Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Committee on Health and Children: Select Sub-Committee on Health

Public Health (Tobacco) (Amendment) Bill 2013: Committee Stage

5:00 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly and his officials. I have received apologies from Deputies Denis Naughten and Billy Kelleher.


Question proposed: "That section 1 stand part of the Bill."

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I understand no amendments have been proposed to the Bill. Therefore, I take the opportunity to thank all of the Deputies who have supported and contributed to the debate on the Bill. While there is an obligation placed on Ireland to change its laws on the minimum pricing of tobacco, I am pleased Deputies have supported my initiatives as set out in the Bill in tackling some of the sales promotion strategies of the tobacco industry. Smoking is one of those issues which always generates lively debate, rightly so. Whether it be as smokers, ex-smokers, anti-smokers, relatives or friends of smokers, the issue touches so many of us during our lives and there are many views on how we should deal with it.

I am pleased that in a recent report on tobacco undertaken by the European Commission Irish citizens were in the top rankings in their support of initiatives. For example, we had the highest ranking among EU countries in our support of the banning of advertising from the point of sale in shops, a ban which has been introduced in Ireland. Also we were ranked top in our support of banning the sale of tobacco on the Internet and also of the banning of colours, logos and promotion elements from cigarette packs. Some 90% of Irish people surveyed support the placing of graphic warnings on cigarette packs, which I am happy to say were introduced last Friday. This is important evidence of support and I am heartened that the people have a real appetite to tackle the problem of smoking. It is very clear that the graphic displays have had a very positive effect in other jurisdictions, particularly in Canada, where, after the introduction of this measure, smokers stated they were four times more likely to attempt to give up cigarettes.

I know of no smoker who wishes his or her child to become a smoker. I have made it clear that in a survey conducted by my Department and the Office of Tobacco Control 78% of smokers said they had started smoking when they were minors, under the age of 18 years. We have a duty to protect our children from this industry which seeks to promote the consumption of tobacco. If nearly 80% started smoking when they were children, clearly, there is a major focus on children.

It is difficult to say anything good about an industry that seeks to cause an addiction to its product that is a cause of a disease from which one out of every two users will die. Many say there is a lot that is evil about the cigarette industry. It is my intention, with the support of members, to ensure we will work towards a tobacco free society and that will we keep to the fore the outcomes for the people. There are some 5,200 deaths annually in Ireland and nearly 700,000 across Europe as a result of tobacco related diseases.

I, again, thank members for their support for the Bill. I will continue to seek their support for the various initiatives I propose to bring to the Oireachtas. I commend the Bill to the select sub-committee.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I note what the Minister has said and record my support for the passage of the Bill. As I indicated on Second Stage, I would welcome any further restriction of the promotion of tobacco products. I wholeheartedly endorse the Minister's efforts in that regard. I also expressed my disappointment and concern at the EU directive on the right of the State to impose a pricing regime, which was deemed to be not permissible. We have been directed to pull back from that position, which is most unfortunate. The idea behind the directive allegedly was to facilitate greater competition. If this is applicable across the board in the case of all tobacco products, with what are they competing? My clear understanding is that the consequence of the directive was to remove a critical element of State intervention in setting the price of tobacco products for consumers, which is an integral part of the dissuasion in which we should be proactively involved. I again note that this does not preclude address through financial measures such as taxation, but that is another day's work. I had hoped to be able to table an amendment, but as I have indicated, unfortunately, an amendment proposed by a mere Opposition Deputy will not carry the day, given that an EU directive is in situ. Much as I would like to have it overturned, I have had to concede on the matter and there are no permissible amendments to discuss as a consequence. I wish the Minister a fair wind in dealing with the remaining Stages of this welcome legislation.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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I welcome the Minister's comments on the Bill which I support. Will he comment on the need to continue to charge a high price for these products? Will he comment specifically on the possibility of having an environment levy, as proposed by a number of agencies? On the question of smuggling, will he comment on the penalties for being caught in the act of smuggling tobacco products and the proposals aimed at the control of such smuggling?

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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I, too, support the Bill. I have two questions, one of which relates to Deputy Seamus Healy's remarks. First, is there an organisation which is supported by the tobacco industry lobbying on behalf of small retailers and newsagents? I cannot recall the name of the organisation, but somebody representing it met me last week and I subsequently saw an article in The Guardian newspaper alleging that this organisation was supporting small newsagents. If that is the case, will it be covered by the measures contained in the Bill?

I also echo Deputy Seamus Healy's remarks on smuggling. Sometimes one hears the argument that there should be no further taxes on cigarettes because it would encourage illegal smuggling. While this may not be the Minister's responsibility, I understand there are two very expensive machines to detect the smuggling of cigarettes through ports that cost about €1 million each. Given the level of smuggling, would it be worthwhile acquiring additional machines in order that such checks could be made more frequently?

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Fine Gael)
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It was very important for the Minister to retain power to introduce regulation of sales promotion devices introduced by manufacturers, for example, happy hour promotions or offers such as three packets of cigarettes for the price of two. I am glad these provisions do not come within minimum pricing regulations and delighted the Minister has included such measures in the Bill

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I, too, join other members in commending the Minister's initiative. It is important to draw attention to the major concern of members about the illicit trade in tobacco. Last June I attended a meeting in Cork of Retailers Against Smuggling in Cork, at which they highlighted a number of issues, including the loss of revenue to the State but, more importantly, the damage the composition of cigarettes could cause. I met the CEO of the Convenience Stores and Newsagents Association who raised the issue of promotions. I hope that as a consequence of the Bill there will be no further promotional activities. It is important that, together with the Minister, we advocate for the promotion of health measures. In fact, as part of our work programme, representatives of the Irish Lung Health Alliance will come before us next Thursday. I hope we can work in tandem with the Minister and his Department in combating not only the harmful effects of smoking but also in tackling the issue of the illegal trade in cigarettes.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Chairman and members for their contributions. I appreciate the support of Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin who I know, like me, is not anti-smoker but anti-smoking and anti-tobacco. We will do everything we can to help smokers to quit the habit. As I said elsewhere, the industry seeks to replace the small number who give up smoking and the very large number who, sadly, will die. There is no question but that price, as Deputy Seamus Healy said, has an impact. A sudden hike in price would be much more effective than the gradual hikes we have witnessed to date.

Let me repeat that I like the idea of a cigarette costing €1 so that every time people think of lighting up, they will think long and hard before they inhale long and hard. I know this would lead to a greater increase in attempted smuggling and the illicit trade but that is an issue of enforcement. If one is to follow the logic of diminishing returns, this is an area where we want to reach the point of diminishing returns. We want to aim for a tobacco-free society in Ireland by 2020.

The issue of retailers being supported by an agency that will lobby on their behalf is open to further investigation. When I was before the environment, public health and food safety, ENVI, committee in Europe about the priorities for our Presidency we had a major protest outside the Parliament by tobacconists from across Europe. Although small in number they were well organised. The reality is that the health of our children and the nation are at stake. If everybody stopped smoking and everybody had a BMI of under 30, we could close half of our hospital beds.

Deputy Fitzpatrick referred to the Minister's right to control. The Chairman mentioned promotional material. The promotion of cigarettes is not allowed. In shops cigarettes must be housed behind the counter in a closed container. The EU directive is very important to us and I was very pleased that following a campaign that I started with other Ministers to write to the Commission to ensure the directive was brought forward, it was one of the first things that the new Commissioner Tonio Borg did. He was committed to it as well. It will allow us progress this. I made it very clear that I want to examine the possibility of bringing in, as quickly as we can, plain packaging. I know this will be met by huge resistance from the tobacco industry. They have done it in Australia and they have gone through all the courts and now they still have one last throw of the dice at the World Trade Organisation. There is no doubt this is a powerful industry but we have a greater power, the power to protect our children and to protect future generations from a scourge. This scourge is robbing our country of 5,200 citizens every year, causing tremendous hardship, ill health and poor quality of life for so many more. I am determined to do everything in my power to ensure this industry is incapacitated from incapacitating more of our children.

We have a problem with the number of requests that come in under freedom of information, hundreds of thousands of postcards and a significant level of inquiries at EU level from the tobacco industry to delay and obfuscate on this legislation. We will not shirk our responsibilities. We will not be deflected from the goal we have set ourselves. We will do everything in our power with the co-operation of this committee and I thank each and every one of the committee and all the members who support what we are trying to do in the interest of the common good.

Question put and agreed to.

Sections 2 and 3 agreed to.

Title agreed to.

5:10 pm

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for being strong on this issue.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, and his officials Dr. John Devlin and Mr. Leo O'Brien. I thank the members for their co-operation and patience.

Bill reported without amendment.