The fag-end of Irish politics

The idea of a 'tobacco-free Ireland' has little to do with health - it’s a desperate attempt to prop up the country's ailing political class.

Damian Byrne

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Topics Politics

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.

Reilly’s attention-grabbing goal of a tobacco-free Ireland by 2025 might have some plausibility were there evidence that the authoritarian measures pursued over the past decade were having any success in reducing the numbers of people smoking. However, as author Christopher Snowdon has pointed out, OECD figures for 1990-2010 reveal that Ireland continues to have one of the highest smoking rates in Europe and has seen the smallest drop in smoking prevalence of any Western European country since 1990. All this despite Ireland being, in Snowdon’s words, the ‘poster boy of tobacco control’. Such abject failure of policy over an extended period might, one would have thought, prompt a rethink of the neo-prohibitionist agenda. On the contrary, the Irish government now seeks to crank it up even further.

A decade ago, the workplace smoking ban was justified on the basis of exaggerated claims about the dangers of second-hand smoke, particularly to bar staff and customers. However, not even the most ardent anti-smoking zealots can argue that any public-health risk is posed by people smoking outdoors in parks or on beaches. Hence, Reilly now speaks in terms of ‘denormalising smoking in our society’. The strategy appears to be that the more marginalised and ostracised smokers are from society and public spaces, the more young people will be deterred by this pariah status from taking up the habit.

But if ‘denormalisation’ works, why is there no evidence of it having already done so since the introduction of the smoking ban? After all, we have already had almost a decade of exposure to the sight of smokers huddled together miserably in the rain outside workplaces, restaurants and pubs. Moreover, this notion flies completely in the face of common sense and my own (admittedly distant) recollections of being a teenager. When we puffed on our B&H or John Player Blue outside the school gates, it was precisely because smoking was rebellious, a taboo. It was the fact that adults kept telling us not to do it that made smoking so appealing.

Meanwhile, it has been reported that ministers have agreed in principle to a ban on the sponsorship of sports events by drinks companies, once a strategy has been worked out to compensate sports organisations for lost revenue. This is despite the publication of a report only a few weeks earlier by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications rejecting the idea of such a ban. The committee, made up of members of both the lower and upper houses of parliament, concluded that ‘the majority held the view that the link between sponsorship and the misuse of alcohol in society had not been established’, and that ‘the reality, particularly in the current economic climate, was that the main sporting organisations… would suffer inordinately if legislation for such a prohibition was introduced’.

Nevertheless, junior health minister Alex White is continuing to press for the introduction of a ban by 2020. Thus, in order to pursue a policy for which there is little evidential basis, and which implicitly treats adults as children, either Irish sporting bodies must suffer or taxpayers already struggling under years of austerity will be hit with yet more levies in order to make up the shortfall.

Bad as these various initiatives are in themselves from the perspective of personal autonomy, even more alarming are the grounds on which they are now increasingly justified. As state interference in our personal habits and choices becomes ever more extensive, the arguments in favour of such restrictions have stretched beyond the original health grounds to what in effect amounts to a ‘not in front of the children’ approach. The idea that young people need protection from exposure to the stuff of everyday life – whether it be an adult smoking a cigarette in the park or a beer advert on television – rests on shaky grounds. But left unchallenged, this demand for protection provides meddling politicians and preachy health experts with a convenient justification for a wide range of draconian measures.

Ireland’s political establishment persists with these illiberal, authoritarian policy initiatives, despite the lack of evidence to support them, because they are driven ultimately more by politics than by genuine public-health concerns. Already tarnished by decades of corruption scandals, the loss of sovereignty entailed by the EU/IMF bailout has reduced them to the status of glorified local councillors. Bereft of real power, and devoid of any vision or ideas as to how to get the country out of the economic hole in which it finds itself or address any of the real problems confronting it, politicians instead resort to petty interference and regulation of people’s everyday lives as a means of exercising power and seeking to bolster their moral authority. All the better if this can be dressed up as a ‘battle’ in which courageous ministers struggle with powerful, sinister corporate lobbies in order to protect the health and lives of citizens.

Those of us concerned with personal autonomy should see through this phony war rhetoric and make the case for a society in which people are treated like adults, free to make their own personal choices and indulge their own personal habits free of interference from a self-serving political elite.

Damian Byrne is a barrister practising in Dublin. Follow him on Twitter: @damianbyrne01

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