REMEMBER in your prayers that embattled erstwhile Minister for Health, James Reilly! The makers of fags, butts, gaspers, coffin nailers and smokes, in other words the stinking-rich cigarette manufacturers, are out to gut him.
Last week his Public Health (Standardised Packaging of Tobacco) Bill was passed at Dáil Committee stage, bringing Reilly’s dream of plain packaging closer to realisation. But, without delay, Japan Tobacco International (and by implication the Japanese government which owns more than 50 per cent of the company) threatened immediate and terrible legal action if he didn’t put a stop to his dastardly plan.
Propping up Japan Tobacco, which owns the Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut brands, is the US Chamber of Commerce, a powerful lobbying group dominated by oil companies, pharmaceutical giants and cigarette manufacturers. Also throwing their capitalistic hat into the ring are local lads IBEC, 27 MEPs, the German Advertising Federation and the German Brand Association (whoever or whatever they are) and, in an extraordinary twist to the saga, the Irish Law Society – which really should know better.
And all because poor Dr Reilly wants to save lives! Ireland has 700,000 cigarette smokers and an annual 5,200 tobacco related deaths. Fags kill more people in Ireland than anywhere else in the EU, and the HSE spends over €2 billion every year in treating those who suffer the effects of cigarette-induced illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease and serious respiratory problems.
Reilly’s specific objective is that cigarette packets should have no form of branding, trademark or logo and be plain or neutral in colour, except for the obligatory health warning. But the fag industry, alarmed that this might set a precedent to be followed by EU states, has resisted with almost demonic forcefulness.
Last week we witnessed its shameless attack on the authority, status and independence of a government whose minister was doing nothing more than legislating in the best interests of the nation’s citizens. To his credit, the minister told the ruffians to get stuffed and that ‘his government would not be pushed off course to protect tobacco profits’.
The tobacco industry’s demands are centred on four points: (a) no evidence that Reilly’s law would reduce smoking; (b) that the legislation would breach national and international law; (c) that it would lead to an increase in counterfeit cigarettes; (d) that it would damage Ireland’s reputation for protecting intellectual property.
Fortunately, Australia has reinforced Reilly’s belief in the certainty of his crusade. That country introduced plain packaging laws in 2012 and, in two years, cigarette smoking fell to a record low. Particularly relevant was the fact that the tobacco companies’ lawsuits ignominiously came to nothing.
The Australian High Court ruled that the argument relating to ‘intellectual property’ (the registered symbols and images used to sell the product) was a load of cobblers, as was the notion and that the State was breaching international law.
The Aussie courts said that trade laws could not supplant national laws in areas of public health protection and that property rights had to be balanced with the social good.
The sweetest part of the judgement was the absence of obligation on the part of the Australian government to pay the fag companies compensation since Australia did not receive any monetary benefit in its re-interpretation of property rights.
The country is presently enjoying the biggest fall (15%) in smoking in many decades, and the number of smokers buying counterfeit cigarettes has remained very low.
Interesting too that the courts did not think significant the manufacturers’ foreboding of a massive amount of counterfeit cigs flooding Australia. Indeed, at the recent Oireachtas Committee, Gardaí and Revenue Commissioners expressed a similar opinion in relation to Ireland. They did not envisage any multiplication of their workload as a result of plain packaging legislation.
With Japan Tobacco International (JTI) having suffered a major kick to the goolies in Australia, lawyers believe the cigarette companies will take a similar judicial blow in this country, if Reilly holds his nerve.
Japan Tobacco International (JTI) is a combination of Japan Tobacco Inc and the US tobacco giant RJ Reynolds. The multinational acquired the Gallaher Group in Ballymena, Co Antrim, in 2007 and a few years later closed down the Irish factory with the loss of 900 jobs. They moved the operation to Poland and Romania – cheap labour countries that are now using their EU influence to obstruct Reilly’s progressive legislation.
Interesting too the allegation of rampant smuggling. According to Japan Tobacco International’s own investigators, the company did not do enough in response to the possibility that cigarettes were smuggled through Russia, Moldova, the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Middle East. The allegations were significant because JTI is party to a EU agreement to stamp out smuggling.
JTI later argued that the story was ‘sensationalistic and salacious’ and that ‘none of the allegations was grounded in reality.’
In 2012, the British tabloid press had a field day with lurid accounts of JTI spending thousands of pounds worth of hospitality on nine MPs who voted against a Private Member’s Bill banning smoking in cars carrying children.
As for the US Chamber of Commerce, well, they’re the buckos to raise eyebrows. Although not a government agency, the Chamber is deeply embedded in politics, especially the Republican Party, and annually spends over m lobbying on behalf of big business. It spent m attacking the Democrats in 2012 and another m in influencing the elections. It considers Obama care a ‘job killer and a threat to the nation’s economy’.
And then there are the 27 MEPs – all senior members of the EPP grouping in the European Parliament. Notwithstanding the fact that Kenny and Fine Gael are members of the group, the 27 MEPs brazenly lobbied our esteemed Taoiseach Enda Kenny, warning him that Reilly’s Bill violated international trade agreements, increased the illicit tobacco trade, and deprived tobacco firms of their intellectual property rights.
Whether or not they pinned Kenny against a wall and told him to ‘ease off, boy’ is open to speculation, but their words of ‘advice’ uncannily echoed the concerns of the US Chamber of Chamber.
Thirteen of the audacious meddlers belong to Merkel’s CDU-CSU party. Another nine are members of Spain’s Partido Popular, an outfit that has roots in a quasi-fascist political organisation established by one of General Franco’s hatchet men, and which is currently embroiled in appalling financial scandals. Not exactly the most wholesome of outfits to be ordering the Irish people what to do!
Happily, Reilly has support across the political spectrum and at the cross-party health committee that approved his Bill a raft of TDs pledged they would not be ‘brow-beaten’ by ‘external forces’ (see above).
We hope they’re telling the truth!