PHA Inaugural Tobacco Control Conference Queen’s University Belfast Speaking note for Minister Reilly

I would like to begin by thanking the Public Health Agency for their invitation to speak at this Inaugural Tobacco Control Conference, and to commend them on organising the event.

As former World Health Organisation Director General, Dr Bruntland so succinctly put it,

“A cigarette is the only consumer product which when used as directed kills its consumer.”

1 in every 2 smokers will die of a tobacco related disease

The fact that so many people choose to play those odds shows how addictive the habit is and also how important it is that we find a way to tackle the problem.

22% of the adult population in the South smoke. Over 5,000 people die every year in Ireland from smoking related diseases. These diseases are frequently protracted and unpleasant, not to mention extremely distressing to the person suffering and to their families and friends. All made even more upsetting by the fact that they are preventable.

And prevention is where our key focus must lie. Never starting to smoke is the surest way to avoid its consequences. But if we want to stop people starting the habit then we have to get to them early.

Last month in Dublin I launched Tobacco Free Ireland with that aim as its key focus. Dr Fenton Howell, our National Tobacco Policy Advisor, will be presenting more detail on the initiative later today. So I just want to give you a brief overview of what we’re aiming to achieve and how.

Most smokers start smoking very young. Research shows that 78% of smokers started smoking before the age of 18 years. It also shows that Irish people start smoking younger than those in any other EU country. So we have a battle on our hands to make this country tobacco free – and it is a battle we need to win.

Tobacco Free Ireland is the first policy document to be launched under the Healthy Ireland framework. Healthy Ireland is a government framework, which sets out a vision that will improve the health and wellbeing of the population over the next 12 years. It puts forward a “whole of society” approach and new arrangements to ensure more effective co-operation to achieve better outcomes for all.

As part of the action plan to tackle the high level of unhealthy lifestyle choices and their impact on families and society, we have set the target for the South to be tobacco free by 2025. What this means in reality is a smoking prevalence rate of less than 5%. Tobacco will still be available but at a higher price and in restricted outlets. This is ambitious but a necessary target to aim for if we really want to transform our attitudes and behaviour and improve our health as a nation.

We have already made good progress on tobacco control policy in the South. The ground breaking workplace smoking ban in 2004 had a huge impact and many other worthwhile and effective measures have been introduced in recent years. These include:

  • the ban of the sale of 10 packs and candy or sweet cigarettes
  • the ban on point of sale advertising
  • the HSE’s QUIT campaign
  • and, more recently, the introduction of the graphic warnings on packs.

These measures are having an impact.

Recent data on school aged children indicates a clear downward trend. 80% of 15 to 17 year olds don’t smoke and nearly 90% of 12 to 17 year olds don’t smoke. That’s good news. But the battle isn’t won. There are still far too many young people starting or continuing to smoke. We need to keep the momentum going with policies and actions to further reduce those numbers.

Tobacco Free Ireland has over 60 recommendations. An action plan with agreed timelines will now put together for the phased implementation of these recommendations leading us to 2025.

The report contains a number of measures which, combined, will go a long way towards denormalising smoking in our society. They include:

  • Banning smoking on the campus of primary and secondary schools and child care facilities.
  • Promoting tobacco free areas in our 3rd level campuses, sporting facilities, public parks and beaches.
  • Continuing the good work of creating smoke free playgrounds and smoke free campuses of our hospitals and health facilities.

The report also recommends several legislative measures which my officials are now working on. For example, last year I supported a Private Member’s Bill to introduce legislation to prohibit smoking in cars where children are present. I would like to re-iterate that prohibiting smoking in cars where children are present is not about restricting the rights of adults but is about protecting children – because they don’t get to choose whether or not they travel in those cars.

We are also working to introduce standardised tobacco packaging. This means that all forms of branding – trademarks, logos, colours and graphics – would be removed from tobacco packs. The brand name would be presented in a uniform typeface for all brands and the packs would all be in one plain neutral colour.

Australia was the first country in the world to introduce standardised packaging, in December 2012. We are in on-going contact with our Australian colleagues. They were successful in defending their legislation in the Australian courts, but are facing challenges now in the World Trade Organisation arena. So it won’t be an easy process. But it will be worthwhile.

The international research available to us, including a recent study by the Irish Cancer Society, indicates that standardised packaging can reduce the appeal of tobacco products and increase the effectiveness of health warnings. It also reduces the ability of branded tobacco packaging to mislead people about the harmful effects of smoking.

The Irish public have already shown a healthy appetite for the introduction of measures to prevent or lessen the use of tobacco: not least in fully embracing the workplace smoking ban despite numerous pessimistic predictions and spurious arguments as to how and why people would not comply.

Furthermore, in a recent report undertaken by the European Commission, Irish citizens were in the top rankings in their support of initiatives relating to tobacco. We were the highest ranking in our support of banning advertising from the point of sale in shops, a ban which has already been introduced in Ireland. Also we ranked top in our support of banning the sale of tobacco on the internet; and banning of colours, logos and promotion elements from cigarette packs. This is important evidence of support and it gives me great confidence that this is a vital battle that will be won.

But smoking is a global problem so to successfully reduce its influence and impact we have to look beyond our own shores for initiatives and support.

At a European level, Ireland has been active on this front, particularly during our recent Presidency. During that time, we made great progress chairing the negotiations on the revised Tobacco Products Directive. This was no easy task, I can tell you, but while this proposal is divisive and controversial, I was pleased to achieve the outcome of an agreed position among the Member States at Council in Luxembourg in June. That battle is far from over and I continue to do what I can to progress this Directive despite intense tobacco industry lobbying in Europe.

At worldwide level, Ireland is a strong supporter and a party to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The Convention is significant in that it is the first international treaty negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organisation. It has become one of the most rapidly and widely embraced treaties in United Nations history.

I am conscious that in speaking about the battle against smoking here today, I am addressing those of you who, for the most part, will be working at the front lines of that battle. I would like to express my support for the work you are doing, and to put on record my appreciation of your dedication to reducing smoking on this island. I am confident that together we will achieve that goal.

Thank You.