Speech by Mr. Micheál Martin T.D. Minister for Health and Children at the National Heart Alliance Workshop – Speech Subject – Smoke Free Workplaces

I would like to thank the National Heart Alliance for inviting me to participate in this work shop and to speak to you regarding the major health initiative I am undertaking in regard to smoke free workplaces. This is an issue which has received considerable attention in the media since I announced it in January of this year. The initiative has contributed to ongoing media and public interest on the whole area of tobacco and health including heart disease.

As Minister for Health and Children I am fully aware of the enormous burden that the consumption of tobacco products directly imposes on our health care system through active and passive smoking. Tobacco smoke is the leading preventable cause of death and disability in Ireland. Medical evidence has repeatedly confirmed tobacco as a cause of cardiovascular disease (including heart attack and stroke), common cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthmatic attacks, low birth babies and sudden infant death syndrome. All of you from your involvement with the fight against heart disease are familiar with the significant risk to healthy hearts of tobacco smoke whether from active or passive smoking. Tobacco smoke is the most significant form of indoor air pollution in developed countries and a cause of mortality and morbidity.

The State assumes most of the costs of health care and tackling the tobacco epidemic is a Government approved public health priority. A significant number of beds in our acute hospitals are occupied by people with tobacco related illnesses including cardiovascular disease. Effective measures to reduce the incidence of smoking related illness are essential if this burden of tobacco related ill health is to be reduced. Even a modest reduction in this area will result in significant health gains and a reduction in the incidence of heart disease here.

On 30 January 2003 I announced a prohibition on smoking in the workplace. From January 2004 smoking will be prohibited in all indoor workplaces. The primary purpose of the prohibition is to protect workers and the public from exposure to harmful toxic environmental tobacco smoke.

I am proceeding with this important public health initiative based on recommendations contained in the “Report on the Health Effects of Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) in the Workplace”. The report was prepared by an independent scientific working group commissioned by the Office of Tobacco Control and the Health and Safety Authority and published in January 2003. There is a consensus within the international scientific community on the danger to health of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke. The World Health Organisation has classified environmental tobacco smoke as a Class A carcinogen. The damaging effect of tobacco smoke on human health is indisputable and it is a cause of ill health and mortality in healthy non smokers. While some interests have tried to play down the possibility of serious health risks from exposure to environmental tobacco smoke in the workplace the advice contained in the report is quite blunt. Current ventilation technologies are inadequate to give employees and the public sufficient protection. Exposure can best be controlled by prohibiting smoking in places of work.

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 introduced in 1995. The new measure is based on equality of protection under public health law for all employees.

I announced the prohibition a year in advance of the starting period to allow a reasonable time for employers, businesses and the public to adapt to the changes required. Of course there will be a period of adjustment and some people will take a little time to adjust. I am encouraged by the level of public support that this health initiative has received and continues to receive since January this year. I welcome in particular the support which has been publicly expressed by a range of bodies including health professionals, trade unions and many voluntary groups actively involved in promoting good health including organizations attending here to-day.

Some in the hospitality sector have expressed concerns over a possible drop in numbers of customers in hotels, restaurants and bars. However the evidence to date is that no negative economic effects result. Properly conducted scientific studies in areas of the USA with similar public health initiatives have shown an increase in trade in the hospitality area. Some people have asked for a delay for a period of two years but any further delay would merely force employees to work in an unsafe environment for an unnecessarily extended period. Involuntary smoking in the workplace increases the risk of heart disease by between 25% and 30%. I am not prepared to prevaricate on this vital health issue while others quibble about the levels of risk. Even one death caused by exposure to tobacco smoke is regrettable particularly as exposure is something that is entirely preventable and within our means to control.

We must remember in particular the staff in the hospitality sector many of whom have to spend their working hours in a dangerous unpleasant smoke filled environment. The new health and safety measure being introduced is primarily about being able to work and socialise in a clean healthy smoke free environment. That indeed is a pleasant prospect that will have health benefits for all concerned. No one can be in any doubt that working for a smoke free environment is a positive goal that will result in many benefits for all of us and particularly for future generations.

Information campaigns will be carried out over the coming months to make sure all employers, employees and the general public are fully informed on the implications of the measure and the reasons for its introduction. I am confident that the majority of citizens will undertake to respect the rights of workers and the public to a healthy smoke free environment.