Policing the smoking ban


So far, the Minister for Health, Mr Martin, has resisted a determined and well-funded campaign by the tobacco, drinks and hospitality sectors to force the abandonment of the decision to ban smoking in pubs, hotels and restaurants from next January.

In spite of pressure generated by spurious claims of job losses, aggravated by a lack of support from a number of his ministerial colleagues, Mr Martin has insisted that this serious public health issue must be confronted in the interests of society as a whole.

The damning statistics of death and the ruinous effects of smoking on public health are there to back him up. So are winter-filled hospital beds, occupied by smokers suffering from bronchitis and other tobacco-related diseases. Apart from the direct physical damage to tobacco users, the Minister must take into account the effect passive smoking has on others and the overall health costs.

In the past, governments passed public safety laws with great fanfares of publicity and then failed to enforce them. That must not happen on this occasion. At the moment, the Office of Tobacco Control within the Department of Health is preparing rules and guidelines in relation to the proposed ban.

But the task of enforcing the regulations will fall to 40 environmental health officers employed by the health boards. At the moment, those worthy individuals are fully engaged in protecting public health. And there is no certainty that, given the large number of outlets and the late-night nature of pub and restaurant hours, they will be able to enforce the necessary early discipline on the hospitality sector.

Their task will be made particularly difficult because of the resistance of a majority of publicans to the ban. The recently-formed Irish Hospitality Industry Alliance, which claims 3,500 members, has campaigned vociferously against the measure on the grounds that it could lead to the loss of 65,000 jobs. Ensuring that such people make "reasonable efforts" to implement the anti-smoking ban on their premises will be an uphill struggle for health officers. Because of that, the assistance of the Garda Síochána in policing the ban - at least in the initial stages - would be a considerable advance.

Demarcation in the enforcement of law should not exist. If the law is there, it should be upheld by every State agency. At the moment, the only role envisaged for the Garda is for them to come to the assistance of publicans and others who are having difficulty in enforcing the smoking ban on reluctant customers. They will have no role in holding the owners of businesses to account when they facilitate smoking on their premises. This is a ridiculous situation.

At a time when the Minister for Justice, Mr McDowell, is granting the Garda new powers to enter licensed premises and enforce the law in relation to the sale of alcohol, why should they not ensure that the ban on smoking is also upheld ?