Monday 7 July 2014

Voting for a pig in a poke

Continuing the recent theme of barnstorming parliamentary speeches is this from Finian McGrath in the Irish parliament last week. It provides a neat overview of the issues surrounding plain packaging while gently querying the honesty of the state-funded groups that are pushing for the policy.

I totally accept that smoking is not good for one's health, but nor is excessive eating or binge drinking. However, it seems always to be smokers who get hammered, notwithstanding the €1.2 billion in taxes we contribute to the Exchequer each year. That is a lot of money and it helps to run a lot of services. My philosophy in life is moderation, whether in regard to alcohol, cigarettes or food. Unfortunately, decisions in these matters are being made by the nanny state brigade, with the rest of us expected to toe the line. The superior attitude displayed by some of these people gets up my nose, with their constant lecturing and talking down to people who happen to have an addiction that is harming nobody but themselves. It is time to get real and bring some common sense into this debate.

It is important, too, that we have an honest debate, to which end I intend to point out some of the dishonest statements I have heard in recent weeks. I fully accept that smoking is bad for one's health. I try every day to give up, but bullying, marginalising and hectoring will never work with me. We have seen the disgraceful treatment of people who are using electronic cigarettes as a way of overcoming their addiction. CIE, for example, reacted to a couple of cranks by imposing a total ban on the use of these devices on trains and buses. In Leinster House efforts are being made to ban their use in the private and public bars. That is not a good thing. On the day that a company has announced the creation of 80 new jobs in the manufacture of electronic devices, surely it is time to introduce some element of common sense into our consideration of these matters. I am asking the Government to wise up, cop on and take on board dissenting voices like mine.

I take this opportunity to challenge some of the organisations that have put misleading information into the public domain. For example, the Irish Cancer Society recently stated that the annual cost of smoking to the health budget is €2 billion. However, the Chief Medical Officer gave evidence to the health committee, under the chairmanship of Deputy Jerry Buttimer, in December 2013 that the cost is €664 million. I asked the Minister in a parliamentary question yesterday whether there is a need for the Chief Medical Officer to correct his evidence in light of this discrepancy. The response explained that the Chief Medical Officer based his evidence on a report by the Directorate General for Health and Consumers on liability and the health costs of smoking across all EU member states. The report showed that for Ireland, health expenditure on smoking diseases is €498 million, productivity losses due to absenteeism amount to €15 million, and long-term incapacity caused by smoking costs €151 million. These figures give a total of €664 million and show there is no requirement to correct the parliamentary record. In other words, one group has already been caught out in giving false and misleading information. To reiterate, I am not arguing that smoking is good for one's health but that we should have honest presentation of the facts. [nb. Tobacco taxes in Ireland generate about €1.4 billion - CJS.]

Turning to the legislation, these provisions will have far-reaching implications for retailers and in their impact on jobs, cigarette smuggling and the infringement of intellectual property rights. We are being asked to support the Bill in the absence of information regarding the regulatory impact assessment that was conducted last February.

In effect, Deputies do not know what the cost benefit and the impact of this Bill will be or if the tobacco companies sought compensation in their submissions. This information should be made available to Deputies so they know for what they are voting. Regardless of one's personal attitude to cigarettes and tobacco products, the Minister will agree that they are serious issues for all Members of the Oireachtas.

Additionally, the Minister should be asked if the Attorney General has reviewed this Bill and whether she has any outstanding concerns about its integrity and if she is confident it will withstand legal challenge. We have had a financial crisis and we need money but a case like this could cost taxpayers more money. The Minister and the Government should wake up and smell the coffee and not squander any more taxpayers' money as they have done. We need every cent for our health and disability services and I do not want to see a legal challenge where the State is caught for hundreds of millions of euro.

Let us look at the other facts when it comes to dealing with the packaging issue. It will make counterfeiting easier. By removing branding, smokers will definitely gravitate towards the cheapest products, increasing the amount they smoke. That is something at which the Minister should look. Smoking initiation and ongoing consumption are driven by factors unrelated to packaging. That is the reality. There is no evidence in the form of randomised control trials that proves standardised packaging reduces smoking uptake. That is something at which the Minister should also look. Again, I emphasise that I am giving a different view on these issues.

It is a pity the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, is not here. The Government did not proceed with abolishing upward only rent reviews as it would have required the payment of compensation to landlords whose rights were infringed. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, said on 10 June 2014 that the Government did not want the taxpayers to pick up that bill. What is the connection here? The connection is that we could find ourselves in a situation where there could be a legal challenge costing hundreds of millions of euro. As this plain packaging legislation proposes to deprive tobacco companies of their rights, the same principle applies here.

As many Deputies know, tobacco companies made this point in their submissions to the Department of Health's regulatory impact analysis, which remains unpublished. The Minster is inviting the Dáil to vote for a pig in a poke as long as the regulatory impact analysis conducted on this Bill remains unpublished.

I am warning people that they must be vigilant. The Law Society is concerned about this legislation and yet where has one heard this? The political nanny state brigade have not raised this issue. Irish law protects creative ideas, inventions, designs and music by creating intellectual property rights in respect of them. Intellectual property rights are protected. Under Irish law the right to a trademark is governed by the Trademarks Act 1996. Ireland is a signatory to a number of international agreements, the aim of which is to protect intellectual property rights.

A number of stakeholders, including the Law Society, have raised concerns about the potential negative impact standardised packaging may have on intellectual property rights, that is, the trademarks of tobacco companies and, consequently, on Ireland's international and commercial reputation. That is the Law Society talking and not Deputy Finian McGrath.

I have put forward alternative views in this debate and I would like the Minister to listen to them. If one is bringing in legislation, it should be well thought out because it could end up costing this State. One also has a duty to provide all the information and all the facts to the citizens of this State who deserve truth, honesty and above all not to be caught again and stung in their pockets.

The legislation in Ireland seems to have been pushed back to September, by which time Ireland's hysterical, overweight and unpopular minister for health, James Reilly, is expected to have been shuffled out of the cabinet.

Meanwhile, another public consultation is underway in Britain on what campaigners now insist on calling 'standardised' packaging (the reason for the name change has passed me by). It will run until 7th August and you can use it to tell the government to get a grip here.

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