Dr Ciara Kelly on 'Minister for Fags' Finian McGrath: 'You would really have to wonder at his appointment to such a responsible position'
If ever there was something that illustrated the argument that health should be taken out of the hands of politicians, it was last week's incredible gaff by junior minister for health - or as Vincent Browne put it, Minister for Fags - Finian McGrath.
The junior minister is a smoker, who suggested we should row back on the 2004 smoking ban - possibly Ireland's finest hour, in terms of public health initiatives in recent years - and allow smoking areas to creep back into our pubs and restaurants. This was despite the overwhelming body of research that shows that passive smoking - or second-hand smoke - does real, significant and serious harm to the health of those exposed to it, namely Irish workers in the hospitality industry. And despite the fact that the proportion of Irish people who smoke has fallen from 29pc to 19pc since the ban was introduced.
To be honest, this is analogous to the minister suggesting we should stop promoting safe sex because he does not like wearing condoms, or indeed stopping the Department of Health from promoting a low-fat, low-sugar diet to combat obesity, because he himself likes a nice sweet cup of tea and a slice of cake.
The personal lifestyle choices of the minister are clearly nobody's business but his own. But when he suggests that the health policy of the country should be altered to suit his personal lifestyle, despite the tsunami of evidence that proves such a change would be massively detrimental to our nation's health, you would really have to wonder at his appointment to such a responsible position.
Health is an important role, and with it comes genuine massive responsibility; and any minister for health must, if not choose to live a healthy life himself, at least take decisions that promote a healthy lifestyle for our citizens. And that includes instigating policies that make being healthy an easy choice, not a harder one. Suggesting that Irish workers - waiters, bar staff, cleaners - should once again be exposed to other people's smoke at a cost to their own personal health is to me profoundly shocking for any elected representative.
I have no doubt that the Irish Cancer Foundation, the Irish Heart Foundation and indeed loved ones of the 50pc of Irish smokers killed by their smoking habit were less than impressed by his ill-judged and woefully ignorant stance when he was barely a wet week in the job. This, of course, comes on top of his previous misinformed remarks which attempted bizarrely to suggest that the link between smoking and lung cancer was not properly established.
It makes me think that the tobacco industry here must be rubbing their hands together gleefully at his comments, as usually they have to pay people handsomely to make such outrageous claims while keeping a straight face. Instead, we have our new minister misguidedly doing a great PR job for them - and all for free.
Make no mistake, despite our new minister's incorrect assertions about the dangers of smoking, and despite his attempt to suggest that smokers are somehow discriminated against because they are not allowed to expose other people to the toxic by-product of their habit, smoking is just about the worst thing you can do for your health. In fact, it would never be legalised if it was only discovered now. Most smokers want to give up for these reasons, but many struggle, so pernicious is the addiction.
Smoking is implicated in almost every form of cancer. It is a major cause of heart disease, our number one killer. And it destroys your lungs' abilities to function. It will kill every second person who doesn't give up smoking. And sadly, it will also kill a proportion of those who do give up. Anyone who tells you differently is wrong. And is either in denial, ill-informed, or, in the minister's case, possibly both.
In Minister McGrath's case minister for health appears to be a misnomer.