Debate about smoking, premature death and role of the State is now over
Published 17/05/2016 | 02:30
The tension between freedom of choice and radical public health measures will always spark arguments about the 'nanny state.'
However, when it is a super junior minister in the Department of Health who is taking on the role of persecuted smoker, it adds a whole new twist to the debate about how far the State should go in protecting citizens from our growing list of lifestyle vices.
The reality is that Disability Minister Finian McGrath's wish to reverse the smoking ban and introduce designated areas for smokers and non-smokers in public places instead is as redundant as a pile of old pub ashtrays at this stage.
Smoking is the main preventable cause of premature death.
And the evidence is also fairly emphatic at this point that non-smokers who breathe in clouds of second-hand smoke with prolonged exposure are at greater of risk of disease, including lung cancer.
It is always difficult to prove cause and effect, but since the introduction of the 2004 smoking ban here the percentage of the population lighting up has dropped to around 20pc.
This is also being linked to a fall in smoking-related deaths.
The ban itself may not be the full catalyst but, combined with higher taxes and stronger and more graphic health messages, it has had a major role in changing culture and habits.
When Irish people go abroad to countries where smoking is unrestricted, their feeling of nuisance and physical distaste in smoke-filled rooms is heightened.
In fairness to Mr McGrath, he has an unambiguous track record in opposing the smoking ban.
And he has made it clear that he will support the Government in further smoking curbs which are due with the introduction of plain packaging and the inevitable hike in the next Budget.
Cabinet loyalty is assured.
However, he has already helped to send out mixed messages, which will not help in the ongoing health-promotion battle.
While one in five of the population now smokes, this is still too much and the rates are higher in deprived areas.
There has been a recognition in recent years that even with the gradual expansion of tougher anti-tobacco laws, it has been necessary to provide more striking and hard-hitting images, including those of diseased lungs, to drive home the risks.
Mr McGrath himself is a classic case of a life-long smoker who has been encouraged to quit but, despite his best attempts, has so far failed.
It is worth reminding him that it is never too late give up smoking and he could expect improved lung capacity of up to 10pc in nine months.
Stronger lungs mean the difference between having an active and healthy older age and wheezing while trying to climb the stairs.
Mr McGrath may be able to give some well-earned and useful insights to health officials who are searching for new ways of offering practical support to long-time smokers who feel overcome by their addiction.
In the meantime, however, smokers need not feel they are singled out.
The 'nanny state' is set to widen, affecting drinkers with a ban on cheap alcohol and hitting people with a sweet tooth by introducing a sugar tax.