Press Release

Minister Micheál Martin responds to recent comments on the smoking ban

From January 2004, smoking will be prohibited in all places of work to protect employees and the public from exposure to the harmful effects of toxic tobacco smoke.

The announcement of this important public health initiative has brought about a substantial public debate on the issue of passive smoking and health and this is welcome. Many members of the public have aired their views, in the media or in discussion with public representatives or organisations and agencies concerned with health promotion. The public and workplace employees are increasingly aware of the threat to their health from toxic tobacco smoke and of the necessity of the measures being introduced to protect them.

The vast majority of the views being expressed confirm strong public support for the forthcoming introduction of smoke free work places. Views and criticisms are also being voiced by interest groups, most notably those in the hospitality and licensed sectors and I wish to address some of the specific points that have been raised.

It is being proposed that the implementation of the ban on workplace smoking should be deferred. I wish to make it clear that this initiative is based on advice from Health experts which is emphatic. There is consensus within the international scientific community and the World Health Organisation about the damaging effects of tobacco smoke and that there is no safe level of exposure to this known carcinogen.

The ban on smoking in the workplace was announced one year in advance of its implementation in order to allow for employers and businesses to adapt to this change and to allow time for a discussion period whereby any concerns regarding how this ban would be implemented might be addressed. To delay the implementation of this act by a further two years would serve no purpose and would merely force employees to work in an unsafe environment for an unnecessarily extended period of time.

The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has recently declared, without equivocation that environmental tobacco smoke is carcinogenic to humans and that it includes more than 50 known carcinogens – frightening when one realises that these are being inhaled for prolonged periods many non-smokers every day. The bottom line is, if you work in an atmosphere where you are forced to breathe environmental tobacco smoke, then your health is at risk.

The primary purpose of the prohibition is to afford protection to workers and the public who are exposed to harmful environmental tobacco smoke. There is no room for compromise or delay when it comes to such a serious health issue. Workers in the hospitality sector have a right to protection from second-hand tobacco smoke as much as workers in any other sector or industry. The damaging effect of tobacco smoke on human health is indisputable.

It has been suggested that designated smoking areas should be allowed, as a compromise. This ignores the fact that staff would still be required to work in such areas. Also, tobacco smoke is not stagnant. It permeates the entire atmosphere of a room regardless of where the actual smoking takes place and without regard to areas which are designated as “smoking” or “non-smoking”. This is not a realistic or acceptable option.

It has been suggested that businesses employing less than five workers should be exempt. This merely represents discrimination against small businesses and the staff who are employed to work in these businesses. Our legislation is based upon equality of protection for all workers whilst at the same time protecting the rights of people who do not wish to be endangered by being exposed to carcinogenic tobacco smoke.

The suggestion has been made that improvements in ventilation technology can deal with the problem of second-hand smoke.

On 30 January 2003 the report The Health Effects of Environmental Tobacco Smoke in the Workplace was published by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and the Office of Tobacco Control (OTC).

The research, which included an examination of International research was drawn up by an independent group of scientists including specialists in Toxicology, Epidemiology, Occupational Medical Services, Public Health Medicine Specialists and a radiation/Aerosol Physicist.

The group of scientists concluded that there is consensus among the international scientific community that ETS in the workplace increases the risk of lung cancer by between 20% and 30% and that involuntary smoking increases the risk of heart disease in non-smokers by between 25% and 30%.

In particular, the group drew attention to the decision in 2002 of the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) of the WHO to declare ETS to be a known carcinogen.

The research shows that ventilation technologies are inadequate to give workers full protection from the hazards of tobacco smoke. The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the US (OSHA) and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) have concluded that even proposed new technologies, such as displacement ventilation systems, which may reduce ETS exposure levels by 90% still leave exposure levels which are 1,500 to 2,000 times the acceptable risk level for hazardous air pollutants.

The expert group concluded that a smoking ban remains the only viable control measure to ensure that workers and patrons are protected from exposure to the by products of tobacco combustion.

It is very important to bear in mind that the majority of Irish people, some 70%, do not smoke. I suggest that if the same level of discussion and effort that is being applied to seeking out loop-holes in the legislation was focused on promoting the improved environment which workers and the public can look forward to in January 2004, those now voicing their concerns would, in fact, be able to look forward to an opportunity to substantially improve their business work environment. The fact that the majority of people will benefit is surely the basis on which to plan for the future.

It is important to remember that this new initiative builds on and improves the workplace environment and other public areas which have already benefited from the existing prohibitions and restrictions on smoking introduced in 1995. This includes restrictions on smoking in cinemas, theatres, bingo halls and hairdressers and it should be noted that despite fears that these businesses might be adversely affected by a smoking ban, that in the event of the ban actually being introduced none of these businesses were affected in a negative way by the ban and in fact the opposite has proved to be the case.

I welcome in particular the support which has been publicly expressed by trade unions, which recognise the health benefits of this legislation for their worker members. The Unions are to be commended for their constructive contribution to the debate on this issue. Workers representatives have been concerned for some time over the threat to the health of employees from toxic tobacco smoke

Of course there will a period of adjustment and people will have to adapt to the new measures. But I am encouraged by the level of support that this health initiative is receiving and I am confident that the majority of citizens will undertake to respect the rights of workers to a healthy, smoke-free environment.