As the MP for North Antrim, I am still reeling from the news that 1,000 jobs in my constituency are set to be lost with the closure of the JTI/Gallaher tobacco factory. The devastation that this will cause to the area cannot be overstated.
There are some who would see this as the inevitable fallout from the decline in smoking rates, but in truth much of the blame lies with the over-regulation of the tobacco industry, and those who championed it.
And it is these same lobby groups that are pressurising the Irish and UK governments to rush ahead with plans to introduce plain packaging of tobacco products which Minister James Reilly has recently stated will be debated in the Dáil on February 17.
I am in favour of regulation and I will support any proposal with a solid evidence base and proven record behind it in reducing smoking rates. Plain packaging, however, meets neither of these criteria and could potentially result in serious unintended consequences. The job losses in my constituency come as a result of strict Europe-wide restrictions on packaging due in May 2016, but plain packaging would go even further by removing all branding, logos and colours.
Whenever possible, I have sought to engage with the governments in Dublin and London to discuss my concerns about the proposed laws.
Foremost among these is the potential to worsen the already serious problem of cross-Border tobacco smuggling by making counterfeiting a far easier process. The growth of this criminal activity undermines the rule of law in Northern Ireland and has a destabilising effect within the body politic threatening to unravel the gains of the Good Friday Agreement.
Anyone can see that copying a generic pack would be more straightforward than doing the same with a branded pack. That's something not lost on the criminal gangs that run this trade, as evidenced by the recent uncovering of an illegal tobacco factory in South Armagh. Following on from this seizure, HM Revenue & Customs specifically mentioned plain packaging as a concern.
I believe we will also see a rise in illegal branded packs masquerading as legitimate duty free cigarettes, as criminals exploit the opportunities presented by plain packaging. One such illegal brand was involved in an enormous seizure at Drogheda Port in June 2014 when gardaí and Customs officers intercepted 32 million cigarettes. Then in January, officers seized nearly eight million branded cigarettes.
This is not idle speculation. A recent story in the Irish media quoted unnamed Garda and Customs sources as saying that unbranded packs would provide a massive boost to the former Provisional IRA members who control the cigarette smuggling trade from South Armagh.
The law enforcement officials believe that the already lucrative trade could balloon in value to €120m a year. This is in light of Revenue Commissioner figures showing huge increases in seizures of cigarettes and loose tobacco.
Similarly, Northern Ireland's Organised Crime Task Force has linked cross-Border tobacco smuggling gangs to other serious crime, including illegal drugs and fuel laundering. It is these criminals who stand to benefit from the opportunities presented by plain packaging of cigarettes, pocketing money that should be going into government coffers and retail tills on both sides of the Border.
Australia provides a real world example of this, having seen a dramatic increase in tobacco smuggling since the introduction of plain packaging in late 2012. KPMG reports showing this were dismissed out of hand because they were commissioned by the tobacco industry.
The annual reports of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, showing increasing seizures of smuggled tobacco, cannot be so conveniently ignored.
In the legitimate and regulated industry in Ireland, it is illegal for anyone under 18 to purchase tobacco. It hardly needs to be said that no such controls exist in the black market where the age of customers is of no concern to the criminals involved. By standardising the packaging of tobacco, the Irish Government risks increasing the already large illegal trade and making it easy for children to obtain cigarettes.
I realise that opposing plain packaging may not be popular, but the fact is that there is no solid evidence emerging from Australia to show that removing colours, brands and logos from cigarette packs would have an impact on the incidence or uptake of smoking, or inspire smokers to quit. There are proven measures at the disposal of policymakers, such as educating children to resist peer pressure and tackling tobacco smuggling gangs. These less-headline-grabbing measures, however, require the investment of capital and time.
The consequences of over-regulation are obvious in my own constituency and plain packaging is another example of such simplistic and lazy policy making.
This island is already a bountiful destination for smugglers, and this ill-considered law would only make it easier for them to peddle cheap cigarettes to youngsters.
Ian Paisley Jnr is MP for North Antrim