Thursday 11 October 2012

Talking prohibition with Conservatives

I came back from the Conservative Party Conference yesterday, having said a few words at Forest's Liberty Lounge event and watched Alex Deane, Deborah Arnott and others debating whether prohibition ever works (yes, that was the motion).

The latter event was really quite depressing. The actual motion was only seriously discussed by a couple of participants. A woman from the British Beer and Pub Association gave a perfectly sensible speech, including a reminder than alcohol consumption is falling and that the smoking ban has "devastated" British pubs, but it had nothing to do with prohibition. Deborah Arnott rolled up half an hour late (stuck on the M6—presumably her broomstick broke down) and hijacked the event to talk about plain packs (as she did last time I saw her speak).

Also in attendance was a doctor whose name escapes me who gave a rather non-descript speech in which she said she believed in a middle ground between prohibition and legalisation. As a simple matter of fact, there is no such middle ground. Prohibition means abolishing the industry (drinks industry, heroin industry, whatever). If she was referring to the miserable hypocrisy of decriminalisation, it should be noted that alcohol was decriminalised during American Prohibition, ie. it was not an offence to possess or consume it. It was only an offence to manufacture, distribute and sell alcohol. Anyone who claims to be against prohibition but is in favour of destroying the tobacco industry or abolishing the food industry doesn't know the meaning of the word.

The interesting parts of the debate involved Alex Deane's arguments with John Glen and the audience. Alex needed to do no more than reiterate John Stuart Mill's harm principle to be seen as a dangerous radical by the medical Tories and he induced gasps of horror when he said that there is nothing wrong with getting drunk. (Incidentally, if you really want to see binge-drinking, go to any of the party conferences. Politicians who are against cheap alcohol appear to have no problem with free alcohol #hypocrites.)

The medics resented Alex for bringing what they saw as fancy-pants philosophy into matters of public health, and yet the question of whether the state should act to deter people from consuming booze, tobacco and drugs is very much a philosophical one. Public health people usually wish to sidestep the intellectual debate. Perhaps this is because they feel they would lose it, but I am increasingly of the opinion that they cannot even get their heads around it. They simply reject the notion that there should be any limit to state regulation if their computer models tell them that it would "save lives". The idea that liberty has value in itself, or that it is rational for individuals to balance risk against benefits, is alien to them. The belief that longevity is the single aim towards which all government policy must be directed is taken as read. If they condemn Prohibition or the War on Drugs, it is only because they did not and do not 'work', not because they are a violation of people's rights. The implication is that prohibition would be the perfect solution if only there was sufficient enforcement and surveillance to make people obey.

The most disheartening moment came towards the end when Julia Manning, the head of 2020Health and a former Conservative Party candidate, spoke from the floor. I have said before that the temperance lobby is on a mission to reject the vast amount of evidence showing that moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial to health. It is also set on convincing people that even one drink is bad for you. That is exactly what Manning said: that every drink increases the risk of cancer and the health benefits of drinking are between zero and negligible. She even denied that alcohol consumption reduced mortality from cardiovascular diseases.

This was such an outrageous lie that even the folk who had sat quietly while Deborah Arnott told them that smoking bans slash heart attacks challenged her. Richard Peto's 1997 study was mentioned, but Manning glibly replied that this had been overtaken by more recent research. This, too, is a lie (for example, see the large meta-analysis in the BMJ last year). I guess if you are a Conservative and a doctor you can say whatever you like because you know best.

The reason I have predicted that the 'no safe level of alcohol' and 'alcohol has no medicinal benefit' claims will gather pace in the years ahead—despite plenty of evidence that they are lies—is because they were two of the core beliefs of the nineteenth century temperance movement. They were integral to the nonsense of Scientific Temperance Instruction and they helped clear the way for full Prohibition in the twentieth century. It is therefore fitting that this meeting of prohibitionists-in-denial concluded with two of the classic prohibitionist myths returning from the grave.

(To read more about the resurgence of these myths, see previous posts Towards Zero, David Nutt shows his true colours and Teetotallers die younger, don't let 'em fool you.)


Straight after pressing 'publish' I saw that Simon Clark has also written a post about the debate.

According to Manning (who was sitting in the audience) even one alcoholic drink increases the risk to our health. Chris Snowdon, sitting next to me, muttered, "That's what the prohibitionists in America used to say."

Do go read it.


Jonathan Bagley said...

Did anyone challenge Arnott when she claimed smoking bans slashed heart attacks?

Christopher Snowdon said...

I muttered "rubbish" loud enough to be heard, but that was it.

Ivan D said...

Don't get too depressed Chris. Outside very narrow public health circles I believe that people are getting the message that Arnott is a liar and a truly wretched excuse for a human being.

As for the failed medics now in politics /journalism, how can anybody trust them? Most people don't especially like the medical profession for obvious reasons so why listen to its dropouts?

Anonymous said...

I admire your patience, Chris. I doubt I could be in the same room as Arnott without succumbing to the temptation of wanting to punch her in the head. Repeatedly.

Anonymous said...

Chris spot on. These people live in a delusional world no doubt!