I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Public Health (Tobacco) Bill, 2001. I compliment the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, on the measures he and his colleagues are putting in place and on the priority he has placed on this issue. I attended the recent conference on the tobacco industry at which the question of whether to prosecute or otherwise was discussed. I welcome the fact the Minister raised the age at which it is legal to purchase cigarettes from 16 to 18 and I applaud the ban on advertising and sponsorship that was introduced in July 2000. I also welcome the fact that all patches, gums, sprays and tables will be made available, free of charge and on prescription, to medical card holders. I fought strongly for this through my work with the joint committee. I probably would have argued that this could have been extended to incorporate everyone, but I assume that anyone intent on pursuing these kinds of treatments can avail of the drug repayments scheme.
I am glad the Minister has provided £1 million this year to assist in the enforcement of the existing legislation and I welcome the introduction of the legislation before us. I wish those who will be involved with the office of tobacco control every success. I accept they are starting out on what will be a difficult road but I am sure they will have great success in their endeavours. I wish to place on record my appreciation of the work done by ASH Ireland and the other support agencies to bring us to this point where we are debating Second Stage of this Bill.
It was extremely important that the Minister stated last night that he regards the battle against tobacco as "one of the most important public health challenges facing us in the new millennium". The Minister is not merely uttering words, he has already put measures in place and taken action. As he is aware, the Joint Committee on Health and Children has also prioritised this topic and has spent the last number of years researching it. That is probably why I am more exercised about this subject than people outside might feel I should be. As Deputy Ring stated, children should be shown the effects smoking can have and the serious illnesses it can cause. People who have suffered such illnesses have appeared before the joint committee. Some of them, suffering from serious medical conditions, were brought in with oxygen tanks attached to their wheelchairs. One individual was upset by the fact that two of their four children smoke. I agree it is important to use people who have suffered serious illnesses as role models, but this alone will not provide an answer to the problem.
The joint committee travelled far and wide and invited people from afar to address us in order to widen our knowledge of tobacco and, more particularly, the influence of the tobacco industry on young people. I am not a smoker and I have never been overly keen to take up the habit. However, that is not to say that I do not respect a person's right to smoke, particularly when they respect my rights in return. This issue has a great deal to do with competing rights, namely, the right to smoke versus the right to a smoke-free environment. I will outline later the effect tobacco smoke can have on children and the fact that they can fall victim to sudden infant death syndrome and many diseases from being subjected to smoke. The House recently debated legislation on the right to life. It has been proven that the right to life of babies who are subjected to tobacco smoke in their homes is being interfered with. In my opinion that matter must be addressed and greater emphasis must be placed on it.
I am concerned about young people who are being tricked and cajoled into taking up smoking. As Members are aware, it takes approximately 20 young people to take up the habit each day just to replace the 7,000 or so people that smoking kills each year in Ireland. In other words, 20 people need to start smoking each day in order to maintain the current number of people who smoke. I do not know if that message is getting across. Do people really believe that, despite the agony and serious consequences alcohol can inflict, their children are better off if they are smoking rather than drinking? These individuals somehow excuse smoking as inconsequential, recreational or benign. When people are young, they do not believe they are going to die. We can see the effects of underage drinking every day. Consider, for example, the number of young people who drink, get into their cars and are then killed in accidents. However, it is not so easy to see the effects of smoking and many people who smoke do not know that their chances of dying from certain diseases are increased by 50% as a result of their habit.
I will comment later on the issue of underage drinking which is another of my hobby horses. I must say at this point, however, that it is vital that we continue to raise awareness of the dangers of smoking and this must extend to regulating the clever promotional activities in which the tobacco companies engage and which are aimed at young people. We must ensure that we put more supports and programmes in place to help people who wish to give up smoking. We need to accept that smoking is often not an isolated event and that there are people who do not wish to smoke but are caught, perhaps in a social context, in a position where they are injured through passive smoking. We also need to ensure that, to protect the young and non-smokers alike, we enforce rigorously existing legislation and, more particularly, the legislation before us. Many people complain that the country is being inundated with legislation, only a fraction of which is ever enforced. The latter will remain to be seen in respect of the Bill.
Why can we not dispel the feeling that smoking is not really that much of a problem when the statistics quoted to the members of the joint committee in respect of deaths associated with smoking are so stark? These statistics are not new, they began to emerge in the 1950s and 1960s. Why do those who know people who fight for each breath they take begin to smoke? Why do people who are informed by their doctors that their life span will be seriously reduced if they do not stop smoking continue to smoke? Why, when evidence shows that the leading cause of preventable illness in the country is smoking, are the incidences of smoking, particularly among young boys and even more so young girls, again on the increase?
I suppose it comes down to the clever way the industry goes about encouraging young vulnerable people to start smoking. A certain level of peer pressure is applied and a torrent of money is used to advertise the product in so many ways. We must recognise that smoking is highly addictive. I particularly enjoyed the performances of the industry representatives who appeared before the Joint Committee on Health and Children. Each of them, obviously in the interests of avoiding litigation, refused to say that smoking is addictive. When I asked what they thought con stituted addiction, they informed me that some people think they are addicted to chocolate, others to computers and others to golf. In that context, some people might believe they are addicted to smoking.
I am sorry that the same money invested in advertising by the tobacco industry is not put into developing patches and other devices to try to wean people off cigarettes. When I asked the industry representatives about the amount of money they spend researching the effects of their product on consumers or the research they carry out in respect of the number of people who try to give up each year, not too many promising facts were forthcoming.
It is important that smoking should be seen as addictive. If tobacco was not a highly addictive substance, we would not be here debating this Bill and perhaps those 98% of people who try and fail to give up smoking each year would not be looking to us, as legislators, to help them. It is a sobering thought that only 2% of those who try to give up smoking each year actually succeed.
I am not sure but I believe the Bill stipulates that the ingredients in cigarettes can be made public but that they do not have to be listed on packets. Perhaps the Minister could clarify the position. When smokers actually see listed on a packet the 600 additives included in each cigarette and discover that 4,000 chemicals are released in every lungful of smoke they inhale, will it have an impact? Will the ever increasing nicotine content – which is more addictive than either heroin or cocaine – ensure that those 80%, the vast majority of smokers, who say they would like to give up will forever be condemned to absorbing all the carcinogens such as ammonia, cadmium, benzene, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, lead, mercury and so on? Will they be condemned to a life expectancy below the European average significantly related to the smoking factor?
We learned through our committee meetings that cigarettes are responsible for a large percentage of cancers, for a high fraction of coronary disease and stroke and for practically all lung disease. It is now believed that stroke is as preventable as heart disease, that people can pre-empt a stroke in the same way as they pre-empt a heart attack. We are faced with a pretty awful situation and the fact that all these diseases are preventable makes it scarier.
The world almost closed down during the recent BSE and foot and mouth crises. Nothing could move across the Border without being checked. Foot and mouth disease is a serious issue for farmers and their animals but it will not kill 7,000 people each year. We were able to pump all our resources into dealing with that crisis and rightly so in terms of agriculture. Try to imagine 7,000 people dying each year as a result of BSE or foot and mouth disease – it is quite scary.
The fact that nicotine is a stimulant that affects the brain, the heart and the nervous system and gives a short-term "fix" similar to other drugs should not undermine the long-term medical effects of smoking – the short-term gain is very much replaced by the long-term pain for most.
Many shopkeepers feel threatened by the Bill. They say one in three people who come into their shops do so principally to buy cigarettes but that 25% or more of their turnover arises from sales made to the same clientele. Of the 14 European countries, Irish consumers are the third highest spenders on tobacco. That is a huge percentage of retailers' business and I fully understand their concerns but if we are honest, what we are trying to do is reduce the number of young people who take up smoking and, through time, ultimately reduce substantially and-or eliminate the use of tobacco products. One can understand why retailers feel threatened by the Bill in the context of the bigger picture. Everything possible should be done to ensure communication between the Office of Tobacco Control and retailers in an effort to allay their fears. Ultimately, what we are trying to do is eliminate the sale of cigarettes. I was in America recently and I watched how they dealt with the issue of hiding the product and the banning of advertising. It seemed to work in a very practical way. This Bill will have serious financial implications for retailers. They feel health and safety issues will come into play in terms of where the product can be placed. Those issues need to be addressed with the retail industry.
We will be faced with the same problem as the alcohol industry when it comes to proving a person is over 18 years of age. Young people now have the option of purchasing an ID card which costs £5. I do not believe they should have to pay for it. We must ask whether we need mandatory ID cards. It is a big question that raises the whole big brother issue. I know shopkeepers who have asked people their age. These people can get very stroppy and become very offended when asked for ID, especially if they are 22 or 23 years old. Our culture has to change. People in America under 25 years of age do not go anywhere without some form of identification. We must look seriously at ways of proving a person is over 18 years of age. Perhaps we could seek the co-operation of those approaching that age. Should we introduce mandatory ID cards? I would like to hear the Minister's views on those points at the conclusion of Second Stage.
I have also been asked how many people will check retailers. Will it be health board officials and-or the Office of Tobacco Control, or both? How many people will be involved? The harder we are on the legitimate retailer the greater will be the likelihood of contraband. I welcome the recent seizure of cigarettes which has put a huge dent in somebody's operation. I would point out to retailers that a recent study indicated that only 8% of children who bought cigarettes had been asked for identification. We are trying to control the sale of cigarettes to young people and to discourage them from taking up smoking at a young age. I fully support the right of a person of 18 years to smoke. I hope retailers will work with the Government to ensure that choice is available to young people and that they are not sold cigarettes at eight, ten, 12 or 14 years of age.
We were shown many of the clever things which retailers are doing in America. They send out many subliminal messages in their advertisements – one could send away tokens from cigarettes and receive a free pair of flip-flops which, when one walked across the beach, left a camel imprint.