Lobbying the Taoiseach to drop plans to introduce plain cigarette packs is big business, writes Political Reporter Juno McEnroe
The tentacles of the tobacco industry have spread far and wide in a bid to pressurise Enda Kenny and his ministers to drop radical plans to outlaw branding on cigarette packets and tobacco goods.
At home, small businesses that fit out shops, install cigarette vending machines, and design and brand packaging have pleaded with the Taoiseach to scrap the plans.
But further afield, big businesses in the US, Canada, Turkey, Indonesia, and the North have joined forces and sent warnings to Dublin in an attempt to stub out the anti-smoking measures.
Under the plans, cigarette packs will be plain or neutral in colour, except for the mandatory health warnings. Trademarks, logos, colours, and graphics will be banned from packs from 2016.
Health charities say this will make cigarettes less attractive, especially for young people, and help reduce smoking rates.
However, the extent of the lobbying by commercial bodies, US politicians, branding groups, and tobacco firms is laid bare in dozens of letters sent directly to Mr Kenny since the beginning of this year.
More than ever, Mr Kenny and his new health minister, Leo Varadkar, will need to show courage amid increasing threats of legal action and opposition to the ban at an international level.
Canadian manufacturers and Canada’s Chamber of Commerce, in a joint submission to Mr Kenny, claimed that plain packaging would lead to more counterfeit tobacco trading. This, in turn, would make “unregulated products more readily available to children and teens”.
The US Taxpayers Protection Alliance told Mr Kenny the plans would “harm American farmers”, where tobacco is a crucial crop.
Neworld, a Dublin branding group, went as far as to warn that plain packaging “would prove catastrophic for Ireland” and send out a bad message abroad.
Branding groups across the EU have also called on other member states to block the new law.
Indonesian farmers warned Mr Kenny that the ban would set “a dangerous precedent for other countries to follow”. Farmers said Indonesia was the sixth largest tobacco-growing nation in the world and its government was known for taking a “firm position” in the industry.
The asian farmers group told him the ban was akin to restricting Scotland’s Scotch whiskey industry.
Other groups lobbied Mr Kenny from Turkey, Slovakia, Italy, and Poland. The American Chamber of Commerce in Mongolia pointed out its parliament rejected a similar packaging ban due to concerns about intellectual property rights.
Back at home, the correspondence reveals Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley has lobbied Mr Kenny. He claims, in a letter sent from the House of Commons, the move will help smugglers on both sides of the border. He argues the ban will have “significant repercussions for the economy” in the North. It would also damage Mr Paisley’s own constituency in North Antrim, where 1,000 people are employed in Ballymena by Japan Tobacco International, he says.
One Centra owner in Mr Kenny’s constituency in Castlebar, Co Mayo, told him in a letter that the move would see job losses all over the retail sector.
Irish fitting, printing, vending, and graphic design companies also claimed there was no definitive evidence that unbranded packaging would have an impact on smoking behaviour.
Harvey Printers, which employs 25 staff in Waterford, said the print sector was already in crisis.
Many of the small businesses who wrote to Mr Kenny though admitted to having links with Japanese Tobacco International, which also told Mr Kenny of potential losses to jobs and taxes.
Recent efforts to thwart the coalition’s plans included 27 MEPs, half German, telling Mr Kenny of their “concerns”. Their comments, previously revealed in this newspaper, are echoed in much of the correspondence received by the Taoiseach. Objectors claim the ban will violate international trade deals and increase the illicit tobacco trade.
Mr Kenny sent replies to the dozens of letters, saying: “The Government is confident that the legislation will be supported and justified on public health grounds and will contribute to reducing the number of lives lost by smoking tobacco products.”
Many of the letters have also been forwarded for the attention of Mr Varadkar.
However, a challenge is expected to be laid before the World Trade Organisation and a number of countries have already lodged objections with the European Commission.
Dublin-based McGuinn solicitors, who admit having worked for Japan Tobacco International, warned Mr Kenny the plan would remove intellectual property rights of companies which are guaranteed under the Constitution.
“There is no provision in the proposed legislation to deal with the enormous loss that will be inflicted on the owners of these intellectual property rights if the legislation is enacted,” warned solicitor Conleth McGuinn.
Despite the plethora of letters lobbying Mr Kenny and his ministers to drop the branding ban, the Government is on track to vote in the measure. Children’s Minister James Reilly, who began the legislation, said it will be debated in the Dáil before the year’s end and introduced in 2016 in line with an EU anti-smoking directive.
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