PLAIN CIGARETTE PACKAGING: A burning issue in the EU

Political Reporter Juno McEnroe asks if the Government will have the courage to see plans for a ban on branded cigarette packets through in the face of mounting opposition to the move

Cigarette packs would be plain or neutral in colour, except for the mandatory health warnings, as part of the attempt to make tobacco products look less attractive to consumers.

THE tobacco industry’s powerful arm has stretched into the heart of the Government in an attempt to rip up Ireland’s plans to further stub out smoking.

Tobacco manufacturers, big business and political supporters of the industry are using every method at their disposal to dissuade the Government from introducing plain packaging of tobacco products here.

Documents obtained by the Irish Examiner shed light on how business interests and politicians are attempting to stop Ireland pushing ahead with the anti-smoking plans.

The radical plans driven by Minister James Reilly will see trademarks, logos, colours and graphics banned from tobacco products, including cigarette packets. Packs will be plain or neutral in colour, except for the mandatory health warnings, as part of the attempt to make all products look less attractive to consumers.

Mr Reilly has carried over tobacco policies from the Department of Health to his new role as the Minister for Children.

But pressure is being applied to senior members of Government to thwart those plans.

The latest intervention has seen prominent members of the European Parliament going directly to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, asking him to drop the plans. The 27 MEPs said they did not want to undermine “the right of governments to lead” on public health issues, but said they had “concerns” about the Irish Government’s plans.

The letter notes that the European Parliament did not approve the compulsory introduction of generic packaging across member states.

A directive, approved earlier this year, means picture health warnings will have to dominate packaging. But plain packaging was left as an option for member states.

The MEPs told Mr Kenny that such a move in Ireland would violate international trade agreements. It would increase the illicit tobacco trade and “set a dangerous precedent for other industries”, they claimed.

Mr Kenny will have sat up and taken note of the names on the letter, which include some political heavyweights in Europe. Some are close allies of German chancellor Angela Merkel. Indeed, 13 of the 27 signatories are members of Ms Merkel’s CDU/CSU party. Three on the list are vice chairs of European Parliament committees, while two are from the Luxembourg party of new commissioner president Jean Claude Juncker.

The letter was purposely sent to Mr Kenny on June 26, a week before he visited Berlin and held key meetings with German business groups as well as Ms Merkel herself.

Mr Kenny’s office has confirmed receipt of the letter.

The office of German MEP Sabine Verheyen, who drafted it, have also confirmed the concerns about the tobacco plans were made known to German politicians from Ms Merkel’s party who attended the Wirtschaftstag, a key economic conference that week, which Mr Kenny also attended.

More pressure has come from a European anti-tax group with claims the plans may pose “numerous threats to the Irish economy”.

The Taxpayers Association of Europe told Mr Kenny that plans would lead to a “price war” among tobacco brands and thus less taxes for the Irish exchequer.

Illicit tobacco goods posed a “serious threat to secure national finances,” it stated.

The Irish ambassador in Berlin was also sent letters in February and March from the German Brand Association and the German Advertising Federation. These had equally alarmist warnings that the introduction of plain packaging would have dire economic consequences, see the tobacco market “swamped” with counterfeit products and could even endanger people’s health.

Central to the business groups concerns is the claim that the plans will remove the freedom to do business and deprive tobacco firms of intellectual property rights.

The warnings are not the first attempt to derail Ireland’s plain packaging plans.

A US congressman wrote to the Irish ambassador in Washington earlier this year saying the plans would mark the “beginning of a troubling trend” of countries restricting the intellectual property of products.

The Taoiseach also came under fire last year after a private meeting he and two of his ministers held with the tobacco industry, on May 7 in Government buildings.

Health charities were critical and there were claims Mr Kenny had breached World Health Organisation regulations which say such talks with tobacco manufacturers should be conducted transparently.

Mr Kenny only revealed the meeting after a presentation by Mr Reilly to the Cabinet on his anti-smoking plans.

The Taoiseach has also told the Dáil that he has received seven freedom of information requests from solicitors acting for tobacco manufacturers relating to the plain packaging of tobacco goods.

Irish MEPs also make no secret of the fact that powerful lobby groups for tobacco operate in Brussels.

Journalists, including from this newspaper, have also been contacted by tobacco representatives opposed to the plans.

Behind the scenes, a concerted and strategic effort is being made to have the anti-smoking move buried.

Tobacco in Ireland is big business; and members of Government know this.

The industry say that 78% of the price of every packet of cigarettes goes to Government in excise and VAT. Revenue estimates that nearly €1.4bn in taxes was collected from tobacco sales in Ireland in 2012.

Tobacco manufacturers John Player, PJ Carroll and Japan Tobacco International earlier this year appeared before an Oireachtas committee and gave details of their activities here.

While all three directly employ less than 500 people, their products make up a third of retailer sales in some cases. Companies also say they indirectly support the pensions of hundreds of former employees, and indirectly support thousands of jobs across Ireland.

The question is, should all the lobbying taking place with Government now be made public? The legislation for plain packaging was published before the summer break and debate in Leinster House will continue once TDs return in the autumn.

The plans will not be in place until 2016, in line with the EU directive on tobacco.

But some quarters warn that a challenge in the European courts is inevitable from the tobacco industry.

The legislation has been notified to authorities in the European Commission as well as the World Trade Organisation. Objections in the months ahead are expected. Indeed, these are the places most likely that representations from businesses and politicians will be aired against Ireland’s plans.

Tobacco manufacturers and interested groups are likely to stop at nothing in their bid to see the plans scrapped.

A report for the Department of Health in March this year concluded that plain packaging reduced smoking initiation among young people, increased the numbers who would quit and helped denormalise tobacco use.

The fight is on to prevent Ireland becoming the first European country to introduce the plain packaging plans.

Will the Taoiseach and Government have the courage to see through the anti-smoking plans in the face of mounting opposition?

European signatories

The letter to Enda Kenny from European Parliament members.

The list of members of the European Parliament, and their national parties, who signed the letter asking Taoiseach Enda Kenny to scrap Ireland’s plans forplain packaging on tobacco products.

The 27 are also senior members in the EPP grouping in the parliament — of which Fine Gael and Mr Kenny are also members.

-Lari Comi (Italy, Forza Italia, vice-chair of the EPP)

-Markus Ferber (Germany CDU/CSU)

-Joachim Zeller (Germany CDU/CSU)

-Axel Voss (Germany CDU/CSU)

-Georges Bach (Luxembourg, Christian Social People’s Party)

-Frank Engel (Luxembourg, Christian Social People’s Party)

-Sabine Herheyen (Germany, CDU/CSU)

-Pilar Ayuso (Spain, Partido Popular)

-Albert Dess (Germany, CDU/CSU)

-Christian Ehler (Germany, CDU/CSU)

-Markus Pieper (Germany, CDU/CSU)

-Godelieve Quisthoudt-Rowohl (Germany, CDU/CSU)

-Herbert Reul (Germany, CDU/CSU)

-Werner Langen (Germany, CDU/CSU)

-Luis de Grandes (Spain, Partido Popular)

-Birgit Collin-Langen (Germany CDU/CSU)

-Pablo Zalba (Spain, Partido Popular)

-Pillar del Castillo (Spain, Partido Popular)

-Daniel Caspary (Germany CDU/CSU)

-Paul Rübig (Austria, Austrian People’s Party)

-Francisco José Millán (Spain, Partido Popular)

-Monika Hohlmeier (Germany CDU/CSU)

-Santiago Fisas (Spain, Partido Popular)

-Gabriel Mato (Spain, Partido Popular)

-Agustín Díaz de Mera (Spain, Partido Popular)

-Esther Herranz García (Spain, Partido Popular)

-Eduard Kukan, Slovakia (SDKU)

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