Ireland’s smoking ban 20 years on: how an unheralded civil servant triumphed against big tobacco

Exactly 20 years ago an Irish civil servant named Tom Power won a remarkable battle against the tobacco industry when Ireland enacted the world’s first ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and workplaces.

TV crews from Japan, the US and elsewhere flocked to Dublin to record the events of 29 March 2004. No one knew what would happen. Would smokers revolt? Would pubs flout the law? Would a bold experiment go up in smoke?

The tobacco industry, after all, had deep pockets and a versatile playbook to discredit restrictions by decrying the nanny state, health fascism, the destruction of jobs and businesses. And a country famed for smoky bars and a rebellious streak was an unlikely pioneer.

Within hours of pubs opening the TV crews got their answer. There was no revolt and the ban prevailed. It set an example other countries followed, saving countless lives and clinching triumph for a little-known civil servant at the department of health.

“Tom Power was an encyclopedia on the tobacco industry,” says Micheál Martin, who was health minister at the time. “He understood every move the tobacco industry would make.”

Members of the alliance that ushered in the ban compare Power to an engineer, a guide and a chess grandmaster who anticipated and countered the opponent’s strategy. He died in 2005, at the age of 55, but Friday’s anniversary of the landmark ban has shone a new light on his role. Power’s son and daughter this week also attended a reunion of key people who campaigned for the ban.

Smokers lighting up outside a Dublin club in 2004 after the smoking ban came into effect. Photograph: Don McPhee/The Guardian

“Tom told us who on the political side were the dangers and who was the enemy,” says Luke Clancy, a respiratory physician who chaired Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a group that was part of an alliance that lobbied for the ban.

Behind the scenes Power shepherded the alliance through a test of strength with big tobacco and its proxies, says Clancy. “They saw Ireland as a crucial element. If they could beat Ireland it wouldn’t spread to other countries. Tom would organise and coordinate and tell us: ‘So-and-so will come from this angle’.”

The ban’s success and replication elsewhere has obscured the fact it was not inevitable. New York, San Francisco and other cities in North America had introduced bans and some British cities were planning to follow – but even with mounting evidence of harm from passive smoke few thought a nationwide ban was feasible.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. Soon after Ireland, Norway became the second country to implement a workplace smoking ban in 2004, followed within four years by Sweden, New Zealand, Italy, the UK, France, 11 German states and India. Today more than 70 countries ban smoking in workplaces and public places.

A smoker in a Dublin pub in January 2003 on the day that Micheál Martin announced the smoking ban. Photograph: John Cogill/AP

But at the time in Ireland it seemed a remote, even outlandish, proposition. Activists had been lobbying for greater restrictions for a decade. A voluntary code in 1992 had been widely ignored even though smoking was the leading cause of preventable death.

A legislative committee report in 1999, however, documented the effect of environmental tobacco smoke, paving the way for a national anti-smoking strategy.

It found a champion in Power, a civil service veteran from County Tipperary who was in the public health division and had a reputation for being unorthodox and headstrong.

When Martin became health minister in a Fianna Fáil government in 2000, Power urged him to target tobacco. “We kind of struck it off straight away. I was up for this,” Martin, who is now foreign minister and tánaiste (deputy prime minister), says.

Martin doubted the health ministry would have the necessary zeal, so he appointed Power to head a newly established office of tobacco control. “That meant we could hire people to do research. It gave us capacity to deal with the issue,” he says.

The minister and official drafted legislation, commissioned a working group to study evidence of passive smoking and forged alliances with ASH and other advocacy groups.

“Having Tom Power there meant it didn’t gather dust,” says Wally Young, who advised ASH and is now a board member of the Irish Heart Foundation. “He was like an engineer in the background and had the knowledge to make it happen.”

When Martin announced the proposed ban to colleagues in January 2003 there was disquiet, not least from the taoiseach. “There was a bit of panic around the cabinet. I remember Bertie Ahern running down the stairs after me and saying: ‘When’s that being implemented?’”

The planned date was 1 January 2004. A group called the Irish Hospitality Industry Alliance spearheaded resistance, saying the ban would kill pubs and restaurants and destroy jobs. It hired four of Dublin’s leading law firms and won some media support. Martin says: “You see all these columns appearing in tabloids. You create this idea of incompetency, madness, nanny state-ism and you seek to undermine the credibility of the proposition.”.

Proponents suspected – but could not prove – that the group was a proxy for the tobacco industry. It responded by enlisting support from health boards, the Asthma Society, the Cancer Society, academics and unions that represented hospitality workers forced to breathe secondhand smoke.

“A really significant coalition emerged that was bigger than the tobacco industry and vintners combined,” says Young.

Opposition parties backed the ban, but Martin faced opposition in Fianna Fáil, prompting him to make a cardiac surgeon an honorary member so he could address a party conference. He got a standing ovation.

Micheál Martin, Ireland’s foreign minister and tánaiste, has plaques in his office marking the 2004 smoking ban. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Guardian

Germany and Austria delayed the ban by citing a potential impact on the EU’s internal market, pushing D-day back three months to 29 March. “A blessing in disguise. The weather was much better,” says Martin.

Still, there was nervousness whether smokers would step outside to smoke – and whether pubs would force them. Early that morning the radio station 2FM sent an undercover reporter to a dockers’ pub. She sat at the bar and opened a pack of cigarettes as if to light up, prompting a rebuke from the bar staff.

“We gave it a cheer,” Martin recalls. “We said: ‘This is it – we’re on the road here’.”


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