Public Health (Standardised Packaging of Tobacco) Bill 2014 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)

October 3rd, 2014 - Pat Breen

Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. I note the presence of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly. The purpose of the Bill is to control the design and appearance of tobacco products and packaging, meaning that all forms of branding, trademarks, logos, colours and graphics will be removed from tobacco products and that all tobacco products will be presented in a uniform plain neutral colour, except for the mandatory health warnings and other legal requirements.
Ireland is the first country in the European Union to introduce this type of legislation and only the third country worldwide, following Australia and New Zealand. I commend the Minister for introducing this important legislation. This was also the first country in the European Union to introduce a workplace smoking ban. While there were misgivings initially, there is now broad consensus that the ban has benefited public health care. The majority can see these benefits and support the ban which was introduced by the then Minister, Deputy Micheál Martin, for which I commend him.
The Irish Cancer Society claims smoking prevalence in Ireland dropped from 28.86% in March 2004 to 21.71% in December 2012, a decrease in smoking rates of nearly one quarter during these years. This shows that the advertising campaign has had a positive effect. The Irish Heart Foundation concurs with the Irish Cancer Society’s analysis and reports that the smoking ban has contributed to a 10% drop in the number of heart attacks in the past decade. There are many risks associated with smoking and the link between smoking and various diseases such as cancer, stroke, heart problems and respiratory diseases is no longer disputed. Approximately 1,700 people die from lung cancer in Ireland each year and over 90% of lung cancers are caused by smoking. Some 1,500 people die annually from COPD, 90% of whom are smokers or former smokers. One quarter of deaths result from coronary heart disease, while 11 % of all stroke deaths are from smoking. The World Health Organization reported in June this year that there was a link between smoking and dementia. Given that smoking is bad for one’s health, it is estimated that we are spending €500 million each year in treating smoking-related diseases, money which would be far better spent elsewhere within the health system.
While significant progress has been made, the battle against smoking wages on. There remains a significant number of people in this country who continue to smoke.

According to a Eurobarometer survey, the smoking rate in Ireland has remained constant at 29%. This rate is the third highest in Europe. What is really worrying is the number of young people who continue to be attracted to smoking. Barnardos claims that children in Ireland start smoking earlier than their counterparts in any other European country, with 78% of smokers taking up the habit before they reach 18 years of age. That figure is extremely high, and when one starts early it is much more difficult to break the habit.

It is clear that increases in the price of cigarettes in recent years and the various warnings regarding the link between smoking and serious health problems have not convinced young people. We must ask, therefore, what it is that motivates young people to smoke. Do they smoke due to peer pressure, because they are of the view that it is cool or that cigarette packaging is attractive, or as a result of the fact that the large illicit trade here allows them to buy cigarettes more cheaply on the streets than in shops? Many previous speakers referred to the availability of illegal cigarettes as a factor. I recently read a KMPG report in which it is stated that 1 billion counterfeit and contraband cigarettes were smoked in Ireland last year. That is a massive number. I am not a smoker but I understand that a packet of cigarettes costs in the region of €9.40 and that counterfeit packs can be purchased for approximately €4.50. I have seen videos of the way in which the latter are sold in public at markets, etc. What happens is that young people are sent to buy these illegal cigarettes for others. Basically, they are being used as pawns. There is a big differential between the cost of a counterfeit packet of cigarettes and that of a normal branded packet that one can buy in the shops. It is estimated that the black market is costing the Exchequer approximately €586 million in lost excise duty each year. Again, this is a significant loss of revenue, and I am of the view that the money involved could be well spent within the health care system.
I have spoken to a number of retailers and shop owners in my constituency in Clare who informed me that around 30% of their turnover relates to the sale of cigarettes. These individuals comply with all the regulations that have been introduced in respect of tobacco sales and, as a result, they cannot compete against those involved in the black market trade. The balance must be tilted away from this trade and back in favour of legitimate retailers. I understand the Revenue Commissioners are of the view that the new packaging rules will make counterfeiting more difficult. I presume this is because they believe there will be a specific stamp on packets. It must be remembered that those involved in the illicit trade are always one step ahead of the law. As is the case with those who counterfeit money, they find other ways to operate and can use developments in information technology to further their aims. That said, however, what is proposed in the Bill represents an important step forward in the context of the sale of cigarettes. I am interested in discovering whether the new packaging will include specific security stamps that will be impossible to replicate or change. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the position in this regard when he is replying.
One of the other reasons for the high incidence of smoking among young people is that they are attracted to the packaging. Marketing surveys have proved this to be the case. A survey carried out in the UK in 2011 found that 87% of teenagers and young adults believe plain cigarette packs to be less attractive than branded ones. This is a significant statistic of which we should take note. Research carried out in this country among teens echoes the findings from the UK. When the Irish Cancer Society and the Irish Heart Foundation carried out focus group research among 15- to 16-year-old smokers and non-smokers, it emerged that plain packets containing health warnings were less appealing to them than branded packets also containing such warnings.
As already stated, Australia was the first country to introduce plain packaging. The most recent figures from that jurisdiction indicate that the introduction of this measure has had a significant impact on the number of people smoking. I return to what I said earlier in respect of the number of people who die from smoking-related diseases.
If we can reduce the number of people who smoke, it is obvious that there will be a corresponding reduction in the incidence of cancer, stroke and heart disease associated with smoking. Official data from the Australian Government shows that since the introduction of plain packaging there in 2012, there has been an 11% decrease in the prevalence of smoking. This is fastest decline in smoking rates in Australia over the past 20 years. This is proof that plain packaging makes a difference and it highlights the fact that the legislation before the House is extremely important.
Other countries are set to follow the example of Australia. For example, France is considering introducing certain restrictions. Some 13 million adults in France smoke each day and it is estimated that 73,000 people die there every year as a result of smoking. In recent days I read an article in which the French Health Minister stated that her plans in this area are designed to combat smoking among young people in her country by making packaging less attractive. Ireland is leading the way in Europe and France is following. I am of the view that other countries will also follow our example.
The legislation before the House is both good and important and is designed – in the interests of the people and of society as a whole – to ensure that fewer people smoke. I hope other countries will follow the lead Ireland is giving in respect of this matter.