Protection of the Public Interest from Tobacco Lobbying Bill

[Speaking during Second Stage of my Private Member's Bill - Protection of the Public Interest from Tobacco Lobbying Bill 2013]

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I am delighted to have an opportunity to present this Bill this evening. I am honoured that the Minister has come to the House to deal with this legislation. I am sure the Government’s response to it will be positive. I hope the Protection of the Public Interest from Tobacco Lobbying Bill 2013 will be seen as part of the legislative process that this Oireachtas, led by the Minister, is achieving to curtail the evils of tobacco.

The best part of my job is giving cancer patients good news. Thankfully, due to improvements in treatment I get to give that news more often than I did before. Nothing sounds better than saying “I think you are cured”. The worst part of my job is giving people bad news. All too often, it is the worst news they will ever hear in their lives – the news that they have an incurable fatal illness. Every day in Ireland, five people get the news that they have incurable fatal lung cancer. In 95% of cases, their illness was caused by smoking. The dreadful news that these poor people receive is compounded by the realisation that it was all so unnecessary.

Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in Ireland and other western countries. In addition to cancers of the lung, throat, tongue, mouth, oesophagus, pancreas and bladder, it is a major cause of the other two leading causes of death in Ireland – heart disease and stroke. It is also a leading contributor to gangrene and peripheral vascular disease. Emphysema and other forms of chronic lung disease kill 1,500 Irish patients annually and condemn others to a life of misery and curtailed physical function, in which they are fixed to oxygen apparatuses and unable to move.

Tobacco kills approximately 100 times more Irish people annually than illegal drugs. If it was discovered tomorrow, it would surely be illegal. Everyone knows smoking is bad for one. Everyone has heard the message about smoking and cancer. Most smokers want to quit.

Why do otherwise rational people continue to smoke when it is contrary to their own self-interest? To put it simply, it is addiction. Tobacco companies must recruit 50 new tobacco addicts daily just to replace the deaths that are caused by their own products. In 80% of cases, these novice smokers are children. Big tobacco will deny the reality that its business plan can be summed up in four words: “addict children to carcinogens”. Big tobacco wants more people to start smoking and wants existing smokers to keep smoking, whereas public health policy is aimed at reducing and ultimately eliminating tobacco use and putting the tobacco industry out of business in the process. For these reasons, the goals of public health and those of big tobacco are fundamentally incompatible. Their relationship must be perpetually adversarial and unremittingly hostile. How else could a responsible Government react to an industry that is responsible for the deaths of thousands of its citizens?

Big tobacco is not and cannot be the Government’s partner in any sort of enterprise. Big tobacco has just one agenda: it wants to sell tobacco. It is incredibly rich and terrifyingly powerful. Its worldwide sales of 350 billion cigarettes translate into profits of €35 billion. It is not surprising that big tobacco does everything in its power to thwart the tobacco control policies of democratic Governments. Historically, its weapons were the denial of health risks and spurious pseudo-research. For many years, and in the face of a crushing weight of evidence, it absurdly contended that smoking does not cause cancer. When an increasingly sophisticated population began to reject big tobacco’s lies, it turned to more subtle weapons, including lobbying, legal intimidation and bribery.

During Ireland’s EU Presidency, the Minister for Health’s innovative pan-European anti-smoking proposals were watered down following intense lobbying of parliamentarians. The New York Times reported recently that American tobacco companies, cognisant of the fact that their traditional markets in western countries are continuing to shrink, are actively attempting to undermine efforts to introduce anti-smoking legislation in developing countries. Uruguay and Namibia have found themselves facing multi-billion euro lawsuits and years of litigation. The reach of big tobacco is such that it has managed to enlist some very strange allies. The US Chamber of Commerce has campaigned against the Minister’s plain packaging laws. It is rumoured that officials from the US Government have expressed displeasure with the Minister’s innovative proposal to introduce plain packaging.

The World Health Organization of the United Nations has passed a directive to provide an appropriately transparent framework for the conduct of meetings between Governments and the industry in situations where such meetings are felt to be unavoidable. Ireland is a signatory. The directive strongly discourages such meetings, stating that there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the interests of the tobacco industry and those of public policy. It stipulates that where interactions with the tobacco industry are necessary, they should be conducted transparently, preferably in public. Ireland has signed up to this convention, but I fear that it has not always lived up to it.

Senators will recall that the heads of the leading tobacco companies, as represented by the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers Advisory Committee, managed to get a 45-minute private audience with the Taoiseach and the Ministers for Finance and Justice and Equality earlier this year. I refer specifically to Steven Donaldson, Andrew Meagher and John Freda, who are the chiefs of PJ Carroll, John Player and Japan Tobacco International, respectively. The Minister for Health wisely and correctly declined to attend. I commend him for his wisdom in this regard. This meeting was ostensibly an opportunity for these businessmen to inform the Government of their concerns regarding tobacco smuggling. It was described by a spokesman for the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers Advisory Committee as “very positive”. Worryingly, it was reported that other matters were discussed, including the industry’s opposition to the Minister for Health’s proposals to tighten the anti-smoking regulations, for example by banning menthol roll-ups. These issues, rather than the issue of smuggling, are the ones that are close to the industry’s heart and constitute its real agenda.

How did this meddling cartel of drug dealers get access to senior Fine Gael Ministers? Which lobbyists could pull off a stunt like this? The Irish Tobacco Manufacturers Advisory Committee’s public relations activities are handled by Hall Communications and its anti-smuggling campaign is managed by O’Herlihy Communications, which was founded by Bill O’Herlihy. Mr. O’Herlihy, who has extensive Fine Gael connections and who acted as public relations adviser to my personal hero in Irish politics, the late Dr. Garret FitzGerald, also attended this meeting. In two years in Leinster House, I have succeeded in scheduling exactly one 20-minute formal meeting with the Minister for Health to discuss cancer research. I tried to lobby the Minister for Finance to remove VAT from cancer-preventing sunblock in a rushed whispered conversation in the Dáil Visitors’ Gallery. I would kill to get 45 minutes of facetime with the Taoiseach and other senior Ministers.

Given that the Taoiseach and these Ministers are good men who would support tobacco control, how did this meeting happen? The smuggling explanation just does not wash. After all, the principal commercial victims of tobacco smuggling are retailers, not manufacturers.

Smuggling does not hurt big tobacco. Big tobacco likes and benefits from smuggling. How does this happen? In the majority of cases, the smuggled products are the companies’ own products ultimately purchased at full price from them. The purpose of smuggling is not to deny the companies their commercial profit but to deny the Exchequer tax revenue. Furthermore, the availability of cheap cigarettes sold in an unregulated environment facilitates the recruitment of new under age child and teenage smokers. I would go further. If the Government genuinely thought this meeting was about smuggling, it was duped. I believe this is what happened. There was also likely a degree of social pressure, doing a good turn for a lobbyist who was a loyal party activist in his day.

This legislation, which directly translates into law an international agreement to which we signed up, would have the effect of clarifying any ambiguity over any contacts of this type. It would eliminate the ambiguity which facilitated the Government meeting the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers’ Advisory Committee. It is simple and should be supported. This Bill does not ban meetings. That would be unconstitutional but the process is made transparent. There must be two weeks’ notice and the attendees must be known in advance. The Minister for Health must nominate the chairperson of the meeting. The agenda of the meeting must be published in advance. Any deviation results in prosecution, which can result in fines and imprisonment. How could anyone oppose this Bill?

In this context, what is the track record of this Government, which has a campaigning and committed anti-tobacco Minister for Health, in respect of anti-smoking legislation? If this Bill is rejected, we will have a very strange league table for tobacco legislation in the lifetime of this Government by the end of 2013. After nearly three years in office, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition will have had the opportunity to deal with four pieces of tobacco control legislation. Two of these have been Private Members’ Bills which I have introduced, one of which is today’s Bill. The other Bill would have banned smoking in cars with children and was supported by Senators van Turnhout and Daly. I should mention that Senators Barrett and van Turnhout are my supporters and I am grateful to them for their support for today’s Bill. The other two Bills have been Government Bills, only one of which has been passed into law. I understand how this has happened. It has not been the Minister’s wish. I suspect he has done it through clenched teeth and with seething rage. The only Bill that has been passed has been one that has made it easier to sell cheap tobacco to kids. It was forced on us by the European authorities and the commercial authorities. Shame on them for making us do this.

I completely support the Minister’s other Bill, which would introduce mandatory plain packaging with explicit health warnings. It is still working its way through the bureaucracy but it will not be law until 2014 at the earliest. Let us take a minute to talk about the proposal on smoking in cars containing children. That Bill was kindly agreed to by the Minister a year and a half ago and it is still terminally glued up in the bureaucracy. For that reason, I and Senators Daly and van Turnhout will be advancing it again tomorrow on Committee Stage.

The Minister has the opportunity to cement Ireland’s reputation as an innovative country in tobacco control. The message from this Chamber will go out tonight because the forces of evil are looking at Ireland. We have had spurious pseudo-libertarian and pseudo-civil rights groups setting up meetings in this country and pressure is mounting from all sides from the lobbying groups because they realise that if we bring in really draconian and restrictive legislation, others will follow our precedent. I have a business card here. The name on it is Cheryl Cullen, who is corporate affairs manager at JTI Ireland Limited whose headquarters are on the Old Belgard Road in Tallaght. The phone number and e-mail address are available. This was found in the Seanad Chamber.

I commend this Bill. I earnestly implore the Minster to accept it. We have been very careful in framing the Bill legally to ensure it is within our Constitution. It is nothing we have not signed up to. All it does is enforce regulation and transparency in an area where very dark – literally smoke-filled room – activities take place.

LINK to Minister Reilly’s response:

… I thank the Minister. I do not like to be cast in an adversarial role with him vis-à-vis any tobacco control issue, as I know his heart is absolutely in the right place. …..

The Minister’s arguments against the Bill seem to fall along four main lines: it is unprecedented and we would be the first; we are disproportionately criminalising; it is unconstitutional; and he plans to introduce similar reforms anyway. Being first is good. Prior to 1964 no government had ever stated as government policy that smoking caused cancer or acknowledged a link. The US Surgeon General was the first person to do so in 1964; he was not the last. In 2004, Deputy Martin was the first Minister for Health and Children to have an entire country rendered smoke-free in the workplace. He was the first – there was no precedent – but he was not the last. This is now the norm throughout the world. In 2013, Australia was the first country to state it would introduce a blanket ban on pictorial logo depictions on cigarettes and to introduce mandatory plain packaging; it will not be the last. I am very happy and proud that Ireland, under the Minister’s leadership, will be the second and we will not be the last. This will be the policy in many countries around the world.

Similarly with lobbying, let us be the first; I promise we will not be the last. If we pass this Bill, it will ring around the world as another onslaught in the worldwide battle against tobacco and recognition of the problem lobbying causes in Washington, Brussels, Strasbourg, London, Tokyo, Dublin and elsewhere.

On criminality, we have already criminalised certain aspects of smoking-related behaviour. We have criminalised advertising. A company cannot advertise tobacco products in the broadcast media. We have criminalised the sale of tobacco to children. We have criminalised smoking in the workplace. We have done all this before. There is nothing unprecedented about us criminalising illicit contacts between Government officials and the tobacco industry. On the disproportionality of the criminality, let us be blunt; the tobacco industry imposed the death penalty on our citizens. There is nothing disproportionate about us criminalising any part of its activities.

What about the constitutionality? Is it wrong or illicit for us to ban assembly or speech? We do it all the time. We do not allow politicians to discuss criminal cases with judges. We sequester juries completely to keep them away. There are plenty of precedents for limiting for society’s benefit what would otherwise be untrammelled freedom of speech.

The last part of this is the most painful part and I ask the Minister not to take it personally. I, better than most, have some understanding of how difficult it is to get health reforms to work through that gluey, treacly bureaucracy that is our health system. The Minister has told us he opposes the Bill because he will introduce something else. Sadly, the track record is not great in this regard. It is nearly two years since we initiated the Protection of Children’s Health from Tobacco Smoke Bill. I just do not trust the bureaucracy to let this thing happen quickly enough.

In addition, people have talked about smoke-free campuses. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children voted against making the Houses of the Oireachtas a smoke-free campus. That committee had another vote recently – I will not go into who voted which way – to invite representatives of the tobacco to address the committee, which I very much oppose. If we buy into the line that we cannot do this because we might face a subsequent legal challenge, we are laying ourselves down prostrate in the face of legal intimidation by the tobacco companies. When their arguments that smoking does not cause cancer and that nicotine is not addictive were shown to be spurious, they then resorted to all these legal challenges.

Let a message ring out from Seanad Éireann, from Oireachtas Éireann, from Dublin, from our democracy that we are going to tackle the problem of tobacco lobbying and introduce a strategy which I know will be copied and emulated around the world. I commend the Bill to the House.

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