Thursday, 23 September 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Tobacco Control Measures
Will the Government consider implementing laws that would restrict the importation of tobacco products into the country exclusively to those with plain packaging that includes both pictorial and text warnings in both the Irish and English languages? A similar system that was introduced in Finland requires health warnings to be provided in words and pictures in both Finnish and Swedish. I am raising this issue because, during lockdown, the value of the sale of tobacco products in Ireland increased by €130 million. This was not because there was a huge increase in the number of people smoking or the number of cigarettes they smoked per day but because people were not able to bring in cigarettes from other countries as they were not travelling abroad for holidays or business. The increase of €130 million gives an indication of the volume of products being brought in from abroad by people coming back from their holidays.
In Finland, only tobacco products with packaging that includes warnings in Finnish and Swedish can be brought into that country. Why not introduce the same requirement in Ireland such that only products with warnings in English and Irish are allowed into this country? That leads me on to another issue, which is that, in Finland, people are restricted to bringing in no more than 200 cigarettes per person. For people coming back to Ireland from abroad, the limit is 800 cigarettes. This is a health issue to which we need to give priority. We want to reduce the number of cigarettes people smoke. It is also a financial issue.
There is another issue arising in regard to the sale of packet cigarettes. Pricing is based on a packet of 20 but there is nothing preventing the sale of 23 or 27 cigarettes, say, in a packet. If we look at the figures, a packet of 20 cigarettes costs €12.20, 23 cigarettes cost €13.80 and a pack of 35 costs €20. The difference is a cost of 61 cent per unit for a pack of 20 compared with 57.14 cent per unit for a pack of 35. In addition, when a person purchases a packet containing more than 20 cigarettes, the likelihood is that he or she will smoke the whole 28 of them, say, in one day, rather than the usual total of 20.
These are issues we need to tackle. The regulations are not precise and concise enough in dealing with the increase in the volume of cigarettes being consumed in this country. It is an issue we must look at very carefully and which could be dealt with in the budget.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. There is legislation in place in Ireland to ensure that all tobacco products manufactured for sale in the State are in standardised packaging. There is also legislation in place requiring the display of health warnings, comprising a pictorial warning and text warnings in both Irish and English. Under the Public Health (Standardised Packaging of Tobacco) Act 2015, all tobacco products manufactured for sale in Ireland since 30 September 2017 must be in standardised retail packaging. Standardised packaging of tobacco, also known as generic or plain packaging, means that all forms of branding, including trademarks, logos, colours and graphics, must be removed, except for the brand and variant name, which are presented in a uniform typeface for all brands on the market. All tobacco products for retail sale in Ireland must be packaged in a plain neutral colour, except for the mandatory health warnings. The aim of standardised packaging is to make all tobacco packs look less attractive to consumers, make health warnings more prominent and prevent packaging from misleading consumers about the harmful effects of tobacco.
The European Union (Manufacture, Presentation and Sale of Tobacco and Related Products) Regulations 2016 transpose the EU tobacco products directive. These regulations contain comprehensive provisions on the labelling and packaging of tobacco products. Each unit packet and any outside packaging of tobacco products must carry a combined health warning, an image and text. The regulations are clear that the textual warnings must be in both the Irish and English languages. The pictorial and textual warnings are also prescribed in the legislation. The legislation on labelling and packaging of tobacco products is very clear: a person may not manufacture or import a tobacco product that is intended for sale by retail in the State unless it is in compliance with the 2016 regulations.
The Deputy raised some interesting issues, particularly the point that there was an increase in the sales value of tobacco products of €130 million during the pandemic. He referred to the quality and health aspects and rightly pointed out the issues arising from the sale of cigarettes in packets of 28, say, rather than 20. That is worrying because if a person who smokes 20 a day gets a pack of 28 or 30, he or she is likely to finish the pack. We have seen this anecdotally in respect of minimum unit pricing of alcohol, where a person who might previously have bought two 500 ml cans of lager at a cost of €10 will buy four cans for the same price. There is an issue if people are buying packs of more than 20 cigarettes when they would previously have bought a pack containing 20. I thank the Deputy for raising that important point.
I accept the Minister of State's reply in respect of tobacco products that are sold in Ireland, but my question referred to products being brought into the country. We allow people to bring in 800 cigarettes, compared with a limit of 200 in Finland. There is not the same requirement in respect of products being brought back by people returning from holidays or a business trip that the health warnings be in English and Irish, whereas the corresponding requirement does apply for products being brought into Finland. I am asking that this issue be looked at. I also ask that consideration be given to dealing with the situation whereby manufacturers can still dictate the retail selling price.
They are dictating the terms and that is why, for example, they can have more cigarettes in a pack than one would expect. We need to consider this whole issue and deal with health warnings, making sure that we follow through on what we want to do on this. I am not sure that the sales level indicates that more products were imported into the country; it is that there were more sales during lockdown. The figure in question is €130 million. It is a substantial figure and it gives an idea of the scale of product that is being brought in by people who are travelling out of the country and back into the country. It is something we need to look at.
Some interesting areas have been looked at. I will ask the Minister to investigate the fact that in Finland people are allowed to bring in no more than 200 cigarettes while in this country 800 cigarettes is the maximum. We will consider that. There is also the fact that the manufacturers dictate the retail selling price in the context of the number of cigarettes that can be in a packet. The Deputy is right that €130 million is a substantial sum. We need to consider that.
As the Deputy is aware, the introduction of standardised packaging of tobacco products and the display of both written and pictorial warnings on all tobacco products are central to our efforts to reduce tobacco consumption and meet the objectives of a tobacco-free Ireland and the national tobacco control strategy. The Public Health (Standardised Packaging of Tobacco) Act 2015 sought to decrease the appeal of tobacco and reduce the ability of product packaging to mislead consumers about the harmful effects of smoking. The goal of standardised packaging is also to increase the effectiveness of health warnings on tobacco products.
Irish law had provided for health warnings on the impact of tobacco smoking before the introduction of the tobacco products directive at EU level in 2014. The Irish regulations that give effect to the tobacco products directive could not be more clear on the requirements for the labelling and packaging of tobacco products that are imported for sale in the State. They must display pictorial and textual health warnings and the warnings must be in both Irish and English.
A key aspect of the strategy to reduce tobacco use, particularly uptake among children and young people, is de-normalising tobacco use by reducing the visibility and attractiveness of tobacco products and associated imagery. The advertising and promotional potential of tobacco products has been greatly reduced by legislation governing how they are packaged and presented.