Cigarettes: Doing the right thing can be a drag

THE old reliables had mixed fortunes in last Tuesday’s budget. Booze was left alone, while cigarettes went up 40c a packet. Isn’t it gas how these two highly dangerous drugs are known as "the old reliables", as if they were a beloved caberet duo on a never-ending tour across the country?

Cigarettes: Doing the right thing can be a drag

One of the old reliables will probably kill, or seriously harm, half of the people who ingest it regularly. The other provides relaxation of a very agreeable hue when used properly, but is often abused, leading to a whole range of of societal problems. Maybe because the old reliables offer comfort, albeit fleetingly, their outstanding feature is the power of their purveyors. We have long been aware of the power of the alcohol industry, in all its guises. But what has come to the fore in recent months is the power of those who manufacture cigarettes.

Alcohol is dangerous, but few would argue that it does not have redeeming features. Cigarettes just kill, plain and simple. Former health minister James Reilly is much-maligned, but he does deserve credit for initiating a bill to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes. Ireland would be the first EU country to do so, and only the second in the developed world, after Australia. The idea should be a no-brainer.

Public health demands that smoking be reduced. Potential smokers, invariably teenagers, should be discouraged from taking up the habit. The job of the manufacturers and marketeers of cigarettes is completely at variance with that objective, and the power they can bring to bear is considerable. Journalist Juno McEnroe, of this parish, has highlighted, in recent months, the extent to which the Government has been lobbied about its plans. What has emerged is an old-fashioned battle between what’s good, in health terms, for the public at large, and what’s good for the balance sheet of the drug’s purveyors. And, by God, big business is intent on ensuring that this government gets its mitts off the bottom line, public health or no public health.

The assault has been from all four corners. A joint submission from Canadian manufacturers and Canada’s Chamber of Commerce claimed that plain packaging would lead to more counterfeit tobacco, which, in turn, would make “unregulated products more readily available to children and teens”. Ain’t that sweet? Tobacco manufacturers are worried that children and teens might take up the wrong kind of cigarettes, rather than their own excellent brands, by which they would suffer a better class of lung disease.

Indonesia is the world’s sixth-largest grower of tobacco, prompting a farmers’ group there to write to Enda Kenny, warning that Ireland would be setting “a dangerous precedent for others to follow”. To be fair, that statement is probably correct. While the health of the nation might improve with a plain-packaging regime, it could be perilous for those who flog cigarettes. Kenny has also been lobbied by interests from Turkey, Slovakia, Italy, and Poland.

And get this one.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Mongolia reported to Kenny that the parliament of that country rejected a similar packaging ban, due to concerns about intellectual property rights. So there. Kenny, and his health minister, Leo Varadkar, should do as the Mongolians have done. They should take their medicine and forgo any benefits to public health, because intellectual property rights are of far greater import.

It is notable that the only growing markets for tobacco are in the developing world, where democracy is an occasional irritant, and where poverty has ensured that civic society is still without a serious voice.

Opposition has also come from within the EU, principally from some of the newer entrants, in Eastern Europe, another area where the young democracy has ensured that big business still holds sway over pesky matters like the health of citizens. Why is half the world concerned about what might happen in this little corner of Europe?

Their eyes are on the floodgates. If Ireland were to follow through, and the policy turns out to be a success, who knows where it would end? Back home, a whole range of businesses with connections to big tobacco have pleaded the case. Neworld, a Dublin branding group, predicted that plain packaging “would prove catastrophic for Ireland”. You thought only bankers, transglobal disease or Roy Keane’s departure from the Ireland set-up had the capacity to inflict disaster on the nation state? Think again.

The real enemy is plain packaging for cigarettes. The big question is whether Kenny and Varadkar can hold their nerve. Form would suggest they will find it very difficult. This country bends over backwards to facilitate big business. One of the reasons proffered for lowering the top rate of income tax in Tuesday’s budget was to show a better side to executives of foreign-direct-investment companies. It’s not enough that we have set the corporate tax regime to suit foreign interests, or that we offer perks, like tax relief for school fees, to the top executives.

We must also, apparently, condition our income-tax regime to suit these executives, irrespective of the cost to social justice. That’s how much we love those guys. Now, big business abroad is threatening, cajoling, directing our elected leader to refrain from introducing a policy designed to better the health of the nation, and possibly save lives. There is no guarantee that smoking will decrease under plain packaging, but implementing it would send out a clear message. We accept that tobacco is a deadly drug that is legal. We accept that a chunk of the precious health budget will have to be used to deal with the consequences.

We accept that banning tobacco is not an option. But, by God, we’ll fashion public policy to make it as difficult as possible for them to lead our children into a life less-healthy, and a likely early grave.

Ten years ago, the government in this country introduced the innovative smoking ban. It has largely been regarded as a major success. For once, government held its nerve and resisted serious pressure to back off. Michael Martin, who was the then health incumbent, deserves much credit. However, it should also be noted that the premise for the ban was the potential liability to the State of actions from bar staff who could suffer from passive smoking.

The State stood to lose money under the old regime. If public health had been proffered as the only, or even the principle, reason for implementing the ban, one wonders whether it would have got through.

Thankfully, we’ve all moved on. The ban was a major staging post in the declining power of publicans to dictate public policy. It’s difficult to imagine now, but for decades publicans dictated what constituted an acceptable level of carnage on our roads, through their opposition to effective drink driving laws. Those days are gone. They no longer have that kind of power. Kenny and Varadkar are now discovering that, compared to big business, the domestic publicans were pussy cats.

What has come to the fore is the power of the cigarette manufacturers

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