Branded cigarette packages are up in smoke despite industry’s efforts

I’VE JUST finished watching a masterful take down of the global tobacco industry — it’s so good it’s my second time viewing it, and won’t be my last.

Branded cigarette packages are up in smoke despite industry’s efforts

I found it on Youtube thanks to Children’s Minister James Reilly referencing it on Prime Time where he was being interviewed on the ground breaking legislation just passed for plain packaging on cigarettes sold on the Irish market.

It’s a 20 minute or so clip of US Late Night Weekly satire host John Oliver, turning his attention to the tobacco industry and its deviousness. It’s devastatingly good TV.

The how-low-can-we-go tactics of this industry are laid bare. Watching the strategies used by this sector makes it seem all the more incredible we passed a law, with relatively little fanfare, which bans branded cigarette products.

Instead they will be sold in a standard dark-coloured wrapper emblazoned with large health warnings and images of disease.

We are the second country in the world, after Australia, to go down this route and will be the first in Europe, with the UK expected to follow suit soon.

What is even more amazing is that it has been done by a Minister who is not seen as being particularly strong around the Cabinet table, and who is introducing ground breaking health related legislation while he is no longer the Minister for Health.

But James Reilly, now the Minister for Children managed to swing it by refusing to let go of this issue. His passion for this subject is as clearly evident as his loyalty to Enda Kenny was when the Taoiseach’s leadership of Fine Gael was under threat.

Along the way Minister Reilly has drawn a few well aimed kicks at legal firms with contracts with tobacco firms, something previously unthinkable in the polite confines of Irish public life.

According to the head of advocacy and communications with the Irish Cancer Society Kathleen O’Meara there was an extraordinarily low level of political opposition to the proposal for plain packaging on cigarettes from our TDs and ministers.

Some politicians did report getting letters from various US congressman and the US Chamber of Commerce warning of what a bad idea it was, but as O’Meara says, “this just seemed to toughen their stance”.

There was a political blip when it emerged that the tobacco industry, under the guise of the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers Committee, had a high level meeting with not just the Taoiseach, but also the Finance Minister Michael Noonan and then Justice Minister Alan Shatter in May 2013.

Mr Kenny got a rap across the knuckles soon after from the Cancer Society and the Irish Heart Foundation who wrote to him of how they were “extremely shocked” that the meeting had taken place. They pointed out that Ireland is a signatory of the WHO Framework Convention of Tobacco Control which states that there is a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests”.

It’s worth highlighting here how the WHO has identified a number of forms of tobacco industry interference used to derail or weaken government attempts to get their citizens to smoke less.

Cathal Guy (7) and Aoife Guy (9) from Ringsend with Dr. James Reilly TD Minister for Children and Youth Affairs mark the passing of the plain packaging bill through the Oireachtas.

Amongst the black art measures used are exaggerating the economic importance of the industry, manouvering to hijack the political and legislative process (a meeting with a Taoiseach and two senior ministers, for instance), discrediting proven science and intimidating governments with litigation or the threat of it (sounds very familiar doesn’t it).

The tobacco industry costs the State €1 billion more in healthcare costs than the Exchequer collects in taxes. In that letter the two health advocacy societies anticipated that the industry would have made the argument to the Cabinet members that plain packaging would lead to an increase in illicit trade in cigarettes, which they say is simply not true.

The UK has successfully introduced tobacco control measures that are reducing the smoking rate there, while achieving a corresponding reduction in the smuggling rate.

We are by now well familiar with how pernicious this industry can be but watching John Oliver’s wickedly good slap down of big tobacco on his show is a great, if appalling, reminder of their tactics.

I found myself alternating between laughter and snorts of disbelief at what they are still getting up to in their efforts to keep people smoking, particularly in the poor and undereducated parts of the world.

Oliver showed some older material including a clip of Joseph Cullman, former Philip Morris CEO, who tells an interviewer: “It’s true, that babies born from women who smoke are smaller, but they’re just as healthy as the babies from women who do not smoke. And some women would prefer having smaller babies.”

Our smoking rates in Ireland are on a downward trend, following the way of other first world countries. They are now at an all time low of 19.5%, bearing in mind they were almost 30% at the time of the introduction of the smoking ban over a decade ago. But as the TV report showed us this means the uneducated citizens of poorer countries are now the main targets.

It looks like I’m very late to it but I could hardly get over my shock at seeing the chain smoking Indonesian baby who at one time smoked 40 cigarettes a day and was completely addicted. Continuing with Indonesia we saw a local school with a Marlboro sponsored kiosk at its entrance where the students can buy single cigarettes for a paltry sum. Even more pathetically there was a lighter tied to a piece of string for them to light up. Oliver does a good summary of the legal hell the tobacco industry will attempt to put a country through if it has the audacity to attempt to introduce ways to curb smoking — Australia being an excellent example following its introduction of plain packaging and pictures of diseased body parts on boxes. No doubt we are next in line to be hauled over the coals.

Best of all Oliver introduced us to “Jeff the Diseased Lung”, a combination of a branded cartoon character and a health warning who wears a cowboy hat and boots. He said Philip Morris International should feel free to use Jeff to replace the iconic Marlboro man, and urged viewers to use the hashtag #JeffWeCan to get him trending worldwide.

It is interesting to watch how our new plain packaging law was passed with what appeared to be the minimum of fuss — at least in comparison to what might have occurred. Minister Reilly held his nerve. The same cannot be said, for example, for the recent legislation on alcohol, which is encouraging, but did fail to introduce the much needed ban on the sponsorship of sport by the alcohol industry.

Public health advocates are now looking at the lessons learnt by those fighting the tobacco industry, and wondering how they might adopt some similar approaches in the efforts to curb our excessive booze habits. The trouble is that no one ever looked like a unpatriotic killjoy for giving up fags, but the same cannot be said for those who forsake the booze.

The tobacco industry costs €1 billion more in healthcare costs than the Exchequer collects in taxes

READ MORE: Sales of beer, wine, cider all on the rise

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