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Mallon to Oireachtas Health Committee: "Engage with smokers" and use a "bit of common sense"

The transcript of the final Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children hearing on plain packaging is now online.

The background to the hearing was as follows:

Before Christmas the Irish parliamentary committee invited written submissions on standardised packaging. The closing date was mid January.

Subsequently a number of groups, organisations and companies were invited to give oral statements and answer questions. They included tobacco companies, retailers, medical experts, anti-tobacco NGOs – and Forest Eireann.

I wrote about the hearings here (How impartial is the Oireachtas Health Committee?) and here (Forest Eireann addresses Health and Children Committee in Irish Parliament) and now you can read the transcript of the fourth and final hearing for yourself.

Other witnesses that day were representatives of PJ Carrolls (BAT), John Player (Imperial) and JTI. Each organisation was invited to give a five-minute opening statement. Members of the Committee were then able to ask questions.

Well, that was the theory. In practice Senators on the Committee couldn't resist making a series of vain, grandstanding statements, most of them hostile to the tobacco companies.

One couldn't wait to issue a press release highlighting her anti-tobacco stance. Another talked of plain packaging being "payback time".

Eventually, towards the end of the two-hour session, John had the opportunity to add to his opening statement. It was entirely off the cuff and I reproduce it here because I think it's rather good. It's also as relevant to politicians in Britain as it is to those in Ireland:

Mr. John Mallon:
As usual, smokers are being passed over in this debate, even though we are the ones affected by the proposal. The conversation is going on over my head, so to speak. Like Deputy Catherine Byrne, I am a father - in my case, to two children. I have taken the view with my children that I would treat them as I was treated growing up.

I did not see the point in banning them from smoking or forbidding them to drink alcohol once they turned 18. At that point I gave them a free choice in the matter. I had alcohol and cigarettes at home and I allowed them to make up their own minds, but not before their mother and I talked to them about the dangers of both.

Having no first-hand experience of the illicit drug trade, including the drugs like heroin, cocaine and so on to which reference was made during the meeting, I was unable to advise my children in that regard expect to say that from everything I could see, they were mood-altering, mind-altering and immediately dangerous substances.

On the other hand, smoking takes quite a long time to have an effect. There will be people jumping around and saying even one cigarette is deadly, but the reality is that they take years to impact on health. Tobacco is not a mind-altering or mood-altering substance. Unlike alcohol, people who use tobacco will not miss days of work because they cannot get out bed.

Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
That is not true.

Mr. John Mallon
Let me continue. I am merely giving members the benefit of my experience and of the hundreds of discussions I have had with smokers. Reference was made earlier to the need to engage with smokers. The problem, as I see it, is that all of the restrictions, bans, penalties and impositions that smokers have endured, including high pricing and so on, do not amount to an engagement with smokers. It is always about talking at rather than to smokers. There is a huge chasm between the official line, as reflected in this committee, and the views of the many smokers I have met throughout the country.

A member observed today that it is difficult to be a politician. Perhaps there is a general cynicism about the place but I certainly do not get the impression that smokers feel engaged with by Government. In my view, this lack of engagement is part of the reason that the numbers of smokers are not falling as quickly as members would like.

From a personal perspective, plain packaging makes no difference to me one way or the other. I smoke rolled tobacco, which I keep in a tin. However, this particular proposal is another aspect of the attempt to denormalise smokers, to make an ordinary citizen like me somehow abnormal for doing something which, for all my life, it has been quite normal to do. I had the right to decide to take up smoking and I have the right to quit. I have the freedom to make those decisions, as I do in regard to alcohol and all other lifestyle issues.

There is far too much hysteria and drama around this topic. A bit of common sense is required and an emphasis on education for children. As it turned out, the education my wife and I gave our children was sufficient for both of them to decide against drinking and smoking. Moreover, I have seen no evidence, although I probably would not recognise it if I did, that either of them takes drugs. Applying some degree of common sense and intelligence to the discussion, rather than hysteria and name calling, would be far more beneficial. That is the view from the smokers' side.

Full transcript here.

Next week Ireland 'celebrates' the tenth anniversary of becoming the first country in the world to introduce a comprehensive smoking ban.

I'll have more to say on that over the weekend. As will John!

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Reader Comments (2)

"That is the view from the smokers' side."

Well said and thanks John but because it is the view from the consumer, it will be ignored. These people don't care about common sense, the facts, or doing what is right. They are blinded by hate, prejudice and fear.

We do not make laws on those grounds in any other aspect of life. We should not be making it on the same grounds "to rid the world of tobacco" simply because those who do not smoke have an unfounded fear of it.

Friday, March 21, 2014 at 12:14 | Unregistered CommenterPat Nurse

I have been reading John Mallon's remarks for many years and he is an extremely articulate person, it's true. However, you can urge members of the Irish parliament to engage with smokers all you like but you might as well try and influence pigs and fish.

As usual, many of the comments from parliament members were riddled with the usual propaganda induced beliefs which have been built up over years through a whole web of lies and deceit by tobacco control. Subsequently, even if they did "engage" with smokers it would be from a position of assumed moral authority the consequence of which would be an inability to listen, think or consider anything which flies in the face of their predetermined and mentally constipated beliefs.

Lastly, it was both irritating and amusing to read the usual comments about addicts who have no choice but to do what they do. It might be fun to point out to this bunch of pompous pontificators that, as they probably all drink tea and eat loads of potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce and other solanaceae, in terms of today's ill disciplined and politically manipulated (and hence, frequently meaningless) use of the word "addict," they too are all nicotine addicts. In other words, the physicians should heal themselves although, depressingly, no-one expects them to realise you have anything wrong with them.

Friday, March 21, 2014 at 17:07 | Unregistered CommenterBlad Tolstoy

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