Stephen Williams, "the forces of darkness" and Chris Snowdon's vagina
Saturday, May 12, 2012 at 15:15
Simon Clark

If you were unable to attend the debate on plain packaging in Bristol on Thursday you could follow much of it on Twitter:

Ahead of the debate, Stephen Williams MP tweeted:

Another speaker, Dr Gabriel Scally, retired regional director of public health for the South West, also went on Twitter to say:

Later he tweeted:

After the debate he took to Twitter again:

Needless to say it wasn't quite like that. Anti-tobacco campaigners live in a parallel universe where truth plays second fiddle to rampant egos and unrelenting propaganda. Frankly, it's a bit embarrassing.

The reality is this. The event – Plain Packaging: Sensible Health Policy or Nanny State Nonsense – began as a debate but finished as a heated exchange of views between four equally combative speakers, although Williams appeared slightly uncomfortable as fingers were pointed and accusations started to fly!

It was lively and a bit shouty with plain pack supporters very well represented in the audience. Scally will have you believe that "tobacco industry people" were "out in force" but I counted just five representatives of Imperial Tobacco and no-one else from the tobacco industry.

Imperial is based in Bristol and employs hundreds of people in the city. Five people is hardly "out in force". In contrast the tobacco control lobby had clearly rallied their own troops and there were many, many more of them in the audience, including Fiona Andrews, director of Smokefree South West.

We could have tweeted "Tobacco control industry out in force" but that would have been petty. Accurate, but petty.

That said, I thought Scally was the best speaker during the formal part of the debate. He came across as authoritative, if a bit dour. Williams had a less fanatical gleam in his eye (which I would normally applaud) but he was surprisngly weak on plain packaging. Far from making a "powerful case", as Scally tweeted during the debate, the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health seemed to offer very few arguments to support his case.

Overall I think the outcome was a draw. (No vote was taken but unlike some people I'm trying to be objective.) In my view Scally gave the most focused speech, and delivered it with passion. Chris Snowdon and I had our best moments, I thought, during the Q&A session. We had them on the back foot several times and I put this down to the fact that we were able to challenge them directly. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that they found this a bit uncomfortable.

Chris, for example, challenged the idea that he or anyone else who challenges the tobacco control industry must be an apologist for Big Tobacco. He didn't get the apology he demanded but the point was made and, in my view, he won that particular argument.

I would have responded to the "stooge" slur as well but there were other points I wanted to make in the limited time we had. Instead I challenged Scally on the report that the South West smokefree campaign is the "victim" of "sabotage" inspired by - you guessed – the tobacco industry (see previous post).

Again, this seemed to make our opponents (Scally in particular) quite defensive. Afterwards he was anxious to tell me that he had never used the word "sabotage". I accepted this (it would have been rude not to) but someone used the word. After all, it was a direct quote used by the BBC in the headline of its report (Plain cigarette packet 'sabotage' claim). Scally was featured in the report so if the word "sabotage" didn't come from him, where did it come from?

One more thing. In the course of the debate Chris and I discovered that anti-smoking activists like Gabriel Scally find it really, really irritating to be labelled the "tobacco control industry". I'll remember that in future.

More significant, perhaps, was the confession – elicited by a member of the audience – that there is no end to this nanny state nonsense. After tobacco it will be something else. Scally, in particular, didn't deny it. This 'revelation' seemed to surprise some members of the audience and it marked the moment when I felt the tide begin to turn, ever so slightly, in our favour despite the very best efforts of the tobacco control cheerleaders in the audience.

Of course, you don't expect people to change their minds at events like this. People usually leave with the same opinions that they had at the beginning. Interestingly however one member of the audience told me afterwards that before the debate he was in favour of plain packaging but he was now against it because he found our opponents (Scally in particular) too aggressive.

Scally's attitude reminds me of Professor Simon Chapman, the Australian anti-tobacco campaigner. Like Chapman, this is a man with a powerful ego who seems to live in a bubble surrounded by like-minded activists. He therefore believes that people who disagree with him must be stooges of Big Tobacco or what Williams more humorously calls the "forces of darkness".

Fair play, incidentally, to Stephen Williams. He said he would debate with Forest if we could find an independent third party to host the event. We did and he stuck to his word. I may disagree with his views on tobacco control but I give him credit for that.

Before I forget I would like to thank Helen Skinner and Jennifer Salisbury-Jones who made the event possible. Helen founded the Freedom Society at Bristol University (Jennifer will keep it going after Helen graduates in the summer) and it was following a talk I gave to a handful of members in February that they approached the Debating Union and suggested a discussion about plain packaging.

The Debating Union, led by Will Moulding, ran with the idea but it was Helen who encouraged them to invite Stephen Williams.

I am also indebted to plain pack supporter Suzi Gage for a series of live tweets on the debate. Here's a taste of what she tweeted while Scally and I were speaking:

I particularly liked her correspondence with Dick Puddlecote on the subject of Forest paying for the pre-debate drinks:

Last but not least, can someone – Chris Snowdon, perhaps – tell me what the following tweet is about? Did I miss something?

Oh, and here's something else I missed:

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