Speeches

Speech by Micheál Martin T.D., Minister for Health and Children at the opening of the Conference on Future Directions in Tobacco Control in the EU in Limerick

Welcome and Introduction

Ladies and Gentlemen, on behalf of the Irish Government and the Irish people, I would like to welcome all of you here to Limerick to the opening of our conference on tobacco control.

Ireland has the honour to hold the Presidency at a time of great change in the European Union, with its recent enlargement from 15 to 25 States. This was the largest increase in new member states of the Union since its foundation. In particular I´d like to welcome the Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, Mr David Byrne.

Your presence here in Limerick at this event is recognition of the importance that the European Community attaches to tackling the problems caused by tobacco consumption to the health and quality of life of the peoples of the European Union.

Health Impact of Tobacco in the European Union

While much progress has been made in recent years in facing up to the public health threat from consumption of tobacco products, we must not be complacent.

The battle against tobacco remains one of the most important public health challenges facing us. Smoking prevention and tobacco control are priority objectives in the public health policies of Member States and the European Community. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the European Union. Tobacco consumption shortens lives, harms others and is a huge cost to the taxpayer in terms of health services. Cardiovascular disease is the largest cause of death of men and women in the European Union and tobacco is a significant factor in this and other diseases such as lung cancer, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Effective tobacco control measures and sustained responses are required to curb tobacco related deaths and illnesses, to reduce the numbers of people smoking, to protect people from second-hand smoke and to improve the health and quality of life of our population.

Tobacco Industry

The tobacco industry still retains an aggressive approach in the promotion and marketing of its products. As tobacco control measures become stronger and more comprehensive throughout the developed world, the industry is moving rapidly to exploit new markets in developing nations and the third world. A recent report from the World Health Organisation states that, of the 1.3 billion smokers worldwide, 84% live in developing countries. Many of these countries do not have sufficiently strong public health resources to resist the intensive marketing efforts of the tobacco industry in inducing young persons to take up smoking.

Framework Convention on Tobacco Control

At a global level, the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was unanimously adopted by members in May 2003. This is the first binding international tobacco control treaty that provides an agreed approach to tobacco control in order to protect public health and reduce deaths from tobacco related illness. The Convention will be a vital public health instrument in dealing with the global tobacco health threat. Indeed, the tobacco industry has identified the activities of the World Health Organisation as the greatest barrier to their attempts to sustain and increase smoking prevalence globally.

Conference

This Conference is an ideal opportunity to review progress to date in the European Community in this public health area and to lay down markers for future direction. All of this is against a background of 500,000 smoking related deaths annually in the Community. We must ensure that the measures we put in place are effective in reducing the burden of death and disease caused by tobacco consumption.

Evidence accumulates year on year of the enormous world wide threat to human health from consumption of tobacco products. A recent report from the Surgeon General of the United States affirms that smoking harms nearly every major organ of the body, causing many more diseases than previously known. Furthermore, studies carried out internationally in recent years have also confirmed that inhaling second-hand tobacco smoke seriously damages your health.

Theme, Aim and Objectives

The aim of this conference is to review tobacco control policies in the EU and to facilitate the exchange of views and experiences including research and best practice among European countries in the field of tobacco control. The Conference will focus on taking stock of what has been achieved to date in this field. In the context of enlargement of the EU, it will provide an opportunity to focus on the efforts required to implement a strong integrated EU tobacco control framework for the 21st Century. This will enable us to deal effectively with the enormous threat to public health from tobacco consumption. Many countries around the world look to the European Union to show leadership and action in this vital public health area.

Underage smoking

A particular concern is the worrying increase in the number of children and adolescents who take up smoking. Despite claims to the contrary from the tobacco industry, young people taking up smoking is the lifeblood of the industry. The tobacco industry needs new consumers to replace those that die from smoking related diseases. It is an established fact that most smokers commence their addiction in childhood or early teens. This is one of the key areas we must target effectively if we are to reduce the incidence of smoking throughout the Union. On average, smokers lose about fifteen years of life through premature death from tobacco related illnesses. This statistic translates into tragic human loss for families and communities. The victims of smoking are people we know. They live in our neighbourhoods, we work alongside them and they are members of our own families. Our smoking cessation policies and activities must be accelerated if we are to prevent these premature deaths.

Tobacco Control in Ireland – policy and practise

In Ireland we have made significant progress in reducing the prevalence of smoking in our population. From a base of 31% in 1998, our health and lifestyle survey published in 2002, SLÁN, highlights a drop to a current smoking prevalence level of 27% – recent surveys show a further decline to 25%.

Clearly, no single measure deals effectively with the tobacco epidemic. Our approach in recent years has been multi-faceted and will remain so. I have established a National Smoking Cessation Action Group to address the multifaceted nature of this issue and to coordinate a response amongst key stakeholders. Among the measures we’ve taken in the area of tobacco control are:-

  • the raising of the age limit for sale of cigarettes to persons from 16 to 18 years.
  • the ending of advertising of tobacco products in newspapers and magazines
  • the ending of sponsorship of events by the tobacco industry, and
  • the establishment the Office of Tobacco Control to coordinate a national tobacco control programme.

The health promotion measures we introduced include the development of the national Every Cigarette is Doing you Damage advertisement campaign for the adult population. This included the establishment of a National Smokers’ Quitline that has received on average 10 calls per hour since its launch nine months ago.

We also introduced our NICO advertisement campaign – which targets young people.

Both campaigns and the supporting literature are on view in the hotel today and tomorrow.

Smoke-free Workplace Initiative

Our most recent tobacco control initiative, which has attracted considerable international media coverage, has been the introduction of smoke-free enclosed workplaces. I would like to share with you briefly the Irish experience in preparing for and implementing this ground-breaking public health measure. Implementing this far-reaching initiative is a positive, progressive health and safety measure, which bestows benefits to workers and the general public alike.

The initial announcement that the Irish government would be introducing a smoke-free workplace measure was made on 30th January 2003. This allowed for a long lead-in period before the commencement date of 29th March 2004 and gave ample opportunity to sectors not already benefiting from smoke-free environments to prepare and adapt. The media coverage and public debate generated during that time was a clear indication of just how important this issue had become for the people of Ireland. From a public health perspective the widespread media coverage, both in the domestic market and internationally, was welcome.

As Minister for Health and Children, it is my responsibility to ensure that the necessary legislative and regulatory framework is in place to provide for the high level of public health protection needed in this area.

The decision to introduce smoke-free workplaces in Ireland is based on independent advice from experts that is emphatic:

  • Second hand tobacco smoke is a cause of cancer, heart disease and respiratory problems
  • Employees need to be protected from exposure to second-hand smoke at work
  • Current ventilation technology is ineffective at removing the risk to health
  • Legislative measures are required to protect workers.

Health and quality of life issues are important to people in their place of work. Exposure to second-hand smoke is a cause of ill-health which is actually preventable. Positive Response to the Smoke-free initiative:

The response to date across all sectors is very positive with compliance at a very high level. The successful introduction of the new measure reflects the widespread public support and goodwill that exists for a clean smoke-free environment in the workplace. The Smoke-free Initiative has attracted much attention and comment internationally.

I would like to pay tribute to the responsible and co-operative approach to the new smoke-free workplace requirements shown by employers, employees and the public in the successful introduction of this important public health measure.

Better Health for Future Generations

Being able to work and socialise in a clean, smoke-free environment is now seen as a positive development with many benefits for the community and for employer and employee. Smoke-free policies are proving more and more popular not just nationally but on a global scale. We have arrived at a stage where a non-smoking environment is now being regarded as the norm in many societies.

I am confident that smoke-free workplace measures will provide a health legacy not just for current, but also for future generations, who thankfully will never know what it was like to work in an enclosed smoke-filled environment.

Conclusions

I would also like to thank all delegates, our speakers and chairs for taking time out of their busy schedules to attend and contribute to this conference. As you see from the programme, there is a varied range of topics on tobacco control and parallel sessions are being held on specific topics which give delegates a choice in attending.

As we draw towards the end of the Irish Presidency, we hope that the Conference proceedings will be beneficial and informative to all participants and make a positive contribution to the development of tobacco control policy in the EU.

I hope all of you will enjoy your working day and the social events that follow.