Last night to smoke in Virginia

Tonight is the last night to smoke legally in most Virginia bars and restaurants before the ban takes effect tomorrow. A round-up of previous coverage:

— Tom Firey and I in The Washington Post arguing against the ban

— 75% of Virginia bars and restaurants are already smokefree; why smoking bans aren’t a reaction to market failure

— How the ban will wipe out Virginia’s hookah culture

— Why lovers of liberty should boycott the Liberty Tavern


Drams for Thanksgiving

My friend Lance Mayhew has an enviable new gig: He’s now the whiskey writer for and his debut column covers whiskeys and whiskey cocktails to enjoy with Thanksgiving. Read it here and check back for upcoming articles.

I’ll be taking the day off to join Lance in having some of these whiskeys, lots of good food, a few rare beers, and possibly a cigar. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday.

[Note to readers in Portland: Carlyle is closed on Thursday and Friday, giving the staff a much needed break prior to the December rush. We’ll re-open Saturday evening.]


Good news from Google ads

I hate the teeth-whitening and flab-vanishing ads that sometimes appear on this page just as much as you do. I ban them sometimes, but there are too many to keep track of and Google’s best filtering options aren’t offered to weblogs. So this is excellent news:

Google has made a minor shift in its policy that has major implications. Up until now it has taken action against ads, not advertisers. If an ad violated one of Google’s terms of use, the search giant would take it out of circulation, but that’s it. Google briefed TBM on its new policy: It will now ban the advertiser, not the ad, effectively neutering the advertiser’s ability to shift from one ad and shell site to another. Think of it like the struggle between the police and a graffiti vandal. Up until now Google has only been erasing the tags after they’ve been put up. Going forward, they’re going to take away his spray cans and put a GPS collar on him, making sure he never does it again. It would be a principled stand by any company, but especially by Google because of its position in the market. I worry, though, that the rest of the industry won’t pay attention. On this issue, Google might be a leader without any followers.

I trust the scammy nature of these ads is obvious to the dentally and physically perfected readers of this weblog, but I was unaware of just how scammy they really are:

There are handfuls of these get-beautiful/healthy/rich-quick schemes floating around the Internet, and all their advertising structures behave the same way: Some sketchy ad leads you to some sketchy testimonial page, which then leads you to the sketchy product itself. When you order the product, the vendor doesn’t always make clear that you’re signing up for a free trial, and when that’s over you’ll be charged up to $90 every month until you find a way to cancel. There isn’t much information about why all of these scams operate in the same way, even though this kind of Web advertising is quite prevalent.

Honestly I would have been just as happy with a “Don’t display unsightly human anatomy” ad filter, but this solution seems much more feasible. I hope Google’s new program works and that such ads will be showing up less frequently here in the near future.

[Via BoingBoing.]


What really happened in Starkville?

Last week I briefly commented on a study of heart attack (AMI) rates in Starkville, MS that found a 27% reduction in the AMI rate in the three years following the imposition of a smoking ban. Though I was initially dismissive, I decided to email the authors, Dr. Robert McMillen and Dr. Robert Collins, to ask for a copy of the study and to see the data. I expected to find the usual flaws, but what I found was even worse: In truth there is no completed study, the relevant data haven’t even been collected yet, and there are no grounds for concluding that the decline in heart attacks had anything to do with Starkville’s smoking ban.

Journalists covering the story reported that the results came from a study that had just been released. This is understandable, since that is what Mississippi State’s* press release claims:

A Mississippi State study released Monday [Nov. 9] shows a 27 percent decrease in heart attacks among Starkville residents since the city passed a smoking ban in 2006.

The “study” was actually just a two page preliminary report [PDF] that has not been published in a journal or subject to peer review. Nonetheless, in the press release and the report the authors express certainty that the decline is attributable to the smoking ban:

Without spending a dime, the community of Starkville has decreased heart attacks by more than 25% […]

Current research shows that smoking bans in Starkville have contributed to a 27% reduction in the heart attacks of local residents […]

There are two flaws that plague studies of heart attack reductions in small cities like Starkville. One is the size of the population, which makes wild fluctuations in the data possible. Starkville’s resident population is just a little over 20,000, so there’s nothing to be done about that. The other flaw is the lack of control groups. AMI rates could be declining for reasons unrelated to smoking bans, so it’s necessary to compare communities with smoking bans to similar communities without them.

Admirably, McMillen and Collins intend to collect data from other Mississippi cities to act as control groups. However they don’t have this data yet. When I wrote to them asking for a copy of the study, all I got was this email from Dr. McMillen:

The results that we released in our 2 page report are preliminary results form a larger study. The study examine AMI admissions from several communities that have passed smoke-free ordinances, as well as communities that have not. The latter will serve as controls for the purpose of comparison. The hospital in Starkville was the first to provide us with AMI admission data. When we have received data from the other communities in our study we will prepare a manuscript that compares AMI admissions before and after the smoke-free laws were enacted in communities with and without smoke-free laws.

Without the data from control groups there is no evidence that the decline was caused by the smoking ban. There’s absolutely no way to know whether the ban deserves complete, partial, or zero credit for the decline, and any statement to the contrary is pure speculation.

Michael Siegel has looked into Mississippi’s heart attack data and found that the AMI mortality rate has been trending downward throughout the state:

[…] from 2000-2002 to 2003-2005, there was a 19.3% decline in heart attack deaths in Mississippi. And from the period 2000-2002 to 2006-2008, there was a 29.2% decline in heart attack deaths in Mississippi.

From 2003 to 2008, heart attack deaths in Mississippi fell by 19.1%. From 2002 to 2008, they fell by 29.4%. And from 2000 to 2008, they fell by more than one-third: by 33.9%.

This demonstrates that heart attacks were declining substantially in the state of Mississippi anyway, even in the absence of a smoking ban. It suggests that if Starkville had not enacted a smoking ban, the study still would have found a very large decline in heart attacks from 2003-2005 to 2006-2008.

On Friday I wrote to McMillen and Collins to ask on what basis they reached their conclusion without having received the data from their control groups:

In the two page report you imply rather strongly that the decline in Starkville’s AMI rate is due to the smoking ban (“Without spending a dime, the community of Starkville has decreased heart attacks by more than 25%…”) (“Current research shows that smoking bans in Starkville have contributed to a 27% reduction in the heart attacks of local residents…”). I am curious to know how you have reached this conclusion without having received the data from control groups, as this seems to go far beyond what one could determine from your preliminary results.

I’ve yet to receive any response from them.

In two of my emails I requested to see the data from Starkville broken down year-by-year. If we are to believe the studies from Pueblo and Helena, the bulk of the decline should have occurred immediately after the ban took effect. It would be useful to know if the same pattern occurred in Starkville. They have yet to release this data.

Collins and McMillen have given their statements a veneer of scientific objectivity without providing the transparency needed to substantiate their claims. This hasn’t stopped them from using their results to push for a statewide smoking ban:

Data from the Mississippi State Department of Health and national figures indicates the state would save an estimated $125 million annually in health care expenses if a legislatively mandated smoking ban was enacted, [Collins] added.

“I plead with the Mississippi Legislature to ban smoking in public places,” Collins said. “Our data reflects the findings of every other community that has looked at what happened when smoking is banned in public venues.”

This is yet another example of what Siegel aptly calls “science by press release.” McMillen and Collins have no basis on which to rest their claims, have not published them in any journal, and haven’t even collected all of their data. Yet because they were critical of tobacco a willing press disseminated their conclusions far and wide without asking difficult questions or consulting critics.

When this study is completed it will be interesting to see what if finds. At that time its results could possibly be informative in the debate over a statewide smoking ban. But to go public with results now, before the data is even collected, is a corruption of science for the pursuit of political ends and unfortunately all too typical for today’s anti-smoking movement.



Even more Fernet recipes

A few days ago Boston bartenders held an event that I’d have loved to be present at: A celebration of Fernet-Branca cocktails. They served some delicious-sounding recipes, including the Work in Progress from Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli at Craigie on Main:

3/4 oz Fernet Branca
1 oz Bols Genever
1 oz St. Germain
3 dashes orange bitters

Stir over ice, serve down, flamed orange peel.

Ron brought the recipe in to Carlyle last night, where he had one for himself and I hooked another customer on two more. It’s a curious combination of flavors, reminiscent of the Cooper’s Cocktail at Vessel. The rest sound intriguing too and I’ll be sampling them soon.

Previously: Carlyle held its own Fernet night, complete with Fernet sorbet and ice cream.


Defending the Aztek

A few weeks ago the hashtag #slatepitches flourished on Twitter, with users mocking the site’s tendency to publish contrarian, counter-intuitive pieces on just about everything. Joke pitches included ideas like “Soccer: It’s time to let players use their hands,” “Lead pipes and your genius baby,” and “How the ridiculed Aztek Pontiac could end up saving General Motors.” Oh wait, that last one’s real:

It’s easy to berate GM for always failing to see where the market is going. But in this instance it was the first to recognize the need for a new kind of vehicle to fill the crossover segment, which would grow rapidly in subsequent years. A crossover is basically a 21st-century station wagon. SUVs are usually built on the same platform used for trucks—and they often feel that way when you drive them. They also inhale gas. Crossovers, by contrast, are built on platforms used for cars, so they have better road manners, and they’re more fuel-efficient. There were some crossover-ish vehicles before the Aztek, such as the Subaru Forester, but these were seen as neo-wagons, or small/compact SUVs. With the Aztek, GM created something that had SUV size, minus the SUV stigma. […]

In terms of innovation, the Aztek shares DNA with some surprising relatives, like Apple’s early, failed PDA, Newton, or its first stab at a portable, proto-laptop Mac. Apple (AAPL) didn’t succeed with these products, but the company began to define new markets with them. Obviously, laptops and notebooks would eventually become huge part of Apple’s business, and while Palm came to dominate the PDA market, Apple’s experience with Newton set the stage for its move into smaller personal devices, such as the iPod and iPhone. GM could banish all recollection of the Aztek, but the vehicle’s controversial design could be just the ticket as GM seeks to define how hybrid gas-electric-crossover technology derived from the Chevy Volt will appear.

Six years in and I still like my Aztek. I just wish it came with a convertible option.

[Thanks to Quasim for the link!]