How the smoking ban was won
On March 29th, 2004, the Republic became the first country to ban smoking in pubs, restaurants and all other workplaces. It was the end of a long battle between pro- and anti-smoking forces
Here, some key players in and observers of the 2004 smoking ban – including Micheál Martin, who was minister for health; Prof Luke Clancy, a leading anti-smoking campaigner; Prof Shane Allwright, a senior health researcher; and Jeffrey Wigand, the US tobacco-industry whistleblower – recall their roles in an episode of Irish history that made headlines around the world.
Prof Luke Clancy, chairman of Ash in 2004 Everybody thinks that one day Micheál Martin woke up and said, “I think we’ll go smoke free,” and the next day we were smoke free and everybody was surprised, but it’s not quite like that. It was a slow process. A voluntary code came in in 1992, to which everyone subscribed, but that was reviewed in 1992/1994, and according to surveys most people didn’t even know it existed.
Prof Shane Allwright, chairwoman of the working group on the effects of environmental tobacco smoke, which reported in 2002 In 1999 Alan Shatter helmed an Oireachtas group and came up with very similar conclusions to the ones we came up with years later. I don’t think that group got half the credit they should have done.
Luke Clancy [That group] came out with a very good report about health and smoking, and a national anti-smoking strategy came out of that. The tobacco industry came in and said second-hand smoke isn’t really harmful to nonsmokers, that this is do-gooders trying to make trouble. But [the group] rejected the tobacco-company insistence that passive smoking wasn’t bad for you.
Sara Burke, Institute of Public Health policy analyst 2000-4 There was a fantastic official in the Department of Health, [Tom Power], who has since died, who just decided to make this happen – to get all the international evidence – to come up with a clever way of implementing it and get political support.
Luke Clancy Tom and I liaised all the time. We met often. He’d tell me the way things were and that there were things he couldn’t be saying that he wanted me to say. We had a co-ordinated campaign, and when Micheál Martin came in as minister for health, Tom had his ear.
Sara Burke He persuaded Martin that this would be his legacy project. At the time they were abolishing the health boards and setting up the HSE, and the system was in chaos. So in a way it was the perfect decoy.
Micheál Martin, minister for health 2000-4 Tom Power was a brilliant civil servant. He had a singular commitment to this issue that wouldn’t have been across the department. We agreed we’d draft a comprehensive tobacco-control Bill. That gave us the enabling powers to do an awful lot of things that have been done subsequently, not least the ban itself but also putting tobacco out of sight in shops and eliminating the 10-pack.
Luke Clancy We had expected a ban to be announced a year before it was, but Tom wanted another report before announcing anything. I wasn’t in favour of this, because there was plenty of evidence and I didn’t think [the proposed researchers] knew much about it. But he said that was the point. He wanted Irish scientists who were respected but weren’t involved with the campaign. That became the Allwright report.
Shane Allwright I was a newbie on this issue. I was approached [by Tom Power] to chair a working group for the minister on the health effects of second-hand smoke in the workplace. My colleagues knew I was an honest broker, because I hadn’t been a heavy-duty anti-tobacco advocate, though I was concerned about the negative impact of the tobacco habit. We weren’t doing any studies ourselves – we were reviewing the literature – but I think politically Tom Power felt that to [involve] Irish researchers would have more political clout.
Micheál Martin They alerted me to the findings and said, You’d better mull over this over Christmas. They were saying passive smoke is a carcinogen. My thoughts on that were that it was very similar to asbestos. So can you fudge it? A half-ban? A three-quarters ban? I concluded that we had to ban it.
Luke Clancy Tom Power had it all planned so that the day the report was released [January 30th, 2003] there was a speech from Micheál Martin, announcing the ban.
Micheál Martin (from his speech in 2003) 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.
Luke Clancy (laughing) It was as though it came to him in a dream. Tom Power had actually written that months before, and we were just waiting for the Allwright report.
Liz McManus, Labour Party spokeswoman on health 2002-7 My understanding was that what was driving it was the fear of litigation – that all these people working in the hospitality industry would be able to take cases against the State because of being affected by smoking and cancer.
Shane Allwright It was considered mad, I think. The immediate reaction was, “It will never happen,” “It never can happen,” “People won’t obey it.”
Micheál Martin When I announced it to cabinet there was a lot of surprise, and they weren’t all supportive. There must have been a huddled meeting after I left, because Bertie [Ahern, the then taoiseach] came up and said, “Ah, by the way, when are you implementing that?” I said, “January 2004. Twelve months for debate and discussion.” They were relieved. They thought there’d be compromises by then.
Luke Clancy We formed the Health Alliance. Everyone joined up for that and I was appointed the spokesman.
Shane Allwright The vintners went ballistic, because they were terribly concerned about their livelihoods. The opponents could be quite aggressive. I did one or two interviews on television and radio, but other people were better able to deal with that.
Luke Clancy There was one problem with the report. They said, “More research is needed.” Every scientific paper says that, but the anti-ban people jumped all over that.
Shane Allwright (sighing) They did latch on to that. We had a hostage to fortune. But in science nothing is 100 per cent clear-cut.
Luke Clancy [Against it] there were the vintners, but there was also a group called the Irish Hospitality Industry Alliance that said it had 20,000 members and a big budget. There was a lot of money. We felt it came from tobacco [companies], but there was never any proof.
Jeffrey Wigand, US tobacco-industry whistleblower The tobacco industry often works through puppets. It’s hard to draw a clear line between them and the groups they use. That’s a tactic. They have deep resources, but they never put themselves out front. It’s an image thing.
Shane Allwright Union support was very important. John Douglas of Mandate had begun to realise the terrible working conditions his members were being forced to work in, day in, day out.
Ronnie Greaney, publican I guinea- pigged it. I [temporarily] set up a smoke-free pub a few years before the ban. Being a barman was horrendous then. Coming home after a night’s work, the smell of cigarettes in your hair, the room and the laundry basket. You’d have to shower after work: the smell, the dirt. We’d seen the initiatives in the US and thought we’d give it a crack.
John Douglas, general secretary of the trade union Mandate We did have to be convinced, but once it was clear our members were having their health seriously endangered we came out fully in favour of it. A conference with international speakers about the effect of second-hand smoke, was set up, and it became clear that [smoking in the workplace] was indefensible and that the current systems were inappropriate.
Sara Burke There was a 24/7 media strategy. Every time a hotelier or publican came out and said, “This will bring the country to a halt,” they had someone back on saying, “This is a health-and safety issue for workers in bars and clubs.” It was a very consistent message, and that encouraged the politicians to weigh in behind it.
Luke Clancy I was doing 11 radio interviews a day.
John Douglas Once the pro-smoking lobby lost the health debate they switched to a debate about ventilation, and began arguing that you could get the smoke out of the air with very expensive high-tech ventilation equipment. Suddenly there were these supposedly amazing machines invented. I remember a politician on Radio Kerry talking about a machine that could do 100 air changes a minute, so that the air in the pubs would be cleaner and fresher than the air in the Kerry mountains.
Tony Briscoe, assistant director of social policy at Ibec The idea of ventilation arrangements wasn’t hugely explored. It’s interesting to go into some places and see what they spent on extraction and ventilation systems that are probably now redundant.
Luke Clancy Ibec said there should be compromise on the proposed ban and that the Allwright report had made only a qualified link between tobacco smoke and cancer.
Tony Briscoe Our position was misunderstood. We broadly supported the ban. But we did want a delay. There were difficulties with any exceptions that might have been provided for in the legislation [to do with nursing homes, prisons and hotel rooms]. It was quite emotive, and there were people who were very much of the view that there should be no exceptions.
Liz McManus I found at times, going to public meetings, that very often I would be defending it against Fianna Fáil politicians who were at best watery about it but at worst were attacking it.
Micheál Martin After a while some cabinet ministers started getting iffy about it when they realised there wasn’t going to be any compromise. [Former minister] Martin Cullen came out in August 2003 and lashed it.
John Douglas There was intense lobbying down at the local clinics. I remember getting a message through to Micheál Martin’s department, saying, “Listen, my union is out on a limb on this. I’m out on a limb on this. You’ve started something: are you prepared to finish it?” But despite the lobbying he never wavered.
Micheál Martin There was a big publicans’ meeting in the midlands where one guy said, “We’ll show them who runs the country!” After that people started coming up to offer support. “Don’t let them get you!”
Luke Clancy Bertie didn’t really strongly support him in public until a vintners’ meeting where [some publicans] said they were going to withhold VAT. It was October 29th, 2003. After that, Bertie said, “Who do they think is running this country? I’m not going to have these people saying this.” He came out strongly then. That was crucial.
Micheál Martin Bertie was always very supportive. There was one big setback where the Germans and Austrians invoked little-known but real legislative vehicles that meant any legislation passed in a member state that could impact on internal markets must be notified in advance. It was an oversight on our side. In my experience the Germans were very anti anti-tobacco initiatives. It was meant to start in January 2004, but there was a delay. I was very annoyed they were trying to spoil our party.
Luke Clancy The more the debate ran on the more we won it. The date was important. We knew it would be bad to do it in the middle of winter, because they’d all be out in the wet and cold. At one time it was thought maybe we’d do it at Lent, on Ash Wednesday. In the end it was March 29th.
Micheál Martin We hired four senior counsel to stand over this, because the tobacco industry has on retainer some of the major legal firms in the city, so they wouldn’t be available to us.
Luke Clancy Ash was saying we should celebrate that date in some way, and we decided to do it at 8am, because nothing would have gone wrong by that stage. There were television crews from Japan, from the BBC, from all over Europe.
John Douglas There was a little bit of concern that on day one some headbanger would refuse to put a cigarette out and a barman might get a bottle over the head. All day we had newspapers asking, “Any bar staff being attacked?” There were absolutely none. The Irish public did not turn into a set of marauding barbarians in the space of 24 hours.
Micheál Martin There was an attempted rebellion in Galway. A publican declared that he was violating the ban. The taoiseach and the attorney general came down like a tonne of bricks on that. The Fine Gael TD John Deasy had a smoke in the Dáil bar. I don’t think he was an enthusiast for the Bill.
Liz McManus It should be remembered that Micheál Martin was very dependent on opposition parties to get it through.
Ronnie Greaney Afterwards, the crystal-clear air. No smoke on the curtains. In the past the smoke would cake on to the walls. You always paint the pub on Good Friday. Back in the day you had to scrub the walls for two days to get that dark-brown look off them. You had to clean the walls with sugar soap. Sugar soap sales have died.
John Douglas It certainly didn’t have any major negative impact on the employment levels in the hospitality sector. I think there were studies after the first year that proved it might actually have had positive impacts.
Shane Allwright We did the Irish bar workers study where we looked at symptomology and exposure levels before and after the ban. What we found, very crudely, was that before the ban nonsmoking bar workers had symptomatology equivalent to smokers’ and after a year there were big improvements.
Liz McManus I remember one newspaper had something about the best things in 2004 and the worst things in 2004, and the smoking ban was on both lists.
Jeffrey Wigand I visited Dublin the following year. I went from pub to pub and we couldn’t even get to the bar. Everyone was going out. Ireland was the first country in the world to go smoke-free. You should be proud of that.
Micheál Martin People still stop me in the street and thank me for bringing in the smoking ban.
Liz McManus I was very surprised he got it through his own party. I didn’t find him a very decisive minister in other areas. He tended to run for cover. He was dithery about the nursing-home repayments, for example. He’s not a Donogh O’Malley. He’s not somebody you’d see as a great reformer. He did choose to bring in a great reform. Other politicians may have done the exact same thing. He didn’t water it down, though. And I hope I congratulated him at the time.
Luke Clancy Another minister mightn’t have run with it. People wanted him to compromise. But he believed in it. I found him genuine and honourable in it. But it was also about having the right civil servant. Tom Power was straight up the middle. He was against the tobacco industry. He saw they were killing people and he wasn’t going to stand for it.
Shane Allwright I always think of a chess board when I speak about Tom Power. He quietly and cleverly put all the pieces in place.
Luke Clancy This is why it worked. We had a civil servant who wanted to do the right thing and a politician who wanted to do the right thing. It all came together.
These comments have been edited for length. The Irish Times sought interviews with several people who publicly opposed the ban in 2003- 4. Some were unreachable; others declined to comment