RECENTLY, Ireland became the second country in the world and the first in Europe to enact plain packaging legislation.
This has been a long journey.
We first considered this policy after it was introduced in Australia in December 2012 — and I’d like to pay particular tribute to them.
The road to passing the legislation had far more twists and turns than we anticipated — both in Ireland and in Europe.
It was clear from the outset that there would be additional hurdles to passing legislation for plain packaging in Ireland due to our obligations to comply with European directives. At the time, a 2001 directive was in force which did not permit picture warnings on the front of the packet.
A draft directive — that would make plain packaging far more effective and legally sound — was progressing slowly through the European bureaucracy. By a happy coincidence, Ireland held the Presidency of the European Union at the beginning of 2013.
With the support of other countries, we succeeded in passing a new directive through the Council of Ministers in just six months.
This directive permitted warnings — including pictures — to occupy 65% of the front and back of the packet and explicitly permitted countries to introduce plain packaging.
It was only when the directive made its way to the European Parliament that we saw the full power and influence of the tobacco industry at work. Leaked tobacco industry documents show that 161 lobbyists were hired and millions of euro was spent by one tobacco company alone.
Members of the European Parliament complained that the scale of lobbying on this directive was unprecedented. Key parts of the directive were under serious threat.
There was a very real danger that the European Parliament would vote in favour of reducing the size of warnings and even that the directive wouldn’t get through the European Parliament.
In an unprecedented response, I and 15 other European health ministers co-signed a letter urging members of the European Parliament to progress the directive.
At the same time, the Irish prime minister and I wrote to every member of the European Parliament in the largest grouping urging them to keep large warnings on the packets and to progress the directive.
Thankfully, the tobacco industry’s lobbying was not successful in diluting picture warnings or the right of member states to introduce plain packaging.
Ireland’s legislation was evolving in tandem with these events in Brussels.
After the Tobacco Products Directive was passed in Europe, the tobacco industry shifted their focus to Ireland.
Their response was unprecedented and global: From Members of the European Parliament to US Congressmen. From Indonesian farmers to Irish retailers. We were lobbied on a scale that Irish politics had never seen before but we had built a strong coalition that proved impenetrable to tobacco industry lobbying.
Politicians from all parties and none joined forces to support this measure.
Committed NGOs — from both the public health sector and the protection of children sector — worked tirelessly to maintain public support.
We formed a coalition whose resolve was unshakeable.
When the tobacco industry realised this, they changed tactics.
Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco, and Philip Morris all threatened the Government with legal action should our legislation proceed.
The legal letter from Japan Tobacco International was especially aggressive.
Not only did they attempt to tell a sovereign Government that we did not have the authority to enact plain packaging legislation, they attempted to tell us how far we could progress it through our parliament and insisted that we provide them with a written undertaking — within a matter of days — not to progress it any further.
They did not receive any such undertaking.
Our plain packaging bill was passed through our Upper House and Lower House without a single member of parliament or senator voting against it.
There has been a battle to progress this legislation every step of the way.
But these were all battles worth fighting
The Irish philosopher Edmund Burke said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
If we do nothing, the tobacco industry will delay and thwart public health legislation.
If we stand up to them — if we meet them head on — we will defeat them.
Because their only aim is to protect their profits. Our aim is to protect the health of our people, especially that of our children. We have the truth on our side.
Truth, as an old lady once told me, is not fragile. It will not break — nor will we.
I’ve been asked repeatedly why don’t we wait to see how a larger country — one with a bigger legal arsenal — gets on with plain packaging before we proceed.
There is a time to follow and there is a time to lead.
When one addiction is responsible for almost one in five deaths in our country — it is time to lead.
We have taken the lead from Australia but we are now giving the lead to Europe.
The UK are following and France intends to move next.
If Europe follows, can the rest of the world be far behind?
I’ve worked as a doctor for almost three decades. I’ve seen first-hand the consequences of smoking.
I’ve seen the painful deaths — watching patients gasp for air or waste away from cancer as their lungs fail.
I’ve seen the devastation on the faces of their families.
All these deaths are entirely preventable.
All these deaths for what? For nothing.
This addiction gives nothing to smokers’ lives and robs us all of so much.
Robs us of 5,200 Irish people who die of smoking every year.
Robs us of 700,000 Europeans who die of smoking every year.
That’s almost the population of Amsterdam annihilated every single year.
That’s 700,000 families who must live their lives without their loved ones.
Children without their parents; partners without their partners.
While the economic impact of this can be estimated, the human toll cannot.
But there is hope.
Throughout the developed world, smoking rates are falling. We now know the policies that work.
When we meet again in three years’ time, I hope cigarettes will be sold in plain packaging, not just in Australia and Ireland, but in the UK, France, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, and many other countries.
I hope plain packaging will be driving down smoking rates throughout the world.
Throughout the world we have committed NGOs and politicians who are showing the determination required to tackle this scourge head on.
That is why conferences like this are so important.
We learn from each other.
We learn what works.
We learn to stand together.
Despite their billions of euros and hidden connections, the tobacco industry can be defeated.
We must rise to the challenge to protect our children from a killer addiction that ends the lives of half of those who become addicted to it.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
We won’t stand idly by — our children can’t afford us to fail.
Standing together, we can, we must, we will prevail.
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