HEALTH Minister James Reilly has defiantly challenged Big Tobacco to sue Ireland and its taxpayers for billions of euro over his plans to introduce plain packaging for all cigarettes.
The Sunday Independent has learnt that the tobacco companies have already begun the legal groundwork to challenge the proposals, all the way to the highest court in Europe.
However, they will not initiate any action until the Heads of Bill of the new laws are published by the Government – so they can see if the legislation will offer compensation for loss of trademarks.
In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Dr Reilly said he was not surprised the tobacco firms will fight him "every step of the way".
"They are focusing all their vast resources on this country, on this Government and this department to prevent what they see as a real sea change in the way cigarettes are sold," he said.
"The packet and the packaging remains the last bastion of advertising. It's the mobile billboard, and they know the devastating impact plain packaging will have on their industry.
"It is quite amazing that on the one hand they claim: 'This will have no effect. It is foolish'. Then on the other hand they say they will sue us for the equivalent of our Gross Domestic Product for the losses they might sustain."
The massive lawsuit could cost Irish taxpayers billions of euro, but the minister said the Government could not ignore a "scourge" on society that kills 5,200 people here every year.
The Sunday Independent has learnt that the tobacco industry has hired 161 lobbyists to put pressure on just under 700 MEPs in a bid to protect the cigarette industry.
But Dr Reilly is determined to make Ireland the key battleground against smoking in the Northern Hemisphere.
He plans to introduce plain packaging as soon as possible. Plain, or generic packaging, would make tobacco companies remove all branding including stylised logos, trademarks and colours and would allow only a brand name with a specific typeface and limited font size on the pack, as well as health warnings and other required information.
The aim is to make tobacco packets look less attractive and make health warnings more prominent.
But restricting the use of brands is problematic under Irish and European law and international trade treaties, and is open to challenge under a number of different legal avenues.
They include issues such as intellectual property rights, national and international trademark law and articles contained in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and even the European Convention on Human Rights.
Australia is the only country in the world to have introduced plain packets of cigarettes. The government there won legal cases taken by tobacco giants against it in the national courts, but it faces further legal battles at the World Trade Organisation with five other countries that claim the legislation has negatively impacted on their economies.
The Australian ambassador to Ireland, Dr Ruth Adler, was present last Thursday at Dr Reilly's launch of a new plan to make Ireland " tobacco-free by 2025". Effectively, the aim is to reduce the smoking rate to five per cent or less of the population in 12 years' time.
Dr Reilly is determined that the legislation on plain packaging will be passed when it eventually comes before the Dail.
He told the Sunday Independent: "The diseases caused by smoking are frequently protracted and unpleasant, not to mention extremely distressing to the person who is suffering and their family and friends.
"And that is made all the more distressing by the fact that they are preventable diseases.
"As a doctor, I have seen a patient with an oxygen cylinder on their back, sneaking out of the ward to the toilet to have a cigarette.
"That's how strong the addiction is."