Last debate on tobacco plain packaging legislation before President signs it into law

Watch video here:
[Speaking in the Seanad during debate on Public Health (Standardised Packaging of Tobacco) Bill 2014: [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] Report and Final Stages]

The Minister deserves great credit for taking this cause on board. As we have heard repetitively, but correctly, Ireland has been a leader in this area, first through the legislation introduced by Deputy Micheál Martin and then through the various Bills brought forward by the Minister, Deputy Reilly.

I am not even a little concerned about an increase in illegal sales. People who study this know that most of the product which is sold illegally is product that is manufactured legally. It is the companies’ product, not some type of counterfeit, knock-off product. All of this craw-thumping, hypocritical breast beating we are hearing from the companies on the issue of smuggling does not resonate true. The reality is that they love smuggling because the smuggled product is cheap and it is a cheaper way to hook children on cigarettes. They will do anything to make cheaper product available.

When we see the internecine webs of convoluted and highly implausible sales routes that have been plotted by the major companies through tiny countries, where cigarettes are being imported in such numbers that it would suggest every citizen down to the lowliest newborn baby is smoking several packs a day, to justify the fact that they are being shunted on to other larger markets via illegal, illicit and smuggling routes, we realise that this is a spurious argument. All of the arguments being advanced by the tobacco industry and its sympathisers are an attempt to row back the regulation of tobacco sales and consumption. The tobacco companies are in a battle. They realise that in our hearts our ambition for their industry is bankruptcy. We want them out of business.

We want them either to have the smarts and intelligence to take up an alternative line of business or to go out of business. If they are going to insist on working in businesses which have as their business plan the simple four words “addict children to carcinogens” we want them to fail. In no sense are they partners of ours. The Minister has been a noble exception but other members of the Government made a mistake in allowing representatives of that industry, through well-connected lobbyists, to come to Government Buildings and, in truth, to lobby on behalf of their product and its sales, when they alleged they were doing something entirely different.

I was born in the United States to Irish parents. We immigrated here, emigrated back to the United States and then immigrated back here again, perhaps not for the last time, so as a quintessential Irish-American it is a source of great pain to me that not only the US Chamber of Commerce but also individual, democratically elected American politicians have tried to influence our Government’s attempts to legislate on behalf of its citizens. In a few weeks many of the Minister’s colleagues in the Government will be attending receptions, functions, parties and parades across the United States. I wonder if it is too late to develop some type of little logo for St. Patrick’s Day, with a shamrock and stubbed out cigarette or something similar, that all of them could wear.

The Taoiseach will go to Washington, which is just across the Potomac from Virginia where the former governor was lobbying against our attempts to protect our citizens before he lost his liberty some time ago. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, will be in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, will be in New York, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe, will be in San Francisco, the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Kehoe, will be in Houston, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ring, will be in Phoenix and the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coffey, will be in St. Louis. Furthermore, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will be in Japan, headquarters of Japan Tobacco International, one of the companies which attempted to influence our legislation. They should forthrightly use each of those occasions as an opportunity to tell the people in those locations that this is an unwelcome interference in our sovereign rights. This is not something people should fear politically. In all of those countries the majority of people are anti-smoking. Study after study shows that the majority of people are in favour of further reining in this industry.

The issue of legal representation is a thorny one. Everybody has the right to a lawyer but representation needs to be looked at. My own sense is that there would be considerable Government discretion shown in the choice of where legal contracts go. People have, historically, used all manner of considerations in deciding where such contracts would go and I am sure such consideration exists. I strongly urge that this Government and its agencies or public bodies have nothing to do with any public relations company that works on behalf of the tobacco industry.

That is very simple. My own sense is that the Government and its agencies should not have anything to do with public relations companies. Every public representative should be made to stand or fall on his or her own reputation. Every public or civil servant, above a certain grade, should be put on a rotation where once a month, or once every two months, they are the ones who answer questions from the press. We do not need to hire people to make public servants look good. We need such servants to communicate effectively what job they do.

I say well done to the Minister. I urge him to ask his Cabinet colleagues not to lose the opportunity of speaking, especially in the United States on St. Patrick’s Day, and to let people know what is happening. The average American would be horrified to know that the same chamber of commerce which supports American trade and jobs is trying to tell a small country it cannot legislate against tobacco. Let us imagine what would happen if we made cocaine in Ireland, if Irish cocaine was being sold in the States and if the Irish Government tried to stop the American Drug Enforcement Administration from bringing in Irish cocaine. Can Members imagine the outcry there would be if that happened? Can they imagine the level of outrage there would be if the Colombian, Venezuelan or Mexican governments tried to stop the United States from selling drugs which are probably less lethal than the drug which American companies sell in this country? There would be real outrage that would resonate with Americans, American politicians, American regulators, American ambassadors, the Irish-American community and with most of the American investment community. That is a message which needs to be given.

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