Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health

General Scheme of the Public Health (Tobacco and Nicotine Inhaling Products) Bill 2019: Department of Health

Ms Claire Gordon:

It is definitely a trend throughout the world that the fantastic decreases that were happening in the number of people smoking have stalled. I think that happened around 2007. A total of 50% of persons under the age of 18 smoked at certain periods in the 1970s and 1980s and that figure was falling steadily, but there was a stall. There is no single answer as to why that has happened and we would not jump to conclusions based on one year. We cannot say whether it is a trend or a blip. Nevertheless, it is definitely the case that when it initially became clear, following new information, how bad cigarettes were for people, steep decreases happened. Now, it is almost as though people feel that problem has been solved and there is nothing to worry about anymore. The media do not necessarily talk about it as much and there is not as much panic about it, for want of a better word. Perhaps the younger generations have just missed that information older people had whereby all these revelations were coming out about the new diseases and harms coming from smoking.

The pandemic was interesting in the impact it had on smokers. This is a classic example of how the tobacco industry operates. During the pandemic, the Minister for Health had to issue press releases making clear that smoking did not protect people from Covid-19. Some data suggested there were fewer smokers in hospital with Covid-19 than there were in the general population. It appeared smokers were less likely to become ill from Covid-19. As we can imagine, those data were exploited by the industry. The message going around was that one of the ways to protect from Covid-19 was to smoke, whereas exactly the opposite is the case. The data show a person is more likely to have serious illness from Covid-19 if he or she smokes. Trends or events always occur that can be exploited by the industry, and the person, who might be 15 or 16 years old, is left in the middle. Who are they to believe?

I do not have any explanation for why the trend has changed. I would imagine it is more of a stall than an increase, although there was definitely an increase in the period the Chairman mentioned. Throughout the world in developed countries, the decrease has definitely stalled. Obviously, the ideal objective in all countries is a figure of 0% for under-18s who are smokers. It is about how to get there and that is part of what the provisions in the Bill are about. Much of the messaging has been shut down and we are just trying to shut down the others. We do not know which factor causes a 15 or 16-year-old to smoke. Part of being that age is we think we are invincible. We do not have that fear about our health or health harms. We believe that stuff happens to someone else, years from now, and it is nothing to do with us. Unfortunately, it is true to a large extent that someone who smokes at 15 or 16 is not going to pay for it for perhaps 30 years. There is some rationale in that, but what young people do not realise - this is the tragedy of smoking - is they are addicts. They may smoke, the addiction may be developing and they may think they are smoking voluntarily. They just do not realise they have started what could be a lifetime addiction.

That was a long answer, but there is no one reason for the stall. We are trying to do exactly what the Chairman identified. The main steps have been taken, such as putting cigarettes behind cabinets and in plain packaging, and now we are trying to shut down the other messaging and the other exposures, such as selling them in shops or at festival stalls. We are trying to shut that down. We do not want them to be sold in temporary or moveable premises. Vending machines are another example. The data suggest it is easier for persons under the age of 18 to access cigarettes from vending machines than over the counter. The big steps have been taken and we are trying to shut down smaller channels or smaller messaging to people of that age group. We hope that, with a suite of measures, we will hit on the right ones for individuals and get that number decreasing again.


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