Many lives have been saved with smoking ban but we’ve more to do

TODAY is the 10th anniversary of the smoking ban coming into force.

It was in January 2003 when, as Minister for Health and Children, I was launching a report on the health effects of environmental tobacco smoke in the workplace that I gave notice of my intention to bring forward the ban.

The advice contained in the report in relation to the dangers of passive smoking was unambiguous and could not be ignored.

Ventilation technologies were insufficient to give workers full protection from the hazards of tobacco smoke and that exposure could best be minimised by a ban.

The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer had also declared that environmental tobacco smoke included more than 50 known carcinogens.

The bottom line was you didn’t have to be a smoker to get cancer from smoking. You could get it if you were never a smoker.

Another priority was the well-being of children. As our children grow, exposure to environmental tobacco smoke reduces lung capacity and exercise tolerance. It lowers birth weight and has been identified as a cause of asthma attacks.

So has the smoking ban saved lives and improved health?

Well, last year a new study showed that more than 3,700 deaths have been prevented in Ireland because people are less exposed to second-hand smoke.

The study showed that mortality decreases were primarily due to a reductions in passive smoking, rather than a reduction in active smoking.

The findings in the scientific paper were published in the medical journal PLOS One and follow research by Brunel University, London; the Environmental Health Sciences Institute; Dublin Institute of Technology; and the TobaccoFree Research Institute.

The study showed a 26% reduction in heart disease; a 32% fall in strokes; and a 38% drop in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease mortality.

This was the first study to demonstrate reductions in stroke and respiratory causes.

This week the British medical publication, The Lancet, published a review of 11 international studies which showed that smoking bans, including our own, have resulted in sharp falls in the numbers of children being admitted to hospital with asthma attacks and the number of babies born before full-term.

The smoking ban was not the only measure we put in place to combat tobacco addiction. We were the first country in the EU to eliminate all tobacco advertising from retail outlets. All tobacco products in shops are now stored out of sight. We banned self-service vending machines except in licensed premises and registered clubs.

However, despite the progress we can’t be complacent. The fact is that smoking remains the largest cause of preventable death and disease in Ireland.

It kills half of all lifetime users. 5,200 people in Ireland die from smoking-related illnesses every year. That means that today 14 people have died, are dying or will die because of smoking.

We have to do more about this and while I do not question the Minister for Health’s sincerity in this regard, I am not persuaded that the government as a whole is really committed to the fight.

Consider that last October’s budget imposed a derisory increase of 10c on a packet of 20.

Less than a year ago the Taoiseach, Minister Noonan and Minister Shatter hosted a meeting for the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers Advisory Committee. This is an industry that costs the State €1bn more in healthcare costs than it collects in taxes annually.

To hold such a meeting ran the risk of suggesting tacit endorsement of the tobacco industry and all the damage it does.

It is my view that tobacco is not a normal industry and cannot be allowed a seat at the decision- making table.

It is also an industry that is constantly evolving and finding new ways to get young consumers addicted to nicotine.

While I am sympathetic to the need for nicotine-containing products for smokers looking to break their tobacco habit, it is vital that we properly research e-cigarettes so as to establish if they are safe, and if they are a gateway to, or an exit from, traditional smoking. Emerging research from the US provides troubling reading on the link between teenagers who are introduced to nicotine addiction through e-cigarettes and who then take up regular smoking.

When I announced the ban in 2003, I pointed out that for far too long in Ireland, we’ve had the habit of shrugging our shoulders about health, as if it was something that simply happened. I also said that removing tobacco damage from our lives would have a long-term and significant, positive effect on our health as well as on domestic and workplace well-being.

Ten years on it is clear that the ban has been a success and that its impact has been positive and everyone can take pride in the fact that Ireland led the way in Europe on this matter.

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