Address by Mr. Micheál Martin T.D. Minister for Health and Children at the opening of the Seminar: Hazards of Environmental Tobacco Smoke – Identifying and Protecting Those at Risk

Ladies and Gentlemen

One of the oddities about being a Government Minister is that you hear a lot of amputated radio items!

Because you spend so much of your time going from one event or meeting to another, you hear the beginning of an item about the MMR vaccine, but you can´t wait for the end of it. Or you tune in to get the final minute of something about a war crimes trial, but you´re not sure who´s in the dock.

I heard a bit of an item a few days ago. Some famous art collector was talking. And she said, if you own paintings, you have to shift them around. Move them from wall to wall. Because, if you leave a painting in one place – she said – ´It´ll go into the wall.´

I think she meant that you stop noticing it, the more you get used to it. It ceases to have an impact. Stops meaning anything.

And it struck me at the time – that´s what has happened with the tobacco products issue. All of us know that smoking is one of the most unhealthy things a human being can do. But we´re so used to the fact, it´s almost ´gone into the wall.´

It´s ironic that, the more information we have, the harder we have to work to get it to mean something to smokers and potential smokers. For centuries, individuals believed that smoking was bad for health. Then, in the twentieth century, as cigarette smoking became almost standard, the evidence started to accumulate: smoking causes cancer. Smoking kills. And the tobacco industry began to work overtime to hide that information.

In 1986, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified tobacco smoke as a human carcinogen. That bit of data was one of a blizzard of such information, all adding up to the knowledge that the smoking of tobacco products poses a real and significant threat to the health of the smoker and a real and significant threat to the health of the non-smoker, particularly to young children and infants.

  • In spite of the most recklessly cynical misinformation campaign ever conducted, the risk to health of the smoking habit is now clearly established.
  • In spite of a sophisticated and sadly successful approach to addicting people to cigarettes, millions of smokers have grimly accepted the threat to their health and – each year, every year – try to quit.

There´s the beginning of a realization that smoking will take years off your life. And if it doesn´t take years off your life, it´ll take life out of your years, because it causes so many acute and chronic diseases.

But let us never, ever, underestimate the capacity of the human animal to deceive itself. Once addicted to nicotine, a smoker who hasn´t made the decision to quit will defend smoking with any argument that´s handy. They´ll talk about the ´anti-smoking lobby´ as just being ´politically correct.´ First of all, the ´anti-smoking lobby´ isn´t a lobby. Never has been. It´s just a majority of people. People who like to breathe clean air and live without crippling preventable diseases. That´s a mile away from a ´lobby´ that´s just ´politically correct.´

Smoking isn´t an addiction with just one victim at a time. Nonsmokers exposed to environmental tobacco smoke absorb the toxic compounds of tobacco just as smokers do. The greater the exposure, the greater the level of these toxins in the body. Being able to breathe clean air, free from harmful irritating tobacco smoke is a serious health issue for everyone.

And I want to stress that word, ´serious.´

One of the most lethal arguments used to promote smoking (and drinking, and drugs like ecstasy) is that anybody who points out the health dangers is a killjoy. I say it´s a lethal argument, because all of us like to be liked. Nobody likes a killjoy. So the temptation is to back off from an unpopular stance. We mustn´t do it. We really, really mustn´t do it. We must have the courage to be killjoys, when what is in question is an addiction that kills and maims not only the addict but the people around the addict. And that´s what tobacco products constitute. An addiction that maims and kills. All the time.

Adding up over two decades of evidence, the scientific community now agrees that there is no safe level of exposure to second hand smoke. There is an international scientific consensus that environmental tobacco smoke kills and that passive smoking is a cause of disease in otherwise healthy nonsmokers. Tobacco smoke contributes to a noxious environment, causes eye irritation, sore throat, cough, and headache.

It is a reasonable expectation on the part of the public that they should not be exposed to such a toxic combination whether in their workplace or in public areas and facilities. A European Commission research study found that over 80% of Europeans over 15 years of age are exposed to environmental tobacco smoke and inhale the equivalent of one or more actively smoked cigarettes per day. Exposure to environmental tobacco smoke is a public health hazard that is entirely preventable.

For children, the situation is disturbing. Children are particularly at risk from passive smoking. As children grow, exposure to environmental tobacco smoke significantly reduces their lung capacity and exercise tolerance. Involuntary exposure of children to tobacco smoke has been identified as a cause of respiratory disease, middle ear disease, asthma attacks and is a significant factor in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Children are powerless to control their exposure to tobacco smoke and yet because of their age are most adversely affected by exposure to this toxic combination. Children´s exposure is mainly from adults smoking in places where children live, play or visit with adults.

Acute and chronic respiratory health effects on children have been demonstrated in homes with smokers and even in homes with occasional smokers. The WHO estimate that about 700 million children or almost half the world´s children breathe air polluted by tobacco smoke. There is a need to eliminate environmental tobacco smoke totally from children´s surroundings. As legislators, administrators, health service deliverers and carers we have a duty to ensure that our young people and future generations grow up in a healthy smokefree environment.

The global tobacco industry knows that environmental tobacco smoke is a significant health hazard. But it keeps trying to distract us from that truth. It keeps trying to make that picture ´go into the wall.´

The tobacco industry, posturing as an ally of pleasure and of civil liberties, posturing as a promoter of sport through sponsorship, continues to undermine public health policy. The tobacco industry deliberately misrepresents the harm of passive smoking, tries to discredit scientific findings and to confuse the public.

The health threat from environmental tobacco smoke can not be linked with legal or ethical arguments used by the tobacco industry about “the right to smoke”. Nonsmokers exposed to second hand smoke have no choice and hence the term popularly used “passive smoking”.

The tobacco industry opposes legislation and regulations which ban smoking in workplaces and public areas. Despite many studies showing the harmful nature of passive smoking the industry continues to deny that environmental tobacco smoke causes disease.

The tobacco industry views nonsmokers demands for smokefree areas as a threat to the viability of their industry. The industry are also concerned about litigation by passive smokers. The issue, as potential litigants see it, is not only what smokers do to their own health but what the smoker does to the health of others.

The industry fears that legislation and regulation in this sensitive area broadens the smoking issue into a community and environmental health issue rather than simple personal behaviour. Studies are showing that smokefree areas can lead to a reduction in consumption by smokers and assist them in quitting completely. The tobacco industry´s main concern is over revenue losses due particularly to decreased cigarette consumption that arises from smoking restrictions.

Now, let´s get the reality stated bluntly.

Almost 7 out of 10 adults in this country are nonsmokers. Some of that seven have never smoked. Some have quit smoking, gone back, quit again and now don´t smoke at all.

Yet both the people who´ve never smoked and the people who´ve fought – and won – their personal battles against smoking are unwillingly exposed, on a daily basis, to toxic environmental tobacco smoke. Many public areas and facilities and some workplaces are subject to prohibitions and restrictions on smoking and there is a growing demand for increased protection from environmental tobacco smoke.

Marketing polls here have shown there is enormous public support for extending bans on environmental tobacco smoke. Many smokers support prohibitions on smoking in public places because they know it´s the best protection for nonsmokers and smokers alike.

New legislative measures on public health and tobacco are at present before the Irish Parliament. These new measures will provide, among other things, for stronger powers for health ministers to further prohibit and restrict consumption of tobacco products in a number of places not already covered by existing legislation and regulations including the workplace and pubs. I will use these powers to provide increased protection for the public. A Tobacco Free Council will be established to advise and assist in this and other anti-tobacco initiatives.

Sometimes, we lose the plot about smoking. We think it´s simply a matter of individuals quitting for their own health. The implications are much, much wider. Smoke-free workplaces, for example have huge benefits for employers and employees and, indirectly, for the economy. Benefits like:-

  • less absenteeism from smoking related illnesses
  • safer and more pleasant working environment
  • improved productivity
  • reduced fire hazard
  • less maintenance and redecoration.

Most smokers want to quit and the introduction of smoke free areas supports this and helps reduce opportunities to smoke and the numbers of cigarettes smoked. Smokefree air makes good business sense.

In conclusion, Ladies and Gentlemen, the reality of environmental tobacco smoke is stark. Passive smoking is a cause of disease in healthy nonsmokers. The evidence is in and we will act on it. We will prevent it ´going into the wall´; becoming invisible because of familiarity.

I now declare this seminar open and wish it every success.