Wednesday, 1 February 2017
Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016: Second Stage
I welcome the Bill on several fronts. Obviously, the most important aspect of it is the Part which refers to the plain packaging of tobacco and the potential health benefits this amendment can deliver. Ireland has been a world leader in enacting progressive legislation to reduce tobacco consumption. This is certainly another measure that will continue that strategy.
This legislation has been called for by many public health organisations for many years, including the Irish Cancer Society, the Irish Heart Foundation and ASH Ireland, among others. Sinn Féin gives its absolute support to the legislation. Its wish is for it to pass through the House and be signed into law without delay. We are all too aware of how intensively the unscrupulous global tobacco companies lobby to protect their interests. It is admirable that such a firm line has been and is being taken by the Government to enact this legislation. It would be remiss of me, however, when talking about this issue not to reference another extremely important public health Act that is currently working its way through this House and hopefully will come before us soon, namely, the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015. The same firm and principled line needs to be taken in respect of the intrusive lobby being instigated by global alcohol firms. We have been world leaders in advancing progressive public health legislation to reduce tobacco consumption. Let us treat the alcohol industry in the same manner in the interest of our health and the health of our future generations. The Minister of State will have Sinn Féin's firm support in this manner in both instances.
Getting back to standardised packaging, I see it as imperative that we deal with this legislation in as timely a fashion as possible. Plain packaging is shown to reduce the appeal of tobacco products, increase the effectiveness of health warnings, reduce the ability of profiteering companies to mislead the public about the effects of smoking and bring consumption down. It also ties in with the idea of visibility in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015. We know young children can name the brands of popular beer, with this measure they would hopefully not be able to recognise the name of the most popular brands of cigarettes.
One of the biggest threats to this type of legislation and indeed the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 is the possible ratification of global trade deals such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, by this Government. Little thought is given to the ramifications that this legislation can embed. I specifically refer to the international state dispute mechanism, ISDS, contained as part of these deals. Provision is given to global companies to sue governments when, in their greedy eyes, inhibitive legislation prevents them making profit. These deals are wrong, against public interest and should be resisted by all well meaning parties to put people and our society first. Sinn Féin will certainly continue to lead the fight against these backroom deals and keep informing the public of their ills.
With relation to the general medical services scheme, GMS, and prescriptions aspects of the Bill, I would first like to outline Sinn Féin’s firm recognition of the importance of ensuring that over-the-counter medicines continue to be available under the GMS and community drug schemes. Public health and affordability of such medicines is our primary objective. Prescription fees continue to push many ill citizens beyond the poverty barrier and leave them choosing between essential food on the table or accessing their medicines. Sinn Féin wants to see these fees abolished in full over a measured timeframe. In the meantime, some medicines that are currently dispensed on a prescription basis could be switched to a non-prescription basis. The Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA, regulates these medicines and we would again request this authority to review which drugs could be transferred to a non-prescription footing. This would immediately cease fees on certain medicines for struggling families and individuals.
I would urge a certain caution, however, in the whole area of prescription and non-prescription drugs. This week RTE aired an extremely thought-provoking documentary on over-the-counter drug consumption. I am particularly cognisant of prescriptions for persons who present to GPs with mental health issues. At recent dual diagnosis conferences, held throughout the Thirty-two Counties and hosted by Sinn Féin, I was taken by the comments from the consultant psychiatrist in the HSE. What he said is well known, and we need to educate people about this. He said that short-term prescriptions work, but in the long-term they will do more damage and become addictive. Education is the key here and we need to roll that out nationwide. We should always remember that drugs, prescription or otherwise, are poisons and their overuse will have detrimental health repercussions.
The fair deal scheme has had public attention recently for all the wrong reasons. In my health statement last week I referred to the comments of the senior HSE management towards elderly patients, suggesting that they were taking up hospital beds to protect their finances, and I again want to outline my disgust at this uncompassionate and untrue statement. Getting away from that, the exclusion of funds received through the Magdalen laundries, Lourdes hospital and symphysiotomy schemes as financial means for accessing nursing home care is extremely welcome. It is a caring, compassionate and, dare I say, republican thing to do. It is the right thing to do for citizens who have suffered so much in our past.
As a party which promotes the interests of workers' rights, we absolutely respect the right to a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. Therefore, we do not have any issue with board members of the HPRA receiving remuneration for work carried out on behalf of the authority. We would just ask that in light of many controversies uncovered over recent years with public agency bodies and funds, transparent oversight procedures are put in place to manage the payment of such moneys. I acknowledge also that one person, one salary will apply and that approximately half of the existing members would be subject to this principle.
To conclude, certainly from my viewpoint, the most important change as part of this legislation is the plain packaging of tobacco products. I would like us to follow the strategy of Finland which recently announced that it aims to have the country tobacco free by 2040. The Minister of State has said a generation, which I believe is approximately 25 years, but it could happen in a generation if we put our minds to it. This would require further measures similar to those in Finland, such as increasing the price, introducing licences with a cost for sellers, banning of advertising, health promotion measures and limiting the public spaces and areas where smoking can take place. I know the Minister of State will be taking on the wrath of more corporations and probably thinks there is enough to do with the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015, but she will be practised and well-rehearsed at that, so I encourage her to go for it.
My final words will be on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015. It is the next public health measure that we need to emphasise to improve our nation's health. I again encourage all Senators in this House to do what is right by the people and not what is right for the corporate interest. I applaud the Minister of State. Go raibh maith agat.