Taoiseach Enda Kenny received a delegation of senior tobacco industry figures in Government Buildings a fortnight ago, the first time any taoiseach has held formal talks with the industry.
Mr Kenny was accompanied by Ministers Michael Noonan and Alan Shatter at the meeting with the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers' Advisory Committee (ITMAC), which raised concerns about the rise in smuggling.
The meeting took place on the evening of May 7th. Present were the chief executive of the PJ Carroll company, Steven Donaldson; chief of John Player, Andrew Meagher; and chief of Japan Tobacco International, John Freda.
A spokesman for Mr Noonan acknowledged the talks had taken place, but declined to comment further. According to a Government source, the emphasis was on measures to combat the illicit tobacco trade.
However, the industry figures also called on the Government to reject proposals in a draft EU tobacco directive to ban menthol and roll-your-own products. They also want the Government to reject measures in the draft directive on standardised and plain packaging.
The Government’s engagement with the industry comes against the backdrop of a big shortfall in tobacco excise revenue last year and a large projected shortfall this year.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin criticised the Taoiseach over the talks.
“It simply beggars belief that the Taoiseach should conduct such a meeting along with Ministers Shatter and Noonan. It shows a fundamental lack of judgement on the part of the Taoiseach,” he said. “To hold such a meeting is a tacit endorsement of big tobacco and all the damage it does.
“For decades now it has been public policy to curb tobacco use and the appalling damage it does. A key part of that has been to make smoking socially unacceptable. What message does the Taoiseach’s meeting send in that regard?”
Minister for Health James Reilly said today he wouldn’t have attended the meeting if he had been invited to it. He told the Oireachtas health committee he was aware that fellow ministers had met the tobacco industry and understood the meeting was in relation to smuggling. Meetings with the tobacco industry were permitted under the directive provided they were about smuggling, he said.
Briefing material provided to the The Irish Times , which the ITMAC presented to the Government, points to a total excise shortfall this year of some €99 million, based on current projections.
“The meeting was very positive and continued for around 45-50 minutes, but we wouldn’t like to comment on behalf of the Taoiseach or the Ministers as to what the outcome was,” said a spokeswoman for the ITMAC.
The industry blames republican dissidents such as the Real IRA and criminal gangs for the rise in smuggling. At the meeting in Government Buildings the ITMAC representatives presented photographs showing children selling illegal cigarettes at recent street markets.