In the past fortnight I've spoken in two debates, firstly about plain packaging in Bristol and then, last week, against Peter Hitchens on the subject of drugs.
The plain packaging issue does not easily lend itself to an exciting debate, partly because most people don't care about it, but also because it necessarily relies on a certain amount of conjecture. Although plain pack proponents claim to have evidence that their policy will 'work', in reality they have nothing apart from the obvious findings of surveys in which people say that ugly packs look uglier than less ugly packs. There is no shred of evidence that anyone has ever started smoking because they like the look of a cigarette pack and it is patronising to say otherwise.
Without any serious evidence to consider, the debate ultimately relies on one set of untested predictions (it will make smoking less appealing, it will reduce the smoking rate) against another set (it will help the illicit trade, it will create a slippery slope, it won't affect the smoking rate). We can use common sense and history to tell us which of these is more likely—I think there is a strong prima facie case for accepting the latter—but neither proposition can be proven beyond doubt.
I find the slippery slope argument to be compelling based on countless precedents, but I oppose the policy on its own terms. As a believer in free markets and property rights, I oppose the plain packaging of any product under any circumstance I can think of. Above all, I am against prohibition and I see plain packaging as a step towards that vile outcome. If plain pack campaigners were more honest, they would admit that making the product near-invisible through display bans and plain packaging is a step towards the 'endgame' of total criminalisation. Alas, prohibitionists are rarely honest and they are unlikely to countenance that debate until it is too late.
Stephen Williams MP was less egregious and more genial than I expected, but then I suppose you learn not to be outwardly hostile to strangers if you're a politician. He spent most of his speech reminding the audience (potential voters) that he was a good local man with strong ties to the university in which the debate was held.
I had no expectations about Gabriel Scally, but if I had he would have disappointed me. He is, and a fortnight later presumably still is, an unpleasant individual—dour, self-righteous, puritanical and illiberal—just as you would expect from a doctor who stopped trying to heal the sick 25 years ago to become a professional scold. If you want to know what he said, find ASH's press release 'myths about plain packaging'. He read it verbatim until he ran out of time.
Much more interesting than what Scally said during the debate was what he had been saying beforehand. A few days earlier he had been complaining to the media about the tobacco industry "sabotaging" the Department of Health's plain packaging campaign by making vexatious freedom of information requests. These FOI requests had been made to various primary care trusts, asking how much taxpayers' money was being given to the pro-plain pack campaign.
I was surprised that Scally would want to pick at this particular scab because it was not widely known that there was a Department of Health campaign for a policy about which the government claims to have an open mind. Furthermore, the sums of money involved are very large (£100,000s and very probably north of a million). The man in the street is not too keen on having his money spent on government propaganda—he would prefer it to be spent on things like nurses and hospital equipment—so the state-funded activists would have been well advised to keep a low profile.
Furthermore, the PCTs were not exactly being inundated with FOI requests. Apparently there were only a couple of dozen and they all asked the same simple question that could be dealt with in a matter of minutes. Finally, and most importantly, the senders of these requests were not 'Big Tobacco' but our very own Dick Puddlecote - who runs a small transport company - and some of his readers.
What are FOI requests for if not to allow members of the public to find out how their taxes are being spent? Scally portrayed the tobacco control industry as a shoestring operation staffed by selfless volunteers who were prevented from carrying out their essential work by fantastically rich and malevolent industrialists. This, as one audience member spotted, cut little ice with me.
I discovered that Scally very much resents the term 'anti-smoking industry' to describe the multi-billion dollar enterprise that spans the globe employing thousands of petit prohibitionists, so I must remember to use it more often. This is a man who is so self-righteous that the idea that ordinary people might oppose an idea that—never forget—was not on the radar of the most extreme anti-smoking zealots five years ago has probably never even occurred to him. As someone who has only ever been employed by the state, he presumably believes that he has a divine right to the hundreds of thousands of pounds being squandered on this political advertising campaign. As a socialist and a pencil-pushing ex-quack, the idea that there should be any limit on government power strikes him as alien, even laughable. It wasn't that he disagreed with property rights, or free markets, or the efficient use of taxpayers' money. It was more that he didn't recognise them even as abstract concepts, let alone understand why anybody might value them.
I'll say less about the Hitchens debate as it will be available to view on Youtube shortly so you can make your own mind up. Suffice it to say that Hitchens is a prohibitionist and makes no bones about it. Consequently, I have a great deal more respect for him than I do for slithy toves like Scally (the feeling may not be mutual; I hear that he left in a huff). But even Hitchens dresses up his dislike of drugs in the clothes of public health, citing the inconclusive evidence about cannabis and mental health when he makes his case for throwing pot-smokers in gaol. As the evening wore on, it became clearer that prohibtion is for him a moral crusade, just as my opposition to prohibition is largely based on morality. I, however, also have pragmatism and consequentialism on my side, since the war on drugs is not only morally indefensible but also happens to be enormously harmful, physically, socially and economically.
One moment stands out from each of these two debates. During the plain packaging event, a member of the audience asked where it would all end? Once the most hazardous product (cigarettes) had been dealt with, there would be a new public enemy number one. Would this new top threat be dealt with in the same way, and then the threat below that? And if not, why not?
The question was directed at Williams and Scally. Williams, if I recall correctly, gave a non-descript answer about cigarettes being uniquely dangerous. Scally could have followed his lead and deflected the question, but he could not resist talking about the evils of alcohol and the 'epidemic' of obesity. Essentially, he acknowledged that the public health crusade would never end because there would always be new battles to fight. The audience was visibly unnerved by this open admission of the oft-denied 'domino theory'.
In the drugs debate, someone in the audience mentioned street drugs being adulterated with rat poison. This is almost certainly a myth. Drug dealers have no incentive to kill their customers and most overdoses are the result of drugs being too pure, not too contaminated. Nevertheless, Hitchens responded by embracing the idea of poisoning drug-users and said that he would like to see more rat poison turning up in the heroin supply. With this one comment, the mask of the health campaigner slipped from his face to reveal something uglier and, again, the audience was turned off.
I mention these two incidents to illustrate a point about debating with prohibitionists. Their ideas are basically evil and it doesn't greatly matter what you say. All you have to do is wait for them to tell the truth.