Tobacco industry misled advisory group, doctor tells health committee

 

The Irish tobacco industry secretly manipulated and misled a group advising the minister for health on new smoking regulations, the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children was told yesterday.

Members of the group, appointed by the minister, were not told that while they were discussing a code of practice for smoking in the workplace, the official heading the group met a representative of the tobacco industry, the committee heard.

It was being addressed by Dr Fenton Howell, vice-president of the Irish Medical Organisation.

Documents presented at yesterday's meeting also show that within 24 hours of the Department of Health group meeting to discuss the code of practice, the same tobacco industry representative had a detailed account of what went on.

Dr Howell said he thought it was important for the committee to know "just how we arrived at the notion of a voluntary code of practice for the workplace, despite the strength of evidence against passive smoking".

The consultative group on workplace smoking was set up by the then minister for health, Mr Brendan Howlin, in 1993. It had representatives from the Department of Health, IBEC, ICTU, the Irish Cancer Society, ASH Ireland and others.

"However, what many on the consultative committee were unaware of is that officials from the Department of Health and the IBEC and ICTU representatives were privately having side meetings with a representative from the tobacco industry on this issue which sought to protect workers from passive smoking," he said.

That representative was Mr Flor O'Mahony, director of ITMAC, a trade association for the three main Irish tobacco companies. He is a former Labour Party senator.

Dr Howell said the Irish documents were part of a set which the tobacco industry was forced to release in the US as a result of lawsuits. "They make interesting reading. Within 24 hours of one of the consultative committee meetings the tobacco industry had a detailed minute of the meeting, outlining who said what and how the committee was progressing.

"This was immediately for warded to his [Mr O'Mahony's] colleagues in Ireland and Europe and subsequently to the tobacco industry in America. What these documents outline is the extent to which the tobacco industry will go in order to stop any legislation being brought into place which will protect those at the workplace," Dr Howell said.

Responding yesterday, Mr O'Mahony told The Irish Times in a statement that he was a director of a trade association. "As with all persons in a similar position I represent the views of my members as professionally and as competently as possible. This inevitably means making those views known to the authorities and other interested parties from time to time."

He continued: "In the case of smoking in public areas, it may be noted that new legislation was subsequently introduced in 1995 which prohibited and restricted smoking in a wide range of additional public locations."

Mr Alan Shatter TD (FG) told yesterday's meeting he was "greatly disturbed by the memos from the former senator, Mr O'Mahony". He asked what was going on "behind the scenes" with the Department of Health.

He asked that a letter be sent from the committee to the Director General of the Department of Health, Mr Jerry O'Dwyer, requesting that the person who headed the 1994 committee appear before the Committee on Health and Children. "I am concerned about how the Department of Health is now formulating their policy. If there is similar access behind the scenes this committee is entitled to know. These lessons should be learnt."

A Department of Health spokesman said last night the Department "categorically denied that any secret or side meetings" had been held with Mr O'Mahony. One meeting had been held between the chairman of the consultative committee on smoking in the workplace and Mr O'Mahony, at his request. "There was nothing secret about that and no influence whatsoever was exerted on subsequent decisions. We have met with the tobacco industry on a few occasions to let them know what we planned to do. But we are not influenced by them."