I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for inviting my colleague, Mr. Paul Gordon, and I to attend this meeting of the Joint Committee on Health on behalf of the Irish Cancer Society.
First, I would like to recognise all the work that has been done on this Bill to date, by the Minister, the committee members and the civil servants in the Department of Health and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. The Irish Cancer Society welcomes the Bill's provisions to ban the purchase of e-cigarettes by under-18s, to introduce a new licensing fees regime for tobacco and e-cigarettes and to end sales of tobacco products from vending machines and at child-centred events. These changes will help to reduce children’s opportunities to buy cigarettes and that is very welcome. However, unfortunately, it is not enough.
As we all know too well, if young people want something badly enough, they will find a way to get it. That is why the tobacco industry is spending billions making e-cigarettes attractive to children and why any legislation that does not address its aggressive advertising and child-friendly flavours and packaging is destined to fail.
Ireland has a proud history of being a world leader in tobacco control. The introduction of the workplace smoking ban and plain packaging by former Ministers for Health, the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, and James Reilly were courageous and important victories for public health in a world that often values commercial interests more. Unfortunately, when it comes to e-cigarettes, Ireland is a laggard, not a leader. Estonia, Finland and Hungary have banned non-tobacco flavouring in e-cigarettes and the Netherlands announced its intention to do the same. Nine EU countries have total bans on e-cigarette advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Right now, while young people elsewhere in Europe are being protected against e-cigarette marketing, young Irish people are being bombarded with ads on billboards, on buses and at checkouts. Our young people deserve better. As the head of the Health Research Board, HRB, Dr. Jean Long, recently stated:
Children and adolescents require the same protection from e-cigarettes as conventional tobacco cigarettes through a well-enforced regulatory regime of measures including age restriction on purchase, control of availability through licensing outlets, limits to product visibility and attractiveness, and appropriate pricing through taxation.
From speaking to policymakers I understand the need for tougher e-cigarette regulation that their hesitance to do so is driven by genuine concerns. They want to help adult smokers to quit and believe e-cigarettes have a role to play. They know individuals, as I am sure we all do, who have moved from smoking tobacco to vaping and they are persuaded by industry arguments that the kind of measures required to protect young people from vaping will hinder the efforts of long-term smokers to quit tobacco.
Let us not forget that all the major e-cigarette companies are owned by big tobacco. When a representative of PJ Carroll wrote to members recently about this Bill, they described the company as an e-cigarette company. However, PJ Carroll is one of the biggest tobacco companies in Ireland and is owned by the global tobacco giant, British American Tobacco.
For years, the cigarette industry told us that cigarettes do not cause cancer, that low tar cigarettes were healthier than other products and that second-hand smoke was harmless. It produced its own so-called research, misrepresented the findings of genuine studies and hired persuasive lobbyists to hoodwink public representatives and block progressive public health measures. Now it is at it again. Companies whose primary business is selling cancer-causing tobacco are trying to convince our public representatives that their main concern is smokers' health and that they want to help smokers quit tobacco using e-cigarettes. It would be laughable if it were not so serious.
It is true that some smokers prefer vaping to the use of licensed nicotine replacement gums and other products. However, as the HRB pointed out, e-cigarettes are no more effective than approved and regulated nicotine replacement therapies to help people stop smoking. The World Health Organization stated that electronic nicotine delivery systems cannot be recommended to help cessation at the population level and warned they could impede cessation among some individuals by prolonging or even increasing addiction to nicotine.
The Irish Cancer Society is committed to doing everything we can to help people quit smoking. We constantly monitor emerging evidence both nationally and globally. We promote cessation methods that reputable independent bodies have found to be effective. We provide smokers with individual support and advice and we have helped developed peer support programmes that been proven to help people quit. We know how hard it is to quit smoking and stand in solidarity with those who are trying. We understand why many adult smokers choose to try vaping and we respect that decision. However, we cannot promote something that the WHO and others have found to be harmful.
The improvements we are advocating to this Bill will not hinder adult smokers who want to try vaping, but they will protect children and young people who have never smoked and would never take up the habit if it were not for e-cigarettes. They will protect children from flavours like bubblegum, tutti-frutti and cola that are clearly aimed at them and not at lifetime tobacco smokers. It is well established that e-cigarettes can develop into a gateway to nicotine addiction and ultimately traditional tobacco consumption, as they mimic and normalise the action of smoking. Indeed, the HRB found adolescents who have tried an e-cigarette are between three and five times more likely to start smoking compared to those who never used e-cigarettes. That is the real reason that the tobacco industry is so invested in electronic cigarettes.
The tobacco industry kills one in two of its customers. Its business model is dependent on recruiting young people to replace them. It will do and say anything to achieve that goal. Ireland’s delay in effectively regulating e-cigarette sales and marketing has played right into its hands. Attracted by cool advertising, childlike flavours and aggressive point of sale marketing, more and more young Irish people are taking up vaping. As research by Professor Luke Clancy has shown, as vaping has become more popular, the smoking rate among our 15- to 16-year-olds has also increased from 13.1% in 2015 to 14.4% in 2019.
To conclude, Ireland has a proud tradition of taking on big tobacco and putting public health first. Let us not undermine all of that by allowing tobacco companies an unlocked back door to entrapping a whole new generation into nicotine addiction. Let us stand in solidarity with our EU partners in protecting our young people from tobacco and the devastation, disease and death it causes. To do that, this legislation must include a ban on e-cigarette flavours other than tobacco, a ban on e-cigarette product advertising through all communication mediums and the introduction of plain packaging for e-cigarette products. Heads 16, 17 and 21 should also be amended to include nicotine inhaling products as well as tobacco products. Together, we can help adults quit smoking through safe and effective methods while also ensuring today’s young people never take up the habit.