Public Health (Standard Packaging of Tobacco) Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 846 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan]  An issue that must be addressed in the context of these provisions is one I regularly encounter in parts of the constituency I represent, namely, the illicit or black market trade in cigarettes. There are genuine concerns in this regard on the part of small retailers, with some of whom I have spoken. These retailers have been to the fore in supporting other initiatives to help people to stop smoking, such as the ban on the sale of packs of ten or smaller quantities and the prohibitions regarding the display of tobacco products in retail premises. Many of the retailers to whom I have spoken tell me they would support a complete ban on cigarettes but, in the absence of such a measure, they are concerned that the plain packaging initiative will lead to an even larger black market in tobacco, which will have devastating effects on their businesses and their ability to retain and create jobs. A recent seizure by the Garda of illegal tobacco comprised 32 million cigarettes and 4,000 kg of tobacco. There have been reports recently from Britain of foreign crime gangs operating a multi-million pound racket which is flooding that country with illegal cigarettes. There is a more significant problem with such products because nobody knows what it is in them. At least we know what branded cigarettes contain.

If we are serious about safeguarding people's health and encouraging them to give up smoking or refrain from starting in the first place, we cannot be dismissive of the concerns around the illicit trade in tobacco. The retailers I have engaged with find it offensive that their questioning of these proposals is equated with an attempted defence of the tobacco industry. They emphasise that their concern is to protect their own business interests and that so long as the product remains legal, they expect to be recognised as responsible retailers who are competing with a criminal underworld. These retailers, who have willingly complied with Government policy on underage smoking, have genuine concerns that plain packaging will create opportunities for smugglers and counterfeit traders who are unconcerned about whether the person who purchases the product is under age and have no qualms about selling cigarettes in quantities of ten, five or even fewer. Certainly, I have not been convinced by the arguments that plain packaging will not make it easier for counterfeiters.

Retailers have offered several useful suggestions for combating tobacco smuggling, such as the provision of additional mobile scanners at ports, only two of which are in operation at present. They have also called for increased penalties under the Casual Trading Act and the development of an app to enable consumers to verify that tobacco products are legitimate. Such measures would be of great assistance to gardaí in their efforts to combat the illicit trade in tobacco.

I listened to a debate this morning on the radio on electronic cigarettes in which Professor Luke Clancy was a participant. I know people who have had success in switching from cigarettes to electronic devices. However, I am not sure we know enough about those devices to be able to say whether they are a safe and effective alternative to tobacco. I simply do not know whether that is the case. Having said that, if people are finding them a useful aid to giving up smoking, consideration should be given to ensuring their availability outside regular retail hours.

Retailers have called for a regulatory impact assessment to be presented alongside the Bill which would address the issues they have raised. As it stands, they have reasonable concerns about the unintended consequences for their business, the broader economy and smokers. We know this Bill will be passed by the House. I support all efforts to curb, curtail and eliminate smoking, but concerns regarding the potential for an increased black market trade in tobacco are genuine. In that context, I ask the Minister to consider undertaking a serious independent analysis, one year after the enactment of the legislation, to determine its impact on the illicit trade in tobacco.

Deputy Finian McGrath: Information on Finian McGrath Zoom on Finian McGrath I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and will be taking a different view from the majority of Members. Mine is a dissenting voice on this legislation, which will help to ensure a proper debate based on the facts and the reality for many people, particularly smokers. I must declare a special or vested interest in that I am a smoker or, in other words, a person who is addicted to cigarettes. The overriding question for me in considering this legislation is whether its provisions will encourage me or the 25% of the population who are smokers to give up tobacco or smoke less. It is not politically correct to take the position I am taking, but it is important to have dissenting voices on this issue and challenge the cosy consensus that exists around it.

I totally accept that smoking is not good for one's health, but nor is excessive eating or binge drinking. However, it seems always to be smokers who get hammered, notwithstanding the €1.2 billion in taxes we contribute to the Exchequer each year. That is a lot of money and it helps to run a lot of services. My philosophy in life is moderation, whether in regard to alcohol, cigarettes or food. Unfortunately, decisions in these matters are being made by the nanny state brigade, with the rest of us expected to toe the line. The superior attitude displayed by some of these people gets up my nose, with their constant lecturing and talking down to people who happen to have an addiction that is harming nobody but themselves. It is time to get real and bring some common sense into this debate.

It is important, too, that we have an honest debate, to which end I intend to point out some of the dishonest statements I have heard in recent weeks. I fully accept that smoking is bad for one's health. I try every day to give up, but bullying, marginalising and hectoring will never work with me. We have seen the disgraceful treatment of people who are using electronic cigarettes as a way of overcoming their addiction. CIE, for example, reacted to a couple of cranks by imposing a total ban on the use of these devices on trains and buses. In Leinster House efforts are being made to ban their use in the private and public bars. That is not a good thing. On the day that a company has announced the creation of 80 new jobs in the manufacture of electronic devices, surely it is time to introduce some element of common sense into our consideration of these matters. I am asking the Government to wise up, cop on and take on board dissenting voices like mine.

I take this opportunity to challenge some of the organisations that have put misleading information into the public domain. For example, the Irish Cancer Society recently stated that the annual cost of smoking to the health budget is €2 billion. However, the Chief Medical Officer gave evidence to the health committee, under the chairmanship of Deputy Jerry Buttimer, in December 2013 that the cost is €664 million. I asked the Minister in a parliamentary question yesterday whether there is a need for the Chief Medical Officer to correct his evidence in light of this discrepancy. The response explained that the Chief Medical Officer based his evidence on a report by the Directorate General for Health and Consumers on liability and the health costs of smoking across all EU member states. The report showed that for Ireland, health expenditure on smoking diseases is €498 million, productivity losses due to absenteeism amount to €15 million, and long-term incapacity caused by smoking costs €151 million. These figures give a total of €664 million and show there is no requirement to correct the parliamentary record. In other words, one group has already been caught out in giving false and misleading information. To reiterate, I am not arguing that smoking is good for one's health but that we should have honest presentation of the facts.

Turning to the legislation, these provisions will have far-reaching implications for retailers and in their impact on jobs, cigarette smuggling and the infringement of intellectual property rights. We are being asked to support the Bill in the absence of information regarding the regulatory impact assessment that was conducted last February.

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