Plain Packaging for Cigarettes

[Speaking in the Seanad during Second Stage of the Public Health (Standardised Packaging of Tobacco) Bill]

I welcome the Minister. This is a very good day for him. I laud his efforts in public health and I think he will be remembered for the good work he has done on these two Bills, among other aspects of his good work.

Some 5,000 per year is the figure. Let us put a perspective on that. This is a little country of 4.5 million people and we lose 5,000 per year from smoking. We are all aware of the appropriate level of national introspection the US has had over the loss of its young military men and women in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars it has collectively referred to as the “war on terror”. In ten years, the US has lost approximately the same number of people as we lose every year from smoking. That is a country of roughly 80 times our population. Therefore, it puts a perspective on the scale of the loss. Everybody has to die. Some of the folks who die from smoking are old folks who may get other illnesses within a few years in any case but many deaths are from preventable causes. Many of them, by definition, are premature causes of death. This sets the context.

We are in a war against terror, the terror of the tobacco industry. We are and should be implacable and irreconcilable foes. There is nothing they want that we do not want to oppose. There is no partnership, no meeting of minds, no common ground. The fundamental core of what they want to do is opposed to what we, as thinking members of society charged with the well-being of the public, want to do. They want people to smoke whereas we want them to stop. There is no common ground. We must be blunt about this. The lack of common ground extends all the way down the tobacco chain. What do we want for the tobacco companies? The answer is bankruptcy. We want them gone. We want them out of business. If they do not have the wisdom and the good judgment to reinvest their financial and capital assets into other areas we would prefer if every one of them went out of business tomorrow. If collectively the entire world had a colossal burst of messianic insight tomorrow and stopped smoking and not one more cigarette was sold tomorrow and all that tax revenue and all those jobs disappeared and all people had to find other employment, it would be better for the world.

It would be better for everybody if that happened. None of us is trying to protect any part of this industry. We want it gone. We want the retailers on the corners to sell something else. I cannot make this happen, but as a backbencher I would love to bring in legislation which would allow the Government to give financial incentives to shops that declare themselves to be ethical, tobacco-free businesses or I would like to ensure that shops, pubs, hotels, restaurants and whole shopping centres that would declare they would sell nothing that contains tobacco on their premises would have a lower rate of VAT on everything they sell, be it jeans, food, clothes, pharmaceuticals or whatever. I would like to be able to do that, but we cannot.

I am trying to get money for research in order to look at a very interesting area of cancer biology, heterogeneity diversity, which is the amazing ability tumour cells have to keep mutating or this bad trick they can do to stay ahead of our smart bomb treatments by their ability to mutate and change their genotype. This research would look at ways of linking this to what causes cancer. I have been advised by some of the smart cancer scientists with whom I work that we should exclude tobacco from the equation altogether, because the mesmeric, breath-taking list of things in one puff of cigarette smoke which cause cancer is so complicated that it is almost impossible to study it or to make any kind of sense of it. In addition, its ability to induce that kind of genetic instability, at the earliest stage in the cancer process, may be unique, in comparison with other things which cause cancer. With tobacco, we know we are dealing with a phenomenally bad product which is sold by phenomenally bad people and bought by people because they are addicts. Rational people do not act against their self interest, but addicts do. This is why people who overwhelmingly know tobacco is bad for them, continue to smoke.

This brings me to this plain packaging legislation. It is extraordinary how this coalition has emerged – the coalition of the tobacco companies and their various front organisations. Looking out the window of this Chamber, I can see the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, which some months ago unknowingly and unwittingly ended up hosting an indirectly tobacco company funded symposium on how to stop smoking. This was sponsored by an organisation called the Institute of Economic Affairs, which I believe is a paid gunman for the tobacco industry, and by local PR companies such as Red Flag.

This tells us something about the lengths tobacco companies will go to try to stop the Minister in his tracks. Why is this? They say plain packaging does not work and there is no evidence that it will make any difference. If it does not make any difference, why are they investing so many millions of euro into lobbying, PR and, probably, bribes at European level, to try to thwart the attempt to get the legislation passed? It is because they know it does work. They would have us believe that it is because they are trying to block smuggling. Those of us who watched the World Cup every night this week, soccer fans like me who worshipped Bill O’Herlihy for years, are sad now to see him and know that he organised a meeting of leading tobacco company executives with members of the Government to try to persuade everybody that their concern was smuggling. We know the tobacco companies love smuggling. Most of the product smuggled is product they sell. Our primary means of controlling their activity is through our tax laws. Smuggling is a way for them to outsmart our tax laws. Smuggling is a weapon they use against us.

It is important to realise this is a war. Anything the tobacco companies oppose, we propose. Anything they propose, we oppose. They are our implacable foes and we want them gone. We would like to offer them the olive branch of asking them to do something else, but if they do not, we would prefer to see them on the bread line. That is what we want for these companies, because they are making their money out of the misery they inflict on our fellow citizens. I believe the Minister will be in the firing line on this, but no better man. As he has been forged in the steel of various firing lines over the past several years, I believe he will be able to bat these puny challenges aside.

However, it is critical we look at the international context in terms of what these companies are capable of doing. Why did Ukraine take a World Trade Organisation case against Australia over plain packaging? It is widely recognised that some tobacco interests got to the Ukrainians and persuaded them this is something they should do. Why did the world tobacco organisations gang up on little Uruguay, whose GDP is less than the revenues of Philip Morris International? Thankfully, Mayor Bloomberg came to Uruguay’s defence and provided a legal defence fund which enabled it to try to deal with the problem.

This is a call to war and we will support the Minister in his declaration on it. I will put forward some amendments to the Bill, because like my colleagues I see no reason we cannot do this tomorrow. I have looked at the data from Australia and am convinced this initiative will result in some decrease in the number of people who smoke. Sometimes people will be put off by the plain packaging, but this is another opportunity for us and the Minister to get the debate on smoking going. Every time the debate becomes public, more people think about the effects of smoking and are motivated to stop. The plain packaging has one other spin-off benefit. If it hurts the companies, that is a good enough reason to do it.

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