HEALTH Minister James Reilly has criticised judges for an "irresponsible" attitude to sentencing shopkeepers who sell cigarettes to children.
He says retailers are getting "tokenistic" one-day bans when caught selling to minors and must face tougher penalties.
The rebuke by Dr Reilly represents the most direct attack he has made against the judiciary.
The minister will be addressing an event today in Dublin to mark the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the smoking ban. And he will use it to demand stricter enforcement and harsh penalties for those caught breaking the law on the sale of tobacco products.
At present, the current legislation allows judges to ban retailers from selling cigarettes for a period of up to three months if they are convicted of selling cigarettes to children.
"In practice, almost half of those convicted are banned from selling cigarettes for a tokenistic one day. This is not just disappointing, it is unacceptable," he will say.
"If discretion is going to be continued to be applied in what I believe to be an irresponsible way – putting the wellbeing and lives of our children at stake – then we will legislate to remove that discretion from them," he will add. He says he finds it "deeply disturbing" that one in four retailers is prepared to "not just break the law, but to expose our children to this product".
"We will take the necessary steps to ensure that they behave responsibly," he will say.
"I want to send a very clear message to retailers – if you sell cigarettes to children, you will be brought to court, you will be fined and you will be prevented from selling cigarettes to anybody for a long period of time," he will add.
"I'm deadly serious about this because this is a deadly product that is going to kill one in two of our children who use it regularly."
Dr Reilly says his clampdown will see the number of inspections of shops increase until compliance is achieved.
"The vast majority of retailers are responsible people who understand the need to protect our children. For those who don't, we will take whatever action is required to ensure that they comply with the law and we will make selling cigarettes to children a very unprofitable approach from their point of view," Dr Reilly will say.
His comments come as it has emerged that retailers are facing significant hikes in the licence fees they will have to pay in order to sell cigarettes.