Speech by Micheal Martin TD, Minister for Health and Children at the launch the report on the health effects of environmental tobacco smoke in the workplace

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I´ve asked you here today for the publication of a particularly serious report on environmental tobacco smoke. Within the last few months, the World Health Organisation´s International Agency for Research on Cancer declared, without equivocation, that environmental tobacco smoke is carcinogenic to humans.

Bottom line: you don´t have to be a smoker to get cancer from cigarette smoking. You can get it if you were never a smoker. You can get it from other people´s smoke. That declaration, together with the increasing concern about the health effects of environmental tobacco smoke, led to this report.

It was commissioned by the Health and Safety Authority and the Office of Tobacco Control – and that joint action, in itself, is significant. The Health and Safety Authority reports to Minister Fahey. I established the Office of Tobacco Control. So their joint commissioning of this report represents not only a significant inter-departmental co-operation, but also reflects the concern of the Cabinet about this issue.

The two bodies commissioned an independent scientific working group to:

Identify and report on the degree of consensus . . . among leading international scientific authorities on the . . . hazard and risk of environment tobacco smoke to human health in the workplace.

This report doesn´t put a tooth in it:

Although the tobacco industry has played down any possibility of danger in passive smoking, this report proves, on the best of international scientific evidence, that there is harm in Environmental Tobacco Smoke. Proven harm about which there is not only a consensus in the worldwide scientific community, but a significant, substantial consensus.

That consensus says that Environmental Tobacco Smoke includes more than 50 known carcinogens. Every time any of us who are non-smokers breathe in, when we´re in a smoke-filled atmosphere, our lungs are getting a load of cancer-causing chemicals. Fifty of them with every breath.

In addition we´re also getting – free, gratis and for nothing – a number of irritants and cardiovascular toxicants. One of them is carbon monoxide.

Each one of those constituent elements does us damage.. Together, they do us enormous damage. And this report states the damage to various aspects of our health, one after another. Like a heartbeat.

Which brings me to an important point – Heart disease. Environmental Tobacco Smoke doesn´t just cause cancer. It causes heart disease. It causes respiratory problems. In adults. And in children. It damages the health of children right from the start: for example, it lowers birth weight. It has been identified as a cause of asthma attacks and middle ear disease.

Children don´t control the air they breathe. We do that for them. We either give them the clean air to which they are entitled, or we force them to breathe 50 carcinogens and disease causing chemicals. Children are exposed to ETS when people smoke in places where children live, play or visit with adults. That´s the fact. No getting around it.

But let´s move on to the workplace. This report states something that hasn´t been fully understood up to this point. Let me quote its words: Where workplace smoking is permitted, employee exposure to Environmental Tobacco Smoke is likely to be higher and more sustained than in the home environment.

Employees need to be protected from exposure to Environmental Tobacco Smoke. It may not seem like coercion, but it is coercion, when other workers smoke in the workplace. The non-smokers are being forced to take into their bodies poisons they have chosen not to ingest.

And – this is another important point made by the report -current ventilation technology is ineffective at removing the risk to health posed by Environmental Tobacco Smoke. I told you at the outset that I´m now – today – taking radical new measures against Environmental Tobacco Smoke.

I´m banning smoking in the workplace. Including restaurants, trains and pubs. Today I am publishing draft regulations to prohibit smoking in workplace. Regulations will be notified to the EU Commission in accordance with the Transparency Directive. The Regulations will take effect on January 1st 2004. This ban will mean a massive cultural change for people right around this country, and the eleven months before its full introduction will give people the time needed to adjust and change.

I´m doing this because – as this report makes inescapably clear – I have no choice. There is no other option open to me other than to take action. Before this consensus was correlated and stated so bluntly, it was possible to temporise, to negotiate, to water down the measures I´d like to have taken.

But this report clearly positions the debate at a new level. It’s like when the medical profession is conducting a clinical trial, giving new drug to one group of people and a placebo to another group. If you find that the new drug is killing people, even in a tightly limited clinical trial, you stop administering that medicine. Right then and there. We are in precisely the same position now.

In addition, I´ve been taking soundings – we´ve been taking soundings – and the message coming through has been loud and clear. The majority – the overwhelming majority – have said to me and to the Department: go the whole way. The majority are in favour of an all out ban.

The report is also saying partial bans don´t work.

We should not forget that one MRBI survey recently showed that the overwhelming majority of the Irish public – more than 90% -believe people should be able to – for example – have a drink in a smokefree pub if they wished.

A complete, total and absolute ban on smoking in the workplace isn´t just beneficial to our health. It has all sorts of other advantages as well. It means less anbsenteeism from smoking related illness. It reduces the fire hazard. It reduces maintenance and redecoration costs.

This report makes action on my part inescapable. That action is challenging. Of course it´s challenging. But we can´t not take the action.

Looking back at issues like asbestos, all of us regard the industries that refused to take action when they knew their product killed workers – we regard those industries as having been beneath contempt. They chose not to face up to facts. They sacrificed human beings. And for a long time, they got away with it. They should serve us now as a horrible example.

This admirable report is particularly constructive. It states, for example, that we must do research to assess just how much workers in Ireland are exposed to Environmental Tobacco Smoke. That research needs to pay particular attention to the bad health outcomes that may emerge from such exposure, particularly for high-risk groups like pregnant workers and workers in the hospitality industry.

We must, of course, do further research in this area. What we must not do is use that research as a device for postponing action. As you know, I’ve already taken a number of initiatives to reduce tobacco consumption in this country.

  • I´ve raised the age limit for buying tobacco from 16 to 18.
  • I´ve stopped tobacco advertising in newspapers and magazines.
  • Ended sponsorship by the tobacco industry.

We have also taken positive action. By “positive action& I mean providing free availability of the full range of Nicotine Replacement Therapy products to medical-card holders trying to quit smoking. Other positive actions we´ve taken include sustained media advertising campaigns directed at preventing young people -particularly young women – from taking up smoking. In addition, an extra million euros have gone to the health boards to help them improve compliance with tobacco laws.

The establishment and funding of the Office of Tobacco Control by me set out to provide this country with a strong body to oversee implementation of the national tobacco control programme. The Office has been a very effective catalyst in highlighting the importance of cross sectoral participation in tobacco control measures. Several important conferences and seminars have been organised by the Office including the use of internationally recognised experts on tobacco control.

Anybody here who´s been a smoker and who has succeeded in giving up cigarettes knows that it sounds easy, but is incredibly difficult.

This is an insidious and persistent addiction. It has been inculcated – some would say deliberately – in young people, at a time in their lives when they have no sense of mortality.

Put it more simply: young people become smokers when they have that marvellous conviction that they are going to live forever and be healthy forever. They become smokers when they believe they are all-powerful, and could just as quickly and just as easily stop being smokers. And when, a few years later, they decide to give up cigarettes, they find it is arguably the most difficult life-change they could ever choose to make. That life-change is often complicated by the smoking habits of friends.

This Report draws the line and removes all possibility of kidding ourselves.

  • We´re entitled to life.
  • We´re entitled to health.
  • We´re entitled to expect that the air we breathe will not be polluted

This Government is going to act on this Report and deliver those entitlements. For far too long in Ireland, we´ve had the habit of shrugging our shoulders about health, as if it was something that simply happened, like the weather. We nod reverently when we read about the introduction of anti biotics: yes, we think. They made a great impact. Great good fortune. A happy accident.

Removing tobacco damage from our lives would have a comparable effect, on individual health and survival. On domestic and workplace well-being. On the nation as a whole.

I believe that in every decade, we are presented with one major choice – a choice where, if we call it right, we change the future for the better. This is one of those choices, and I´m making the call the way it must be made, eleven months from now, taking tobacco out of the workplace.