Success of smoking initiative shows what is possible

Sat, Jan 5, 2008, 00:00

It may only have been when he returned to his ministerial desk after the Christmas and New Year break five years ago that the then minister for health and children Micheál Martin saw the opportunity presented by one item scheduled in his diary for later in the month, writes Noel Whelan.

On January 30th, 2003, he was due to speak at the launch of an expert report commissioned by the Health and Safety Authority on the health effects of environmental tobacco smoke in the workplace. The usual approach taken by ministers at such events is to welcome the publication of the report, thank the authors for their work, and promise to consider their recommendations. Ministers then generally let things sit for a while to assess the public reaction before revisiting the issue some months or even years down the line. This report was different, however, and so too was the minister's response.

The study was conducted by a team of independent scientists chaired by Dr Shane Allwright, a senior lecturer in epidemiology in the department of public health and primary care in Trinity College Dublin. The report concluded unequivocally that environmental tobacco smoke was a contributory factor to more than 7,000 cancer-related deaths in Ireland annually.

Encouraged by the authority, by the Office for Tobacco Control and by officials and advisers in his department, Martin decided that rather than delivering the usual ministerial holding-position speech, he would announce that the report's recommendations would be accepted in full and that, in particular, its call for a ban on tobacco smoking in all places of employment, including pubs and restaurants, would be accepted. On the day itself Martin went even further and marked the publication of the report by simultaneously publishing draft regulations providing for the smoking ban. He also set a specific date for its implementation - January 1st, 2004.

What was most striking about the introduction of the smoking ban was that prior to Martin's announcement the proposal had attracted little or no political attention. It did not, for example, feature as an issue in the general election campaign the previous summer, nor did it merit as much as a passing reference in any of the party manifestos published for that election.

The initial response to Martin's announcement in January 2003 was a surprised but warm welcome from most media commentators and strong support from anti-smoking groups and trade unions. The issue lay largely dormant until that summer, when a strong and well-resourced campaign against the proposal was launched by vintners and lobbyists for the hospitality industry.

In the summer and early autumn of 2003 the controversy intensified as political opposition against Martin's plan was stoked up within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party by these vested interests. It fizzled out, however, when opinions polls revealed overwhelming public support for the ban. After a few legislative hiccups and a decision to postpone the actual implementation to a more clement springtime, the smoking ban came into effect in March 2004.

Its introduction not only proved to be a historic moment in Ireland, it marked a turning point in the international struggle between public health and the tobacco interests.

Among the arguments advanced against the ban in Ireland in 2003 was that it would have a detrimental effect on pubs and hotels in the Border regions because patrons and function planners would choose premises in Northern Ireland where they could smoke.

This outcome never materialised, and in fact Northern Ireland introduced its own ban last year, following earlier bans in Scotland, England and Wales. Only this week a ban on smoking in cafes and hotels was introduced across France and in many German states. Norway, Malta, Finland and Italy have already banned smoking in workplaces. The introduction of a similar ban is under serious consideration in a further six European Union member states.

In many of those countries the Irish example has been cited as evidence that a ban could work. If, given their traditional relationship with alcohol, the Irish could adjust to not being able to smoke in pubs and restaurants, then other countries could follow suit.

Interestingly, Martin's speech on January 30th, 2003, has now been included in the recently published book Great Irish Speeches, which made its way into my own and, I suspect, many other Christmas stockings. Edited by Prof Richard Aldous, the head of history at University College Dublin, the book is a collection of what the author regards as the 50 most significant speeches made in modern Irish history. It starts with one of Henry Grattan's from 1782 and finishes with Bertie Ahern's address last May to the joint sittings of both houses of parliament at Westminster.

All the speeches one would expect to be in such a collection are present, including Parnell on how "No man has the right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation", de Valera on "cosy homesteads" and "comely maidens", Dessie O'Malley on the need to "stand by the Republic", and even Alan Dukes's "Tallaght Strategy" speech.

Among the inclusions from the 21st century are speeches by Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, President Mary McAleese's address at UCC on the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, and Bertie Ahern's remarks about the establishment of structured consultation between the government and the churches. Then there is Martin's speech announcing the smoking ban. This speech is shorter than the others and has no great oratorical flourishes, but it is included solely because of the quality of its content.

Only five years after the speech and almost four years after the smoking ban was introduced, the historical significance of the decision Martin made is apparent. At the start of a new political year it should act as an encouragement to other politicians to be brave in their policy initiatives and not afraid to confront vested interests.