I suppose that shouldn't come as much as a surprise considering it was chaired by the polished and entertaining Andrew Neil, who I understand owns the Speccie, but the venue and panel members were top notch too which only served to complement Neil's suave overseeing of proceedings.
I have to mention that I'd arrived early and so enjoyed a perfect waste of time in the locality at a pretty perfect pub for my particular interests. If you're ever in the Temple area of London, do check out the Edgar Wallace, as well as being an unapologetically traditional pub it's also an awesome treasure trove of hedonistic memorabilia.
Anyway, I digress. Arriving at the venue we were directed to a rather impressive library for pre-debate drinks, a stepping stone between the traditional and the modern.
And, half an hour later, were politely herded into the state-of-the-art, bells and whistles conference arena known as the Turing Lecture Theatre for the main event.
The speakers - as much as I could work out - were divided into three who believed health advice to be mostly trustworthy and three who mostly didn't (having said that, there were unconfirmed rumours that one of those in favour had changed their mind a few days before the event, I'll leave you to guess which).
First up was Dr Ellie Cannon of the Mail on Sunday who highlighted the slip slop slap campaign in Australia as a great piece of public health advice which raised awareness of the dangers of sun exposure and encouraged people to think about protection.
|Dr Ellie Cannon|
If that statement above sounds like opinion, yes it's supposed to be. This is a blog, it's kinda what such things are all about.
When she had finished, Andrew Neil, as is his style, peered over his glasses at the notes he had been making and asked Dr Ellie what she thought of Sally Davies's modern guidance that only "six and eight teaspoons (35ml) of sun cream per application" should be applied when in the sun. As I recall, she was fairly non-committal, but next speaker Dr Christian Jessen of Embarrassing Bodies fame was far more forthright.
Andrew Neil: Dr Christian, what do you think of the CMO's advice to only use six teaspooons of sun cream?Now, Dr Christian was a bit of a conundrum on the night.
Dr Christian: Batshit crazy!
|Dr Christian Jessen|
At #HealthDebate @DoctorChristian rips into detractors of #ecigs and congratulates @cjsnowdon for using his— Dick Puddlecote (@Dick_Puddlecote) February 9, 2016
Indeed he is correct about that and his words carried the added advantage of legitimising any vaper on the panel or the audience who was using one on the night too. Which was nice of him.
His contribution was to say that sometimes health advice is good, sometimes it is awful. He also pointed out that when celebrities get involved it is quite wrong and they should really shut their traps (a certain gobby rotund TV chef comes to mind).
This theme was echoed by Spectator Health editor Max Pemberton who also leaped to the defence of science on health.
The baton was then passed to Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, a man so condemnatory about shonky health advice that he wrote a book about it.
|Dr Michael Fitzpatrick in full flow|
I've seen him before and he was as box office as usual, so much so that Neil was forced to stop him as he more than strayed over his seven minute time slot. Neil also saw an opportunity to poke at Fitzpatrick's mistrust of just about all health advice, but it didn't really work.
Neil: Whose medical advice do you follow Dr?This prompted Dr Ellie to bring up the slip slop slap thing again and ask if Fitz uses sun cream when on holiday. A fair point which broke his momentum for a few seconds, but he countered by pointing out that the simplicity and unconfrontational nature of that campaign was why it had been taken on board by most people since.
Fitzpatrick: I avoid all of it!
Next up - and my personal favourite on the night - was Dr Richard Harding, a member of the 1995 committee which came up with the previous alcohol consumption guidelines. He was so calm and laid back that you could almost have missed the subtle contempt he has for Sally Davies and her ridiculous "no safe level of alcohol consumption" nonsense.
"Last month's alcohol guidelines overplayed risks and downplayed benefits", says Harding #HealthDebate pic.twitter.com/hlRjZD9Q79— Dick Puddlecote (@Dick_Puddlecote) February 9, 2016
As someone who has studied the subject for many years, he joins a long list of people who think Backbone Sally is a raving lunatic, he was just very nice about it.
Last on the stand was Chris Snowdon (who has released the basis of his contribution here). Central to his point was that 'public health' stubbornly refuses to accept that settled science on moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial to health.
Highlighting the difference between useful health advice and 'public health' lobbying posing as health advice, he finished with a revealing admission acquired by FOI request.
I'm sure we'll hear more of that in time, and very much look forward to it.
A lively Q&A followed - impeccably marshalled by Andrew Neil - and I did get to ask my question of Max Pemberton. It went something like this.
Max, you place great faith in public health science and state that the media misrepresent it, but - and I think Dr Christian will have knowledge of this example - how about a recent study into e-cigarettes where the paper said one thing and the press release by the researchers declared something completely different and led to damaging headlines in the press?Dr Christian did, indeed, back me up but said he couldn't remember what the abuse of science was (it was this)
Sadly, Pemberton seemed to misunderstand the question so just re-emphasised that science is good and media bad, oh yeah and celebrities shouldn't get involved. Andrew Neil, however, did understand and pressed him more, asking how we can trust scientists if they release biased opinions to the media. Max conceded that was wrong if it was happening but that it was rare.
So, with a customarily professional summing up of proceedings by Neil, the audience exited into the February night and went their separate ways. Myself, I ended up in quite salubrious surroundings with like-minded people for a few more beverages and enthusiastic chat.
And that's how I came across a fitting postscript to the night's event. While discarding my warm clothing and settling into my seat, I put my iStick on the table only for a staff member to see it and advise me that "smoking is not allowed here". I naturally replied "that's fine because I won't be smoking" and he walked off utterly confused.
If you want proof that health advice is not to be trusted, there it is. Over a decade of e-cigarettes being in use in the UK yet misinformation and ideological junk science has not only led to ignorance-led bans on their use, but also the people entrusted to enforce the bans are woefully ill-educated about what they are and how to refer to them.
Kinda suggests that health advice is not really doing what it is supposed to and - as it is currently communicated - isn't enlightening the public as it should be, don't you think?
See also: The Speccie's account of the evening here.