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Ireland tried to ban smoking in public in 1986 - and Big Tobacco was not impressed

1986 saw government health warnings introduced on tobacco products in Ireland for the first time.

shutterstock_246838288 Source: Shutterstock/Brian A Jackson

IRELAND BLAZED SOMETHING of a trail in introducing a ban on smoking in the workplace in 2004.

While that measure (introduced by current Fianna Fáil supremo Micheál Martin) changed the face of many of Ireland’s public spaces overnight, a plan to ban public smoking was actually initiated as far back as 1986 according to papers released under the 30-year rule by the National Archives.

At that time cigarette-smoking was causing an estimated 5,000 deaths a year in Ireland, with another 17,000 being caused by diseases “in which smoking is an associated factor”.

Then it was Labour health minister Barry Desmond leading the charge. But Ireland’s cigarette companies were less than impressed at the initiative.

The crux of the matter was a very civil service trope – this is a good idea in principle, but not necessarily in practice (one memo from a senior civil servant to Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald at the time simply said: “the government may wish to consider whether they want to go ahead with this bill now“).

20161207_105059 Source: National Archives file 2016/51/392

In other words, cigarettes were worth £400 million (about €1.4 billion today) to the Irish economy at the time, and attacking the tobacco companies was seen as a case of biting the hand that feeds you.

In advance of tabling the new Bill various government departments gave their feedback.

The Department of Industry was worried that as a result of a reduction in smoking a huge amount of jobs would be lost, and therefore any orders “prohibiting smoking should be made in a gradual manner”.

State companies were also a little lukewarm in their approach. Aer Lingus worried a statutory ban on smoking could hurt them commercially and “create a safety risk”. What kind of risk isn’t elaborated on.

Source: jacques dutrou/YouTube

B&I Ferries flip-flopped on whether it was in favour or not, while CIE thought that smoking should only be banned on its long distance bus and train services.

But the big stumbling block was the country’s three tobacco companies – Carrolls, Gallahers, and Player and Wills – not least because Desmond had plans afoot to introduce government health warnings on tobacco packaging.

Carrolls argued in correspondence with Desmond that the introduction of such warnings would “translate the concept of warning in respect of risk to one which is in reality converting the product presentation and domestic advertising into a positively anti-smoking medium”.

The Gallahers submission in response to Desmond’s plans was a little more straightforward – it wanted to know “whether or not the government wants to destroy the tobacco industry”.

In a written submission to the planned Tobacco Products Regulations, Bert Koorn, managing director of Gallahers, described the plans as “damaging and unfair”, and “extreme and radical”.

20161207_110744 Source: National Archives file 2016/51/392

20161207_110544 Source: National Archives file 2016/51/392

At the time Gallahers was the largest private employer in Northern Ireland with 3,140 employees.

Donald Carroll, head of Carrolls, meanwhile described the prospective regulations as a “flagrant and violent destruction of commercial property”.

The cigarette companies’ chief concerns, so they said, were for local employment and overseas franchise deals, such as Carrolls ran with English brand Rothmans to distribute that company’s product in Ireland.

All three companies were firm in their assertion that while they understood and did not object to the administration of government, nevertheless they would have been a lot happier if such government was administrated away from their patch.

Their protests were in vain – health warnings on tobacco products became law before the end of 1986.

The plans to abolish smoking in public spaces died a death meanwhile, with the current smoking ban in the workplace the closest the country has come to banning the habit.

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See National Archives file 2016/51/392

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