Wednesday 12 December 2018

'If I can't smoke on the bus, I'll walk' - how smoking was banned on Dublin Bus 30 years ago

Old habits die hard: Our reporter recalls what happened in 1988 when smoking was first banned on Dublin Bus

Long gone days: Prior to the 1980s, smoking was seen as a key part of reaching adulthood (Part of the NPA and Independent Newspapers Collection)
Long gone days: Prior to the 1980s, smoking was seen as a key part of reaching adulthood (Part of the NPA and Independent Newspapers Collection)
John Meagher

John Meagher

This day 30 years ago smoking was banned on Dublin Bus. Shay Healy took to the 48A for RTÉ to gauge opinion and he encountered several passengers who were furious at the 'nanny state' intervention.

A trio of teenage boys continued to smoke upstairs. "Oh, it's no-smoking day," one of them said with a smirk. "I don't care." An elderly lady suggested that people would do the opposite to what they told. A male passenger insisted that it would be reasonable for those on the upper deck to smoke if they wished to. "If I can't smoke on the bus, I'll walk," he said - music, surely, to the ears of health campaigners who had long lobbied to curtail smoking in public.

Today, it would be unthinkable to smoke on public transport, but on Ash Wednesday 1988, bus drivers questioned just how enforceable the new rules would be. It turned out to be far easier than they might have imaged.

If smoking had been a socially accepted choice for most of the 20th century in Ireland - a key part, even, of reaching adulthood - it truly begun to be frowned upon in the 1980s. Restrictions had been placed on tobacco advertising and the decade saw several government-sponsored campaigns to warn the public about the dangers of lighting up.

In 1979, then minister for health, Charles Haughey had introduced legislation that begun the process to make smoking socially irresponsible. For the first time, tobacco billboards were prohibited and newspaper and magazine ads could not portray smoking in a way that glamorised the practice. Furthermore, a restriction was placed on sponsorship and tobacco firms were banned from supporting youth events.

Haughey was asked how long he envisaged it to be before smoking was banned in public places, and he said that for now, the focus was on individual responsibility. It was pointed out at the time that several journalists attending had chain-smoked their way through the press conference.

Smoking was everywhere back then - they regularly lit up on The Late Late Show (even as late as 2001, when Jeremy Irons smoked his way through an interview with Pat Kenny) - and few could imagine that Ireland would one day aspire to be completely smoke free.

If making smoking illegal in buses was a key plank in that aspiration, so too was the decision in 1986, which compelled tobacco manufacturers to include a prominently displayed warning on the front of cigarette packs. Smokers could buy a pack of 20 for £1.65 back then.

Although subtle warnings had been in place at the side of packets since 1979, this was arrestingly different. At least 15pc of the total area of the packet had to be given over to a stark message - such as 'Smoking Causes Cancer' and 'Smoking Kills'. The tobacco industry had lobbied for years against such warnings, but its introduction is now seen as one of the reasons why smoking rates declined steadily in the years that followed.

Another key milestone in the war against tobacco was introduced in 1990 when smoking was prohibited in general areas of all buildings owned by the state or semi-state bodies, as well as schools, third-level colleges and sports centres.

Cinemas, theatres, art galleries, public libraries and museums, private and public buses, trains and Dart services and hospitals all had to abide by the legislation. The new law also meant that it was mandatory to have no smoking areas in restaurants and canteens, and at least one-third of seating areas at airports and ferry ports had to be designated as no smoking.

If such rules meant Ireland was finally catching up with best international practice, the country went one better 14 years later when it became the first in the world to introduce a total smoking ban in the workplace. It was a rule that effectively ended smoking in pubs and clubs and would soon be followed by European-wide prohibition.

Although some publicans, especially in rural areas, opposed the ban, it soon came to be regarded as a success. A study from Harvard University two years later in 2006 demonstrated that there was 91pc less smoke pollution in bars in the Republic than in 'Irish pubs' in 15 countries, including the US.

Despite the successes, almost one in five Irish adults continue to smoke every day. The current rate of those aged 19 or over is 19pc, making official efforts to have the country tobacco-free by 2025 unlikely.

There have also been concerns about the stubbornly high levels of smoking among young women - a likely factor in pushing Ireland's female cancer death toll above the EU norm. The disease caused 30pc of deaths of Irish women, in comparison with 23pc across Europe.

Meanwhile, the war against tobacco continues. Come September 30 this year, no retailer will be allowed to sell cigarette packets failing to feature the new, highly visible warnings first introduced last autumn. Each cigarette packet will look the same and will feature gruesome images of decayed teeth and diseased lungs. It's hoped that the stark message will deter impressionable teenagers from taking up the habit.

"Almost 6,000 people die from tobacco related disease and tobacco use," according to health minister Simon Harris. "That is 6,000 families who go through the pain of losing a loved one when the stark reality is that these deaths are unnecessary and avoidable."

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