal. This highlights the inherent tension between politics and science. Evidence can diverge from government policy and popular opinion, and scientists can lose their positions when reporting evidence that is politically unpopular. In my view, the reluctance of governments to implement evidence-based alcohol policies is frustrating; minimum unit pricing (MUP) being the latest example. Despite good evidence supporting how MUP can reduce alcohol-related harms, lobbying by the alcohol industry has halted its progress.

The film deals with the human cost of alcohol misuse, with personal stories of addiction permeating the film. Carrie Armstrong (who writes a blog discussing her battle with alcohol addiction), as well as Persia Lawson and Joey Rayner (who write a lifestyle blog ‘Addictive Daughter’), discussed the havoc alcohol caused in their lives, and explained how young men and women come to them for help with their own alcohol dependencies. Russell Brand talked about his own alcohol addiction during the film. He contends that his drug and alcohol use was medicinal and thinks that alcohol and drug addicts “have a spiritual craving, a yearning and we don’t the language, we don’t have the code to express that in our society”. Arthur interviewed Chip Somers of Focus 12, who talked about the low levels of funding to treat alcohol addiction. Only a small minority (approximately seven per cent) of the 1.6 million alcohol dependants in the UK can get access to treatment compared to two-thirds of addicts of other drugs.

pic4

Arthur recorded over 100 hours of footage of drinkers on nights out during the course of filming. He described it as follows: “As the sun goes down, society fades away and what emerges from the shadows is a monster of low inhibition, aggression and casual chaos”. He sums it up as us “going to war on ourselves. On one side is the police, the emergency services, the council and various groups of volunteers and on the other side you’ve got everybody else”. He was assaulted three times and witnessed multiple scenes of violence close up. His bravery is admirable – there were many scenes I found difficult to watch. The scenes of senseless violence were horrible to look at, as were the images of individuals who were so intoxicated as to be helpless and in need of medical attention.

The Q&A after the screening was quite illuminating. Arthur spoke about the reception the film has been receiving at home and abroad. The reception has been great in the United States, where the film has had successful showings at film festivals. The interest in the UK has been a little disappointing, however, which Arthur puts down to the reluctance of society at large to acknowledge our dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. Nevertheless, there has been positive feedback from viewers of the film. Many people have contacted Arthur to tell him how the film has opened their eyes to their own relationship with alcohol and prompted them to make a change. The audience was keen to engage in the conversation. One person, who has a family member with an alcohol addiction, said how important it is to raise awareness of these issues. Another person called for policy measures to be implemented such as MUP to curb use across the population.

pic5

Arthur came across as someone who is acutely aware of the damage alcohol is causing in the UK, and is doing what he can to raise the public’s consciousness about it. He has presented a unique look at booze Britain, in equal parts shocking, hilarious, sympathetic and thought provoking – a film we can all relate to. It was a very enjoyable and informative evening and I hope the audience took something away from it. I believe the arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated. It was my hope that by showing this documentary, information on alcohol harms in society would be more accessible to a general audience. Change begins with the acknowledgement of new information that alters the view of ourselves and our behavior. It has been estimated that over 7 million people in the UK are unaware of the damage their personal alcohol use is doing. I believe the blame lies on both sides. Alcohol researchers need to communicate the harms of alcohol in more engaging and accessible ways and members of the general public need to seek out such information. All too often scientists get the reputation as being cold, boring, and amoral. Collaborating with filmmakers and other proponents of the arts on events such as the one I hosted can assist in changing that stereotype.

Is moderate alcohol consumption good for you?

By Marcus Munafo @MarcusMunafo 

This blog originally appeared on the Mental Elf site on 13th March 2015

wine

This is something many of us would like to be true – the idea that the occasional glass of wine has health benefits is compelling in a society like the UK where alcohol consumption is widespread.

Certainly the observational data indicate a J-shaped associationbetween alcohol consumption and mortality (O’Keefe et al, 2007), with the lowest mortality observed at low to moderate levels of alcohol consumption (equivalent to perhaps a pint of beer a day for men, and about half that for women).

However, observational studies like this are fraught with difficulties.

  1. First, people may not report their alcohol consumption reliably.
  2. Second, and more importantly, alcohol consumption is associated with a range of other lifestyle behaviours, such as diet and smoking, which will themselves influence mortality, so that isolating any specific association of alcohol is extremely difficult.
  3. Third, how non-drinkers are defined may be important – lifetime abstainers may be different from former drinkers (who could have stopped drinking because of health problems).

The last point illustrates the problem of reverse causality; alcohol consumption may be causally associated with a range of health outcomes, but some of those health outcomes may also be causally associated with alcohol consumption.

In a recent study in the BMJ, the authors argue that the problems associated with the choice of an appropriate referent group of non-drinkers are often overlooked in research into alcohol-related mortality.

They also argue that age is not adequately considered, which may be relevant because of physiological changes to the ageing body that influence elimination of blood alcohol. Knott and colleagues explored the association between alcohol consumption and all cause mortality for people aged less than 65 years and aged 65 or more, and separated never and former drinkers.

The lowest mortality observed is at low to moderate levels of alcohol consumption (equivalent to perhaps a pint of beer a day for men, and about half that for women).

Methods

The authors used data from the Health Survey for England, an annual, nationally-representative cross sectional survey of the general population, linked to national mortality registration data.

The analysis focused on adults aged 50 years or older, and investigated two measures of alcohol consumption: self-reported average weekly consumption over the past year, and self-reported consumption on the heaviest day in the past week. The outcome was all cause mortality (i.e., any death recorded during the period of data collection).

The primary statistical analyses were proportional hazards analyses for each of the two age groups of interest (less than 65 years and 65 years or more). They tested for whether any associations observed differed between males and females and, given strong evidence of a sex-dose interaction, reported sex-specific models for each age group of interest.

Statistical adjustment was made for a comprehensive list of potential confounders, such as geographical location, ethnicity, cigarette smoking, obesity and a range of socio-demographic variables.

Results

Protective associations were only observed with statistical significance (a point I’ll return to below) among younger men (aged 50 to 64 years) and older women (65 years or older), using a never drinker referent category after full adjustment.

Among younger men a protective relationship between alcohol consumption and all cause mortality was observed among those who reported consuming 15.1 to 20 units per week (hazard ratio 0.49, 95% confidence interval 0.26 to 0.91).

Among older women, the range of protective use was broader but lower, with reductions in hazards of all cause mortality observed at all consumption levels up to 10 units per week of less.

The study supports a moderate protective effect of alcohol.

Conclusions

The authors conclude that observed associations between low levels of alcohol consumption and reduced all cause mortality may in part be due to inappropriate selection of a referent group (all non-drinkers, rather than never drinkers) and inadequate statistical adjustment for potential confounders.

They also conclude that beneficial dose response relationships between alcohol consumption and all cause mortality may be specific to women aged 65 years or older.

There is a relative lack of data on older populations in relation to the association between alcohol consumption and all cause mortality, which this study addresses. The consideration of different definitions of the referent category is also valuable – the authors are correct that conventional definitions of “non-drinker” may be problematic.

However, to what extent should we believe the conclusion that beneficial dose response relationships may be age- and sex-specific?

As David Spiegelhalter has pointed out, the authors base their conclusion on which associations achieved statistical significance and which did not. However, the hazard ratios for all cause mortality are consistently lower for alcohol consumers than non-consumers in this study. Although the confidence intervals are wider for some consumption levels and in some sub-groups (males vs females, or younger vs older), the individual hazard ratios are all consistent with each other.

The wide confidence intervals reflect a lack of statistical power, principally due to the small number of never drinkers, and the small number of deaths. Although the data set is relatively large, by carving it up into a number of sub-groups, the statistical power for the individual comparisons is reduced. Spiegelhalter points out that the entire comparison for participants in the younger age group is based on 17 deaths in the male baseline group and 19 deaths in the female group.

As Andrew Gelman and Hal Stern have said, the difference between “significant” and “non-significant” is not (necessarily) itself significant. Indeed, focusing on statistical significance (rather than effect size and precision) can lead to exactly the problems encountered here. Low statistical power is also a problem, reducing the likelihood that a statistically significant finding is true, and (perhaps more importantly) dramatically reducing the precision of our effect size estimates.

Should we believe that beneficial dose response relationships are age- and sex-specific?

Strengths and limitations

There are some strengths to this study, notably the use of a more considered referent category of never drinkers, and the statistical adjustment for a broad range of potential confounders.

However, the primary conclusion of the authors does not seem to be borne out by their own data – hazard ratios for all cause mortality are lower for alcohol consumers than non-consumers at all levels of consumption, for both men and women, and for both the younger and older age groups.

Is moderate alcohol consumption good for us then? The observational data, including that from this study, continues to suggest so.

However we should also remain wary of evidence from observational studies, which can be notoriously unreliable, and cannot confirm that an association is causal. Ultimately, we may need to use novel methods to answer this question, such as Mendelian randomization which utilized the properties of genetic variants to enable stronger causal inference.

We should be wary of evidence from observational studies, which can be notoriously unreliable, especially in underpowered studies like this one.

Link

Knott CS, Coombs N, Stamatakis E, Biddulph JP. (2015) All cause mortality and the case for age specific alcohol consumption guidelines: pooled analyses of up to 10 population based cohorts (PDF). British Medical Journal, 350, h384. doi: 10.1136/bmj.h384

O’Keefe HF, Bybee KA, Lavie CJ. (2007) Alcohol and cardiovascular health: the razor-sharp double-edged sword. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2007;50(11)

Spiegelhalter D. (2015) Misleading conclusions from alcohol protection study. Understanding Uncertainty website, last accessed 11 Mar 2015.

Financial incentives for smoking cessation in pregnancy

By Meg Fluharty @MegEliz_

This blog originally appeared on the Mental Elf site on 11th March 2015.

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Smoking during pregnancy is thought to cause approximately 25,000 miscarriages per year in the United Kingdom (Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2010).

Additionally, smoking while pregnant is attributable to 4-7% of stillbirths (Flenady et al., 2011), and 3-5% of infant deaths (Gray et al., 2009) with these rates even higher in deprived areas, where remaining a smoker during pregnancy is more common (Gray et al., 2009).

In 2009, 24% of women attending antenatal appointments in Scotland were smokers (NHS, 2009). However only 1 in 10 reported using cessation services, and 3% were abstaining by four weeks (Tappin et al., 2010).

A recent Cochrane systematic review suggested financial incentives may be beneficial in helping pregnant women stop smoking, although it concluded that further evidence was needed (Chamberlain et al., 2013). Tappin et al (2015) investigated the effectiveness of shopping vouchers in addition to NHS Stop Smoking Services to aid quit attempts in pregnant women.

Nearly 1 in 4 women attending antenatal appointments in Scotland were smokers (NHS, 2009).

Methods 

The authors conducted a randomised controlled trial of 609 pregnant smokers recruited from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. Women were randomly allocated to routine smoking cessation care (control group) or to routine care and up to £400 in shopping vouchers if they engaged with services and successfully quit smoking (incentives group).

Routine care

Routine specialist pregnancy care involved an initial meeting to discuss quitting smoking and set a quit date. This was followed by 4 weekly telephone calls, and free nicotine replacement therapy for 10 weeks.

Incentives group

The incentives group received £50 in shopping vouchers for attending the initial meeting to set a quit date. If participants were smoke-free 4 weeks later, they would receive another £50 voucher, and if smoke-free at 12 weeks, participants received £100 in gift vouchers. Between 34-38 weeks gestation, women were once again asked smoking status, and those who had quit received a final £200 voucher. In all instances, smoking status was verified by a carbon monoxide breath test. 

Women who successfully quit smoking in this study received up to £400 in shopping vouchers.

Results 

  • More women successfully quit smoking in the incentives group (22.5%) than the routine care group (8.6%).
  • There was a higher quit rate at 4 weeks in the incentives group compared to the routine care group.
  • 12 months after quit date, there was still large difference in self-reported quit rates (15% incentives, 4% control).
  • Women lost to follow-up were assumed to be smokers, which was validated by analysing residual routine blood samples for cotinine.

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Summary

This study demonstrated that financial incentives with routine care could be beneficial in motivating quit attempts in pregnant smokers, as well as aiding them in continuing to abstain up to 12 months after their quit date. Furthermore, the quit rates reported in this trial were larger than many pharmaceutical (Coleman et al., 2012) or behavioural (Chamberlain et al., 2013) intervention trials in pregnant women. Although, it should be noted that women in the control group had higher nicotine addiction scores than those in the incentives group.

While the evidence from this study suggests using financial incentives may be beneficial in helping pregnant smokers to stop, there may be practical and ethical issues in implementing this as an intervention.

Additionally, other studies are needed to determine the generalizability and possible cost effectiveness of this intervention, as well as what cessation services are best suited to pair with financial incentives. However, it will be interesting to see how this study may be used to inform future policy.

Links

Tappin D, Bauld L, Purves D, Boyd K, Sinclair L, MacAskill S et al. Financial incentives for smoking cessation in pregnancy: randomised controlled trial (pdf). BMJ 2015; 350:h134

Health and Social Care Information Centre, Infant feeding survey 2010 (pdf). HSCIC, 2012. www.hscic.gov.uk/pubs/ifs2005.

Flenady V, Koopmans L, Middleton P, Frøen JF, Smith GC, Gibbons K, et al. Major risk factors for stillbirth in high-income countries: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet 2011;377:1331-40. [Abstract]

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