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James Reilly cannily rages against the tobacco machine


Dr James Reilly has introduced plain-packaging legislation

Dr James Reilly has introduced plain-packaging legislation

Dr James Reilly has introduced plain-packaging legislation

James Reilly is pioneering a crusade in Europe against the tobacco industry through the introduction of plain packaging for cigarette packets in Ireland.

The biggest thing on a pack of fags from 2017 will be a gruesome health warning.

The tobacco industry is doing its best to stop him, threatening legal action, trying to prevent the Government of Ireland from setting its own laws.

Mr Reilly will not be remembered for his well-intended, but fundamentally flawed, plans for universal health insurance.

But like Micheál Martin, the history books may yet be generous to him, for his rage against the tobacco machine.

As well as the myriad of ever-changing 'reforms' promised for the health service, Mr Reilly embraced tobacco control as one of his pet projects as health minister.

This day last week, Mr Reilly, now Children's Minister, spoke at the 15th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, in Abu Dhabi.

Ireland is the second country in the world, but critically the first in Europe, to enact plain packaging legislation. The law went through the Oireachtas three weeks ago.

Ireland is following Australia, which introduced it in 2012. For Australia, like all other countries, what works in preventing and reducing tobacco use amongst citizens is a wide array of measures, including banning indoor and outdoor smoking, banning advertising, and good public information campaigns, as well as plain cigarettes packs with warning signs.

The cigarette pack is the tobacco industry's last marketing tool. Selling tobacco is extremely heavily regulated - because it kills one out of every two smokers. So tobacco companies are doing everything in their power to stop losing one of their last lines of attack.

It was more difficult for Ireland to do this than Australia - as part of the European Union, Ireland is constricted by common market laws. A 2001 EU directive did not allow for picture warnings on the front of cigarette packs.

Mr Reilly was health minister when Ireland held the EU Presidency in 2013. And although he was blundering his way through the domestic health ministry at that stage, he cannily used Ireland's six months in this role to pass a new directive which allowed for warnings, including pictures, to occupy 65pc of the cigarette packs.

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At last week's conference, Mr Reilly detailed the extent of the tobacco industry's lobbying against his plans. One company alone hired 161 lobbyists and spent millions of euro trying to persuade the European Parliament to dilute the directive. Big Tobacco did not want to lose its last branding tool.

There was a real chance that the directive, as drafted by Ireland, would be watered down. Mr Reilly and Taoiseach Enda Kenny used their political clout in Europe's largest political grouping to get the directive through.

Tobacco had lost at European level so it turned its attack to Ireland's plain packaging legislation as it was being drafted. According to Mr Reilly, there was unprecedented lobbying "on a scale that Irish politics had never seen before".

The Japan Tobacco Company threatened the Irish Government with legal action if it proceeded with the legalisation. The Government ignored the threats and the legalisation was passed.

Now the United Kingdom, France, Norway and Finland are all following. But Big Tobacco will not stop here; legal action testing the legitimacy of the Irish law is inevitable, although experts believe the public health good will win out over any case taken on a "freedom of movement" grounds.

Plain packaging, when combined with other measures, has been shown to delay the age that young people take up smoking, This is central to reducing population smoking rates and savings lives. It is a simple case of the public good winning out over tobacco industry profit. Mr Reilly deserves great credit for his European crusade against Big Tobacco.

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