Thesis Thursday: Luke Wilson

On the third Thursday of every month, we speak to a recent graduate about their thesis and their studies. This month’s guest is Dr Luke Wilson who has a PhD from Lancaster University. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Essays on the economics of alcohol and risky behaviours
Colin P. Green, Bruce Hollingsworth, Céu Caixeiro Mateus
Repository link

What inspired your research and how did ‘attractiveness’ enter the picture?

Without trying to sound like I have a problem, I find the subject of alcohol fascinating. The history of it, how it is perceived in society, how our behaviours around it have changed over time, not to mention it tastes pretty damn good!

Our attitude to alcohol is fascinating and diverse. Over 6.5 million people have visited Munich in the last month alone to attend the world’s largest beer festival Oktoberfest, drinking more than 7.3 million litres of beer. However, 2020 will be the 100-year anniversary of the introduction of prohibition in the United States. Throughout history, alcohol consumption has been portrayed as both a positive and negative commodity in society.

For my thesis, I wanted to understand individuals’ current attitudes to drinking alcohol; whether they are affected by legal restrictions such as being constrained by the minimum legal drinking age of 18 in the UK, whether their attitudes have changed over their life course, and how alcohol fits among a wider variety of risky behaviours such as smoking and illicit drug use.

As for how did ‘attractiveness’ enter the picture, I was searching for datasets that allow for longitudinal analysis, as well as contain information on risky behaviours, and I stumbled upon the data that asked the interviewers to rate the attractiveness of the respondent. My first thought was what a barbaric question to ask, but I quickly realised that the question is used a lot in determining the ‘beauty premia’ in the labour market. However, nobody has examined how these ‘beauty premia’ might come into effect while still at school.

Are people perceived to be more attractive at an advantage or a disadvantage in this context?

The current literature provides a compelling view that there are sizeable labour market returns to attractiveness in the United States (Fletcher, 2009; Stinebrickener et al., 2019). What is not well understood, and where our research fits in, is how physical attractiveness influences earlier, consequential, decisions. The previous literature seeks to provide, in essence, the effect of attractiveness on labour market outcomes conditional on individual characteristics, both demographic and ‘pre-market’. However, attractiveness is also likely to change both the opportunities and costs of a variety of behaviours during adolescence.

Exploiting the interviewer variations in ratings of attractiveness, we found that attractiveness of adolescents has marked effects on a range of risky behaviours. For instance, more attractive teens are less likely to smoke than teens of average or than lower attractiveness teens. However, attractiveness is associated with higher teen alcohol consumption. Attractive females, in particular, are substantially more likely to have consumed alcohol in the past twelve months, than those of or below average attractiveness.

How did you model the role of the minimum legal drinking age in the UK?

I was highly unoriginal and estimated the effect of the minimum legal drinking age in the UK using a regression discontinuity design approach, like that of Carpenter and Dobkin (2009). I jest but it is one of the most effective ways to estimate a causal effect of a particular law/policy that is triggered by age, especially for the UK which has not changed its legal drinking age.

Where our research deviates is that we focus on the law itself and analyse how an individual’s consumption of alcohol in a particular school year may differ at the cut-off (aged 18). For example, do those born in September purchase alcohol for themselves and their younger friends or do we all adhere to the laws that govern us and wait patiently…

Are younger people drinking less, nowadays?

The short answer is yes! Evidence from multiple British surveys shows a consistent pattern over 10-15 years of reduced participation in drinking, reduced consumption levels among drinkers, reduced prevalence of drunkenness, and less positive attitudes towards alcohol in young adults aged 16 to 24.

Friends of mine at the University of Sheffield (Oldham et al., 2018) have sought to unravel the decline in youth drinking further and find evidence that younger drinkers are consuming alcohol less often and in smaller quantities. They find that, among those who were drinkers, the percentage of 16-24 year-olds who drank in the last week fell from 76% to 60% between 2002 and 2016, while for 11-15 year-olds it fell from 35% to 19%. Additionally, alongside declines in youth drinking, the proportion of young adults who had ever tried smoking fell from 43% in 1998 to 17% in 2016.

While we are witnessing this decline, the jury is still out as to why it is happening. Explanations so far include that increases in internet use (social media) and online gaming are changing the way young people spend their leisure time. Additionally, economic factors may play a role, such as the increase in the cost of alcohol, as well as the increase in tuition fees and housing costs meaning that young adults have less disposable income.

What were some of the key methodological challenges you faced in your research?

The largest methodological problem I faced throughout my PhD was finding suitable data to examine the effect of the minimum legal drinking age in the setting of the UK. One of the key underlying components in a regression discontinuity design is the running variable. The running variable I use is age in months of the respondents, which is calculated using the date in which the survey interview took place as well as the month and year of birth of the respondent. Unfortunately, due to issues with data being disclosive, it is very difficult to obtain data that have these variables as well as suitable questions regarding alcohol consumption. Luckily, the General Household Survey (Special Licence version) had the variables I needed to conduct the analysis, albeit only between 1998 and 2007.

How might your research inform policymakers seeking to discourage risky behaviours?

Definitely a difficult question to answer, especially given that one of my chapters uses interviewer variations in ratings of attractiveness of the respondents, so I have stayed well clear from drawing individual policy recommendations from that chapter. That said, these results are important for a number of interrelated reasons. Previous labour market research demonstrates marked effects of attractiveness. My results suggest that important pre-market effects of attractiveness on individual behaviour are likely to be consequential for both labour market performance and important pre-market investments. In this sense, the findings suggest that physical attractiveness provides another avenue for understanding non-cognitive traits that are important in child and adolescent development and carry lifetime consequences.

The chapter on the minimum legal drinking age provides intriguing results regarding the effectiveness of policies that impose limits on ‘consumption’ through age-restrictive policies; whether they are enough on their own or merely delay consumption. This is especially relevant given that there is currently a discussion about increasing the minimum legal tobacco purchasing age to 21 and increasing the age in which you can buy a national lottery ticket from age 16 to 18 in the UK.

Simon McNamara’s journal round-up for 8th April 2019

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, social values and healthcare priority setting. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine [PubMed] Published 2nd April 2019

As is traditional, this week’s round-up starts with an imaginary birthday party. After much effort, we have finally managed to light the twenty candles, have agreed our approach to the distribution of the cake, and are waiting in anticipation of the entrance of the birthday “quasi-autonomous non-governmental body”. The door opens. You clear your throat. Here we go…

Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday dear National Institute for Health and Care Excellence,

Happy Birthday to you.

NICE smiles happily. It is no longer a teenager. It has made it to 20 – despite its parents challenging it a few times (cough, Cancer Drug Fund, cough). After the candles have been blown out, someone at the back shouts: “Speech! Speech!”. NICE coughs, thanks everyone politely, and (admittedly slight strangely) takes the opportunity to announce that they are revising their “Social Value Judgements” paper – a document that outlines the principles they use to develop guidance. They then proceed to circle the room, proudly handing out draft copies of the new document- “The principles that guide the development of NICE guidance and standards” (PDF). They look excited. Your fellow guests start to read.

“Surely not?”, “What the … ?”, “Why?” – they don’t seem pleased. You jump into the document. All of this is about process. Where are all the bits about justice, and inequalities, and bioethics, and the rest? “Why have you taken out loads of the good stuff?” you ask. “This is too vague, too procedural”. Your disappointment is obvious to those in the room.

Your phone pings – it’s your favourite WhatsApp group. One of the other guests has already started drafting a “critical friend” paper in the corner of the room. They want to know if you want to be involved. “I’m in”, you respond, “This is important, we need to make sure NICE knows what we think”. Your phone pings again. Another guest is in: “I want to be involved, this matters. Also, this is exactly the kind of paper that will get picked up by the AHE blog. If we are lucky, we might even be the first paper in one of their journal round-ups”. You pause, think, and respond hopefully: “Fingers crossed”.

I don’t know if NICE had an actual birthday party – if they did I certainly wasn’t invited. I also highly doubt that the authors of this week’s first paper, or indeed any paper, had the AHE blog in mind when writing. What I do know, is that the first article is indeed a “critical friend” paper which outlines the authors’ concerns with NICE’s proposal to “revise” (read: delete) their social value judgements guidance. This paper is relatively short, so if you are interested in these changes I suggest you read it, rather than relying on my imaginary birthday party version of their concerns.

I am highly sympathetic to the views expressed in this paper. The existing “social value judgements” document is excellent, and (to me at least) seems to be the gold standard in setting the values by which an HTA body should develop guidance. Reducing this down to solely procedural elements seems unnecessary, and potentially harmful if the other core values are forgotten, or deprioritised.

As I reflect on this paper, I can’t help think of the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. NICE – this ain’t broke.

Measuring survival benefit in health technology assessment in the presence of nonproportional hazards. Value in Health Published 22nd March 2019

Dear HTA bodies that don’t routinely look for violations of proportional hazards in oncology data: 2005 called, they want their methods back.

Seriously though, it’s 2019. Things have moved on. If a new drug has a different mode of action to its comparator, is given for a different duration, or has differing levels of treatment effect in different population subgroups, there are good reasons to think that the trial data for that drug might violate proportional hazards. So why not look? It’s easy enough, and could change the way you think about both the costs and the benefits of that medicine.

If you haven’t worked in oncology before, there is a good chance you are currently asking yourself two questions: “what does proportional hazards mean?” and “why does it matter?”. In massively simplified terms, when we say the hazards in a trial are “proportional” we mean that the treatment effect of the new intervention (typically on survival) is constant over time. If a treatment takes some time to work (e.g. immunotherapies), or is given for only a few weeks before being stopped (e.g. some chemotherapies), there are good reasons to think that the treatment effect of that intervention may vary over time. If this is the case, there will be a violation of proportional hazards (they will be “nonproportional”).

If you are an HTA body, this is important for at least three reasons. First, if hazards are non-proportional, this can mean that the average hazard ratio (treatment effect) from the trial is a poor representation of what is likely to happen beyond the trial period – a big issue if you are extrapolating data in an economic model. Second, if hazards are non-proportional, this can mean that the median survival benefit from the trial is a poor representation of the mean benefit (e.g. in the case of a curve with a “big tail”). If you don’t account for this, and rely on medians (as some HTA bodies do), this can result in your evaluation under-estimating, or over-estimating, the true benefits and costs of the medicine. Third, most approaches to including indirect comparison in economic models rely on proportionality so, if this doesn’t hold, your model might be a poor representation of reality. Given these issues, it makes sense that HTA bodies should be looking for violations in proportional hazards when evaluating oncology data.

In this week’s second paper, the authors review the way different HTA bodies approach the issue of non-proportionality in their methods guides, and in a sample of their appraisals. Of the HTA bodies considered, they find that only NICE (UK), CADTH (Canada), and PBAC (Australia) recommend testing for proportional hazards. Notably, the authors report that the Transparency Committee (France), IQWiG (Germany), and TLV (Sweden) don’t recommend testing for proportionality. Interestingly, despite these recommendations, the authors find that solely the majority of NICE appraisals they reviewed included these tests, and that only 20% of the PBAC appraisals and 8% of the CADTH appraisals did. This suggests that the vast majority of oncology drug evaluations do not include consideration of non-proportionality – a big concern given the issues outlined above.

I liked this paper, although I was a bit shocked at the results. If you work for an HTA body that doesn’t recommend testing for non-proportionality, or doesn’t enforce their existing recommendations, I suggest you think very carefully about this issue – particularly if you rely on the extrapolation of survival curves in your assessments. If you aren’t looking for violations of proportional hazards, there is a good chance that you aren’t reflecting the true costs and benefits of many medicines in your evaluations. So, why not look for them?

The challenge of antimicrobial resistance: what economics can contribute. Science Published 5th April 2019

Health Economics doesn’t normally make it into Science (the journal). If it does, it probably means the paper is an important one. This one certainly is.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is scary – really scary. One source cited in this paper predicts that by 2050, 10 million people a year will die due to AMR. I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty worrying (how’s that for a bit of British understatement?). Given these predicted consequences, you would think that there would be quite a lot of work from economists on this issue. Well, there isn’t. According to this article, there are only 55 papers on EconLit that “broadly relate” to AMR.

This paper contributes to this literature in two important ways. First, it is a call to arms to economists to do more work on AMR. If there are only 55 papers on this topic, this suggests we are only scratching the surface of the issue and could do more as a field contribute to helping solve the problem. Second, it neatly demonstrates how economics could be applied to the problem of AMR – including analysis of both the supply side (not enough new antibiotics being developed) and demand side (too much antibiotic use) of the problem.

In the main body of the paper, the authors draw parallels between the economics of AMR and the economics of climate change: both are global instances of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, both are subject to significant uncertainty about the future, and both are highly sensitive to inter-temporal discounting. They then go on to suggest that many of the ideas developed in the context of climate change could be applied to AMR – including the potential for use of antibiotic prescribing quotas (analogous to carbon quotas) and taxation of antibiotic prescriptions (analogous to the idea of a carbon tax). There are many other ideas in the paper, and if you are interested in these I suggest you take the time to read it in full.

I think this is an important paper and one that has made me think more about the economics of both AMR and, inadvertently, climate change. With both issues, I can’t help but think we might be sleepwalking into a world where we have royally screwed over future generations because we didn’t take the actions we needed to take. If economists can help stop these things happening, we need to act. If we don’t, what will you say in 2050 when you turn on the news and see that 10 million people are dying from AMR each year? That is, assuming you aren’t one of those who has died as a result. Scary stuff indeed.


Simon McNamara’s journal round-up for 21st January 2019

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

Assessing capability in economic evaluation: a life course approach? The European Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] Published 8th January 2019

If you have spent any time on social media in the last week there is a good chance that you will have seen the hashtag #10yearchallenge. This hashtag is typically accompanied by two photos of the poster; one recent, and one from 10 years ago. Whilst the minority of these posts suggest that the elixir of permanent youth has been discovered and is being hidden away by a select group of people, the majority show clear signs of ageing. As time passes, we change. Our skin becomes wrinkled, our hair may become grey, and we may become heavier. What these pictures don’t show, is how we change internally – and I don’t mean biologically. As we become older, and we experience life, so the things we think are important change. Our souls become wrinkled, and our minds become heavier.

The first paper in this week’s round-up is founded on this premise, albeit grounded in the measurement of capability well-being across the life course, rather than a hashtag. The capabilities approach is grounded in the normative judgement that the desirability of policy outcomes should be evaluated by what Sen called the ‘capabilities’ they provide – “the functionings, or the capabilities to function” they give people, where functionings for a person are defined as “the various things that he or she manages to do or be in leading a good life” (Sen, 1993). The author (Joanna Coast) appeals to her, and others’, work on the family of ICECAP measures (capability measures), in order to argue that the capabilities we value changes across the stage of life we are experiencing. For example, she notes that the development work for the ICECAP-A (adults) resulted in the choice of an ‘achievement’ attribute in that instrument, whilst for ICECAP-O (older people) an alternative ‘role’ attribute was used – with the achievement attribute primarily linked to having the ability to make progress in life, and the role attribute linked to having the ability to do things that make you feel valued. Similarly, she notes that the attributes that emerged from development work on the ICECAP-SCM (supportive care – a term for the end of life) are different to those from ICECAP-A (adults), with dignity coming to the forefront as a valued attribute towards the end of life. The author then goes on to suggest that it would be normatively desirable to capture how the capabilities we value changes over the life-course, suggests this could be done with a range of different measures, and highlights a number of problems associated with this (e.g. when does a life-stage start and finish?).

You should read this paper. It is only four pages long and definitely worth your time. If you have spent enough time on social media to know what the #10yearchallenge is, then you definitely have time to read it. I think this is a really interesting topic and a great paper. It has certainly got me thinking more about capabilities, and I will be keeping an eye out for future papers on this in future.

Future directions in valuing benefits for estimating QALYs: is time up for the EQ-5D? Value in Health Published 17th January 2019

If EQ-5D were a person, I think I would be giving it a good hug right now. Every time my turn to write this round-up comes up there seems to be a new article criticising it, pointing out potential flaws in the way it has been valued, or proposing a new alternative. If it could speak, I imagine it would tell us it is doing its best – perhaps with a small tear in its eye. It has done what it can to evolve, it has tried to change, but as we approach its 30th birthday, and exciting new instruments are under development, the authors of the second paper in this week’s round-up question – “Is time up for the EQ-5D?”

If you are interested in the valuation of outcomes, you should probably read this paper. It is a really neat summary of recent developments in the assessment and valuation of the benefits of healthcare, and gives a good indication of where the field may be headed. Before jumping into reading the paper, it is worth dwelling on its title. Note that the authors have used the term “valuing benefits for estimating QALYs” and not “valuing health states for estimating QALYs”. This is telling, and reflects the growing interest in measuring, and valuing, the benefits of healthcare based upon a broader conception of well-being, rather than simply health as represented by the EQ-5D. It is this issue that rests at the heart of the paper, and is probably the biggest threat to the long-term domination of EQ-5D. If it wasn’t designed to capture the things we are now interested in, then why not modify it further, or go back to the drawing board and start again?

I am not going to attempt to cover all the points made in the paper, as I can’t do it justice in this blog; but in summary, the authors review a number of ways this could be done, outline recent developments in the way the subsequent instrument could be valued, and detail the potential advantages, disadvantages, and challenges of moving to a new instrument. Ultimately, the authors conclude that the future of the valuation of outcomes – be that with EQ-5D or something else, depends upon a number of judgements, including whether non-health factors are considered to be relevant when valuing the benefits of healthcare. If they are then EQ-5D isn’t fit for purpose, and we need a new instrument. Whilst the paper doesn’t provide a definitive answer to the question “Is Time Up for the EQ-5D?”, the fact that NICE, the EuroQol group, two of the authors of this paper, and a whole host of others, are currently collaborating on a new measure, which captures both health and non-health outcomes, indicates that EQ-5D may well be nearing the end of its dominance. I look forward to seeing how this work progresses over the next few years.

The association between economic uncertainty and suicide in the short-run. Social Science and Medicine [PubMed] [RePEc] Published 24th November 2018

As I write this, the United Kingdom is 10 weeks away from the date we are due to leave the European Union, and we are still uncertain about how, and potentially even whether, we will finally leave. The uncertainty created by Brexit covers both economic and social spheres, and impacts many of those in the United Kingdom, and many beyond who have ties to us. I am afraid the next paper isn’t a cheery one, but given this situation, it is a timely one.

In the final paper in this round-up, the authors explore the link between economic uncertainty and short-term suicide rates. This is done by linking the UK EPU index of economic uncertainty – an index generated based upon the articles published in 650 UK newspapers – to the daily suicide rates in England and Wales between 2001 and 2015. The authors find evidence of an increase in suicide rates on the days on which the EPU index was higher, and also of a lagged effect on the day after a spike in the index. Over the course of a year, this effect means a one standard deviation increase in the EPU is expected to lead to 11 additional deaths in that year. In comparison to the number of deaths per year from cardiovascular disease, and cancer, this effect is relatively modest, but is nevertheless concerning given the nature of the way in which these people are dying.

I am not going to pretend I enjoyed reading this paper. Technically it is good, and it is an interesting paper, but the topic was just a bit too dark and too relevant to our current situation. Whilst reading I couldn’t help but wonder whether I am going to be reading a similar paper linking Brexit uncertainty to suicide at some point in the future. Fingers crossed this isn’t the case.