Providing further evidence of its detachment from reality, the Irish government has in recent weeks announced its strategy for a ‘tobacco-free Ireland’ by 2025. Inevitably, it involves another raft of petty restrictions and impositions upon the country’s already beleaguered smokers. In addition, the government has agreed in principle to a ban on drinks companies sponsoring sporting events, although a date has yet to be set for its introduction. These policies are portrayed as essential to protect the health of the nation, and young people in particular, in a ‘battle’ against the sinister forces of Big Tobacco and an all-powerful drinks lobby. In reality, however, they have less to do with public health than with the need of Ireland’s discredited political elite to exercise its diminished authority and carve out a sense of moral purpose for itself.
Health minister James Reilly’s tobacco-free Ireland strategy - to be launched this month - will include: banning smoking on or around primary- and secondary-school campuses, even outdoors; banning smoking on or around the grounds of childcare facilities; encouraging local authorities to introduce by-laws banning smoking in parks and on beaches; banning anyone under the age of 18 from selling tobacco; and strengthening the Office of Tobacco Control within the Department of Health. As with so many modern policy initiatives based primarily upon the need to be seen to be doing something, an ‘anti-smoking czar’ will be appointed to coordinate efforts across state organisations to achieve smoking-reduction goals. The government has also added its support to legislation introduced by an independent senator to ban smoking in cars where children are passengers.
Reilly has said that he wants a tobacco-free Ireland in the next 12 years, or more precisely, to bring the proportion of the population who smoke down to five per cent from the current 29 per cent. The minister is fond of speaking of his strategy in terms of a war or crusade. For example, he informed the health committee of the Oireachtas, the Irish parliament, that the tobacco industry is ‘gearing up big time’ for what he described as a ‘battle’ and personalised the issue by referring to the deaths of his father and brother from tobacco-related disease.
One national newspaper editorial commended Reilly - normally a derided figure in Irish politics - for his ‘grand ambition’ and ‘commitment to fighting tobacco and the tobacco industry’. However, this notion of a valiant, crusading minister engaged in a struggle against Big Tobacco is complete nonsense. If the tobacco industry is the all-powerful force it is portrayed as, it has been bizarrely unsuccessful in utilising this supposed influence over the past decade to resist restrictions on its products.
Ireland famously became the first country to outlaw smoking in bars and restaurants with the workplace smoking-ban in 2004. This was followed by an end to the sale of packets of 10 cigarettes in 2007, a ban on retail displays and adverts in 2009, the introduction of graphic health warnings on packets this year, and an aggressive policy of taxation that has resulted in the highest cigarette prices in Europe. Reilly also announced earlier this year that Ireland would follow Australia in enforcing plain packaging on tobacco products. The tobacco lobby has been completely powerless to stop any of this. Indeed, the minister now makes a virtue of his unwillingness to even meet with representatives of the industry.