During a meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children held last Thursday, Health Minister James Reilly confirmed to me that on May 7 three of the most senior Fine Gael figures in our Government – Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Justice Minister Alan Shatter – had a 45-minute meeting with the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers Advisory Committee (ITMAC) – specifically with Steven Donaldson, Andrew Meagher and John Freda, the chiefs of PJ Carroll, John Player and Japan Tobacco International respectively.
Reilly himself wisely, and correctly, declined to attend.
A government spokesperson stated that the meeting was scheduled to discuss the illicit tobacco trade.
Everything about this meeting was wrong. It should never have taken place.
In the first instance, from a moral point of view, the attitude of our Government to an industry that is responsible for the deaths of thousands of our citizens annually should be one of relentless, unremitting hostility.
Big Tobacco are not our partners in any sort of enterprise. They are the enemy. The ambition of the Government should be to put them out of business, pure and simple.
Secondly, the meeting likely breached the World Health Organisation (WHO) framework convention on tobacco control (of which Ireland is a participant) which strongly discourages such meetings, stating that "there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry's interests and public policy interests". It stipulates that "where interactions with the tobacco industry are necessary they should be conducted transparently, preferably in public".
Three questions must thus be asked. Was this meeting necessary? Did it serve the public good? Was it transparent?
I believe the answer to these questions was "no", "no" and "no".
The smuggling agenda doesn't wash. The principal commercial "victims" of tobacco smuggling are retailers, not manufacturers. The real victims of tobacco, of course, are smokers and their families.
Remember, this industry must make 50 new addicts per day in Ireland just to replace daily losses through smoking-related deaths. Young people like cheap cigarettes and remember, the business plan of Big Tobacco can be summed up in five words – "addict young people to carcinogens".
It is simply not plausible that the manufacturers who met with Fine Gael would be moved to schedule this meeting just to discuss smuggling.
I will go further – if the Government genuinely thought this meeting was about smuggling, then it was duped. I actually believe that this is what happened.
So why was the meeting, which was described by an ITMAC spokesman as "very positive", requested at all?
Worryingly, it was reported that other matters were discussed, including the industry's opposition to Reilly's proposed tightening of anti-smoking regulations, such as banning menthol and roll-ups, and the introduction of mandatory plain packaging adorned only by explicit pictures of the health consequences of smoking.
These issues, not smuggling, are the ones close to the industry's heart. These, issues, not smuggling, constituted their real agenda.
The final question is very troubling.
How did this meddling collection of drug dealers get access to senior Fine Gael ministers? Which lobbyists could pull off a stunt like this?
ITMACs PR is handled by Hall PR, and their anti-smuggling campaign is managed by O'Herlihy Communications, founded by Bill O'Herlihy. Bill, who has extensive Fine Gael connections, and who acted as PR adviser to my personal hero in Irish politics, Dr Garret FitzGerald, also attended the meeting.
Bill is, parenthetically, not the only former Fine Gael adviser who lobbied for the tobacco industry.
Revolving door PR/political lobbying is also certainly not unique to Ireland. Washington and Europe are rotten with it. In two years in Leinster House, I have succeeded in scheduling exactly one 20-minute meeting with the Health Minister to discuss cancer research. I tried to lobby the Finance Minister to remove VAT from cancer-preventing sun-block in a rushed whispered conversation in the Dail visitors' gallery. I would kill to get 45 minutes with the Taoiseach and the other ministers to discuss the critical importance of clinical research to our health system and to our economy.
There is something very wrong here.
Professor John Crown is a Senator and an oncologist