Wednesday's debate in Dublin answered a few questions, even if they were not the questions we went there to ask. The debate was titled 'How to really stop people smoking' and it provided an opportunity to discuss harm reduction and to look at best practice around the world. 'Best practice' here means countries which have actually reduced their smoking rates dramatically, rather than countries like Ireland which make much of their aspiration to become 'smoke-free' despite the manifest failure and unintended consequences of the neo-prohibitionist approach.
The radio interviews I did to promote the event, as well as my conversations with Dubliners, suggested that this was a topic worth discussing. All are aware of the country's epic levels of tobacco smuggling and can see with their own eyes that smoking remains very common indeed. In my first radio appearance of the day, I debated with Dr John Crown. Like many medics, John Crown holds himself in high esteem. He is also a politician. The combination of these two occupations makes it virtually inevitable that he has an authoritarian streak a mile wide and believes that his lifestyle preferences should be mandatory. He is a prohibitionist, but like most modern prohibitionists he rejects the P word, insisting that he "only" wants a ban on the sale of tobacco "for profit". A little history would teach him that the Anti-Saloon League only wanted a ban on alcohol for profit—and that is precisely what they got. Consumption, domestic production and supply for medical and religious reasons remained legal.
Anti-smoking zealots only know two tunes. If it isn't "children, children, children" it is "industry, industry, industry". On this occasion, Crown goes for the latter, thankful that the IEA believes that tobacco companies' money is as good as anyone else when it comes to donations and harrumphing about 'Big Tobacco'. He does not, however, behave psychotically in the studio and shakes my hand afterwards as I tell him I'll see him later, for he is on the panel at the main event.
As night falls, however, Crown's mood also darkens. What follows is one of the most infantile displays I have seen since puberty. Arriving at the venue—the Royal College of Physicians Ireland—he refuses to shake anybody's hand or to be photographed, instead charging towards the chair of the debate, the former politician and current radio host Ivan Yates, with a string of complaints. Yates is the soul of Irish charm and endures the rant gracefully. Crown demands that he speak first and the chairman complies. Speaking first is no great advantage in a debate. It is better to hear all the other panellist's views and then have the last word, demolishing opponents' arguments as you go. Since Crown insists on going first, I assume he is going to vent spleen and walk out.
Vent spleen he does. Instead of addressing the question of whether Irish tobacco control legislation works, he gave a potted history of the worst aspects of the American tobacco industry circa 1950-85 and explained that smoking was really, really bad. He then argued that the tobacco industry has moved from disputing the smoking-cancer link to emphasising civil liberties. That is where the IEA comes in. Since it is unthinkable to him that anyone sincerely believes in self-ownership and personal freedom, he concludes—or at least strongly implies—that anyone who says that grown adults have the right to smoke or vape must do so for money. There is, he says, no debate to be had. Smoking is dreadful and anything that is done in the name of reducing its prevalence is righteous. He does not dwell on the fundamental question of whether these things actually do what the campaigners claim they will.
Crown then leaves the stage, not to exit the hall but to sit in the front row. He whips out an iPhone and iPad and conspicuously flicks through them as the other speakers take the microphone. I then realise that he has elected to go first not to win the debate but so that he didn't have to hear—and respond to—the other panellist's evidence. I speak next, asking why it was that a country that had passed every piece of 'evidence-based' tobacco control legislation in the book had "stubbornly high" smoking rates (as the Irish Cancer Society put it) and why "children start smoking in Ireland at a younger age than any other country in Europe" (as Barnado's puts it). I contrast the neo-prohibitionist model with the harm reduction model in a way that will be familiar to readers of this blog.
The man-child Crown continues to sulk in the front row, still immersed in his Apple products. Jeff Stier and Axel Klein follow, throwing further pearls upon the swine. Thereafter, Crown looks up from his technology only when fellow travellers in the audience chip in with empty rhetoric. They seem incapable of beginning any comment without resorting to clichés, as if a room of intelligent adults need reminding of the health risks of smoking. "Tobacco kills half of its life-long users" is a particular favourite, despite it being manifestly untrue of every tobacco product bar cigarettes. Kathleen O'Meara, head of advocacy (ie. lobbying) at the Irish Cancer Society, takes the microphone and goes into a diatribe. She arrived after the panellists had spoken and announces that she will be leaving after making her statement (statement, mind, not question). As good as her word, she then storms out. Like Crown, she has never been told that we are born with two ears and one mouth for a reason.
John Mallon—who has written a good account of the evening—lightens the mood by trying to speak to the health lobby as human beings. As a smoker, he is the hunted, but he remains polite and gracious in the face of the hunters and his affability sits in stark contrast to the purse-lipped, lemon-sucking zealots.
Rooted to his seat, but with microphone in hand, Crown pipes up a couple more times to say that he wants e-cigarettes available only on prescription. He then reveals an appalling ignorance of the epidemiological evidence regarding snus and cancer. It appears that he knows nothing about the product, perhaps unsurprisingly since Ireland banned it thirty years ago, but unforgivably for a man who claims authority on the subject.
And so the question presented was never answered. But the question of how Ireland has been lumbered with so much ill-considered and counter-productive legislation was answered in spades. One only needed to see Crown and O'Meara in action to understand that this is something akin to a religious cult, immune to reason and living evidence, that can only be sustained by endless ad hominems and by keeping their fingers firmly in their ears.
I'm now off to Exeter to debate whether we should scrap the BBC licence fee, presumably at the behest of my shadowy paymasters at ITV.