Saturday 29 March 2014

No smoking

There has been a certain amount of chat on the airwaves this last week to acknowledge the tenth anniversary of the Irish smoking ban which came into force 29th March 2004. Smoking was banned because of the epidemiological investigations of Richard Doll. rather than the polemics of James VI/I, The now leader of the opposition Micheál Martin was then the Minister of Health in the Fianna Fail government.  A previous incumbent Brian Cowen had referred to the Health portfolio as Angola because of the prevalence of land-mines. You have to take your hat off to Martin and some of the senior civil servants in his department for carrying through legislation, against considerable political flow, that changed society in quite notable ways. Pints became separated from smokes and you can now go to a pub with a few friends or a visitor from out of town and not come out feeling in need of an immediate hair-wash.  As my gaffer in Boston used to say "Your rights end where my nose begins" and your smoke was definitely not stopping at the end of my nose but travelling through that orifice to my no longer pink lungs. I've put my conflicted cards on the table about the right to cultivate your own small-cell carcinoma of the lung.

Many countries now ban smoking in certain places, but Ireland was the first to impose a ban on smoking indoors in places open to the public.  That included pubs, hotels and restaurants.  The poor smokers were driven outdoors to loiter in the doorways of pubs leaving their pints inside.  People with vested interests (British-American Tobacco, The Vintner's Association, lung-transplant surgeons) stoutly maintained that it would never work, that the ban would be enforceable, that pubs would close and jobs would be lost.  Jobs were/are hemorrhaging from the pub sector of the economy, so it's not clear what additional effect the smoking ban may have had.  But it was clear from the start that there wasn't going to be a riot over the Right to Smoke - it was a first indication that the Irish are compliant: while the Greeks were setting fire to banks a few years later, the Irish were taking austerity on the chin and merely moaning about it.

The current Minister of Health, James Reilly, a doctor, is quite as anti-smoking as his predecessor and if he had his 'druthers, tobacco will go the way of cannabis in Ireland within a handful of years. There will then be a thriving market in illicit tobacco imports and some hoodlums will become very rich.  The government would, contrariwise, lose the €1+ billion a year which it gets from the excise duty on tobacco.  That amount just about pays for An Garda Síochána.

Now here's an interesting thing, you have the right to cultivate your own tobacco Nicotiana tabacum  in Ireland, and it is quite easily done.  The process of converting the leaves to something that you can smoke rather than something that will enrich your compost heap is all about tilting the process in favour of some microbes and discouraging others.  But there is a huge literature on these matters because there was/is huge money to be made from the industry.  Up until 2010, the EU shelled out €250m a year to subsidize tobacco farmers in Spain, Greece and Poland, and there is some political ferment to re-introduce this support.  One of my neighbours used to grow his own and then process it for his own use.  He doesn't smoke anymore, so I think he's stopped doing that.  Then again, nicotine is an effective bio-degradable insecticide, so he may still be using it for that purpose - must ask.

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